The death of Christianity in America has been announced many times—the infamous Time magazine cover, the New Atheist movement, the Pew Foundation study on the rise of “religious nones”—and yet historic Christianity continues to thrive.
Despite controversy over the term “evangelical,” the recent outpouring of respect, op-ed pieces, and reflection on the life and ministry of Billy Graham suggests a certain staying power. After all, evangelical faith stretches back beyond the politicized shores of America to the British Isles, where London served as an evangelical hub well into the 19th century.
Nevertheless, the recent rise of “religious nones” in the United States does signal something important for church planters and anyone else concerned about the mission of God. The Pew study tells us those who are unaffiliated with any religion now account for 22.8 percent of America’s population, a number that has essentially tripled over the past 15 years. This trend follows what has already been happening in places such as the UK and Europe.
This trend raises important questions for evangelism, preaching, discipleship, and church planting.
Know Your Neighbors
Contrary to alarmist responses, “nones” are not ardent atheists. The survey notes that 15.8 percent affiliate with “nothing in particular,” and 4 percent are agnostic—which leaves only 3.1 percent as committed atheists. This means a whole lot of people—upwards of 50 million—are still trying to make up their minds about what they believe.
One implication, then, is we probably don’t need to spend a ton of time trying to debunk Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. Atheism has always been a minority view. Instead, we should investigate why people are choosing to affiliate with nothing in particular. Is it a reaction to consumer church, the politicization of religion, or disappointment with mainline denominations? The best way to find out isn’t from the armchair but from the street. We need to ask real people what they believe and get real—not internet-borrowed—answers.
We need to ask real people what they believe and get real—not internet borrowed—answers.
As we get to know our neighbors, we listen intently in order to grasp which gospel angle they need to hear. Stranded in fear or depression, they may need to hear the good news of new creation—in Christ the old life is gone and the new life has come (2 Cor. 5:17). Laboring to prove themselves in their field of work, they may need to hear the good news of justification—Jesus renders them righteous through faith (Rom. 3:23–25). Enamored with promises of love and peace in new-age beliefs, they may need to hear the good news of redemption—the personal yet unique work of Christ to redeem them from sin and place them in his eternal love (Eph. 1:7). But to determine which angle on the gospel they need to hear most, we must ask questions.
When I moved to Austin more than a decade ago to plant City Life Church, I kept field notes on the answers I received to two main questions. I wanted to know what the people of Austin really cared about, in order to put the gospel in terms they could understand and feel. To be sure, the gospel offends, but it also welcomes. I wanted to make sure I was offending them for the right reasons.
Settling into conversation at a coffee shop or bar, I eventually asked: “Do you think Austin needs another church? Why or why not?” And second, “Do you have a religious or spiritual background?” Sure enough, I discovered some fascinating things that helped me better communicate the gospel.
A novelist told me he believed in synchronicity, a term that wasn’t that popular at the time. As I probed, I had the opportunity to tell him that Christians have a similar belief called providence, and that for us, synchronicity wasn’t an impersonal act of the universe but the work of a personally attentive God. He warmed to the idea, and said he’d include it in his novel. Something tells me that if I’d opened the conversation with Calvinism, I wouldn’t have met such a warm reception.
Understand Local Values
Many nones are actually spiritually minded. Two-thirds say they believe in God (68 percent). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58 percent), and more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37 percent). This means it’s important we clarify who the triune God is, develop biblical warrant for environmental values, and better understand what “spiritual” means.
This too should be done locally. The Pew data reveal that nones are not a monolithic group. They have differing and sometimes competing beliefs. As we plant churches, then, it’s vital to clarify the church’s theological convictions, while also figuring out how to express them without unnecessarily driving people away from the gospel.
As we plant churches, it’s vital to clarify the church’s theological convictions, while also figuring out how to express them without unnecessarily driving people away from the gospel.
Convictions on secondary and tertiary issues must be handled with great thoughtfulness. In our church, we’ve said the doctrinal door is wide open at the front—you can believe whatever you want to believe and attend our gatherings. But the further you get involved, the theological doorway narrows to include primary and secondary convictions.
Living in Austin, I can identify with nones’ deep connection to the earth. My city is exceptionally green. Lush greenbelts wind through the city, creating remarkable beauty etched with hike and bike trails. Ladybird Lake, a dammed river that runs east to west, draws families, fishermen, scullers, paddle boarders, kayakers, and more.
As I began to realize how much our city values the environment, I started studying and demonstrating the biblical basis for care of the earth in my preaching. We recycled more, and I wrote a newspaper article describing how Austin had helped me further value the earth. The piece ended up attracting people to our church and generating interesting discussion.
To be clear, we care for the earth not as an end in itself. The Bible affirms that we care for creation, yes, but we do so to show the world that the earth is the Lord’s (Ps. 24:1). Caring for creation is an outworking of the gospel.
Listen to Questions
Third, there are other forces seeking to captivate the nones. David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association and author of Unbeliever Nation, is on an active campaign to call nones out of the closet. He implores them to move beyond an unaffiliated status in order to identify with the secularist movement. After all, he argues, you can be a decent human being, enjoy community, and give back to the world—all without being religious.
Likewise, in his book Living the Secular Life, sociologist Phil Zuckerman has made a case for living a moral, secular life. He gives examples of secular communities and tries to resolve moral dilemmas with the “Golden Rule”: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
However, he pinpoints a challenge to the secular life: secular-minded people tend to be quite independent and individualistic in their thinking, which makes it difficult to create substantive community. And many of his suggestions for vibrant secular life borrow from religion in general and Christianity in particular.
What ‘nones’ need, more than anything, is to know that their sin can be forgiven, that reconciliation with their Creator is possible, and that he is making all things new because of Christ’s death and resurrection.
If we are to engage not only nones but entire societies affected by secularization, these are some of the issues church planters must grapple with. If historic evangelicalism is to survive, then it will need to listen more closely to the questions our society is asking.
But we need not fret. The church has much to offer this growing group of agnostics. The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16). What nones need, more than anything, is to know that their sin can be forgiven, that reconciliation with their Creator is possible, and that he is making all things new because of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Like the rest of us, they need nothing less than the eternal gospel of Jesus Christ.