Culture, politics, religion, spirituality, the nones

Why the nones are leaving church, but not God

October 10, 2012


It should make any established American denomination panic: the dramatic increase in number of Americans leaving organized religion. In 2007, the percentage of the religious unaffiliated was around 15% and now that number is around 20% according to a new Pew study. In the last 20 years, the religiously unaffiliated or “nones” have doubled.

Before churches and denominations panic, this study does not prove people are leaving behind their belief in God – just the church.

There are a few things we need to remember. This poll, as with any poll, asked questions that may have not accurately described the respondents. The Washington Post reports,

Pew offered people a list of more than a dozen possible affiliations, including “Protestant,” “Catholic,” “something else” and “nothing in particular.”

Those “possible affiliations” are terms that may no longer apply. I’m routinely amazed how Christians incorrectly refer to other Christian denominations as “religions”. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and other Christian traditions are not separate faith systems, but sects of Protestant Christianity. Such semantics usually do not bother the average Christian, but it highlights how religious people often misunderstand or misuse terms and affiliations. This follows the pattern of Christians and disenfranchised Christians who dislike being labeled with added denominational titles. Such titles are innocuous and most Americans cannot tell you the difference between a Reformed church and an Episcopal church.

Does all this mean Americans aren’t religious people anymore?

Americans are still very religious people and still hold a strong belief in God. Just because people are leaving organized religion, doesn’t automatically mean we are becoming a god-less nation, as some think. During the American Revolution, less than one-fifth of Americans claimed church membership. In 2011, a Gallup poll found that 92% of Americans believe in God while almost 78% of the people in this country claimed to be some brand of “Christian”. Even the new 2012 Pew study found that 85% of “nones” don’t attend religious services because of ecclesiastical, religious, and priority differences and not because of a disbelief in God (5% were other/uncodeable & 9% didn’t know or refused to answer) .

Many have speculated reasons for this increase. Perhaps the most rational and data informed explanation connects religion to politics. The Washington Post reflects upon Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam’s work in the area of religion, politics, and the decline in institutions:

“We think it’s mostly a reaction to the religious right…” The best predictor of which people have moved into this category over the last 20 years is how they feel about religion and politics” aligning, particularly conservative politics and opposition to gay civil rights. Americans have been fleeing institutions in general, Putnam wrote in his bestselling book “Bowling Alone,” about the decline of such institutions as hobby clubs and alumni associations. The culture is also more secular, with prayer in schools and the closing of businesses on Sundays fading along with traditional religious norms on marriage and sex.

Today, many people (the nones) just do not believe in “church”. They are burned out, uninterested, or do not see an application to their life that compels them to belong to a church.  Many of our mainline churches are structured, cultured, and organized using 1950′s institutional religious lens. Many churches aren’t able to connect with believers because churches are not able to write the next story in the congregation’s life because they are too focused on the great “church of yore” instead of the great church of the future.

Postmodern people have lost faith in the “church of yore”, but not belief in God.

In the history of our country, church attendance and belief in God have not held a mutually exclusive relationship. Our religious culture will continue to struggle with the trends and attitudes towards organized religion. It is the job of churches to continually think creatively about welcoming back the “nones” to religious community in the face of our individualistic and consumeristic culture.

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  • Adam Copeland October 10, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    Thanks for this. While I agree with much of it, the newest Pew study does report a rise in the number of folks who are atheist or agnostic as well. I this that’s also an important trend for congregations to respond to, one which requires a little different approach than connecting to SBNRs.

    • Alan Rudnick October 10, 2012 at 2:07 pm

      Adam, what’s interesting about the atheist and agnostic demographic is that the growth there is slower, but evident. Yes, responding to that crowd requires a different approach.

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    […] a record number of “nones” or religiously unaffiliated Americans (20%) possibly voting in the 2012 election, I wonder: will we hear about faith tonight at […]

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