Ever since the Pew Forum on Religious Life declared that "nones are on the rise" church leaders have been talking about them. One in five adults in this country now report having no religious affiliation. Recently I read an interview with Elizabeth Drescher entitled "Listening to the Nones." A link to that interview can be found here.
Who are these "nones?" When asked about religious affiliation, they chose "none of the above." It doesn't mean they chose "atheist" or "spiritual, but not religious." It means they chose not to identify with any particular label. They chose "religiously unaffiliated." In fact, seventy percent of the "nones" have a Christian background. They have "moved on" to join what Bishop Spong used to call "the Church Alumni Association," In breaking that down even further, the following extended quote from Drescher is worth pondering:
In the Roman Catholic tradition, it’s a bigger deal to give up the religious identity label than it is for Mainline Protestants. It’s almost an ethnic/cultural identification. In the Nones who grew up Roman Catholic, there’s a real theme of feeling hurt or wounded by the church, especially women, whose full identity may not have been honored in that tradition. Lesbian and Gay people have same feeling of being hurt or excluded from their tradition. Whether they were directly affected or not, many are of course deeply troubled by clergy abuse scandal and how the Vatican hierarchy have seemed to respond to that. What they often told me was that they left the Catholic Church not so much due to a theological shift, but because “something happened to me. My identity was not affirmed and that was painful.”
For Evangelicals, the theme that emerges consistently is anger. Many have felt that conservative evangelical teaching in regards to science, Darwinism, and the environment set them up to look foolish. They feel they were tricked. Some reason brings them to a place where they get more information and understanding about the world, and they feel like they were duped by the teachings in their traditions. They didn’t need to be, but they feel they were set up to look like idiots and it makes them really angry.
For Mainline Protestants, we know that the data tells us that about 55 percent now of young people raised Episcopalian will leave the church as adults. Among Congregationalists, it’s closer to 65 percent. About 20 percent of those will become “Nones.” Evangelicals are right on their heels at 19%; and it goes down a little bit after that.
For Mainline Protestants, the theme is neither hurt nor anger, but a sense of ennui. They got it. They get that they’re supposed to be good to people, share what they have, do good in the world. If I had a nickel for how they love, love, love their youth group, or what a great time they had on their mission trips, I’d be a very wealthy woman.
What tends to happen with Mainline Protestants is that they are deeply affirmed in early formation and then they “graduate” from church. And we let them have that model. Our church schools are parallel to other kinds of schooling. One young woman told me, “I learned everything I needed to know there, I get it. I don’t need this in order to be a good person or in order to make sense of everyday life.” I hear this when I interview parents as well: “Our children will learn good values. Check. They’ve learned this, we can move on.”Roman Catholics leave the Church because they have been hurt. Evangelicals leave because they are angry. Mainline Protestants leave because they have graduated. My own anecdotal experience and intuition from twenty-five years of ordained ministry affirms the findings of this research. Not all of those hurt Roman Catholics end up as "nones." Some of them find their way into Episcopal congregations like the one I served for a decade and a half. And not all angry evangelicals end up as "nones." Some of them find their way into Episcopal congregations where, as Robin Williams (an Episcopalian) has put it, "you can believe in dinosaurs."
And yet, fifty-five percent of our young Episcopalians will become "nones." That is a staggering number to me, and one that rings true. Over half of our young people, who loved youth group and mission trips, will "check that off their lists" and move on. And in general they won't leave angry or sad. They will just "graduate." In the old days, the days of Christendom, we didn't worry too much about young people "graduating" from church because we knew that once they married and had children they would return because they needed us. But our context has changed, and marriage is often postponed, and it is increasingly rare that mainline Protestants match up with other mainline Protestants. So it's harder and harder for them to find a way back home even if they have a desire to do so.
I want some of those "nones" in the pews of Episcopal congregations because I think they'd be good for us, and we would be a good match for them. More importantly, I want them to join us in being sent out from the pews to participate in God's mission in the world. Many of them already share a commitment to the work that so many Episcopal congregations are committed to: caring for the environment, working for social justice, slowing down in a fast world. Many of our communities are already emerging as places more focused on being (and becoming) than on believing, belonging, or behaving. Sometimes in the Church we suffer from a kind of attention deficit disorder; yearning for a quick fix, we chase the next "program" that promises to take us back in a time machine to the Eisenhower administration and the last days of Christendom.
But I think what we need to do for now is listen not just to this research but to those "nones." Engaging them is at least as important as ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. We need to listen, and pray.
The wisdom in this research is ultimately, I think, not primarily about numbers but identity: who is God calling us to become? This requires deep change, not quick fixes. But as I read Drescher, I am incredibly hopeful about the future. As a pastor I often told parents whose kids were not connecting in Sunday School or Youth Group not to worry too much but to work on their own adult faith. It was usually not the answer they wanted to hear, but I still think it was the right one. The model of parents dropping kids off for Sunday School, or Youth Group, but not finding time to work on their own maturing faith only reinforces the problem. I figured then (and continue to believe) that if the parents model adult faith that is the greater gift to their children and grandchildren.
Drescher is asked what advice she has for the Church and her response is wise counsel. So I'll give her the last word:
Focusing on nurturing relationships across categories in the community is really important, and finding ways of enriching prayer practice.
The shame of it is we have these incredibly rich spiritual traditions that many people—Nones and the religiously affiliated alike—find deeply meaningful. That is, they do once they know about things like the Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Compline, Centering Prayer, chanting the Psalms, and so on are and how they can become meaningful, manageable parts of everyday life. These practices can also become more central in regular worship, which is something, for example, that has made the Crossings community in the Diocese of Massachusetts so vibrant.
St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in Brooklyn is another example of a ministry that connects to the spiritual value people place on sharing and preparing food. They have a full Eucharistic feast each week to which every participant actively contributes. And, though the venue and elements of the liturgy are not conventional, the theology is deeply orthodox—generously, beautifully so.
The challenge this all seems to me to raise for the church is How can we be open and creative with the riches of our tradition? How can we honor them more deeply and share them more robustly to enrich and extend our communities? I think that’s what we all have to be about. We have to be asking, “What if we did everything differently using everything we have in new, inventive ways?” (emph. mine)