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A Call to Confession: A Reflection on the Rise of the 'Nones' From Someone Who Should Probably Be One

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Hello. My name is Cameron Nations, and I don't fit the data.

About a week or so ago, numbers came out from a recent study conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life that showed the rapid rise of the religiously unaffiliated in the United States has hit an all-time high. The largest percentage of these "nones," as they are so called, are young (under 30 years of age), prompting religious leaders to comment on how this information shapes both the present and the future of their congregations and communities.

As the nation's predominant religious group, Christians saw more than their fair share of the discussion. An aspiring Christian minister myself, I watched the opinions of prominent Christian leaders roll in and decided to sit back and see what they had to say before throwing my two cents into the offering plate.

After looking over the data, I didn't know how to make sense of myself. I was the complete opposite of what one would expect from the results of the study, even though I'd experienced all of the things that typically push people out of the church.

I'm 23, recite the Creed without crossing my fingers, and think seriously and critically about my faith. Furthermore, not only am I in seminary to be an ordained minister, but -- GASP! -- I'm also doing so in a mainline denomination. How can this be? It defies all logic! (Or the Pew study, anyway.)

This study tells us nothing new; it only confirms trends that Christian pollsters have noted for years. Young people are either a) leaving the church in droves and/or b) difficult to keep in the church once involved. In response to this challenge, different denominations have tried all sorts of things to engage young Christians, some strategies yielding more success than others, but all still ultimately failing (as this Pew study attests). It's also telling that, when the Religious News Service asked 22 religious and non-religious leaders to comment on the Pew study's findings, the youngest leader by far was my friend Chris Stedman, an atheist.

One senses a tone of desperation in some Christian leaders' voices. Others look upon our predicament as an inevitable and unchangeable fate as the locus of Christianity shifts from the West to places like South America, Africa, and East Asia. Yet other leaders see this time as an opportunity for renewal, a fresh start.

I side more with the latter, but would say two things to those presently leading the church, whatever denomination said leaders may be:
  1. There are stories out there just like mine (more than a few of them are my peers in seminary). We need to hear them.
  2. Young voices should not be excluded from the conversation surrounding change and renewal. All too often young people are talked about in reference to studies like these, but rarely talked to -- a danger with any study where the numbers easily become abstractions.
Sure, the context of ministry and the church is changing and, yes, the way we operate/do ministry/mission is new. Yet it is only a new change insofar as all changes in context have been new. Has the church not changed before? Did the church not have to re-imagine itself after Constantine just as it had to re-imagine itself with the development of the printing press or the Reformation or the advent of the Enlightenment?

We're in a new context. So what?

To be sure, it's important for any organization to always examine itself in order to maximize its effectiveness, and now is no different. However, we should perhaps shy away from the idea that we're in unprecedented territory. Yes, we're doing something new. But we've done new things before. And besides, the religiously unaffiliated may be at an all-time high, but they are still not the majority; from a religious perspective, one can certainly read the data as an erosion of our foundations for the future, or one can read it as our platform from which to grow and thrive.

I believe it is a failure of perspective to see trends as irreversible.

Remember: a story is only as good as one's ability to tell it. Perhaps we need to get better at telling our stories and empowering young leaders, using this time to shore up our strengths, take stock of our weaknesses, and work more closely in spite of our differences to bring reconciliation to our hurting world. The numbers may not improve, and that's OK. You don't want to strong-arm people into your faith. Yet that doesn't mean Christians can't do all we can to live to our utmost as a faith community. We are supposed to be the light of the world, after all.

As the motto of my seminary says, quoting Psalm 133: Ecce quam bonum et quam iucundum habitare fratres in unum, "Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity." How good, indeed.

I know I'm not the only one who defies the trend. What are you up to? Let's talk.