The Church Created the Nones

Those who claim no religious affiliation are not who you think they are.

Last week, Pew Research Center released a study showing that Christians in America fell almost 8% over the past decade. Conversely, the religiously unaffiliated or "nones" grew nearly 7%. The response to this has been mixed. Some are still in denial while others are leveraging the data for their political campaigns or just saying dumb things in general.

Remarkably, the evangelical response has been more positive. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention has noted that, "Christianity isn't normal anymore, and that's good news," because, "secularization in America means that we have fewer incognito atheists." Likewise, Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research has said, "Christianity is not dying; nominal Christianity is." While I share their optimism of a brighter future, I think these analyses are fundamentally flawed.

Both Moore and Stetzer believe that the key to the Pew study is found in nominal Christianity. They would say that the survey shows more and more people shedding a facade, not real faith. And so far, we still agree. But where I lose them is when they assume that many Christians are Christian because it's historically been culturally acceptable.

Yes, the latter part is true, but if we're talking about Christians who only think they're Christian, culture has nothing to do with it. Those folks are under an illusion of transformation, as some would say, but they're not the ones becoming nones. No, people who think they're Christians don't realize they're not so, in their minds, they have no facade to shed.

To the contrary, nones never thought they were Christians. They always knew something didn't fit and they likely spent much of their lives trying to make it. That's what evangelicalism's missing here: the rise of the nones is not a loss of cultural Christianity; it's a loss of ignored Christians.

There's nothing nominal about them. In fact, nones were probably the most active members in your church. Unlike the rest of the congregation who complained when it was their turn to be on nursery duty, these folks jumped at every chance to prove their faith--not to anyone else but to themselves. But no one picked up on that because they had such good little servant hearts. And the church leaders were too distracted by the troubled teen on drugs or the deacon's divorce to hear the questions of those they dismissed.

Many of them never wanted to not believe. But it was precisely because they didn't that they tried harder than everyone else. And not because of cultural pressure or some perverse desire to sow seeds of discontent within. They stayed for love. They couldn't bear to bring shame to their devout parents or spouses or even close friends, so they put on a mask every single day. And not only did they continue to teach Sunday School, host Bible studies, and pray for others on Facebook, they never stopped.

The nones haven't left the church; they've only left the faith (if they were ever in it). Sure, there are always some who couldn't be happier about broadcasting their new-found enlightenment or distaste for the church (to be fair, no atheist or agnostic hates Christians or the church more than me--God just refuses to let me leave). But as next year's Pew study will show, church attendance hasn't changed even though fewer claim to be Christians. Which means nones are still filling your pews.

These are people you know, people close to you, who will never tell you or anyone else that their faith is fake. They feel alone and trapped in a superficial life because they've accepted their faithlessness as a burden no one else should have to carry. Likely because no one offered to help. And for the record, answering every genuinely-expressed doubt with an insipid platitude is not help. By not listening to them and ignoring them as "fine," the burden they carry is no one's fault but our own. We're the ones who should be ashamed.

So you'll excuse me if I don't follow in stride with our evangelical leaders in saying "good riddance" to these folks. They may be faking it, but their reasons are more noble than the guy who bolts after every service so he doesn't get asked to do anything. He's the nominal. In fact, expect a few sermons each year encouraging those who will never tithe their time to do just that. But don't expect a sermon any time soon addressing those whose pleas to "help their unbelief" have fallen on deaf ears. Based on persistence alone, their faith is probably more real than any of ours.

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