Challenges to Humanity

How the ‘Nones’ and ‘Nons’ Pose New Challenges and Opportunities for the Church Today

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As we analyze the religious landscape today, it is becoming clearer that the two most significant trends in the past 20 years are the rise of the nones and the nons. Political science professor Ryan Burge has written about this and reiterated it several times in the past year. Other studies have confirmed his findings. Recent books such as Nonverts and The Great Dechurching plot the growing number of disenfranchised nones.

Both the nones and the nons are defined by what they have left. The nones are individuals who have opted out of any religious affiliation. They prefer not to identify with any religious entity. The nons have opted out of any current Christian denomination or tradition, preferring not to affiliate with any traditional denominational structures.

These two realities tell us that the nature of the institutional church is changing in dramatic ways. In the West, Christianity has always provided the moral fabric of the political and social worlds, even though there were theological and ecclesial differences among Christian communities where they developed. The Lutheran tradition developing in Germany, or the Reformed tradition coming from Scotland and the Netherlands, for example, forged denominations that were closely aligned with political and social structures. These groups and others transported their denominations to the U.S., which provided a place where they could all thrive in the same soil.

But now all these ecclesial structures are fragmenting and collapsing, either by the nones walking out the back door, or the nons walking down the street to the non-denominational church.

At this point, it is best to consider what we are losing and gaining from this ecclesial transformation.

New Challenges

First, consider what we are losing. From the beginning, the church has related to society, as Abraham Kuyper famously described, as an institution and organism. On one hand, the church functions as an institution. Whether you are Anglican, Presbyterian, Church of Christ, Baptist, or Catholic, the institutional church provides a structure and organization, a gathering point for people of faith to worship God and counseling and social services that support the church. But the church is also an organism that embeds itself within the culture and, like a leavening agent, enriches the community.

With the nones leaving the church and the nons leaving traditional denominations, we are witnessing the loss and fragmentation of historic Christian communities and institutions, along with the commitment and influence these churches built. Every Christian group has built extensive infrastructure. Not just church buildings, but educational institutions and seminaries, social services and non-profit organizations, youth and children’s camps, counseling centers, and much more. Christian denominations have been the fabric of the social world.

Think about the many churches across the U.S. that are empty and crumbling, symbols of a lost civilization. One recent study found that about 4,000 Protestant churches closed, while about 3,000 new ones opened. Despite church planting efforts, we are entering a new season. While I have confidence that other parachurch organizations and non-denominational groups will pick up the torch, there is something to lament with these losses.

There is also the loss of cooperation among denominational churches, which often work together in a united effort. Ecumenism no longer means what it used to mean when there are fewer Christian groups to come to the table.

Given their independence, I am concerned that the non-denominational churches replacing these traditions are not always focused on cooperating with like-minded churches in their area. With denominations, there were natural local and national partners that shared theological commitments and ecclesial structures that facilitated cooperation. Losing these built-in networks and coalitions of churches will pose serious challenges for both the institutional and organic characters of the church in the coming years.

There is no question that amid our cultural upheaval we need to be clear about the church’s theological and moral commitments.

New Opportunities

But it is not all doom and gloom. The rise of the nones and the nons is also presenting new opportunities. To cite the title of a recent book by American political scientist Yuval Levin, now is A Time to Build. These changing times mean the church has new opportunities to build coalitions, or what Peter Leithart calls, “micro-Christendoms,” new collections of theologically like-minded churches that share similar moral and missional visions. There is no question that amid our cultural upheaval we need to be clear about the church’s theological and moral commitments. These theological truths will hold us fast, but we also need friends and partners to help forge communities where the Christian life can flourish.

Every Christian church and denomination will need to think strategically about forming new relationships across denominational lines. Through the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, I am working to foster local, ecumenical groups of pastors and clergy that are working across denominational lines toward practical solutions to the challenges of cultural engagement.

There is no question that new relationships will be formed, with new coalitions and third-party denominational-like structures. Christians have always recognized that we can accomplish more together than we can individually, and the church has always found ways to express the faith in a wide array of contexts. I pray that we can be unified and continue to build institutions that influence the moral fabric of this culture.

The nones and the nons are growing, but the institutional and organic mission of the church will continue. That mission began with the early church, as I illustrate in my forthcoming book, Cultural Sanctification: Engaging the World Like the Early Church, and, as early believers worked for the good of a culture suspicious of their faith, I hope today’s church can once again become a leavening agent that can shape the world.

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Stephen Presley

Stephen Presley, Ph.D, is Senior Fellow for Religion & Public Life at the Center for Religion, Culture, and Democracy.

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