On Evangelizing Nones, Vagina-gate, & Christian Bullies

Last week, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a study, “’Nones’ on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation.” This week, two related articles caught my eye. Ready for some unsupported, but perhaps helpful, connecting the dots? Here we go.

For the full Pew study go here, but the stats should not be a huge surprise except perhaps the speed of the rise of religiously unaffiliated. From 2007 to 2012, the number of U.S. adults who claim no religious affiliation rose 5 percentage points to 19.6% of the population. Notice, also, the percentage of those in the Millennial generation had an even higher proportion—a whopping 34% of those born 1990-1994 have no religion affiliation.

You can read the gory details yourself, but this statement from the report jumped out at me,

“With few exceptions, though, the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.”

Pivot to two news articles published today. A NY Times article, “Christian Group Finds Gay Agenda in an Anti-Bullying Day” by Kim Severson chronicles how the American Family Association, a conservative evangelical group, is calling for parents to keep their children home from school on Mix It Up at Lunch Day, a day addressing school bullying.

Also, Slate’s Ruth Graham in “Her Year of Living Biblically” discusses the (much reflected upon) decision of LifeWay, one of the biggest Christian bookstore chains in the country, not to carry Rachel Held Evan’s book A Year of Biblical Womanhood because it contains the word “vagina.”

Granted, other Christians bookstores, excepting LifeWay, will sell Rachel’s work. Though the headline grabber has been Rachel’s vagina reference (well, two of them) the issue may also be broader. Rachel has said of LifeWay,

“I don’t know if they were more offended by my vagina or my brain…The only thing I know is that my editor said, if you leave this word in, there’s a good chance LifeWay won’t carry it.”

It’s time for mainline Christians to stop pretending these Pew reports are aberrations, to stop hoping that the religiously unaffiliated will be able to distinguish their tall steeples from the American Family Association and LifeWay. It’s time for mainline Christians to stop ramping up their old welcome strategies and launch entirely new approaches for connecting with the religiously unaffiliated.

By and large, the nones still believe in God (atheist and agnostics come in at 6% of the U.S. population) but their numbers will continue to grow until we have a compelling counter story to tell.

The story of the good news of God in Jesus Christ is about as powerful as they come, but only if it’s told compellingly, addressed appropriately, and supported relationally. The plea, “But, we need more kids in our Sunday School” does not, and has never, cut it.


  1. andrew lindner says:

    one note about the 6% of atheists/agnostics: what would that number look like if those labels weren’t so deeply stigmatized? big social desirability problems — it’s one thing to claim no religion, it’s another to admit that you have no metaphysical commitments when it’s attached to those poisonous “A words.”

    • Good question, Andrew.

      I’ve noticed seeing the phrase (or “label”) “Secular Humanist” used fairly often around Concordia, especially after the visit of Interfaith Youth Core. Though, of course, secular humanism has a long tradition and is not at all identical in meaning to those “poisonous ‘A words'” you refer to, I wonder how the numbers would differ if secular humanism was claimed more loudly.

      As an added bonus, many Christians, I think, are not turned-off as much from a discussion of secular humanism as they are from atheism/agnosticism.

      • As always Adam great thoughts. As one charged with leading a mainline church I too wonder how we can tell our story in a way that is compelling enough to differentiate ourselves from the wacky flavor of Christianity so prevalent in the culture and media. Most depressing for me is the response by “nones” of having no interest in any institutionally captured/suspect God story.

  2. Thanks, John. I learned the word “disintermediation” yesterday. Apparently, millennials are for it, meaning “cutting out the middleman.” I think it’s originally an economics term, but is being used more in social science. I think it helps frame the churchy/institutional response you bring up: the solution is not top-down with middlemen and other intermediates, but on the ground, person-to-person telling stories and living lives in ways many mainlines have forgotten.

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