What does it tell us that the majority of American Christians seem to know next to nothing about the majority of Americans?

I study cultural trends. For example, I pay attention to the rise of religious “nones.” They’re the fastest growing percentage of the US population. Close to 50 percent of millennials are nones.[1] Nones will soon be the majority of Americans.

Many nones used to attend church. Over three-quarters of those who are described by social scientists as religious “nones” or “religiously unaffiliated” have a church background.[2] For nones, the faith is been there, done that.

What, then, does it tell us that the majority of American Christians seem to know next to nothing about religious nones, that is, the majority of Americans? I ask because few Christians I know ever raise the subject of nones. It’s as if nones don’t exist. I say “none” and typically get a quizzical look. Friends then one of two questions.

The first is: “Nun?” That’s telling. I say nones and a few Christians hear Catholic nuns. It tells us they think inside a religious frame of reference. I say none, they hear nun.

Nones don’t operate inside a religious frame of reference. That’s why the second question is also telling: “Are nones Christians? Atheists?” This tells us most Christians don’t know a none. Not surprising. Nones tend to be our cultural elites, and “most elites report that they do not have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian.”[3]

That’s a problem. Max De Pree, the former CEO of Herman Miller, said the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. Nones are the new reality. Few Christians are aware of them. Few can even define “religious none.”

Here’s a simple definition: None of the above. Nones check “none of the above” when asked their religious preference. They’re not Christian, Jewish, atheist, agnostic, etc. They’re none of the above. No religion. They’re spiritual but not religious. Religious nones are post-religion, including the Christian religion.

But something else is telling about the majority of American Christians knowing next to nothing about the majority of Americans. It tells us few churches are missional.

Missional means Christians are the “sent” people of God. The church is the instrument of God’s mission in the world. Most churches have it backwards. They believe mission is an instrument of the church, a means for church growth. Nope. Missional means God’s mission on earth has a church. God’s mission is the renewal of all things so that human flourishing results. Nones are often most influential in our nation’s cities, meaning they are key to cities flourishing. If churches know next to nothing about nones, how can they claim to be seeking the flourishing of their city? How can they claim to be missional?

How can Christians claim to be missional?

Can you imagine missionaries to India not knowing that the majority of Indians (almost 80 percent of the population) are Hindu? Can you imagine missionaries to India being unfamiliar with what Hindus believe? Can you imagine these missionaries not having a Hindu friend?

I have many friends who are nones. Not bragging. It’s telling that they tell me they don’t see Christians as spiritual.[4] With social media, they read all about our misbehavior. Nones seek something more spiritual than what they experience in most churches.

So give them a better experience. That’s what we’re doing at Clapham House. During the summer, we throttle back and host “pub nites,” BYOB get-togethers. We invite our networks, including nones. They invite their networks. At our pub nite two weeks ago, many came, including several nones. A few came early. A few stayed late.

Real late. Three stayed until 12:30am. We had a spirited conversation around our kitchen table, discussing our trifurcated town (Annapolis), politics, starting new businesses, spirituality, and so on. Two of the nones work for the new mayor. They asked Kathy and me if we’d host a dinner conversation with the mayor. We said yes. I was asked to join one of the city’s commissions. I said yes.

A problem well defined is a problem half solved. It’s unlikely religious nones will find the faith engaging if Christians can’t define “religious none.” Few can. The definition is simple: None of the above. Start there, and your church is headed toward being genuinely missional. She will likely better “understand the times” (I Chr.12:32), which begins to reveal “knowing what to do”—a daunting subject best reserved for another day.

 

[1] “‘Nones’ on the Rise,” Pew Research Center, October 9, 2012.

[2] Drew Dyck, “The Leavers: Young Doubters Exit the Church,” Christianity Today, November 19, 2010.

[3] Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (Crown Publishing Group, 2012), 107.

[4] Dallas Willard would agree. I recommend his books, including The Divine Conspiracy and The Spirit of the Disciplines.

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10 Responses to “None Of The Above”

  1. Matt McNicoll says:

    Love this Mike. Thanks for writing.

    Had a conversation just yesterday morning with some old friends, wondering among ourselves how should we be thinking about missions and why doesn’t the Church seem to be effective. Appreciate these thoughts.

  2. Mike Metzger says:

    Not a rare conversation among millennials.

    What is rare is recognizing reality, the rise of “nones” and the decline of evangelicals.

    My concern is that we’re planting churches that are only effective with a shrinking percentage of the population, regardless of whether that population is black, Hispanic, or white.

  3. Mark W Brown says:

    Mike,
    On of your best, really enjoyed this and felt you spoke my mind. This is one I can readily share to let others know who is around them. Thanks.
    Mark

  4. Neal Herr says:

    Hi Mike,

    I appreciate your thoughts here. In the Pew Research study that you cited, they failed to make an important distinction – between the “nones” and the “done’s”. They’ve conflated the two, when it’s an important distinction to make. Those who are “done” are done with the institutional church, but not done with Jesus. The book “Church Refugees” is a fairly recent book written about the “done’s”. I agree with you that the Church needs to pay close attention to the nones, but they also need to pay close attention to the “done’s”. The Church needs to be asking – what is it about the institutional church that is causing so many people to leave?

    Thanks for your good work.

    Neal.

  5. Trent McEntyre says:

    I am going to use this today in our church planting mission in Atlanta. Even among Christians motivated enough to join a church planting community, I find most are not connected to “Nones” and don’t really know where to start.

  6. Mike Metzger says:

    I do.

    Call me, if you wish. Mike

  7. Brad McDonald says:

    Thanks for a great article and for shedding light on a minor peeve of mine, one I’m not so proud of, but NONEtheless, exists. I’ve noticed my personal dislike for labels, more so as I grow older. When somebody asks, “Are you a: Christian, Republican, Liberal, Conservative, etc….” I want to respond with, “Before I answer that, let’s discuss what you mean by….Christian, Republican, Liberal, etc….” because I’m no longer comfortable with any of those labels. Years ago I “proudly” claimed the label of Christian, Evangelical, Conservative; now those labels scare me. I wonder if I have become a NONE.

  8. Mike Metzger says:

    Maybe.

    Or perhaps you simply feel like an outsider in church.

    That would make you an exile.

    Uh oh – another label.

    Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. When I’m looking for a healthy food, I read the labels. Good labels delineate helpful categories.

  9. dwightk says:

    I’ve been watching Madam Secretary recently and their family are all nones. Including/especially the religion professor dad.

  10. Creighton Jenkins says:

    In response to Neal Herr: The problem with the institutional church is that it is institutional – 1. unappealing or unimaginative, 2. established as a convention or norm in an organization or culture.
    The institutional church (mostly represented by denominations today) tends to box G-d thus ultimately shutting out the supernatural power and spontaneity of the Holy Spirit. I think this is the reason we’re seeing more and more dynamic non-denominational churches rising. The “dones” and exiles want more than liturgy and a set of rules to follow. We want that deep personal relationship with our Creator that Jesus promised and died for on our behalf.

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