The recent book The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated by James Emery White brings to light a phenomenon that has been bubbling under the surface in Christian circles for several years now.
The number of people who check the box for NONE when asked for their denominational affiliation has risen exponentially in the last decade, and has led to a decline in membership in almost all mainline Protestant denominations in America today. The reality of that fact has left many in the institutional church in a quandary because trying to bring the “nones” back into the fold only makes them want to run further away, but changing the message of your particular denomination to placate or soothe the “nones” undermines why the various denominations exist in the first place.
From my research into this whole concept of the “nones,” I have noticed that in our society today the idea of Christianity has become a much more personal decision. It is more about the individual. The idea of the community of believers and a feeling of loyalty to a certain set of faith practices have less of a draw for young Christians today than they did in the 1950s, say, when you were known in your neighborhood by your denomination and you regularly attended the church of your denomination without fail.
I have seen that people are much quicker than ever to switch churches, to try out different congregations, to see what the parish down the street has for Bible studies, etc.
In one sense, I applaud people for their willingness to expand their horizons and not stick to the status quo. But the rise of the nones is frightening, too, because in its individualism, it devalues the institutional church and casts aside the biblical foundation of the body of Christ.
If we are more and more often saying we are not a part of any Christian group, then we falling into the trap that St. Paul warned us about when he said, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
One of the major goals of denominational congregations is to develop a strong and faithful community that can go out into the areas where they are located to spread the Gospel together. And the only way to do that is to dedicate yourself to that particular collection of people, learn about their strengths and weaknesses, lean on them for support and help in staying faithful, and sharing with them what you have experienced so that they can work with you on the mission of the body of Christ in that place.
My hope and prayer is that the rise of nones will someday be replaced with the ascent of the all-together. For, as the Bible has told us, “In Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:5). As Christians we are designed to join together that we may accomplish great things as dedicated groups in his name.