“’Nones’ now as big as evangelicals, Catholics in the US” read the headlines a few weeks ago in media as varied as CNN, The Christian Post and the National Catholic Reporter, announcing that there are more people in the United States who claim no religious affiliation (23 percent) than either evangelical Christians or Catholics (both a fraction below that percentage).
Not only are these findings by a researcher at Eastern Illinois University making headlines in both the religious and popular press (The Fresno Bee also ran the article) but they are shaping conversation among church leaders and, significantly for me and my colleagues, in the classroom at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary.
The capstone seminary course requires an academic paper addressing pressing theological, sociological and counseling needs. This spring two students directly addressed the issue of reaching “nones.” One, written by an active church woman completing a Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy, addresses generations of Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and others, counseling them to talk to each other to keep the Millennials and others from walking away from church. The other, written by an experienced preacher, studies the sermons of Peter and Paul in Acts for clues about reaching a “post-biblical” and “post-church” demographic. Two other papers, motivated by the evangelistic desire to reach “nones,” explore how meaningful symbolic ritual can attract Millennials (and others), particularly the idea that the Lord’s Table is meant for outsiders (reading Jesus’s practice in the Gospel of Luke as a model for the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist).
Two things impressed me about these studies. First, I was delighted to see church leaders expressing awareness that evangelizing “nones” is unlikely to be accomplished by individualistic methods. All four papers assumed a church context for outreach and addressed church practices that tend to isolate people. In a world that worships at the altars of the individual and of the super hero, students at our seminary (which include Presbyterians, Church of Christ, Seventh Day Adventists and Catholics in addition to core Mennonites) see the church of Jesus as the context for reaching “nones” who are isolated by their lack of commitment to a body of faith.
Second, I was impressed by the need to go beyond techniques that address the “none” mentality (a post-modern skepticism about the supernatural, for example) to create a positive message regarding big theological and social issues. As a high school senior recently said plaintively, “It is embarrassing in my school to be identified with Christians. Christians are seen as people who ignore the big issues and hide behind a personalized faith.” She was asking the church to engage the hot topics—global warming, gun violence, immigration and sexual predators.
I am pleased that seminary and university classrooms are laboratories of learning. Here we have the freedom to talk about things that are often too hot to handle in other settings. We not only talk—we prepare change agents who are willing to walk in the way of Jesus. Following the Jesus who confronted the imperial powers that depended on a monopoly of violence to maintain position, we are free to explore what brings reconciliation to people alienated from God, themselves, others and the created order.
Thanks be to God!
More about the findings on “Nones” at christianpost.com/news/religious-nones-now-as-big-as-evangelicals-in-the-us-new-data-shows.html