Editor’s note: This article is the second part of a two-part series on the latest census of American religion produced by PRRI. For part one, see Morgan Doyle’s story on newspressnow.com.
As early as 2014, Christian author James Emery White wrote a book called “The Rise of the Nones.” As is evident in the spelling, White was not commenting on the rise of Catholic sisters.
Instead, the book addresses a growing number of people who checked “none” in the religious census when asked their faith preference. Seven years ago, when Emery’s book came out, the amount of “nones” had just crossed into double digits.
In the recently released Public Religion Research Institute census for 2020, those checking no religious preference continued to rise. In 1990, the number was around 8%. Thirty years later, it has almost tripled to 23%. This means those who consider themselves religiously unaffiliated now outnumber both evangelical Protestants (16%) and mainline Protestants (18%). This year’s data shows that the number is rising slower than in recent years, however.
Just last March, researcher Ryan Burge wrote a book called, “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They are Going.” Burge writes that some may simply be selecting “none,” because they feel that have no better options on the survey as their idea of religion may not fit traditional categories. However, many others seem to have become disenfranchised by key U.S. religious groups — especially Catholics, mainline Protestants and evangelical Protestants.
Professor Mark Hayse at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kansas, has followed this trend for more than two decades. About the rise of this phenomenon, Hayse said the time when the local religious congregation anchored one’s family life has passed. No longer is the synagogue or church the center of family life and networking.
“Now the internet may be the dominant social paradigm,” Hayse said.
There is now what Hayse calls a “consumeristic approach to social relationships.” No longer does the local religious congregation confirm and affirm one’s identity. Instead, there is a relative individualistic “free-for-all” in regard to finding one’s identity. This is usually based on consumer-driven goals.
Local religious congregations used to be the hub of networking and exposure to broader ideas and voices. However, the recent trends among communities of faith have included isolating age groups for purposes of marketing. People today have access to a wide array of voices (if they choose to access them) without even leaving their homes. This has diminished the role of communities of faith and has caused a sense of disconnect across generations. Consequently, established communities of faith have become older and often more segmented.
This segmentation has caused disconnects. It is not that those who check “no religious affiliation” are atheists necessarily. Rather, Hayse argues, it is that even those who have some connection to a local congregation or to a larger religious identity do not feel heard or welcome any longer.
Embodiment is a key part of communities of faith, according to Hayse.
“We are more than just a network. We are a body. How long can a body live if the parts live separate lives?” he said.
So, communities of faith in America must find creative ways to reconnect across generational lines and become more than marketing organizations. They should also find ways to connect beyond political affiliation.
This is the challenge that ministers face as they seek to reconnect to those who have either abandoned their religious identities or have never had such an identity.
The Rev. Steve Longley is the pastor Turning Point Church of the Nazarene, an evangelical Protestant congregation in St. Joseph. He agrees with Hayse’s assessment that over-segmentation by age and by political affiliation have had an impact on religious identity.
“It used to be that the early church was a place where wide range of ideas were shared,” Longley said.
Now churches are being defined more by their political differences than by their desires to become a family, he said.
“Families forgive each other and work together,” he said.
He notes that at Turning Point, the emphasis is on building relationships of trust and care so people see a genuine desire to include others in the community of faith. From there, once credibility is earned and trust is gained faith commitments can be shared. The goal is not for members to all be in lock step about every issue, he said. Instead, it’s to embody the kind of diverse community he believes emerged from the biblical and historical development of the Christian church.
The Rev. Lydia Istomina, pastor of St. Francis First United Methodist Church of St. Joseph, has a unique perspective on the idea of “nones.” In Russia during the Soviet Era, where Istomina was raised, virtually no one claimed religious affiliation. It was prohibited.
So, she said, “the 23% number doesn’t scare me.” The reason is that she saw an underground movement that started with older Russians who still had an affinity for faith become a strong resurgence of the church as Communism officially fell.
Like Hayse and Longley, she said she sees the overly segmented approach of churches as unhealthy. Furthermore, the emphasis of local faith communities on simply adding to their numbers and offerings are missing the point.
“Those things are important, of course,” she said, “but faith is not about filling the seats or the offerings. It is about filling hearts with love and connection.”
All three of these religious leaders agree on three key solutions to the rise of the “nones.” First, each states that a renewed emphasis on a unique kind of community that can be embodied in communities of faith is essential. This moves religious groups beyond mere affinity sets or fundraising organizations. Instead, communities of faith can be places where diverse groups — whether that be diversity in age, politics or economics — can benefit from one another in the context of a loving community.
Second, they agree that moving people from the idea of being a “newcomer” or an “outsider” to a place where they feel they are “home” in a community of faith is essential. This means that telling younger generations to simply “wait their turn” will not suffice. Rather, extending a welcome to the next generation while simultaneously teaching them the traditions of the faith will be key.
Finally, looking at this growing trend of the “nones” to be a kind of “restart” button for communities of faith will move these communities from pessimism to optimism. Hayse points to his work in university settings, where even students with no formal affiliation are interested in learning and living out their faith as a positive trend.
Likewise, both Longley and Istomina point to both ancient and recent trends in church history that demonstrate the ability communities of faith have to thrive when they are forced to reassess their priorities and become genuinely connected communities. That means planning events and opportunities that move beyond the walls of the organization and encounter the community with genuine faith that addresses the needs of the day.
Longley sums up the cautious optimism of the three by simply adding, “God’s got this.”