This Is What I’m Working With… A Look at the ‘Nones,’ an all-American Unreached People

To my fellow chickens in charge who every day help me laugh, teach me about grace, and forever fill me with hope that all is not lost.

Changes come

Turn my world around

I have my father’s hand
I have my mother’s tongue
I look for redemption in everyone

I wanna wear your ring
I have a song to sing
It ain’t over babe
In fact it’s just begun

Changes come
Turn my world around
Changes come
Bring the whole thing down

I wanna have our baby
Somedays I think that maybe
This ol’ world’s too ****** up
For any firstborn son

There is all this untouched beauty
The light the dark both running through me
Is there still redemption for anyone

Jesus come
Turn the world around
Lay my burden down
Turn this world around
Bring the whole thing down
Bring it down.

— Berquist / Detwiler, “Changes Come.” Over the Rhine. Ohio. Backporch Records, 2001.

But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him. When Jesus became aware of this, he departed. Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them, and he ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory.

And in his name the Gentiles will hope.’

Matthew 12:14-21 (NRSV).

Mother’s Day 2011, nighttime, a sports bar in suburban Birmingham, Ala. with the Chicago Bulls losing to the Atlanta Hawks on big screens everywhere in sight, a group collects at an outside table.  Yet this group is not here to watch the Bulls lose; nor are they here to simply pound back fancy microbrews and scarf fried food (at least not entirely). The group knows each other from many hours buying, sorting, cataloging, and selling books at a nearby store; yet they are not here to complain about their lives as underpaid, underappreciated cogs in the floundering American economy (at least not entirely). Tonight they are here to discuss the Christian Church or to put it more truthfully, the absence of that institution in their otherwise typically American existences. Typical Americans living and breathing Southern air, partaking in most all Southern institutions such as football, drinking, and going out with others who like both with only an anomalous non-participation in that typical Southern Sunday go-to-church lifestyle.

Yet even that small difference from the Alabamanorm is fast becoming less of an outright rebellion, and anomaly.  In a recent Birmingham News, the religion section opened with an above-the-fold piece quoting Jeanne O’Hair, noted as a one-time staffer of an Oregonmegachurch, who recalled her experience on staff by saying, “We just weren’t seeing any fruit, any new members, for all that huge expense of time and effort. I love Jesus and I love the Church, but I think that the way we do church in Americawill be extinct before long. It will just crumble.”[1] Likewise that month’s Christianity Today contained a small blurb asking this question: “Who fills the pews of the Big Apple?” In reply one of the Big Apple’s star pastors admitted, “for every one New Yorker / secular person who came to Christ, we saw 2 to 3 others join who were coming from other churches…. You can gather a church without actually evangelizing the residents.”[2]

Two men who have done their level best to wake up a sleeping church[3] to an evolving crisis in American Christianity are George Barna and one of his protégées David Kinnaman. In a recent book Barna, the Evangelical’s go-to-pollster, identifies 7 different faith groups in modern America. There are Jews, Pantheists (Eastern religions with a god subsumed in nature), Muslims, Skeptics, and two types of Christians (Casual and Captured). Jews, Muslims, and Pantheists make up much maligned and feared six percent of the population.[4] The ‘Skeptics’ composed of Atheists (those who are certain God does not exist), and Agnostics (those who feel the question impossible to answer for certain but are still fairly sure that said answer would be ‘no.’) make up a growing and much debated 11 percent of the population. It is this population which has more than doubled in size in the last decade.[5] David Kinnaman, who early on worked with Barna, argued in a recent work that many of those within the so-called Buster (1965- 1983), and Mosaic (1983-2002) generations are rapidly leaving or perhaps worse never connecting with the American Church that sustained and welcomed their ancestors.

As can be observed from this graph[6] created by Kinnaman’s research, the high school and college ages are seeing a marked amount of people who are simply not inside the church walls.

While the first chart may be chalked up youthful rebellion, this second chart[7], however, shows a very real disconnect from the church, and particularly the most muscular of its organizations, the evangelical church. Drew Dyck in another recent work highlights the concerns of many in arguing that his research shows that by age 22 almost 70 percent of today’s young adults have left the orbit of the Church, and by age 29 that figures hits as high as 80 percent.[8]

The answers as to why are much discussed. Dyck then argued that the reasons are many and varied: moral choices, politics, and the concern for compassion among them.[9] Italian author Antonio Monda asked the same question to a series of famous American intellectuals, filmmakers, artists, and authors.[10] The answers he received form an unusually moving book with answers as varied as the people he asked. For Paul Auster, it was uneasiness with the absolutism of religion. For Saul Bellow it was the unknowingness of the question. For Jonathan Franzen it was a preference for the intellectual succor of books and the intellect. For Spike Lee it was the loss of the ability to feel the rhythms of church in his adult existence. For Grace Paley it was her own ambivalence to belief. For Elie Wiesel it was the wounds of life which threatened to subsume belief. In each of these people and stories, there is the horror of ambivalence and tragic loss of the ability to believe. Yet the typical Christian story of bad people wanting to do bad things does not apply. Barna in his work argued that in each instance of his surveys, the individuals in question “are simply trying to live with integrity based on what they believe- even if their belief system lacks a deity or higher power.”[11]

And so we come back to our opening group hunched around a wrought-iron table sipping their microbrews. This motley crew was gathered at my request and consisted of co-workers, and friends. Earlier in the week I had passed out surveys about their religious histories and views on the Christian church. An opening question was articulated, “What don’t you like about the church” led to a night’s discussion. For one member of the group it was the foolhardiness of supernaturalism combined with an instance an unthinking and unquestioning faith. For another it was the lack of consistency between the claimed experiences of faith on Sunday, and the lived-out immoralities of Monday through Saturday world. For almost everyone there was a concern that they were being judged on some standard they did not understand, found lacking, and dismissed without merit. It was a heart-breaking evening listening to stories: stories of faith lost, and yet to be found; stories of faith never tasted, but only hinted at, never consummated; stories of hurt, anger, and confusion. One person discussed how for a brief few years, they had attended a church that seemed more a family than anything else, but after that church eroded nothing had seemed quite the same. Another discussed the horrors of being a genuinely good person who never felt at home in the worship service; yet watched as others who were not such good persons claimed to have a handle on it all. Still another talked of the slow realization that the beliefs of the church did not match one’s own, and the decision to walk away rather than live a false life. Still others discussed their spine-tingling discomfit in the face of the certainty and lack of careful dialogue and doubt.

There is a theory that Drew Dyck points out in his book. There, he discusses the work of Christian Smith who named this the “Internal without External Religion” theory. The theory as sociologist Rodney Stark explains it, “young people have always been less likely to attend [church] than older people…. A bit later in life when they have married and especially after children arrive, they become more regular attenders. This happens in every generation.”[12] The idea is that though they drop out this group retains an interior faith which does not match the exterior actions; yet as life advances and maturity advances the exterior practice comes to match the interior belief. For each of the admittedly microscopic sample size (5 completed surveys out of 12 employees), this does seem to bear out a little. Each of the respondents was able to define such concepts as God, sin, and salvation. Four of the five had identified as Christian around age 12, and 3 of the five had at least one parent who would have also would have identified as religious. Additionally, each participant was able to come up with solid answers to questions about how the church has benefited both societies in general, andAmerica as a nation.

Even as many of the answers would have scored well on a test in religion class, the answers were impersonal in denotation, and at times derogatory in connotation. The next day one of the participants told me the following story. On Saturday their spouse had called their mother to discuss plans for Mother’s Day. The participant heard their spouse say, “Yes, we can do that.” Immediately the participant broke into a cold sweat with a sick feeling in their stomach, and the urge to yell, “Absolutely, positively, no we can’t.” Later after the call was ended this person was quite relieved to discover that the spouse had simply agreed to visit the grandmother in a nursing home. Relief that one is visiting a nursing home over against church attendance does not reveal a person who will be visiting a church anytime soon: married, children or not. In fact on the survey respondents were asked what, if any type of participation, would they consider. Three of the five showed no interest in visiting church for marriage, child baptism, or funerals, though only one stated no desire to attend any function, secular or otherwise. The concerns for viability of the internal-external theory could be summed up by the respondent who stated that they hated to say anything the church did, would cause them to want to come to a service because “he did not want me to believe I had any hope of converting them.”

Whether these new generations will come into the fold due to marriage, maturity, and childbirth remains to be seen; however, I must share the concerns of Dyck who pointed to work of Christian Smith calling this theory a myth with which the church like to console itself.[13] Maybe they will, yet as I sat there that evening I was reminded of Callum Brown’s excellent book, The Death of Christian Britain[14]. In that work he showed how Christian Britain lost hold of its authority over adult males in the nineteenth century, its adult females at the end of the long nineteenth, and last its hold on the children ofBritain in the 1960s. In his memorable last chapters he shows the decline from both parents religious, to one parent religious, to no one religious. My small survey as well as Kinnaman’s research shows the possibility of a similar decline inAmerica. Which leaves the typical Christian to ask where to go for now. Kinnaman stroke at an answer when he asserted,

“We are not responsible for outsider’s decisions but we are accountable when our actions and attitudes – misrepresenting a holy, just and loving God- have pushed outsiders away…. Christianity has become bloated with blind followers who would rather repeat slogans than actually feel their compassion and concern. Christianity has become marketed and streamlined into a juggernaut of fearmongering that has lost its own heart.”[15]

This assessment found purchase in the words of one respondent who gave this answer to the question what does the church do well: “The Christian Church is very good at marketing itself as pure and benevolent. The issue is that humans are neither…. With such a large group demanding its members… act against so many human natures enmity and scandal arises.” George Barna, himself, pleaded in his introduction for the church “to stop competing, comparing, complaining, and condemning,” and to begin a new era of “cooperating, collaborating, and contributing.”[16] The value of this new era was also shown in our little group. At the end of our discussion of about what the church is doing wrong, several people got up to leave; yet a couple stayed behind. One person looked at me and said, “You’ve been quiet all night, what do you think of what we said?” In that moment I hope something of the Spirit jumped inside of me and quickened an answer. In that moment I found myself asking these people’s forgiveness for their treatment by the church. “I cannot be upset,” I said, “if we in the church had acted the way we should’ve; no one could have said a word this evening.” As I fumbled for words to express my anguish at the magnitude of our failings, I feel tears come to my ears, my voice cracked, and I swear I saw tears in the eyes of those listening. Then we ordered another round, and I was able to explain over the next hour what I love about my God, and answer many of their questions about him. Around midnight, one of these stood, and said, rather relieved, “Well, you didn’t convert me.” I laughed and headed to my car.

[1] Grossman, Cathy Lynn. “ ‘Simple Churches’ Find Foothold Across U.S.” Birmingham News. 30 April 2011. 3F.

[2]  Smietana, Bob. “Urban Planters: Who Fills the Pews of the Big Apple.” Christianity Today. May 2011. 21.

[3] Perhaps they are so tired from all their church hopping.

[4] Barna, George. Seven Faith Tribes: Who They Are, What They Believe, and Why They Matter. (Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.:Brentwood,Tenn.; 2009), 16-17.

[5] Ibid, 99.

[6] Kinnaman, David and Gbe Lyons. UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why it Matters. (Baker Books:Grand Rapids,Mich.; 2007),18.

[7] Kinnaman, 25.

[8] Dyck, Drew. Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith and How to Bring Them Back. (Moody Publishers:Chicago; 2010), 17.

[9] Ibid, 20-21.

[10] Monda, Antonio, ed. Do You Believe: Conversations on God and Religion. Anna Goldstein, trans. (Vintage Books: NY, 2007).

[11] Ibid, 101.

[12] Dyck, 187.

[13] Dyck. 190-191.

[14] Brown, Callum. The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularization, 1800- 2000. (Routledge: NY; 2001).

[15] Kinnaman, 14-15.

[16] Barna, xiii.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: