Vol I No. 7
From the Quarterly

The Rise of the Nones (and How Anglicans Can Respond)

by The Editors

Barton Gingerich

American churches are losing their young people. This trend was evidenced most recently in a 2012 Pew Forum study titled “‘Nones’ on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation.” The summary of the 80-page report posits, “The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.”

Researchers use the label of “nones,” or “religiously unaffiliated,” to clarify that these young people are not falling into hardened agnosticism or atheism. Instead, they often describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious,” perhaps echoing the common mantra that “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship.” As Ross Douthat argues in his latest book Bad Religion, America suffers not from a lack of spirituality but rather an influx of self-determined, self-actualizing heresies. Mainline Protestantism, once a bastion of orthodoxy and counterweight to spiritual outliers on the American religious landscape, has compromised on its Christian convictions and has suffered an exodus in membership. Post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism likewise hemorrhages baptized members, even though the statistics are buoyed by the influx of Latin American immigrants. This is not simply a crisis in denominational loyalty. Nondenominational evangelicalism, once the refuge for dissident revivalist Protestant voices, is also starting to suffer membership loss. Youth raised in the megachurch culture seem almost as likely to leave the faith as any other kind of Christian. Even America’s largest religious group, the Southern Baptist Convention, is starting to see its membership numbers plateau.

The Pew Forum cites four hypotheses for the rise of the nones: political backlash (especially against the “Religious Right”), delayed marriage, broad social disengagement (or the “bowling alone problem”), and secularization. The National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) has engaged this question with more depth and promises fruitful answers to concerned church leaders. The NSYR, encapsulated in Christian Smith’s 2005 tome Soul Searching and Kenda Creasy Dean’s 2010 book Almost Christian, offers helpful insights to the problematic world of youth ministry.

Smith et al. noticed that this faith crisis is not simply one of popularity, but of kind. High schoolers, while calling themselves Christians at graduation, drop the label during the rigors of college. But their earlier convictions were not those of Christianity, but of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). Smith and his colleague Melinda Lundquist Denton identified the core tenets of MTD:

  1. A single god exists who created and ordered the cosmos.
  2. This god wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other. Thou shalt not be a jerk.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy, which means feeling good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem. In Smith and Denton’s words, God is seen as “something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he’s always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”[1]
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Even youth raised in church, Christian families, and Christian schools enunciated the precepts of MTD. Theirs was not a vocabulary (and thus not a consciousness) of the Incarnation, the Trinity, atonement, the resurrection of the dead, revelation, virtuous ethics, or the attributes of God.

How has this catechetical nightmare come about? Anyone in the church who works with the young can report that there is no dearth in strategies, funds, and gimmicks to attract and somehow retain the next generation of Christians. Youth ministers—including Anglicans—need to find the root causes for this rise in apostasy: current approaches fail to produce a common pattern of faithful Christian formation and commitment.

Kenda Dean has argued for a multi-layered assessment. First of all, many evangelical churches tend to separate youth from the rest of the congregation. The youth pastor—often an immature, goofy ecclesiastical parasite—manages an intricate cornucopia of entertainment, replete with video games, exciting music, comedic sermons, and attention-grabbing stunts (such as eating live goldfish). To be sure, the latter represent excesses. Nevertheless, once youth graduate high school or college, they are suddenly expected to join in with the rest of the grown-ups for a completely different kind of worship. Perplexed by this foreign (and often boring) order of service, young adults leave the church. Of course, many adult ministries engage in “juvenalization” in order to keep the younger hip members while impoverishing content for adults. But the fact remains that the Millennials are the most media-saturated generation this world has ever seen—even the wealthiest megachurches can barely provide sufficient entertainment for connoisseurs.

Commodified evangelicalism describes the Christian life as exciting, radical, fun, compatible with the “American Dream,” emotionally satisfying, and an all-around cure for personal ills. Expectations remain low. Radical individualism lies regnant throughout much of the theology taught to youth today, even by the would-be reformers. There is also the belief that the young lack the patience or interest for serious, intentional study of deep theological truths, much less the uncomfortable times of correction and exhortation. Perhaps. On the other hand, what else should people be doing in church?

According to the Pew Forum study, home life determines future faith commitments more than church structure and style. Even though children spend more and more time in the classroom, family remains the most powerful conduit for passing on religion. But what religion? There is the rub: parents who label themselves as Christians actually teach, believe, and practice MTD just like their children. At least the succeeding generation has the honesty to recognize inconsistency. As Dean said in a lecture at the 2012 C3 Conference, “Kids don’t practice because we misunderstood what we’ve taught them.”[2]

Anglicanism has all the tools and aims necessary to meet these challenges. The Anglican way is supposed to be completely intergenerational—all ages participate in the sacramental life of the Church, local and universal. Common Prayer and Holy Communion do not mesh well with age-segregated services for good reason. The elderly, middle-aged, and young are all “invited to come to the feast.” Ancient liturgy forms the young person’s conception of worship on a noncognitive level. Why tailor worship to the desires of an irreverent culture and age?

The Book of Common Prayer assumes that catechesis is both a churchly and parental responsibility. The shorter daily offices for families in the Prayer Book demand that entire households are engaged in intercession, thanksgiving, Scripture reading, confession, and praise on a regular basis. Happily, families can engage in celebration or contrition during various church seasons, “redeeming the time.” The Anglican catechism in historic prayer books is short, and easy to master with regular instruction.

Parents must lead in the discipleship of their children. Traditionally, family life sees the highs and lows of human character. Thus, it presents the best opportunities to graciously apply Law and Gospel in appropriate ways for young Christians. Priests may only see the best behavior on Sundays; it can be the rest of the week that truly forms a child’s dispositions and character. As such, parents need to be growing in the wisdom, knowledge, and admonition of the Lord themselves if they are to teach their children the truths of the catholic faith. Families also need to be spending time together so that children can mimic the goals, behaviors, habits, and embodied beliefs of their forbears (a daunting thought, but this is what the family does!). The frenzied life of the contemporary age is a dangerous Siren song. Parents would rather renege on their duties, all with society’s encouragement: make sure children are influenced most by their peers, tightly schedule organized activities, and plop the troublesome offspring in front of various screens.

The assumption behind rejecting this individualism and entertainment is the orthodox catholic sacramental vision, especially regarding baptism. For Anglicans—like the rest of Christianity for 1500 years—baptism marks entrance into church membership. This directly counters the individualism of credobaptism, which conflates originality and uniqueness with authenticity. The idea of taking on a heritage received from your forbears—and entering into that regardless of cognition and volition—is foreign if not abhorrent to most of nondenominational evangelicalism. Thus, catechism too often pivots on enticing offspring into “making a decision for Christ.”  Children raised in stable Christian homes may even envy the radical, attention-grabbing testimonies of repentant sinners and their former libertine lifestyles.

For the Anglican, however, regeneration (the new birth granted in baptism) should not be confused with conversion, which in turn may happen gradually or rapidly in life. If a child is baptized and therefore a Christian, parents must expect him to act like a Christian. Of course, the parent needs to embody sanctification as well if he wants to avoid being a hypocrite. And it is in corporate liturgy and common churchly life in which everyone learns to live in a truly Christ-like manner. There are no guaranteed techniques for keeping people in the fold. On the other hand, it is quite apparent that current popular attitudes remain deeply flawed.

Barton Gingerich  is a research assistant at the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He blogs at juicyecumenism.com.

[1]Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: the Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 165.

[2]“C3 Conference Discusses Cultural Engagement,” The Institute on Religion and Democracy, (March 6, 2012), http://www.theird.org/page.aspx?pid=2324.