Dr. James Emery White

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

In my latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, I charted the meteoric rise of this religious classification in the United States.

And it has been meteoric.

If you’re new to the conversation, here’s a précis:

A “none” is someone who says that they are religiously unaffiliated. When asked about their religion, they did not answer “Baptist” or “Catholic” or any other defined faith. They picked a different category:  “none.”

The number of “nones” in the 1930’s and 1940’s hovered around 5 percent. By 1990, that number had only risen to 8 percent, a mere 3% rise in over half-a-century. Between 1990 and 2008 – just 18 years – the number of “nones” leaped from 8.1 percent to 15 percent. Then, in just four short years, it climbed to 20 percent, representing one of every five Americans. 

Even more telling was the discovery in the National Study of Youth and Religion that a third of U.S. adults under the age of 30 don’t identify with a religion. 

All to say, the “nones” are currently the second-largest and fastest growing religious group in the United States and the only true national religious trend in our nation.

Caught up?

Get ready to buckle your seat belt.

According to the latest data from the first stage of the 2015 British Election Study, a survey of more than 20,000 people by a team of academics from Manchester, Oxford and Nottingham universities, the “nones” in the U.K. have risen from just 3% in 1963 to 44.7% today. 

Read that again:

Religious “nones” in the U.K. have gone from 3% to 44.7% in just five decades.

Among adults age 25 and under, it climbed to nearly two-thirds.

This. Is. A. Crisis.

Please, if you haven’t already, wake up. Understand the “nones,” and what it takes to reach them. If you haven’t already, get the book and read it. If you are a pastor of a church and genuinely can’t afford it, we’ll send you a copy for free.

Because this isn’t about royalties.

It’s about the future of the church.

And keep on the lookout for information on the Church and Culture Conferences debuting in the spring of 2015 in the U.S. and the U.K., designed to help the church answer the call to the evangelization and transformation of culture through the primacy of the church.

It’s time.

James Emery White

 

Sources

James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Baker).

“Exclusive: New figures reveal massive decline in religious affiliation,” Ruth Gledhill, Christian Today, Friday, October 17, 2014, read online.

“Religion Among American Hits Low Point, As More People Say They Have No Religious Affiliation: Report”, Katherine Bindley, The Huffington Post, March 13, 2012, read online; see also “Americans and religion increasingly parting ways, new survey shows,” Yasmin Anwar, March 12, 2013, UC Berkeley News Center, read online.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon.  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Answering the “WT*IUWT” Questions

Recently, I was interviewed for a National Public Radio program related to my new book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated.

It was a robust and spirited conversation, but it was the off-air dialogue that may have been the most revealing. The host and I continued talking after the program. He was among the “nones” himself, and was curious about the kind of church I led – particularly one that reached so many like him.

“So you must be on the liberal side, right? I mean, if you’re reaching people who are turned off to church.”

“Actually,” I said, “we would be considered more conservative in our theology. But there isn’t a legalistic or judgmental spirit running around. People feel very free to ask questions and explore things.”

The conservative thing threw him.

“So you take the Bible literally and all that?”

I knew where this was going. He had a pop-culture view of what it meant to believe the Bible, and an even worse understanding of what it meant to interpret it. Taking the Bible “literally,” to him, meant checking your brains at the door and being forced to believe the most wooden and clumsy of interpretations. Ones that even most Christians would reject.

But it was what he said next that was key:

“So tell me, what the &#*% is up with this idea that the earth is only six or seven thousand years-old?”

Yep, he dropped the F-bomb on me.

Let’s not get into young-earth vs. old-earth. I’m not a young-earther, but if you are, fine. Let’s not get into his use of language. You know you’ve heard the word before, so don’t give into false offense. 

Here’s what everyone should get into: The “What the **** is up with that” questions.

Why?

Because they are the heart of what is churning around in the minds of those on the outside-looking-in at the Christian faith. They have so many “WT*IUWT” questions, and the essence of any conversation that might move them down the spiritual road will involve talking about them.

And without defensiveness. 

It’s simply a cultural reality that they are genuinely incredulous that anyone would think like…well, a Christian. Or at least, what it means in their mind to think like a Christian.

So of course they are going to ask,

“WT*IUW not wanting two people who love each other to get married?

“WT*IUW thinking sex is so bad?

“WT*IUW a loving God sending someone like Ghandi to hell?

“WT*IUW…” I’m sure you can keep filling in the blank.

Answering the “WT*IUWT” questions is what lies at the heart of modern-day apologetics, the pre-evangelism so missing in churches. And it is missing. We’re so used to talking to the already-convinced that we have no intuitive sense of what it means to talk to someone who isn’t.

Maybe we’re just afraid of the questions.

All I know is that until you answer them, you can’t get to the greatest question of them all, the one they need engaged more than any other:

“WT*IUW the cross?”

James Emery White

 

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon.  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Community 101 (Part Two): Shalom

Shalom is commonly understood to mean “peace” or “health” or “prosperity.” It carries within it the idea of “completeness.” Neil Plantinga writes that the word “shalom” is “the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight.” Shalom is the vision of community; it is what community strives to be. 

It reminds me of something I once read about Mother Teresa. When asked how she could give so much of herself to the poor, she would always say that when she looked at them, she saw Jesus in a distressing disguise. That is the heart of authentic community; being Jesus to others, and seeing Jesus in others. If we’re married, we are interacting with our spouse as if unto Him. If we’re a child, we’re obeying as if unto Him. If an employee, we’re working as if we’re working for Him. And the reverse is true: we’re parenting as if we’re parenting for Him; we’re leading others as if we’re leading for Him.

It’s a radical idea.

Even more radical is what such shalom is built on. Namely, grace. Grace, at its heart, is getting what you don't deserve, and not getting what you do. Grace is the essence of any successful relationship. Grace toward other people’s differences. Grace applied toward other people’s weaknesses. Grace applied toward other people’s sins.

And that is quite the challenge. Not that we don’t like grace – we do. Not that we don’t want to experience grace – we do. It’s just that we are better at receiving it than giving it. But it is precisely the giving of grace that allows us to work through the relational stages that afford community. 

You know the stages. You’ve lived with them your whole life.

The first stage is usually some kind of general attraction. Not many people instantly hit you wrong. Usually there is something there that’s likable, or at least you’re openly neutral. So stage one is extending a general welcome to the relationship.

But you know what that stage is almost always followed by? 

Disappointment.

You start off by viewing someone from a relational distance. All you have are short, quick, interactions that haven’t been subjected to the test of time. But once you get to know someone beyond that level, you start to see their dark side. And they will have a dark side. They will have weaknesses. Differences. Sins. Now here’s our tendency – to let the second stage of disappointment be the defining stage in your relationship with someone. Sometimes it’s called for. When you find out that someone’s dark side is too strong to deal with, or you realize you’ve got an unsafe person on your hands; or that what you thought was chemistry turns out to be an allergy, then it’s okay to let this stage be a wake-up call.

But a lot of the time, the differences that we often let end the relationship are trivial and we just don’t extend the grace or maturity to let the relationship go through the necessary – yes, inevitable – disappointment stage. But if you don’t work through it, you will never move on to the third stage, which is where real community begins to take place. 

And that third stage is acceptance

This is when you work through the disappointments, you do the labor of extending grace and understanding, and from that allow yourself to come to a healthy understanding of someone's strengths and weaknesses. Then you accept them on those terms. The Bible specifically challenges us on this. In the book of Romans, it says: “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you” (Romans 15:7, NIV). If you're not able to do this, you will never have meaningful relationships in your life. 

Ever.

If you are unable or unwilling to move into the stage of acceptance, then you will be a very lonely and isolated person. No human on earth is free of things that might disappoint you. If you don’t believe this, you’ll just go from person to person, relationship to relationship, and never have any of them move into real community. But if you’ll journey through the second stage and into the third, then you can move into the fourth stage – which is appreciation. This is getting back to what you found attractive about the person to begin with, and enjoying all that is good and wonderful about them. It’s almost like a return to the first stage, but with wisdom and insight. If the first stage is like a first date, the fourth stage is like seeing a couple having their fiftieth wedding anniversary, and you see the look in their eyes toward each other – the deep, mature sense of love they share. 

And it’s a beautiful thing.

Is there anything more? Yes. Intimacy; a fifth stage where you can love and be loved, serve and be served, celebrate and be celebrated, and know and be known.

So do you see how the work of commitment is key?

Too many of us have a brightly illuminated “EXIT” sign over every relationship in our life – where we work, where we live, where we go to church, even in our marriages. As long as we hang that sign over the door of our community life, we won’t do the work of commitment that is needed to experience the community we long for. The secret of the best friendships, the best marriages, the best job situations and churches and neighborhoods, is that they’ve taken down the exit signs. And when there is no exit sign, you have one and only one choice: do whatever it takes for the relationship to flourish.

I recently read of a family who brought home a 12-year-old boy named Roger whose parents had died of a drug overdose. There was no one to care for him, so the parents of this family decided they would raise him as if he were one of their own sons. At first, it was difficult for Roger. This was the first environment he had ever lived in that was free of heroin-addicted adults. As a result of the culture-shock, every day – and several times during the day – either Roger’s new mom or dad would say, “No, Roger, that’s not how we behave in this family.” Or “No, Roger, you don’t have to scream or fight or hurt other people to get what you want.” Or “Roger, we expect you to show respect in this family.”

In time, Roger began to change.

For so many of us, community – particularly the new community that the Bible calls us to – demands new behavior. The death of old practices, and the birth of new ones. We’re like the boy, adopted into a new family, needing to re-learn how to interact with people. 

But here’s the good news: when we hear the Holy Spirit say to us, “No, that’s not how we act in this family,” we can say, “You’re right. It’s not.” 

And change. And begin to have the relationships with others we want as part of the new community God desires for us to experience.

James Emery White

 

Sources

James Emery White, A Traveler’s Guide to the Kingdom (InterVarsity).

Neil Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin.

“How God’s Children Change,” PreachingToday.com, cited from Craig Barnes from sermon, “The Blessed Trinity,” May 30, 1999.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon.  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Community 101: Finding vs. Building

One of the great myths of relational life is that community is something found. In this fairy tale, community is simply out there – somewhere – waiting to be discovered like Prince Charming finding Cinderella. All you have to do is find the right person, join the right group, get the right job, or become involved with the right church. It’s kind of an “Over the Rainbow” thing; it’s not here, so it must be “over” there.

Which is why so many people – and you’ve seen them, and probably flirted with it yourself – go from relationship to relationship, city to city, job to job, church to church, looking for the community that they think is just around the corner if they could only find the right people and the right place. The idea is that real community exists, somewhere, and we simply must tap into it. It’s not something you have to work at; in fact, if you have to work at it, then you know it’s not real community.

This mindset runs rampant in our day. If you have to work at community in a marriage, you must not be right for each other. If you have to work on community where you are employed, you’ve got a bad boss, or bad co-workers, or a bad structure. If you have to work at community in a neighborhood, you just picked the wrong subdivision. If you have to work on things with people in a church, well, there are obviously just problems with the church, or its leadership, or...yep, its “community.”

I cannot stress enough how soundly unrealistic, much less unbiblical, this is. Community is not something you find, it is something you build. What you long for isn’t about finding the right mate, the right job, the right neighborhood, the right church – it’s about making your marriage, making your workplace, making your neighborhood and making your church the community God intended. Community is not something discovered, it is something forged. I don’t mean to suggest any and all relationships are designed for, say, marriage. Or that there aren’t dysfunctional communities you should flee from. My point is that all relationships of worth are products of labor.

This is why the Bible talks about people needing to form and make communities, not just come together as a community, or to “experience” community. 

It’s why principles are given – at length – for how to work through conflict. 

It’s why communication skills are detailed, and issues such as anger are meant to be dealt with. 

It’s why the dynamics of successfully living with someone in the context of a marriage, or family, is explored in depth. As the author of Hebrews put it so plainly, "So don’t sit around on your hands!  No more dragging your feet...run for it!  Work at getting along with each other...." (Hebrews 12:12-14, Msg)

But that raises a problem. You probably don’t know how to work in such a way as to create community. 

Don’t worry; you’re not alone.

Benedictine oblate Kathleen Norris once wrote how several monks told her that one of the biggest problems monasteries face is people who come to them “having no sense of what it means to live communally.” They have been “schooled in individualism,” and often had families that were so disjointed that even sitting down and having a meal together was a rarity. As a result, “they find it extremely difficult to adjust” to life in community.

Monks called into monastic life feeling unprepared for relational life? 

Welcome to our world. We spend years in school to prepare for a career without having to take a single class on getting along with a co-worker. 

We spend months planning a wedding, meeting with caterers and photographers and wedding directors, and never once have to check off exploring what’s involved in communicating with our spouse.

We go through pre-natal classes, decorate the nursery, and set up the college fund, and never even think about how we’re going to interact with them as a teenager.

Add in our flaming depravity, and things really get sketchy. Running alongside our longing for community is a deep current of anti-community behavior. We are filled with anger and envy, pride and competition. We do not naturally extend grace or forgiveness. We seldom take the high road, and we usually assume the worst of others. 

What is missing from most of our visions is a picture of community. It’s like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box. One of our family traditions is putting together a jigsaw puzzle on New Year’s Eve. We lay out the pieces on our kitchen table and invite anyone and everyone to put it together. Of course, the picture on the box is always front and center. Why? Without a sense of what we’re trying to produce, we’re just putting pieces together in random, haphazard ways, hoping something good comes out in the end.

So what is the picture on the community box? Between 1994 and 1996, South Africa’s new democracy drew up a constitution marked by seven values that are commemorated by seven pillars standing in the courtyard entrance of the museum: democracy, equality, reconciliation, diversity, responsibility, respect and freedom.

The Bible calls it “shalom.”

More on that in the next post.

James Emery White

 

Sources

James Emery White, A Traveler’s Guide to the Kingdom (InterVarsity).

Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon.  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

About Dr. James Emery White

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.

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