Missing a Milestone?

December 31st, 2018

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The year 2019 will likely mark an important milestone for evangelicals. Lane Greene of The Economist suspects most evangelicals will miss it.

I’m generally not one for new years resolutions. If, however, any of my evangelical friends were to ask what I’d recommend, I’d suggest three. 1) Recognize an important milestone likely to happen in 2019. 2) Recognize what this milestone means. 3) Recognize that doing more of what we’re already doing is not a solution.

I enjoy reading The Economist for several reasons. For starters, the articles are succinct. The writers use an economy of words. This includes Lane Greene, Espresso editor for the magazine. In the year-end edition (“The Year In 2019”), he wrote a short piece, “Losing faith.” In it, Greene forecasts a milestone for evangelicals in 2019.

Next year, religious “nones” are likely for the first time ever to outnumber evangelicals. Nones already outnumber Catholics and mainline Protestants. But in 2019, the line depicting the rise of nones will cross the line depicting the decline of evangelicals. “There will soon be more Nones than any single group of Christians,” Greene writes.

What does this mean? First, the US is secularizing faster than many realize. This will accelerate the rise of Nones. A secularizing society will encourage many to come out of the closet (or out of the pews). Greene writes, “For all those already comfortable telling a pollster they are atheist or agnostic, there are surely many in the pews not quite ready to say it.” Increasing numbers of Christians, mostly millennials, will uncouple from the faith.[1]

Tragically, few evangelicals recognize this. Especially boomers and gen-xers. Greene writes, “Many have missed just how much less devout the country is becoming.” This is my experience. I have boomer and gen-xer friends who are evangelical. Few, if any, ever mention Nones. A shocking number can’t even define what “none” means. If I don’t raise the subject, it doesn’t come up. It’s as if Nones don’t exist. They do. They’re mostly millennials. Greene writes that as “this least religious generation ever” overtakes older generations, “their faithlessness portends a very different landscape.”

How different? In the past, boomers and gen-xers, as they aged, became more religious. This effect seems to have paused. Between surveys in 2007 and 2014, millennials became even less observant. As they aged, they became less religious.

Here’s another difference. In the past, doing more of what we are doing, or doing it better, drew some boomers and gen-xers back to the faith. That’s unlikely to be effective with millennials. Fewer and fewer have a faith background. They can’t return to where they’ve never been. So doing more of what we’re already doing is not a solution.

What then should we do? That’s an issue we’ll keep tackling longer in 2019. But it starts with recognizing reality. Max de Pree, the former CEO of Herman Miller Furniture, said the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The sons of Issachar did this. They understood the times, so they knew what to do. A new years resolution for my evangelical friends (if they ask) is to recognize reality. Those that do are most likely to discover the wisest course of action as Evangelicalism declines and Nones increase.

 

[1] Diane Vaughn, Uncoupling: Turning Points in Intimate Relationships (Knopf Doubleday, 1990).

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3 Responses to “Missing a Milestone?”

  1. Larry Clairmont says:

    It seems parachurch ministries such as Navigators, Campus Crusade are uniquely equipped to reach Nones with their heavy emphasis on sharing the Gospel. Also, churches operating independently from a main line denomination seem not to be shy or have theological boundaries, preventing them from openly sharing the gospel. Baptist’s, also are not shy about community outreach. I attend Columbia Presbyterian. We would disagree with their theology, but they are not shy about preaching the gospel and outreach in the community. We seem to be too sophisticated for that. Jesus said the gates of hell will not overcome the church. Jesus will raise up those to minister to the Nones. As for me, I have a heart for the lost and pray for openings to share the gospel. It’s slow and I am in my mid 60’s. I’d like to have a way to reach these young people, but don”t know how to do it.

  2. Mike Metzger says:

    Larry:

    I appreciate your candor. And I’m glad you have a heart for the lost.
    So do I. We’re learning ways to influence (or woo) Nones, so hang in there.

    btw, another data point regarding the rise of Nones (and the resulting post-Christian society). There are reportedly now more witches in the US than Presbyterians (PCUSA at least). As Bob Dylan sang, the times they are a-changing.

    https://www.newsweek.com/witchcraft-wiccans-mysticism-astrology-witches-millennials-pagans-religion-1221019

  3. Byron Borger says:

    Again, thanks for this, Mike. Appreciate it so much. My only little feedback is that it is my experience, unlike the authors, that many talk about the nones, books come out on i (both scholarly and less so), folks are scrambling to “do” something to offer fresh expressions of faith or new forms of church or new ways to talk about the gospel, etc. The whole “missional church” movement emerged more than a decade ago from Newbegin’s cultural analysis of the West. There’s even feisty debate about, although, admittedly, some of the discussion is about generational stuff (Gen Z, iGen and the like) rather than nones who are also Boomers, of course. Anyway, your insight is important, and Greene’s is good, but I was surprised to him him say nobody talks about it. Is some circles folks are nearly obsessed with talking about it.

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