Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Nones Also Rise

They gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” 
Matthew 22:35-40

The ‘nones” are still growing.

Six years ago I used that same passage from Matthew’s Gospel in a blog post about a recent public opinion survey showing that the fastest growing religious group in America was the “nones,” as in “none of the above.” The “nones” don’t identify with any religious group.

When I wrote that original post, the “nones” had grown from just 8% of the U.S.  population in 1990 to 15% in 2008.  Today that same group comprises 23% of the population. Over that same period of time, the percentage identifying themselves as Christian has dipped from 78% in 2007 to 71% in the most recent survey.

The “nones” are still trailing Evangelical Protestants, who make up about 25% of all adults, but they are gaining.

We are not surprised.

Every community organization is confronting shrinkage and stagnation to one degree or another. That’s true for Rotary Clubs, Granges, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, unions and political parties, as well as for churches. We are not joiners. We don’t go to town meetings and we don’t make the same community connections that we used to make.

There are also broad trends of secularization that have been going on for centuries, with a brief interruption after the Second World War. If we were not constantly comparing church membership and attendance numbers today with the unprecedented growth after World War II, we would probably be less alarmed about the present situation.

But beyond the broad trends and the factors we cannot control, there are issues within Christianity today that ought to be addressed. Two leading United Methodist pastors, Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter talked about “What’s keeping young people away from church?” They point to some reasons which are the same today as they have always been. Young people have always been critical of the hypocrisy they see in their elders. But beyond the petty moralisms, Christianity today suffers from a deeper moral and spiritual disconnect. Young people today are turned off by churches which seem focused on rules rather than on people. Particularly on issues of LGBTQ equality, the church is seen as mean spirited and judgmental. In addition to the practical problem of losing an entire generation of young people, the church has lost the spirit of Jesus. In the view of Hamilton and Slaughter, the church today acts like the very people that Jesus confronted two thousand years ago.

In a recent issue of “Good News,” a magazine for a well funded traditionalist group committed to keeping the United Methodist Church from taking a more inclusive stance with regard to gay and lesbian issues, they note that “RELIGION [is a] LOW PRIORITY FOR MILLENIALS.” As evidence, they cite the results of a Pew Research Center poll asking adults ages 18-29, “What are the most important things in your life?”

Only 15% checked off “Living a very religious life” as one of the most important things in their lives. Given the very narrow phrasing of the question, the result is hardly surprising. Would Jesus think that “Living a very religious life” ought to be one of our most important goals?

The survey reported the responses to eight possible choices. Respondents were able to check all that applied, and the results looked like this:

Being a good parent: 52%
Having a successful marriage: 30%
Helping others in need: 21%
Owning a home: 20%
Living a very religious life: 15%
Having a high-paying career: 15%
Having lots of free time: 9%
Becoming famous: 1%

It’s hard to argue with putting a priority on being a good parent, and having a successful marriage, and helping others in need. Owning a home is a basic and practical financial goal. Living a very religious life edges out having a high paying career. And almost no one cares about becoming famous.

Not bad.

I wish that more young people were in church. Or more importantly, I wish that church could more often be the kind of place where young people would want to be. But if that survey is any indication, then the kids are alright.


  1. I think you owe me royalties.

  2. Thank you, Pete Townshend. The check is in the mail.