In this last installment on my little series of reflections from Tim Clydesdale and Kathleen Garces-Foley’s book, The Twentysomething Soul, I focus on that oh so slippery demographic category, The Nones.  This cohort of emerging adults has suffered a good deal of misunderstanding in public opinion.  I’ll summarize a few of the chapter’s most important findings and offer a thought or two along the way.  Because there is so much confusion about the Nones, I will quote from the book more extensively than I did in previous posts.  Forgive the length.  I rather wish I could just quote the whole chapter.  Better to read the whole book.

“Nones” make up somewhere around 30% of the Twentysomething age cohort.  As careful readers of these studies recognize, and as Clydesdale and Garces-Foley point out, the numbers do not support the standard secularist narrative about the decline of religion, even though there has been a significant shift in identity:

The rise of the Nones, especially among Americans under age 30, has been a popular news headline, but this label is widely misunderstood.  Though Nones indicate no religious affiliation, it does not mean that they have no religious beliefs or practices.  Religion is a complex phenomenon with individual and social dimensions, including affiliation, belief, and practices.  While some Nones are ardent secularists, a solid majority of Nones hold beliefs in a supernatural or transcendent reality, and some appear quite conventional in their beliefs. (p. 143)

To sort out the 30%, Clydesdale and Garces-Foley use four sub-categories:

  • Unaffiliated Believers (17% of the 30%) – these Nones often pray, read their Bibles, and, on occasion, attend worship.  Why are they unaffiliated?  There are several relevant answers, but I am convinced that the main two are: (1) we did not properly catechize and disciple them, because (2) we ourselves are not properly catechized and discipled, therefore have not properly passed on our faith.  “Properly” is a very important qualifier.
  • Spiritual Eclectics (17% of the 30%) – they borrow beliefs and practices from a number of faith traditions and philosophies.  One out of three Nones view God as a “spiritual force” (p. 155).  While we label them with “spiritual,” “the term ‘spiritual’ or ‘spirituality’ did not appeal to most Nones, a finding that runs counter to characterizations of today’s young adults, especially Nones, as a ‘spiritual but not religious generation” (p. 156).  This observation emphasizes the need for us not to impose a misleading interpretive grid that drives a wedge between spirituality and religion.
  • Philosophical Secularists (12% of the 30%) – “reject religion or spirituality in any form” and choose a philosophical explanation of reality as a rival to religious views (see p. 145).  We could put here the young people influenced by the so-called militant atheism of Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins.  (Secularists in the academy misleadingly love to generalize about Nones under this banner.)  They think about the meaning of life very or fairly often (p. 156), so they are at least somewhat engaged with faith-related questions.
  • Indifferent Secularists (54% of the 30%) – these young people “express no interest in any type of worldview” (p. 145).  I would add, though, that expressing no interest in a worldview does not mean that they don’t have one.  I would also argue that their apparent lack of interest in spiritual questions can be mostly attributed to the dominant pedagogy in American education.  They have (mostly) learned to mimic the attitude of indifference.  We teach by what we talk about all the time and we teach by what we never mention.

Let’s add some approximate numbers to these percentages.  If there are 42.7 million people aged 20-29 in the United States, how would these sub-categories appear numerically?  (I hope I did the math right.)

  • Unaffiliated Believers: +/- 2.2 million
  • Spiritual Eclectics: +/- 2.2 million
  • Philosophical Secularists: 1.5 million
  • Indifferent Secularists: 6.9 million

These identities can be fluid (p. 145).  The authors give the example of “Joe,” who was initially labeled as a Philosophical Secularist, but shifted his thinking and practice, which prompted the researchers to move him into Spiritual Eclectic.  Remember, these conclusions come from personal interviews.  That these identities can be fluid is directly related to the fact that we humans are social beings who are influenced by our contexts:

We do want to draw attention to the role that context plays in shaping these changes.  Universities, where our first interviews with religiously unaffiliated twenty somethings occurred, are on the whole more welcoming settings for Nones than other settings–such as family homes, neighborhoods, community organizations, and workplaces, and these latter contexts can foster exploration of religious and spiritual resources by post-college Nones…Our point is this, when Joe’s context changed from secular-and-spiritual-friendly to religious-and-spiritual-friendly, Joe changed with it (p. 146).

I find encouragement in these observations.  Based on my reading over the years, as well as my experience working with college students, the vast majority of them are unfailingly interested in “life” questions.  They want to talk about their God questions with trustworthy people.  They are not the aversive skeptics that they are often made out to be.  I have made the appeal many times to churches simply to offer friendships and transparency to college students. Start there.  (It takes time.) Don’t throw more programming at them.  They are over-scheduled, as it is.  They need models and exemplars from among ordinary Christians whose lives show that they are committed to the way of Christ.  Don’t worry about being perfect (flawless). They already know that we aren’t and they don’t really need or want us to be.  They want to see how real, honest-to-goodness Christian discipleship looks.  And works.

The reference to higher education in the block quote is telling and requires a little detour.  In the studies that I have read, students attending overtly Christian schools (often called confessionally Christian, with chapel and other requirements like a Bible or theology course) often report crises of faith at higher rates than their counterparts at public or so-called church-related non-sectarian schools.  Why?  Because their Christian professors introduce them to challenging content.  This fact does not fit the many prejudices about Christian schools as places of narrow indoctrination.  Ironically, at church-related colleges and universities, students almost never encounter this sort of experience in the classroom.  It is relegated to campus ministry groups or some other place where “faith” is allowed.

At public or non-sectarian, church-related colleges and universities, the default position is too often “secular-and-spiritual-friendly,” as noted by the authors.   To the degree that a school’s ethos sees overlap between spirituality and religion, then the positive role of religious faith is generally acknowledged.  To the degree that spirituality is lifted up as the superior alternative to religion – that is, where faculty and staff frame spirituality in positive terms and religion in more restrictive and even negative terms – then a default position of pluralistic spirituality characterizes the school’s ethos.  This is particularly ironic for church-related schools who claim a relationship to the Christian faith but generally suppress that faith out of a desire to be open and welcoming to people of all faiths and no particular faith.

Let me drive that point home a little more strongly.  Church-related colleges that function so as to avoid the purportedly negative aspects of a strong Christian identity – as if that identity promotes narrowness, exclusivity, and the loss of academic freedom – easily slip into a different kind of narrow dogmatism.  The dominant faith is one that fits nicely with American civil religion.  Whatever that religion is, it is not Christian.

Back to the Nones.  After looking at a number of factors such as civic engagement and registering to vote, the authors note that Nones share several characteristics with the religiously affiliated, but also differ  with the religiously affiliated in one very important respect (other than the obvious one about religious affiliation).  They “are more privatized in their outlook and behavior than religiously affiliated Twentysomethings” (p. 160).  They “appear to tolerate institutions rather than seek them out and join them” (p. 160).

They keep politics and social institutions at an arm’s length, preferring the periphery of American public life.  Not only is our republic the worse for these citizens’ disengagement, life at the periphery is challenging and marked by frequent turnover (161).

How, then, should churches respond to the Nones?  Certainly, we interact with Twentysomethings with attentive care.  We listen to them.  (I have failed at listening too often.)  Mainly, we invite them into relationships.  We have conversations.  We share from our hearts.  We draw from our stock of doctrinal understanding and experience as we share our hearts with them.  (If you need to grow in your knowledge of Christian doctrine, get busy!)  That’s it.  It is not rocket science.  It is witness, pure and simple.

The final chapter in the book is titled “Practical Postmoderns.”  It is a rich summation and provides more nuance than my generalizations in these four posts could include.  I do hope that what I have shared has prompted thought about the church’s ministry with/to Twentysomethings, especially with college students.  I have said many times over the years that college students are among the most talked-about and least understood group of any that the church targets for mission.  It’s time to up our game and use the resources provided by scholars like Tim Clydesdale and Kathleen Garces-Foley, and others they name.  It’s time to get serious (again) about reaching the rising generations.

The Twentysomething Soul #4 – Nones (Don’t Believe Everything You Read about Them)

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