This past United States presidential election caught religious leaders by surprise. For the first time, the number of non-religious voters outnumbered any single religious bloc of voters in a national election. This is the latest in a string of sobering reminders churches face a challenging new era in America.
The number of Americans identifying themselves as having no particular religious faith (nones) has accelerated the past decade. The Pew Research Center reported one-fifth of registered voters in America were “nones.” There were more “nones” registered than protestant Christians. There were more “nones” than Roman Catholics.
How the Church in America got Blindsided
Like so many other parish pastors, I worked with elders to discern the faith maturity of our members. We were acutely aware of members who might not trust Jesus as Savior (despite their public confession). We knew there were members who were immature in the faith (1 Corinthians 3:1, Hebrews 5:11-14). While we valued these members the same as mature members, we acknowledged most were “nominal” members.
When spiritually immature members left the congregation, they rarely returned or joined another church. It turns out we were like almost every other congregation in the United States. A percentage of the “nominal’ members were leaving our church to join the ranks of the ‘nones.” Others were joining the raft of Americans who said they are “spiritual but not religious.”
I think churches were slow to acknowledge the loss of nominal members because congregations barely missed them. Yes, worship attendance slowly decreased. But nominal members were not inviting their neighbors to church. Nominal members were not filling vital leadership roles. Nominal members were not tithing.
At the same time, fewer people who had never participated in churches, were joining churches. Americans increasingly found Christian beliefs and practices conflicted with their secular values and worldview. They also saw no real tangible personal benefits (elevated social status or job promotion) in joining a church.
A vast majority of churches in America simply did not see the rise of the non-religious in America. Most were laser focused on their own members and their own ministry. Others were engrossed with the seeker-sensitive movement, which was marketing by Christians for Christians. “Nones” were not seekers.
Where Conservative Churches in America Stand Now
Membership in North American churches is being whittled down to the most committed members. These members are faithful to a denomination or congregation or pastor. By in large, I think congregational members are more unified in beliefs and values than they were a quarter century ago.
Opposition and disrespect from society is forging tighter bonds among members of Confessional, Evangelical or Fundamentalist churches. This is also causing church members to increasingly distrust of outsiders. It seems like churches are subconsciously erecting new barriers to protect themselves from outsiders.
Installing invisible security systems to protect our churches has the unintended consequence of making participation in God’s mission more difficult. God’s mission is about God sending and gathering. As the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us (John 20:21). Church leaders are hesitant to send their members into the teeth of persecution. Members are not enthused about inviting their neighbor to church when their congregation is suspicious of new people.
The Remnant of Americans Still Considering Churches
While the “nones” are not searching for a church, there are non-Christians or irreligious people considering churches. Socially and economically disparate, their common denominator is a desperate need for hope. They have paid dearly for living the libertine life glorified by American society.
- They are addicted to drugs or pornography, to pleasing others or loathing themselves. Having exhausted all the other options, they are looking to churches for hope.
- They are emotionally broken because a society without moral absolutes multiplies the ways people can abuse others in personal relationships.
- They are fearful and fretful due to discovering a world without universal truths has no place to anchor in the perpetually stormy seas of life.
Some such Americans are willing to navigate the rocky straits and naval mines protecting churches to test the safe harbors of congregations. It is my hope they can help congregations discover how to engage in God’s mission today.
What is your take on the rise of the “nones”? Leave your thoughts in the comments or shoot me an email.