Polls and surveys have been raising the alarm for years. More and more people – especially younger people – are identifying as “none” with regard to their religious affiliation. At the same time, mainline Christian denominations continue to lose members at a steady rate.

In response, alarmist conclusions get tossed about in the press and taken up by concerned people of faith. Religion – specifically the Christian religion – is said to be withering under the impact of secularism and may soon disappear, at least from Western societies.

But it might be best to pump the brakes and ask a few questions of the statistics and the reports. Who are these “nones,” where are they coming from and what do they believe? What do their growing numbers actually say, not just about the church, but also about the surrounding culture?

Answers to those questions may yield surprising good news, for both church and culture.

Who are the religious “nones”?

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of religious “nones” aren’t staunch atheists. Nor are they even skeptical agnostics. For the most part, they’re merely those who answered “none in particular” when asked about their religious tradition or church affiliation. Many of them say that faith (however they define it) is still important to them, or describe themselves as spiritual but not religious.

Simply put, most of the “nones” of today are the cultural Christians of yesterday. They don’t represent a new demographic of non-belief. In times past, they would’ve identified as Christian and attended church because that’s what everyone did, and to do otherwise would’ve been frowned upon. Now that being Christian is no longer assumed or even fashionable in the wider culture, the “nones” are stepping out and being honest about their lack of religious conviction.

In fact, there’s a distinct correlation between the rise of the “nones” and the decline of membership in mainline denominations, which is hardly surprising. In broad terms, it was the mainline churches that drifted over time from the authority of Scripture, the deity of Christ, the centrality of the Gospel, and other core truths of the faith. This trend fostered the growth of a superficial, cultural Christianity and filled churches with members who were Christian in name only. Their children and grandchildren checked out once there was no longer any social advantage to staying in church.

The “nones” versus the “nons”

However, the picture has been markedly different among the “nons” or “nondenoms” as they are sometimes called. Over the same period that the “nones” have increased and mainline churches have declined, nondenominational and evangelical churches have held steady. Beyond the numbers, the “nons” have maintained and deepened their levels of religious engagement and conviction, including – and especially – among younger believers.

In any case, church membership has never been the best measure of religious affiliation in evangelical and nondenominational churches, which have historically placed less emphasis on it than the mainline denominations have. This is even more so among millennials in general, who are less likely to value formal membership in a church than their parents and grandparents before them.

Even so, millennial believers in nondenominational and evangelical churches remain committed to their faith in Christ, their desire to share the Gospel, and to see its practical impact on the lives of individuals and the surrounding culture. That’s far removed from the common narrative of the millennial “nones” losing their faith and abandoning Christianity.

Clearing the spiritual landscape

None of this is to suggest there are no authentic believers in mainline churches, or that evangelicals are all true Christians. Far from it. Every expression of the church, past and present, has had both believers and non-believers among its ranks. Indeed, the Scriptures have shown that it would be so.

But be that as it may, the rise of the “nones” and the decline of cultural Christianity is in fact a good thing. The shrinking of that muddy middle ground of nominal believers keeping up appearances is a benefit to both church and society as a whole. It decreases the potential for self-delusion regarding one’s own spiritual state, and there’s a clearer distinction between genuine living faith and lack of it. With no social pressure to identify as Christian, millennial believers are freer than any generation before them to have authentic conversations about faith with their non-believing relatives and friends.

Taking a global perspective

For the most part, surveys tracing the rise of the “nones” have been conducted in the United States, leading to sporadic (and erroneous) predictions of Christianity dying in America. But beyond the faulty conclusions, such a response betrays an insular, ethnocentric view of the church and the world.

Christianity may have lost its culturally privileged status in the West. North America and Western Europe may have become secularized, post-Christian societies. But this hardly reflects the state of the church and its outreach in other parts of the globe. For decades, the Gospel has been spreading and Christianity growing by quantum leaps in Asia, Africa and South America. God continues to call people from all nations, tribes and languages into his church. And from time to time, he shifts the church’s centre of gravity, as he has evidently been doing from Western to non-Western lands.

God builds his church as he sees fit

God is sovereign over history as he is over his church. Nothing that happens in either one surprises him. In fact, he has ordained all of it for his own glory and for the good of his people. He raises up civilizations and brings them down. He gives his people favour and influence in the eyes of the culture and then removes that influence and favour.

Through it all, he is building his kingdom, quite often in ways that neither the world nor his people would expect. At times, he gives the church a loud voice that creates positive social change, leading the way to peace and justice and cultural flourishing. At other times, he reduces that voice to a whisper, speaking truth to power that hates and rejects it.

The rise of the “nones” from the ashes of cultural Christianity may have marked such a transition from loud voice to whisper, at least for the church in North America. But it has also sharpened the line between belief and non-belief, strengthened the resolve of Christians young and old, and inspired them to find more creative, authentic ways to share the Gospel. That makes it good news for the people of God, and for the culture in which they’re called to live and serve.

Sources and further reading

Maddy Aberg, “Society’s newest religious group: No religion?Religion in Society, December 18, 2017.

Becka A. Alper, “Why America’s ‘nones’ don’t identify with a religion,” Pew Research Center, August 8, 2018.

Ryan P. Burge, “Evangelicals show no decline, despite Trump and nones,” Christianity Today, March 21, 2019.

Elizabeth Drescher, “3 things you might not know about nones,” Oxford University Press, April 4, 2016.

Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Behind the numbers: Religious ‘nones’ may not be who you think they are,” Religion News Service, March 13, 2014.

Jeffrey M. Jones, “U.S. church membership down sharply in past two decades,” Gallup, April 18, 2019.

Mark Movsesian, “The devout and the nones,” First Things, April 22, 2019.

Bob Smietana, “Most ‘nones’ dislike religion, but don’t mind God,” Facts and Trends, August 15, 2018.

Glenn T. Stanton, “No, non-believers are not increasing in AmericaThe Federalist, April 24, 2019.

Ed Stetzer, “Nominals to nones: 3 key takeaways from Pew’s religious landscape survey,” Christianity Today, May 12, 2015.

© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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