I had an interview with the local radio station (News Radio 740 KTRH) this morning about the rising number of “nones” in the United States. I’m having another interview with them tomorrow morning, so I thought I would gather some opinions today on this situation.
The nones are the 46 million people who selected “none,” no religious preference on the census, And on subsequent surveys by the Pew Research Center, the University of California, et al.
1. According to the Pew Research Center, one out of five American adults say they have no religious preference. Why do you think this is?
2. The number is even more staggering among young people. One out of three Americans under 30 say they have no religious affiliation. Why do you think this is?
3. What can organized religion do to respond to this trend? What are denominational executives (like bishops and denominational staff) doing to help respond?
Some of my random thoughts:
People under 30 are distancing themselves from social institutions in general. They aren’t joiners. They aren’t joining clubs like the Lions Club.
Robert Putnam in “Bowling Alone” pointed out people don’t join bowling leagues anymore, at least not as much, and yet there more people bowling than ever in America.
So, no religious affiliation doesn’t mean no religion, or faith. It doesn’t mean they aren’t praying. The same Pew study shows that many of those people under 30 are praying every day.
Young people are out of sync with the church, which sometimes seems more bent on self-preservation than changing the world, feeding the hungry, peace in earth good will to men. They are socially liberal. Most approve same-sex marriage. Our Puritan-heritage church is out of step with the 21st century.
The church used to be at the forefront of social issues. The leader of the civil rights movement, MLK, was a mainline Protestant pastor.
I believe there is a new Reformation brewing in the church. I am a Lutheran, so I am inherently in favor of the church always reforming itself. The young people I meet are more interested in Jesus than ever. They’re suspicious of the church as an institution, but fascinated with Jesus’ spirituality and message of radical generosity and love of God and neighbor.
People of faith in the future will organize in new ways. We have organized in denominations since the Reformation. The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is coming up in just four years. Those denominational forms are starting to disintegrate. They’re probably not the best way to organize moving forward. The good news is the church had other ways of organizing for the first 1500 years of Christianity.
I believe we are going to see new forms of church emerging that will replace the old denominational structures. Pastors see it coming but aren’t sure what to do about it. The higher you get up the hierarchy of religious institutions the more oblivious the leaders seem to be, perpetuating the old structures.
No one knows what this is going to look like exactly. I believe that the solutions are going to come from the ground up, not from the top down. The tighter we grasp at the old ways of doing things, the more they are going to slip through our fingers, and the more young people are going to distance themselves from the institutions.
This is a great opportunity to return to what is really at the heart of faith. Jesus said that we are to love God and love neighbor. He said all the law and the prophets rested on these two things. He taught his followers to welcome strangers, love their enemies, to walk the extra mile and to give them the shirt off your back. He taught his followers to pray, not to judge others, not to get caught up in material possessions and to trust God with your whole life. What would it look like to organize people around this kind of faith?