As Labor Day takes us into post-summer schedules, I am thinking about the “nones,” those people who call themselves “spiritual, not religious” and who are an astonishing 27 percent of the population.
Will some of them find new places in our pews, or will they continue their flight from organized religion? My guess is that they will continue, for the most part, to stay away, and it is important to understand why and what to do about it.
The “nones” are especially pronounced among adults under 30, roughly 40 percent of whom claim no connection to a religious congregation or tradition.
(Actually the latest Pew research says that roughly one quarter of the population identifies as “nones,” which includes those of most age categories, a trend starting with the baby boomers who questioned religion along with everything else in the ’60s.)
Almost every mainline church is experiencing declining attendance and membership. The common reaction is to bemoan this development; a brave few, such as the local Methodist Bridges “makeover” effort, vow to reinvent themselves. The question, however, is the extent to which the reinvention will occur. Will the changes proposed be truly transformative?
We must understand this population if we are to serve them fully, but they will be a difficult sell if we are serving up church as usual.
Since 2017, I have been studying this group exhaustively and here is what I found:
- Some one-third of them believe in God; another third believes in some force or essence, while the other third can be considered atheist or agnostic or humanist.
- They have no time for traditional theology or dogmatic beliefs; hymns and sermons are of little interest.
- They are so-called cafeteria shoppers and commitment-phobic with only about 7 percent of that 27 percent of the population actually looking for a church home. Thus, they are hard to reach and hard to keep once you do draw them in.
But the fact that they call themselves spiritual, not religious, and how they express this in their lives, may account for one of the largest spiritual revolutions ever experienced.
So says Diana Bass Butler, author of “Grounded: Finding God In The World, A Spiritual Revolution.” She suggests that this reverence for life is being lived out in all sorts of unconventional ways, such as organic farming, small arts and crafts businesses, alternative economic approaches and other aspects of regional revival.
My research shows that the “nones” are finding the spiritual in nature, in family activities, in alternative health and consciousness-raising activities and in social justice involvement. Many are interested in finding personal support or community but do not necessarily find it because “belonging” seems to require the religious commitment.
The question for us remains: Can we meet these people, many of whom are the younger generation, where they’re at, or will we continue to bemoan their loss and keep trying the “old forms” and the “old language” to lure them back?
Do we want to make them true believers in a religious sense? Or, can we broaden our horizons?
If we revise our thinking to say that our mission is to transform lives, then we might tap into one of the largest revolutions in consciousness ever recorded.
Sounds exciting to me.