What the "Rise of the Nones" Doesn’t Mean...and What it Does
There seem to be two camps regarding the “rise of the nones.” As someone who has written a book by that very title – the only one that I know of – I feel compelled to step in a bit to moderate.
Those of you new to the conversation may be wondering, “Who are the nones?”
The short answer is that they are the religiously unaffiliated. When asked about their religion, they did not answer “Baptist” or “Catholic” or any other defined faith. They picked a new category: “none.” They now stand at 23% of the American adult population and at 36% among the youngest of Millennials.
So who makes up the two camps?
First are those who take the recent data about the rise of the self-described religious status – and no one controverts the data – and sound the “sky is falling” alarm in a comprehensive and holistic way.
This is a mistake.
*Christianity is on the rise worldwide, particularly in the global South.
*Evangelical Christianity is holding its own in the U.S.
*Christianity remains the world’s largest faith, and the most distant projections to 2050 show it maintaining that lead (this includes the U.S., with 71% currently affirming a Christian faith).
*Church attendance in the U.S., while arguably down, is not in a freefall.
The other group – building off of such facts – seems to want to downplay the rise altogether as simply the sloughing off of nominal Christians, and then claim that Christianity is as robust as ever.
This, too, is a mistake.
And here’s why.
While it is correct to say that rumors of Christianity’s death are premature (see Rodney Stark’s latest book, The Triumph of Faith), Christianity in America is in decline as we find ourselves in an increasingly settled post-Christian culture. The rise of the nones is the symptom of that increasingly clear condition.
But the real issue is not whether the rise of the nones is balanced by seemingly stable church attendance (one of Stark’s contentions), but rather the broader understanding of the dynamic at play with what I have called the “squishy center.” It’s something I endeavored to explain at the 2015 Church and Culture Conference and in an earlier blog last year.
The Squishy Center
Let’s set up a couple of extremes. On one end are the hard core secularists, and let’s estimate this is 25% of the country. That might be generous, but it makes for easy math to demonstrate the cultural dynamic at play.
On the other end are the true believers. These are individuals who have come to faith in Christ, and He operates as their Forgiver and Leader. Emphasis on the “leader” part. These people are not Christian in name only, but have had the deepest needs of their life intersected by Christ, and their relationship with Him is changing them to reflect Him more with each passing year. Let’s make that 25% too, which also might be generous. And these two poles are not without warrant. The latest findings from Pew’s American Religious Landscape Study found the nones growing more secular, but the truly religious growing more devout.
Between these two poles you have our conjectured 50% of the country. This is the “squishy center.” And it is “squishy” because those in its midst tend to be soft and pliable in terms of being shaped. Their individual beliefs have little definition and even less conviction. If they consider themselves Christian, it would be with a small “c.” Those in the center do not have the solidity of the secularist or the believer. As a result, those in the center tend to move toward whatever is culturally most influencing. However the culture tends to mold, shape, and pressure is how they are molded, shaped and pressured.
In the past, the forces within culture tended to move the center toward the Christian, “Believers” side of things. This meant that those hovering in the “squishy center,” if asked, would have said they were a Christian. That was the cultural thing to say. And they probably would have gone to church – at least on special days. There was cultural pressure on them if they didn’t.
But culture has changed. It’s not moving people that way anymore. It’s not shaping people that way anymore. Now, virtually everything in culture is moving the “squishy center” to the “Secularists” side. Today, if asked about their religion, they say they’re nothing because that’s the cultural thing to say. And they don’t go to church. Because that’s also the cultural thing to not do. This is what I mean by the “squishy center” and the way culture dictates to it.
Again, few cultural observers from within the Christian community deny this dynamic in regard to culture and the “squishy center.” However, there are varied interpretations. As mentioned, the most prevalent is to use it to calm everyone down in regard to the rise of the nones and other troubling headlines. After all, the thinking goes, “We’re just losing the nominals.” And a little sloughing off of the uncommitted fringe, it is maintained, can be a good thing. And further, they would add, “It’s not like you ‘lost’ someone who was truly ‘found.’”
Others would add that it’s not as if they are leaving religion – it just might not be Christianity. So while they reject Jesus, they still believe in angels – all is not lost. So, the idea being promoted is, “Don’t worry, it’s not a big deal.”
I take a different view – I would argue that it is a very big deal. The nominal population, with all of their warped theology and spirituality, has always been America’s mission field and the group in need of a stiff dose of Jesus. It’s who Wesley and Whitfield, Moody and Graham, won to Christ. The “squishy center” has always been the prime evangelistic target. Its inhabitants are the ones most open; the ones who represent the fields white unto harvest.
The real news of late is that it’s become a much tougher target. Which means that rather than heave a huge sigh of relief that Evangelical faith may not be losing any ground in terms of percentage points, we must recognize that all that means is that we are, for now, holding our own.
But “holding our own” isn’t exactly the mission.
Nor is having them leave orthodox Christianity for pagan spirituality a success point.
Perhaps even more alarming is that as the “squishy center” moves increasingly toward the secular side of things, swelling the ranks of the nones, the bridge those very nominals once offered between the two sides of “Believers” and “Secularists” is fast disappearing. As Ed Stetzer has rightly observed: “In the past, those of nominal faith were a bridge between the Christian community and the irreligious community. As the cultural cost of being a Christian increases, people who were once Christian in name only likely have started to identify as nones, disintegrating the ‘ideological bridge’ between unbelievers and believers.”
But it’s more than losing an ideological bridge. It’s also losing a relational bridge.
One that allows us to walk across it to reach our world.
A world that very much needs reaching.
James Emery White
James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Baker).
James Emery White, “The 2015 Cultural Snapshot: The Seventh Age and the Rise of the Nones,” 2015 Church and Culture Conference (mp3 available at ChurchAndCulture.org)
Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” May 12, 2015, read online.
Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Faith.
Pew Research Center, “U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious,” November 3, 2015, Pewforum.org.
Patrick Foster, “God banished from Downton Abbey, says show’s historical advisor,” The Telegraph, November 15, 2015, read online.
Ed Stetzer, “Religious polarization on the way,” USA Today, November 12, 2015, read online.
About the Author
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, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit 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.