A Plentiful Harvest: the "Nones"

Membership losses continue for every mainline denomination. That decline is not news.

What is attracting headlines on the religious landscape, however, is the constant rise in the category of “Nones.”

“Nones” are the religiously unaffiliated. When asked about their religion they do not answer “Protestant,” “Catholic,” or “Baptist;” not “Jewish,” “Buddhist,” or “Jain.” Instead they pick a new category: “None.”

This swing was first reported by the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS).

Much in that study is well known by keen observers: mainlines continue to lose ground; the Bible Belt is less Baptist; Catholic numbers are increasing in the South; denominationalism is in trouble.

What surprised the pollsters was the increase in a category previously overlooked: the nones.

ARIS found that the nones had nearly doubled from a 1990 survey to 2008: from 8.1 percent to 15 percent. This made the nones the third largest defined constituency in the U.S. trailing only Catholics and Baptists.

Adding to the wonder of all this was that nones were the only religious designation to rise in percentage in every state of the Union.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life affirmed this trend in its 2012 study titled “Nones on the Rise.” It found that 19.3 percent of the population claims no religious identity.

Generational differences are abundant: the Greatest Generation registered 5 percent nones; of millennials (born 1982 – 2002), 34 percent checked the “None” box!

These people have not abandoned belief, we are told. Indeed, a great majority claim to believe in God or a “supreme being” of some sort. They simply refuse to associate or identify with any particular identity marker.

Some see this as part of a general rejection of institutional affiliation. Others see it as a conscious distancing from customary expressions of belief and practice.

Whatever the motives, the movement from something to none has been accompanied by the growth of secularism, privatization, and pluralism in Western society. The Postmodern culture seems to be producing a Post-Christian age.

But this is where we find ourselves in the 21st century – in the Post-Christian Era. And among nones is exactly where Missional Church advocates are focusing ministry.

Nones provide a rich space in which to explore the questions: “What is God up to in this location?” and “What is that God has in store for ministry among nones?”

Traditional programs with predetermined processes and targeted ends will not work with this growing population. They can smell “institutional” from far off and take it as an offense.

The Missional Church will dwell in scripture and prayer to cultivate an environment that releases the missional imagination of the people of God – an imagination that includes those who identify with congregational ministry as well as the nones.

God is neither finished with the Church nor the nones. Rather, God is bringing the future toward us at an increasing speed while calling for us to be the people of God – even in a secularized, privatized, and pluralized setting.

Perhaps especially in such a setting.

God is still God. Can we come alongside God and discern a new shape of ministry for this age and challenge?
If so, “None” will become something wonderful, indeed.

Alan Arnold is a pastor, coach, teacher, and associate with Pinnacle Leadership Associates. He can be reached at alana@pinnaclelead.com.