He was a typical 27 year-old southern Californian surfer. Tanned, fit and stoked. As Reed and I talked with him, pondering the finer points of stand up paddle boards (SUP), we discovered we shared a common faith in Jesus. He was our brother in Christ. We shared with him that we were pastors at SBCC. He told us of his recent missions trip to Costa Rica. We asked, What church are you a part of? What had been a robust and animated conversation grew quiet. Our brother is not connected to any church. What troubled us the most was that he didn’t seem to think this was strange.
We are living in an unusual time in the history of the Christian church and religious affiliations in general. More and more people, especially young people, are turning away from any type of organized religion. Since 1990, the percentage of people in the United States who say they have no religious affiliation has doubled, to somewhere around 16% of the population. In tandem with this movement has been the rise of Christian believers who profess to love Jesus but not his church. In the process, church gets dumbed down and redefined as a few like-minded friends sipping a latté or a caramel macchiato and having an honest discussion about their doubts.
Some social scientists have dubbed these non-joiners the NONES. They may be enamored of Jesus or some sort of vague spirituality, but they tend to be either dismissive or outright disdainful of anything that smacks of organization, belonging, structure, or church. For those of us who love both Jesus and the church, which he died to establish, we must ask why? The reasons for the rise of the NONES are varied and not easily identified. The NONES’ disenchantment with the church seems to stem from a combination of real recent events and cultural mentalities that fuel their disdain for all things ecclesiastical.
For example, the growing sex abuse scandal that has plagued the Catholic church has helped to fuel cynicism within younger Protestants, as well. And, evangelicals have not been left unscathed by their own scandal. When it was revealed that Ted Haggard, mega-church pastor, author, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and family man had consistently led a double life that included soliciting male prostitutes and drug use, the NONES nodded their heads knowingly and headed for the doors. The NONES will not tolerate hypocrisy. At least in others.
The NONES have a difficult time with confessional Christianity that appears to them as overly dogmatic, rigid, and judgmental. While the NONES claim they don’t have any problem with God, they will often balk at statements that define the character and actions of this God in a manner that would thwart their theological freedom. Churches have walls that define God (the Bible and the creeds). Preachers in churches talk about right and wrong (according to Jesus), and tell us what we must do to be saved. For those who want the freedom to fly and meander in the spiritual sky of autonomy, actually landing and affirming definitive doctrinal propositions is akin to prison, which is equated with the church.
For many of the Christian NONES, evangelical church life appears to be a synonym for voting Republican and hating the gay community. Their logic often being, Since I don’t vote Republican or hate the gay community, there is no place for me in the church. So the NONES tend to create very small communities, little churches, of like-minded people who share a similar place in life. They, however, refuse to be called, and take the responsibility of being, the church. For example, one group named itself, Not Church. Ironically, the title betrays them.
Probably the loudest complaint of the NONES is the charge that the church is not authentic, and is usually phony, shallow, sinful, and disingenuous. The NONES can be like self-appointed blood hounds, sniffing in the pews for the hypocritical believer. The hunt never takes long. Ironically, the critique of lacking authenticity, while often times very true, is in the end self-defeating. Pastor Kevin DeYoung comments:
But the church will be full of sin so long as she is full of sinners-which is kind of the point I thought. It’s more than a little ironic that the same folks [NONES] who want to ditch the phoney, plastic persona and become a haven for broken, imperfect sinners are ready to leave the church when she is broken, imperfect, and sinful.
As anyone who has been a part of any local church knows, some of the church’s bad press is deserved. And, some of it is not. Unfortunately, the NONES often come perilously close to becoming perennial cynics and in the process miss out on what God has planned to be the primary institution for spiritual growth and mission in the world (Ephesians 3:7-13). Sadly, the NONES, untethered to the church, end up missing out on the deep spiritual richness that is found only in the local church.
NONES miss out on being a part of a worshipping community that is bigger than a few socially and culturally like-minded friends. If your only spiritual connection is with a handful of people who are roughly the same age, like the same music, vote the same way, and are all somewhat miffed at the church, you end up with a very narrow understanding of God’s people. In the process, your own soul will become impoverished. Learning to worship and serve alongside people who are in many ways different from you but with whom you share faith in Christ will increase your humility and in the end, make you more like Jesus.
NONES miss out on the joy and wonder of staking one’s life on definitive doctrinal propositions derived from the Bible. Some NONES have been so put off by churches that dogmatically pontificate about theological minutiae that they have rejected any statements or formulations of truth. Like a boat free from its moorings, all seems well until the tides shift and the winds come up. NONES miss out on the security and drama that comes with believing certain truths about the faith. It was novelist Dorothy Sayers who reminded Christians that, the dogma is the drama.
NONES miss out on belonging. A generation of non-joiners have left the church for the coffee house or flitted casually from church to church never really settling down to consistently live the life of the Kingdom with other committed members of a local body. The late Charles Colson pointed out that,
Church isn’t something to be endured, it is something to be entered into joyfully. Maybe you don’t like the sermons, or maybe the music bothered you one Sunday, but those are trivial compared to the very act of committing yourself to being part of the body of Christ, and participating fully.
It is like the difference between dating for a few weeks and a forty-year marriage. Long-term commitment (ownership, belonging, membership) to a particular local church will pay tremendous spiritual dividends that the casual or occasional church-goer will never realize.
The NONES, though, miss out on so much more than merely belonging. They miss out on the fullness of the Body of Christ. Hang out with a group of people quite similar to yourself and you will miss out on loving the old guy whose hearing aid has feed-back during the worship service and can’t hear it. The NONES miss out on caring for the young mother who recently became a widow. They will miss the wisdom of men in their ninth decade of life and the optimism of a thirty-one year old who is just getting started in his career. The NONES don’t get to see and enjoy the challenge of educating toddlers in the things of Jesus. They don’t experience the joy of compromise or the sweetness of seeing the elderly maintain their faithfulness in the final days of life. They will miss the refining influence of worshipping alongside someone who votes and holds political views diametrically opposed to theirs. The NONESmistake a part for the whole and settle for too little rather than too much.
If you are reading this article you are most likely not a NONE. Good for you! But our privilege is to love the local church, imperfections and all, and spread the word to the NONES, that this is the same church for which Christ died (Acts 20:28). It is the same church upon which Jesus said he would build his Kingdom (Matthew 16:18). The New Testament could not be clearer that God’s wisdom and power would be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms through the church (Ephesians 3:10). We have letter after letter in the New Testament written not to a few disgruntled friends, but to local churches full of irregular, sinful, and, at times, hypocritical people. SBCC, let’s gently and lovingly invite the NONES back home.