Most Americans are religious, or at least would say they belong to a religion (73%). More specifically, most Americans would say they are Christian (64%), with 21% as Practicing Christians and 43% as Nominal or inactive Christians. That leaves 27% of the American population who would say they have no religion or are non-religious people. That final sector, the Nones, is important because it’s so large and growing rapidly—not only in number but as a percentage of the national population.
People are abandoning religious faith at a surprising rate. This is true for Christianity as well as for other religions. This is unusual in the wider view of human history and the global human population. Nearly all people have historically belonged to a religion of one kind or another. Even today, the Nones are a relatively thin slice of the global population; the global percentage is 11% vs. the American percentage of 27% found in this Study. What about this time, or our country, causes us to fall so far from the norm?
It’s a big question. Historians, sociologists, and scholars of religion could all weigh in. The American Beliefs Study took a direct approach, asking over 3,800 Nones why they chose not to participate in a religious congregation or community. The findings provide insight into the factors that have led people to depart from or stay away from religious belief and practice. This is valuable for any church or Christian ministry that wants to help Nones find their way back to faith and worship.
Out of nearly 15,000 Americans surveyed, the Study discovered 3,889 respondents who claimed no religion and would be classified as Nones. They told the Study which of 25 reasons influenced their “not participating in a religious congregation or religious community” on a five-point scale from “Not at all” to “Very much.”
Figure 8.4 shows the percentage of Nones who rated the various factors as “Somewhat” influential to their decisions to stay away from religious congregations or communities or “Considerably” or “Very Much” influential to them. The bars are sorted according to the percentage of responses rated as “Considerably” or “Very Much” influential. These highly influential and minimally influential ratings provide church leadership with important lessons about folks with no faith.
A KEY WEDGE ISSUE AMONG NONES: TRUST
Percent of top-two responses among 3,889 Nones to “How much did each of these items influence your reasons for not participating in a religious congregation or community?”
American Beliefs Study, 2021
Nones Don’t Leave Faith Due to Practical Issues
From the list of 25, the eight items with the lowest scores were all rated as most important to only seven percent or fewer of the Nones in the survey. The following comments are based on the percentage who rated items “Considerably” or “Very Much” influential in their decisions to stay away from religion.
- For the most part, people don’t leave the church or stay away because of issues about worship or music. As churches shifted from traditional to contemporary styles of worship, a range of responses from congregants emerged. Some felt comfortable with contemporary music. Others appreciated both traditional and contemporary styles. Yet others preferred traditional music but tolerated the change. The survey shows that this issue was a reason for a few, but only a very few, to stay away from church and join the Nones.
- Most people don’t like change. Some churches have moved away from traditional to more progressive values. As with changes in music and worship, this has been a factor for some Nones, but not many.
- One might think that people drop out of church because of the practical realities of the time crunch, but the Survey findings don’t support that assumption. Only six percent of respondents indicated that “Demands of raising children” were a major factor in staying away from church or a religious congregation. And only nine percent chose a similar item, “No time/less time available.” Sure, people are busy, but this is a factor for only a few, not many.
- Similarly, only four percent said “Moved from community” was a major factor. Evidently, for the most part, when people of faith move, they find a new religious congregation to join in their new location instead of taking the opportunity to drop out.
- Only five percent indicated “Didn’t have desired children’s/youth programs” as a major factor. It’s good for churches to serve their younger members and their families well. While it may motivate Christians to choose one church over another, this reason is unlikely to motivate Nones to choose church over staying at home.
- Church advertising or public promotion is not likely to be effective in attracting the Nones back to faith and participation. It may provide helpful visibility and encouragement to Christians but not those with no religious faith. Only three percent of the Nones indicated “Never been invited” as a major factor keeping them away.
There is a trend here. Most of the items the Nones scored low have to do with things like not having time in their schedules, not finding a new church in their new location, or dislike of worship style or social position.
The Nones are not staying away from faith due to practical reasons, the logistics of life, or participation.
They are not choosing to have any religion because of exterior or practical matters, things related to the logistics of life or participation.
Trust is the Big One
At the top of the list are seven factors that 40% or more of the Nones in the Study scored as “Considerably” or “Very” influential for not participating in a religious community.
Some of these have to do with faith itself. 40% said they “Don’t believe in God.” Similarly, 32% indicated they “No longer believe.” It makes sense that if someone has never believed in God or has had a crisis of faith that ended in atheism, they would be among the Nones. On the other hand, though 40% is a relatively high score, it is far from 100% and even well short of a majority.
Most of the Nones are not staying away from church because they no longer believe in God.
The Nones are not all atheists. The challenge to encourage them to participate in a religious congregation is not simply a matter of apologetics.
Also worth mentioning is the item, “Wasn’t relevant to my life,” cited as influential by 48% of the Nones in the survey. A similar item, “Boring, uninteresting,” was rated high by 28%. Christian leaders know there is nothing more relevant to the needs and challenges of life, and nothing more fascinating and challenging than God, Jesus, and the Bible. There’s a gap between the reality and the perception. The reality is that faith is relevant and exciting. The perception (among many of the Nones) is that faith is irrelevant and dull.
To some extent, this points to a challenge of communication. It calls us to consider what we talk about, how we talk about it, and how we connect our messages with the authentic needs and desires people face in life.
Faith does not need to be made relevant, but it does need to be shown to be relevant to the realities of life.
Christian leaders in America would do well to study our own American culture as diligently as foreign missionaries study the cultures they are sent to. It’s one thing to know how the gospel is relevant to me from my set of life experiences. It’s another thing to see how the gospel is relevant to the culture at large or to the Nones, with their very different set of life experiences. Relevant communication is the fruit of humble and extensive listening.
So, the Nones stay away from the church because of a lack of faith in God and because of a perceived lack of relevance, but the biggest factor is a lack of trust.
- The top-scoring item among the Nones, and the only item scoring above 50%, is “Don’t trust organized religion.”
- The second-scoring item is very close to it, “Don’t trust religious leaders.”
- Another item that scored among the top seven related to trust is “Religious people are too judgmental.”
- Also related to the question of trust is another high-scoring item, “Disillusionment with religion.”
Some no longer trust the church or its leaders because they are survivors of church-related trauma. Both traditional media and social media today are thick with stories of what is called “spiritual abuse” or “toxic faith.” News items related to abuse by clergy or church leaders are quite sensational and get viewers. The #MeToo movement of several years past included and brought to light incidents of abuse that were specific to church settings.
Stories like these could be an outsize source of mistrust for Christian leaders or the Church among the Nones. The Study shows that just nine percent of the Nones cited a church not being supportive during a crisis as a reason for non-participation. And who among the suffering would seek healing from a place they view as instrumental in their abuse? We might hope that many who have left the church because of a bad experience still want to find a way to connect with the love of God. They can’t deny their pain, but neither can they deny the genuine spiritual experiences they had in the past. Suppose healing comes from a Christian position of love and empathy. In that case, it will most likely have to come from a different church, ministry, or even a different Christian tradition than the person previously belonged to.
So some Nones have fallen into mistrust of the church and its leaders because of their own negative experiences, but a much wider circle has fallen into mistrust because of the damage to the Church’s reputation that has come from these stories. For most, it’s not a matter of what they experienced but of what they read about or heard about. The intensity of feeling may be different, but the result is the same—they leave, or stay away from, participation in a church or religious congregation.
The Nones largely stay away from faith because of how they have been led to feel internally about organized religion and the church.
In America today, mistrust of religion does not stand alone. We are in an era where the culture is experiencing a crisis of mistrust in government, in journalism, in science, in authority, and in institutions generally. Each avenue of mistrust feeds the others.
But life requires trust. People have to find something to trust in or else spiral down into paranoia and despair. This is a problem.
In the wider culture, many people solve this problem by investing their trust in smaller and closer units. They may mistrust politicians generally but deeply trust their favorite one or their favorite faction. They may mistrust journalism generally but deeply trust their favorite media outlet. They may distrust the broader ‘mainstream culture’ but deeply trust their smaller, more specific cultural ‘tribe.’
Though this is a difficult context for Christian ministry, there are windows of hope.
- Remember, the Father sent Jesus into a religious culture dominated by Pharisaical distortion of God’s message. The religious climate of Jesus’ day was thick with ‘spiritual abuse’ and ‘toxic faith.’ If the gospel of Jesus Christ was God’s answer for them, it is just as much God’s answer for now.
- Counselors tell us that when trust is wounded in a marriage, it is possible for it to be restored, though it is not easy and can take a very long time. But when it does happen, the marriage can be closer and stronger than ever before. Churches that learn how to restore trust in wounded saints will hear testimonies of refreshing renewal and deeper spirituality.
- Nones don’t need to trust all churches in order to trust any. They may continue to distrust organized religion generally but deeply trust a specific church, a specific ministry, or a specific Christian friend who can lead them back to active faith.
- For the most part, the Nones have not left the church because of practical difficulties like lack of time or lack of programs for children or youth.
- Most of the Nones are not atheists. Many don’t believe in God, but most still do.
- Many of the Nones find religion to be irrelevant to their lives or simply boring.
- The greatest issue for the Nones, the factor most strongly driving their choice to stay away from a religious congregation, is a lack of trust in organized religion and a lack of trust in religious leaders.
Ideas for Your Church:
- Give attention to understanding the life issues of greatest importance to nonreligious people, and show how Jesus is the answer. Don’t just preach the truth; find the most relevant topics within the larger body of truth and preach those.
- Don’t expect that simple church program improvements or better church advertising will attract Nones back to faith and participation in congregational life.
- Church counseling and pastoral ministries should be astute in knowing how to bring hope and healing to those who feel they have been traumatized by toxic faith or abusive church leaders.
- Discuss among your leaders this question: “What would it look like if we were known as ‘The church for those who have given up on church’?”
This online study among 14,942 American adults was conducted by Campbell Rinker for ACST from October 2020 through February 2021. Results were balanced by US region, 19 ‘Mosaic’ demographic clusters from Experian, and weighted by age to align with known population characteristics. The study carries a maximum margin of error of ±1.97% at the 95% confidence level within any US Census region. A comparative 2017 study involved the same size audience.
About Dirk Rinker and Michael Jaffarian
Dirk is president and CEO of Campbell Rinker, which has been a leading market researcher for nonprofits since the early 1990s. He has designed and implemented research projects for hundreds of ministries, charities, universities, and museums in the U.S. and internationally – helping clients understand and act on the attitudes, motivations, and perceptions of their valuable constituencies.
Michael is a researcher, writer, and consultant to nonprofits. He and his wife were missionaries for 33 years, serving in Singapore, Virginia, Los Angeles, and England. Most of his ministry has been in global mission research. He has studied, and written on, growth trends among tens of thousands of Christian denominations globally.