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Rev. Emily C. Heath Headshot

What Growing Up 'None' Taught Me About Church

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I was raised a "none." That is, I was raised outside of organized religion, in a spiritual-but-not-religious home. I hear that "nones" are all the rage now, so I just want to point out for the record that for once in my life I was ahead of the fashionable curve.

I obviously did not stay a "none." I'm a pastor in the United Church of Christ and I try, for better or worse, to live my life according to the teachings of Jesus Christ. I am a Christian, not because I was told by family that I needed to be one, but because the faith spoke to me in a way nothing else did.

In seminary I was aware of the uniqueness of my situation. Almost all of my classmates had been raised in the church, and most in the denomination of the seminary. A good number had been raised in the homes of clergy parents. They had grown up going to the same church camps, and knew the same people. I certainly never felt unwelcome because I hadn't, but I was frequently aware of how radically different my journey to faith had been.

But in the last few years, I've seen a lot of questions from Christian clergy about how we can reach out to the growing number of "nones" out there. Christians are baffled as to how the church should speak to this alien group. They confuse us. They challenge us. And, if we are really honest, their very existence threatens our sense of security.

That's not such a bad thing, honestly. We could use the shaking up. But as a former "none" who is watching this, I wanted to offer some insights. These are the top five things I learned from being a "none":

1. Being a 'none' is not always a bad thing.

Truly. People come to faith from a variety of different places. For some that starts on the cradle roll at church, right after their parents bring their infant selves to the baptismal font. But for others of us, we arrive at the church via a different route. We explore other options, not because we are consumers, but because we want to find the place to which we are truly called.

The result is that converts often come to church full of commitment, resolve and excitement. They also come with different perspective, and without assumptions about how the church should and should not work in the world. Sometimes new Christians can bring fresh ideas to the church. (Just ask St. Augustine, or former Archbishop of Canterbury George Cary, both of whom became Christians at a later age.)

2. 'Nones' are not Godless heathens in need of our salvation.

I attended a church conference at a large United Methodist congregation earlier this year and I was shocked to hear a speaker refer to non-Christians as "essentially heathens." I've since heard that word used by others who seem to believe Christian faith is simply a battle for converts. I'm not sure how the "heathens" are supposed to respond positively to that rhetoric.

The reality is that "nones" are not heathens. They are often extremely thoughtful, highly ethical, people who have not yet connected with an organized faith that speaks to them. When I first came to the church at age 17, I already knew I believed in God. I just wasn't so sure I believe in church. Had someone insinuated that I was a "heathen" because I didn't possess the same baptismal certificate as my classmates, I likely would have walked out the door.

3. 'Nones' aren't (necessarily) looking for a big conversion experience.

I never had that mountain-top moment that revival preachers always say they had. I never fell to my knees crying. I never had a moment of sudden, clear belief. There was never an altar call. And that's okay. I didn't need becoming a Christian to be a melodramatic moment. Instead, I felt a small urging in my soul that called to me to take the next step, to keep asking the questions, and to keep exploring. Conversion was a gradual, and thoughtful experience.

It also was, and is, continuous. Conversion is not a moment. It's a lifelong process. While there may be moments that a Christian makes a deeper commitment, there are also countless moments of doubt, and of questioning, and of disconnection. These are not crises, but rather markers on the journey. But continual conversion means that a "none", like any other Christian, ultimately is called to continue down the path of faith.

4. Churches need to check assumptions about common knowledge.

When I first began attending church at age 17, I was highly embarrassed by the fact I didn't know the Lord's Prayer. I remember reading it over and over again to myself, trying to memorize it. (And to that the fact that not all Christians say it the same way, and I was highly confused.)

Recently I heard someone complaining about visitors to their church that didn't even know the Lord's Prayer. She went on and on about how anyone could grow up not knowing the Lord's Prayer. I felt those old feelings of embarrassment. And so I went home and started printing all the words to the Lord's Prayer in my own church's worship bulletin.

"Nones" might not know all the right prayers, or when to sit down and stand up. And, believe me, they are conscious of not knowing. So we who are familiar with the language of church have to be careful that we are not making assumptions about shared language. Explain what might seem foreign. Talk about why you do certain things. As a bonus, you may find that even some lifelong Christians benefit from this.

5. Don't dumb it down or make it easy.

When I started looking for my faith community there were a lot of options. My town offered plenty of churches that wanted converts, and that handed out pamphlets about becoming a Christian and "making a decision" for Christ. They said it was so easy. Just accept Christ into your heart, and everything else would make sense.

I never went to any of those churches. Instead I went to the places that didn't try to make it easy. I found the ones that didn't dumb it down. I didn't want answers or to be entertained. I wanted to wrestle with the big questions. I wanted to worship in authentic community. I wanted to make the hard choices that faith demands. I wanted to follow Jesus. And I wanted a church that would show me how to do that.

And at the end of the day, I think a lot of "nones" might like that too.