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The first time I heard the phrase “Nones” was from my friend Jim Wallis, who wrote about the release of a Pew Forum study documenting the growing number of people who responded “none of the above” when asked about their religious affiliation. As I wrote in a response back then, “Calling people ‘Nones’ is a mistake.”
I’m even more convinced of this now — and I think it’s especially a mistake for Christians to adopt this moniker. Here’s why:
1. “Nones” are not non-believers. Because religion — and more specifically, Christianity — has been such a dominant force in the United States’ socio-cultural conversation for so long, many have presumed that being a Christian is more or less the “default identity” of the U.S. citizen. To be something else is the exception rather than the rule. So the moniker “Nones” suggests that those who are religiously unaffiliated or independent are beyond the social norm or somehow lacking something everyone else has.
More than two-thirds of so-called “Nones” claim to believe in God or some form of supreme being. The title speaks more to the wording of the surveys given to respondents about their religious identity than it does to anything about their beliefs.
And to presume that being part of a church and/or religion is necessarily part of what it means to be Christ-like is misguided — and is evidence of the lingering effects of Christian hegemony. Which brings me to my second point . . .
2. Being a “None” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not Christ-like. Christians tend to make the false assumption that being a Christian makes you more like Jesus. But I’ve met more Christians than I care to recount who hardly seem to resemble the Jesus they claim as the foundation of their faith.
There’s nothing that says you have to be a Christian (as defined by belonging to some church or denomination) in order to follow the path of Jesus in your life. Yes, it can help to have a community of support and accountability, but the church is no guarantee of Christ-following. Some of the most Christ-like people I know don’t ever go to church.
3. The “Nones” are nothing new. The emergence of religiously unaffiliated Americans is hardly something unique to the current generation, or even this century. Though some still claim that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, our country was forged on the principles of freedom from religion as much as it was freedom of religion. Many prominent political figures in our past were humanists or deists (i.e., non-Christian), and the political requirement that one must be Christian to run for office (especially national office) is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Yes, there are increasing numbers of religious independents among younger Americans. But overall, this shift away from institutional Christianity has been steady and growing for more than forty years. It’s only now that our religious structures are in dire crisis that this issue is demanding more of our collective attention.
4. “Nones” aren’t the greatest threat to institutional Christianity. In fact, those of us within the institutional church have a whole lot to learn from those outside the walls. Overall cultural shifts and the time-tested hypocrisy of so many prominent Christians are far more damaging to the future outlook of the religion than those who don’t go to church anymore. We have more than enough housekeeping to do internally to worry about looking beyond our ranks for the source of our ills.
Many people today see church as irrelevant because, too often, we are irrelevant to what they’re dealing with. And they see us as hypocrites because we tend to be the ones who exploit the religious institution for personal gain or even to prey on the weak and vulnerable. Not all of us are necessarily guilty, but we do share the burden of making it right.
5. “Nones” aren’t going to save your church. Some church leaders hope they can recruit enough people outside the church to save their churches and denominations. But the largest group of religiously unaffiliated people is under 33 years old. This is a group that tends to assume that everyone is trying to sell them something. They are exposed to more ad impressions in a week than previous generations experience in a lifetime.
In addition to the inherent skepticism, most “Nones” simply have little or no interest in what’s going on in church. When asked, about 88% of religiously unaffiliated people say they are not looking for a church or faith to accommodate them at all.
There’s also the matter of general dissonance around social and political issues. While Christianity tends to be seen in the public eye as predominantly focused on traditionally conservative social issues such as banning abortion and preventing gay marriage (white evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for John McCain in 2008), more than sixty percent of “Nones” are registered Democrats or lean liberal.
The harder Christians try to change those outside of church, the more resistance they will meet. The more we worry about preserving our institutional structures, the more desperate and opportunistic we will appear to everyone else.
The best thing we can do at this point is to focus less on what we have traditionally held up as being “Christian” and focus more on taking a good, hard look at ourselves and whether we have opportunities to be more like Jesus.
Jesus had no church. He had little money, no board of directors, deacons, elders or strategic plan. He didn’t require people to make a statement of faith or offer the Sinner’s Prayer before helping them, and he certainly didn’t turn people away because they weren’t part of his religious or social circles.
As church leaders read and think about the data on the Nones, they ought to ask themselves a question: would Jesus identify with today’s Christianity, or might he count himself among the Nones?