Reaching the Nones

Reaching the Nones November 2, 2012

We need a Ptolemaic shift to see that the church isn’t the center of anybody’s universe any more. And it probably never will be again.

An article and an NPR segment drifted my way today. The article reminded me of a recent study of those who state that they have no religious affiliation. That is nearly half of Americans under 30. The major point was that these individuals may well regard themselves as spiritual, and indeed intensely interested in issues around values and the meaning of life. They just can’t identify with any religion, and quite often see religious institutions as the last places that answers to their questions might be found.

The NPR segment discussed the work of a sociologist who studies why people answer surveys they way they do. His work suggests that although more than 40% of Americans report that they are regular church-goers, in fact they are unintentionally mis-representing themselves. The number, and this may have been the number since the 1970’s, is closer to 20%. And a review of church attendance records bears this out.

(The reason for this self mis-representation, by the way, is that questions about church attendance are subconsciously interpreted as questions about religious identity. Far more Americans see themselves as “church-going types” as actually go to church.)

Which gets us to the Nones. It would indicate and extraordinary failure of Christian churches over the last half century if in fact we had lost more than half our youth. But in fact most of the Nones probably never attended church. It is likely that their parents (who saw themselves as church goers but didn’t actually go) never took them.

And this calls into question efforts to “Re-Think Church,” the latest United Methodist gasp at relevance. Maybe it isn’t the church that’s the problem. Maybe, I think this is the case, we’ve completely lost touch with the hopes, dreams, and self-understanding of our children and grandchildren. We no longer know how to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ to them – regardless of the institutional setting.

And this means that somehow “fixing” the church isn’t going to help. Hiring a praise band, moving Sunday School to Starbucks, creating new programs, flattening the hierarchy, and generally making the church merely look different isn’t going to work, not once the novelty wears off.

The whole “Re-Think Church” movement is misguided if it assumes that the Nones are “unchurched” and that a relevant church will draw them in. It is the institutional thinking of those so heavily invested in the institutional church that they can only imagine a Christian world that revolves around it. We need a Ptolemaic shift to see that the church isn’t the center of anybody’s universe any more. And it probably never will be again.

Instead of re-thinking church we need to rethink our articulation of the gospel. We need to preach a message so that is comprehensible in the life experience of those who don’t speak the language of the present generation of church leaders. Put another way, people my age, and even significantly younger if they were raised in the church, will need to learn a new language, and then engage in the arduous task of finding young partners to translate the gospel.

And yes, critical to this is an articulation of the gospel that can deal with the reality of religious diversity.

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