The Common Good

Introducing Meet the Nones: We Don't Need Your Labels

Editor's Note: Sojourners has launched this new blog series to help shed light on the nation's latest "religious" affiliation. Go HERE to read their stories. Or EMAIL US to share your own.

Which religious tradition do you most closely identify with?

  • Protestant
  • Catholic
  • Mormon
  • Muslim
  • Jewish
  • Orthodox
  • Other Faith
  • Unaffiliated 

Given these options — or even if you throw in a few more like Buddhist, Hindu, Agnostic — I would choose “Unaffiliated.” That puts me into a category with one-in-five other Americans, and one-in-three millennials, aptly named the “nones.” 

The problem? 

I’m a Lutheran preacher’s wife who has spent her entire life in some manifestation of the church, attends regularly, prays, reads her Bible … you get the point.

“Nones” is a term that includes atheists and agnostics, but also anyone who does not identify with a traditional religious faith. Therein lies my concern. To lump members of a house church or small group (i.e., Bible-believing individuals who may not identify with a particular religious tradition) into the same faction as atheists and agnostics limits the ability to truly understand any of them. 

The report even emphasizes, “the absence of religious affiliation does not necessarily indicate the absence of religious beliefs or practices.” In fact, 68 percent of the “nones” say they believe in God. About 22 percent say they go to a church service at least monthly. 

I appreciate this report for the trend it points out: the U.S. population, and the millennial generation in particular, continues to lose faith and trust in institutions — like churches, but also other institutions like the government and news media. But inasmuch as this demographic may become the “religious” majority, it’s all the more important to take a stab at new classifications. 

What’s in a name?

An obvious question is why would I — as closely tied as I am both to the big-C Church and my specific church — self-identify as unaffiliated?

Maybe it’s my generational distaste for all things labeled. Or a general understanding that no one denominational doctrine has all of the answers — and that it’s even worse when they claim to. Part of what’s behind the overall trend is that those who have left a traditional church are now simply more likely to embrace the classification of unaffiliated than in previous survey years, or are more easily shedding the labels of their childhood faith.

But in “simpler” terms: I was baptized into the Catholic Church, went to Catholic school, and grew up in a very devoted Mexican Catholic extended family. But I also grew up Southern Baptist on my mother’s side, attended a very large Baptist church for most of my life, went on mission trips to Mexico, and was a three-times-per-week youth group adherent. Then I went to Baylor — the world’s largest Baptist university — and somehow found one of the five or so Missouri Synod Lutherans (a pastor-to-be at that) and ended up his bride. 

So I have a complicated history in the church. And it’s not fully captured by any one designation.

But every one of my peers has a story to tell, whether similar to mine or — more commonly, unfortunately — one of what I’ll call evangelical trauma, turning them away from traditional church.

Why the shift?

In this group of “nones” is a general progressive or left-leaning agreement on social issues. While our churches are teaching abstinence, picketing abortion clinics, and preaching on the evils of homosexuality, the “nones” tend to see things differently. 

More than 70 percent say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 73 percent say they are in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage.  

While our “religious leaders” may have thrown their support behind every Republican presidential candidate before Mitt Romney for fear of his Mormonism, a slight majority of the “nones” say they are uncomfortable with politicians discussing how religious they are.  Further, 50 percent say they don’t want politicians talking about their particular faith or beliefs. A full 65 percent say it’s not important for a candidate to even have strong religious beliefs.

And while our churches held as fast to traditions and rules as they did to the Bible, I believe a faction of the “nones” just said enough. 

If not this, then what?

One of the reasons I feel uncomfortable with the “nones” designation is because it implies that lack of religion means lack of faith. 

For some — atheists, agnostics, secularists — that is certainly true. But there is a subset of this group that I would argue are a more Biblical representation of Christ’s church than many of the traditional denominations. 

I brought them up earlier — house churches, small groups, missional communities. It’s a move away from inward-looking mainline or megachurches and toward outwardly focused, neighborhood-centric, community-based ministry that serves to transform lives. It’s something people, mostly of my generation, are hard-pressed to find in any of the classifications offered by the survey. 

So I would caution church leaders convening to address the crisis of the “nones.” Before assuming they’re part of a dangerous trend away from the church, classifying them as a demographic in desperate need of saving, or stereotyping an entire generation, talk to them. You may be surprised. 

In that vein, I introduce our new blog series: Meet the Nones. Through this series, I hope to encourage discussion, debate, and elucidate the full picture of what it means to be losing your religion in America.

Sandi Villarreal is Associate Web Editor for Sojourners. You can follow her on Twitter @Sandi.

Editor's Note: Would you like to share your story on this topic? Email us HERE.

 
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