THE RISE OF THE NONES
In The Rise of the Nones, James Emery White explores the fastest-growing religious group in America- the “religiously unaffiliated”. Exploring the results of research from the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), along with relevant Pew research uncovered shocking discoveries regarding American religious activity. The book is split into two parts. Part 1 explores and defines what it means to be “religiously unaffiliated”. Part 2 examines how the church can better reach this group with the gospel of Jesus.
PART 1: WHO ARE THE “NONES”?
The ARIS report showed overall decrease in mainline denominations, but an increase in one specific category, “None”. These were individuals who, instead of choosing “Baptist” or “Presbyterian” chose “None”. One in five American now identify as having “No Religious Identity”. Research shows this group is the fastest-growing and third-largest religious group in America.
White noted 10 characteristics typical of the nones:
Not necessarily atheist
Not very religious
In favor of abortion and same-gender marriage being legal
Liberal or moderate
Not necessarily hostile toward religious institutions
Most likely a westerner
An important characteristic captured in these observations is the combination of “Not necessarily atheist”, and “Not very religious”. White shared how this group does not fit in the category traditionally called “Seekers”. The nones might be open to the existence of God, but don’t believe his existence would have much influence on their lives. On top of this, they aren’t very interested in investigating the possibility of God’s activity in the world.
A POST-CHRISTIAN WORLD
After defining the rise of this new religious group, White turns his gaze to explaining why they’re growing so quickly. In his view the growth of this group goes beyond the negative descriptors commonly ascribed to Christians. These descriptors include: anti-homosexual, judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned, too involved in politics, out of touch with reality, insensitive to others, boring, not accepting of other faiths, and confusing. He sees the rise of the nones growing from what he calls a “perfect storm” mix of Lawyers, Guns, and Money.
Lawyers: Organized religion becomes too politically linked to anti-gay attitudes, sexual conservatism, and abrasiveness.
Guns: The church acting in ways, talking in ways, and living in ways that have stolen God’s reputation.
Money: Televangelist transgressions + megapastor materialism = distrust of the church.
These observations have led White to conclude that America, like other European nations, is now a post-Christian society. The one interesting piece is that “post-Christian” doesn’t necessarily mean “non-religious”. He writes, “We may not be losing our belief in God, but we are losing our religion. While we may not be turning into atheists, we seem quite content to accept the idea of faith being privately engaging but culturally irrelevant” (p. 47).
In this trend toward the secularization of society, White noted three trends, secularization, privatization, pluralization.
Secularization– The church is losing its influence as a shaper of life and thought, and Christianity is losing its place as the dominant worldview.
Privatization– Spirituality is increasingly seen as something private.
Pluralization– Multiple faith options compete for people’s attention beyond traditional Christianity.
PART 2: REACHING THE NONES
In the second part of his book, White turns his attention to the church. He unashamedly pinpoints issues the nones have with church today. But, these observations are followed up with ideas to help the church recover the missional focus originally given to followers of Jesus. He ends the book believing the church is the hope of the world.
ISSUES WITH THE CHURCH
White admits nones have numerous (and often reasonable) gripes with the Christian church today. In fact, he has found that nones have a desire to be spiritual, but dread attending church. They don’t hate God, just the experience of the typical church. The problem, White writes, is that the church has forgotten their mission and instead, become too narcicissitic. Instead of focusing on serving the world by fulfilling the Great Commission, they want to be “fed”, have forgotten the outside world, and fear change.
Besides this, many in the church today fail to acknowledge that we live in a post-Christian society. They still believe most people want to come to church. They advertise casual dress and quality coffee. But, the issue is people already have these things and they aren’t very interested in attending church. Nones do not believe the church has anything to offer them.
White challenges the church to re-discover the mission of the church to share the message of Jesus with the world. This can happen as the church turns their attention from themselves and begins to target those who are far from God, the nones.
Nones require a different evangelistic strategy. In fact, they tend to engage church differently that those designated unchurched from previous decades.
Unchurched → Christ → Community → Cause
Unchurched → Community → Christ → Cause
Nones → Cause → Community → Christ
Nones are looking for a cause greater than themselves to believe in. They’re interested in making a difference, but aren’t necessarily looking for the church. White believes the church needs to think differently to go after the growing group of “religiously unaffiliated”. In order to do this the church must begin to think like a missionary.
Three tasks of thinking like a missionary
Learn the language: educate yourself on how to talk in a way that people can understand and to which they can relate and eventually respond.
Study the culture: become so sensitized to that culture that you can operate effectively within it.
Translate the gospel: translate it into its own cultural context so that it can be heard, understood, and appropriated.
White boils down the power of the gospel to two key points: grace and truth. The message of Jesus offers these two things the world desperately seeks. A gospel that includes only one will miss the power of gospel’s message.
A NEW VISION
The final three chapters in White’s book focus on re-casting a vision for the church. In order to reach nones, the church must show unity built on a foundation of love and respect for others. White defines true unity as, “being kind to one another, gracious to one another, forgiving of one another” (p. 145).
Churches effectively focused on nones will realize the church should be focused on the mission of Jesus. As such, these churches should make sure a few key areas of their church are prepared for visiting nones. These areas include church friendliness, children’s ministry, music, and the building.
Finally, White finishes his book acknowledging that the church is not perfect, nor will it ever be. But, there is something special about the church that reflects Christ on earth and gives hope to the world. This hope is for the nones and all who feel far from God.