What to Make of the “Nones”

In the previous post I mentioned the Pew Research report on the growing number of people identifying themselves as having no religion (the “nones”).  You can find the full report at (http://pewresearch.org/pubs/2377/unaffiliated-one-in-five-twenty-percent-americans-no-religion-spiritual-religious-prayer-religious-organizations).  The Big Fact: “nones” number one in five.  Among college age students, some articles suggest the ratio is one to four (1 to 4), so even more notable.  About half of our undergraduate students at SMU “prefer not to report.”  That does not have to mean “no religious preference.”  It could mean, “Don’t bother me.”

The numbers are not as dire as they seem.  In fact, a significant number of “nones” believe in God, pray, read the Bible, and even participate in worship services on occasion.  Bad news – good news.

In addition to other observations being made about this trend, a very significant factor has to do with how people understand the term “religion.”  I have heard many times that “religion” is about believing beliefs no longer believable and following arbitrary moral rules out of step with modern/postmodern life.  The spirituality literature in higher education often helps to foster this impression.  “Spirituality” in this frame looks open, expansive, exploratory, and, well…spiritual.  Religion looks uptight, stern, rigid, dowdy.

Spirituality is Apple.  Religion is Microsoft.

What do we who love the church do?  We don’t jump on the latest pop-culture bandwagon.  Again, not saying we should not be culturally savvy.  I am saying, let’s do what we do.  We do (and talk) theology.

The young people I am privileged to know are keenly interested in exploring – and “exploring” is a key word –  how religious beliefs work with the welter of ideas, questions and values they encounter.  In other words, they actually want to talk theology.  And they want to do theology.  They want to see how it actually works in real life.  Yes, I am repeating myself.  But I think The United Methodist Church is not yet adequately paying attention to this challenge.

The problem is there just aren’t enough leaders who either know how to talk theology in a way that connects to real life or who have the patience to engage in it.  Even though The United Methodist Church has an abundance of highly qualified scholars who love the church and do what they can to help people think theologically, they can’t be everywhere all the time.

Therefore, this challenge still falls back on pastoral leaders – clergy and lay (i.e. those lay people who have real pastoral gifts and lead in a local congregation alongside the ordained pastors).  We have to learn once again how to talk theology with our people.  This means we have to read theology.

Transparent, open, searching conversations on theological themes – and using the church’s theological resources – in the context of warm, loving, Christ-centered relationships: we need more and more and more of them and less programmed time.  More theologically-bathed relationships, less pop-culture busyness.  Church, we must wean ourselves away from having such full schedules that nobody has any time to think – or pray.

Church, we do theology.  This is what we do.  Of course, we use the sources of social science, psychology, etc.  But we do theology.

If we did more theology – of the kind I’m advocating here – that is to say, not strictly academic and limited to the classroom, but on-the-road journeying theology, I dare say the “nones” trend would go in the other direction.

 

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. I appreciate so much a vision for the road forward that involves thinking theologically. Spirituality as apple and religion as Microsoft is simply brilliant.

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