Reaching Out To “The Nones”


I think it was Karl Barth who once said sermons should be preached with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other. His point was that the Word of God should be brought to bear on the issues of the day and that our faith should impact the real world in which we live!

I don’t always follow Barth’s advice but it’s pretty easy this week because I ran across a headline in the NY Times on Tuesday which read, “Number of Protestant Americans Is In Steep Decline, Study Finds.” Leaving aside the obvious question about whether Episcopalians are actually Protestant or Catholic, I don’t think it takes a study for those of us who go to church regularly to feel that decline.

But the new study, released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, emphasizes that it’s not just so-called liberal, mainline Protestants like Methodists or Episcopalians who are experiencing losses, but also more conservative Evangelicals as well. Even the largest faith group, the Roman Catholic Church, is only keeping numbers steady because of the huge influx of immigrants who have now replaced the many Catholics who were raised in the church, but who have left in the last five years.

Now, in this country, more than one-third of those ages 18-22 are religiously unaffiliated. And, instead of switching churches, they join the growing ranks who don’t identify with any religion. Called “the Nones”, nearly one in five Americans say they are atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.”

The study offers several theories to explain the rise of the religiously unaffiliated. One is that these young adults grew disillusioned with organized religion when evangelical and Catholic churches became so active in conservative political causes, like opposition to gay rights and abortion. Another theory is that the shift simply reflects a broader trend away from social and community involvement, the phenomenon called “bowling alone” by Robert Putnam, a public policy professor at Harvard. And another explanation is that the United States is simply following the trend toward secularization already seen in many economically developed countries like Australia and Canada and parts of Europe.

As believers, we might expect this “church alumni association” (those who have left) to be troubled about it, grieving their loss of faith, like our old friend Job in the First Lesson today: “Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling…(but) if I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and (if) I turn to the right, I cannot see him…If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness cover my face.” (Job 23)

That was sort of like the anguish I felt during my time of doubting and drifting in college. I had been really active in church during my teen years and really missed it when I thought I could no longer, in good conscience because of my doubts, show up in church on Sunday morning. But I think the “Nones” of today are really different. Lot of them would describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”

Two-thirds of them say they still believe in God and one-fifth say they pray every day. An old friend of mine, Eileen Lindner, who has tracked religious statistics for years, has this to say, “There will be lots of people who read this study and say, “Oh no, this is terrible! What’s it doing to our culture? I would, as a social scientist and a pastor, urge caution. A lot of younger people are very spotty in their attendance at worship, but if we have a mission project, they’re here. They run soup kitches, they build houses in Habitat for Humanity. They may not come on Sunday, she said, but they have not abandoned their faith.”

I think Eileen is right and, if we are going to connect with these younger folks — both to be enriched by their presence and to mentor them along the way — the Church is going to have to do things differently in the future. We’re going to have to be nimbler and travel lighter. We’re going to have to engage the ministry of all the baptized, not just the clergy. We’re going to have to become “ministering communities” rather than “a community gathered around a minister.”

I know you at St. Matthew’s are involved in something called The Crossroads Initiative which is a new venture to help prepare this parish to become such a vital and sustainable twenty-first century church. I’m very excited about what I see in this so far and I want you to know that you are part of something much bigger than yourselves in this effort. Something very similar is happening on the diocesan level, under Bishop Lee’s leadership, and you’re going to be hearing more about this in the coming months as some of the bright new staff people Jeff has brought on board will be sharing with you here at St. Matthews’.

The Episcopal Church on the national level, and the entire Anglican Communion internationally, are struggling with some of the same issues and we’re beginning to take bold steps to position ourselves appropriately to face the challenges of this new age (which some call a new “reformation” or “the emerging church.”)

It’s sort of like the challenge Jesus put in front of the young man in our Gospel reading for this morning. This guy had done all the traditional religious stuff — he knew the commandments, he lived a moral life, but still it left him hollow somehow. When he asked Jesus “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:7) he’s not just asking about everlasting life, about how to get into heaven. Eternal life, in the New Testament, means “life lived in contact with Eternity,” life in all its fullness, “life abundant” Jesus once called it.

And the text says “Jesus, looking at him, LOVED him…” He knew the young man was looking for more so he laid a challenge upon him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”. You will have the life abundant you so desire! That’s the kind of challenge I actually think a lot of young people — and not JUST young people — are looking for today.

Oh, maybe not to sell it all and give everything away. But to take those missions trips, to work in those soup kitchens, to engage in intentional community and ministry like the Julian group of young people here in the Diocese of Chicago, or the Episcopal Service Corps on the national level. But if we’re going to engage them, we need to go where they are – not expect them to come to us. We need to find them in coffee shops and bars and do creative things like “Theology on Tap” which is happening all over the country — weekly gathering in those same coffee shops and bars to talk about faith….and ministry….and service.

But, if we’re going to do that, we’ll have to get out of the “maintenance mode” as Church. As I say, we’re going to have to travel lighter and to be more nimble and, yes, dare I say it, even more committed! I believe that you and I are part of this church in a time of tremendous transition and change. That feels unsettling at times, but it has always been so in critical, transformative times in the church’s life.

I congratulate you on some of the steps you have begun to take. For the willingness to take a hard look at where you have been, where you are now, and where you believe God is leading you in the future. I have the utmost confidence that Christ is still the Lord of the Church and that he’s not through with us yet! The Church of the future may very well look different than it does today…but it will be the Church of Jesus Christ….yesterday, today, and for ever.

For, in the words of our Second Lesson, “the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword…and before him no creature is hidden…Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession…Let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:12 ff). Amen!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: