Reaching the “nones” around us

Posted by on Aug 22, 2011

In my August 8th blog, I began to discuss Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s book American Grace, emphasizing their thesis that America is more pluralist and polarized than ever. The religious Americans are more religious than ever and the irreligious ones are more committed to their non-belief than ever.

In an important chapter on “Switching, Matching, and Mixing” the authors reveal some facts that deserve careful consideration by thoughtful Christians who want to connect to the unbelievers around them. In particular, Putnam and Campbell shed valuable light on a category they call “nones,” those people who say they have no religious interest or affiliation whatsoever.

Here are a few quotes which, I hope, will speak for themselves:

“…the demographic slice of the population that is most rapidly turning away from religion is young men. In short, the most religious social categories in America are becoming even more religious, and the least religious are becoming even less religious.” (29)

“The most striking change in religious inheritance over the twentieth century was the dramatic increase in the fraction of people raised without a religious affiliation who stayed that way as adults. Throughout most of the century, “none” parents were likely to have “something” children, so that intergenerationally, the category of “no religion” was highly unstable….[T]he fraction of all Americans who claimed no religion was quite small (roughly 5-10 percent) until the 1990s; it rose sharply after 1990 among the millennial generation. Now, however, we see that the retention rate of nones rose steadily during the second half of the twentieth century, beginning with the baby boomers, until by the cohort of people who came of age during the first decade of the twenty-first century the retention rate of nones is actually higher than that of the major religious traditions.” (140, italics theirs)

“…for the last half century roughly one third of people raised in one of the mainline Protestant denominations have left that faith, mostly to become either evangelical or none.” (141)

“…especially after 1990, the volume of nones has risen sharply, especially among the youngest cohorts of adults.” (147)

Allow me to point to an application as we seek to evangelize “nones.” Our entire frame of reference about life is dramatically different from the “nones” around us. The very things we think are good may very well be seen as neutral or, more likely, damaging by those we want to reach. When we begin a conversation, we dare not assume that our starting points (e.g. there is a god, spiritual issues are important, some things should be considered “sin,” there is more to life than just what we see, etc.) are valid.

It is worth the effort to brainstorm and experiment new ways to engage with people around us. The ways we used to begin conversations may now do just the opposite.

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