How Will We Reach the Nones?

LeAnn Snow Flesher, Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament

This is the third in a series of blogs related to the state of Seminary education today.  In the first blog entitled Renew or Plan the Funeral I noted that decline is a natural and expected phase in the life of every institution (even faith based institutions) and, consequently, a phase that should be predicted and included as part of one’s strategic planning process.  When institutions begin to decline there are basically two options:  renew or plan the funeral.

In my second blog entitled simply What to Do I outlined the current and future demographics of the seminary classroom and made some recommendations related to the major shifts coming down the road.  In this second blog I attempted to highlight the need for a complete overhaul of what used to be the Gold Standard, i.e., the MDiv program.  Both of these blogs were published on the Pathoes blog page (as well as the ABSW blog page) which provided a means for people to respond.  Curiously, many of the responses I have received, verbally and in writing, focused on the state of the church, rather than the state of the seminary—suggesting “the problem” is really at the level of the church.

The responses I have received have inspired this third blog.  A close friend sent me an article the other day from The New York Times Sunday Review entitled “Americans Undecided about God?”  In the article, the author, Eric Weiner, describes what he terms “. . . the nation’s fastest-growing religious demographic,” the “Nones.”  Weiner has distinguished this group in contrast to “the True Believers, on the one hand, and the Angry Atheists on the other.”  He defines the Nones as the 12 percent of the population who say they have no religious affiliation at all—and he notes the percentage is much higher in the younger population, as much as 25%. 

Weiner goes on to say that while a growing number of Americans are running from organized religion they are by no means running from God.  To support this statement he quotes statistics from a survey conducted by Trinity College in which 93% of people surveyed say they believe in God or a higher power.  And he concludes that this holds true for most Nones who he further defines as “. . . the undecided of the religious world;” people who “drift spiritually and dabble in everything from Sufism to Kabbalah, to Catholicism and Judaism.”

I particularly appreciate Weiner’s description of the Nones.  He is truly on to something with this description, although his reason for such may be oversimplified—he suggests, based on his reading of works by David Campbell and Robert Putnam (University of Notre Dame and Harvard Kennedy School respectively), that the contemporary mixing of religion and politics is to blame, i.e., people don’t want to associate with religion because they don’t want the political affiliation that comes with it.  I suspect there is a kernel of truth in this statement, and perhaps many kernels of truth, but I would suggest we also need to look at formalized religion itself.  Many people, including a high percentage of the younger generation, see the church as being too hierarchical, too contradictory, not concerned enough about the evils of the world, or even the world itself.  I like very much what Weiner says at the end of his article about the need for “a new way of being religious” that would be “straightforward, unencumbered, intuitive, and highly interactive.”  He is sounding very emerging church like here; very Robb Bell like.

The reality is that the structure(s) of our traditional religious institutions have run their course and it is indeed time to renew or plan the funeral.  It’s not that the structures are wrong or bad in and of themselves, but they simply no longer fit the needs of the majority of the culture.  Our culture has shifted tremendously over the past 50 plus years.  In my lifetime we have experienced the development of the personal computer, the cell phone, and the internet!   People are connected in ways never imagined 50 years ago.  Simultaneously, we have experienced the shift out of the industrial age into the scientific age, to the information age and now the biomedical age.  We have moved from modern ways of thinking into post-modern ways of thinking.  We have shifted from national perspectives to a global mindset.  The world is a new place and information about it is at our fingertips.  Simultaneously we are experiencing all time lows (for the current generation) in education and income.

A recent report has noted that 50% of the US school districts are failing and another report has revealed that 40% of the US population is poor.  People are not as prepared as they used to be to enter graduate levels of education, and with the rising costs at Universities and Colleges the trend is headed toward fewer and fewer young people completing 4 year degree programs.  People are not as interested as they used to be in participating in religious rituals and traditions (high church—if you will).  People are still interested in spirituality, but would rather participate (not merely observe) in it without the pomp and circumstance, without the chants and incense, i.e., without the bells and whistles and most certainly without the politics (both internal and external).  When polled, the majority of students who enter our seminary doors passionately state that they want to make a difference in the world, and they believe our school can help them achieve their goals. 

People are not less interested in things spiritual or things faith-related; people are not less interested in making a difference in the world; people are not less interested in helping others.  But, people are less prepared and have fewer resources to engage higher levels of theological training.  Simultaneously, people want to be involved in something practical that they feel is significantly impacting the world for good.  The church and the seminary, in their current structures, are at risk of becoming totally irrelevant to contemporary culture.  Who will reach the Nones?  According to Weiner, who has self declared as one of them, they are open, searching and experimenting.  How will we break through the structures that are holding us back from engaging this new generation of faith seekers?

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