Actually listening to “Religious Nones”

I really, truly heard it for the first time: “I’m not missing something,” she said. “I don’t want you to see me as lacking. I’m perfectly fine without religion.” For some reason, I finally heard this loud and clear at a panel discussion last Friday night at the New England Synod of the ELCA (video forthcoming: http://www.nesynod.org Mad props for attempting to live stream it!)

The professional religious world has been talking a TON about “Religious nones” since the Pew study came out in October 2012 that documented one in five Americans has no religious affiliation and one in three under 30. We’ve been talking a ton. I’m not sure we’ve been listening to “religious nones” as much as we’ve been talking about “religious nones.”

I attend Church meetings professionally. It’s an occupational hazard. Church annual meetings are mostly insider baseball: committee reports, resolutions, budgets. Church annual meetings are a space where you can just print the lyrics and rest assured all the good Church people who’ve given up a Saturday to attend said meeting will know the tune.

"Religious Nones" panel at NE ELCA Synod. Photo by Andy Merritt

“Religious Nones” panel at NE ELCA Synod. Photo by Andy Merritt

The most recent Annual Synod Assembly of the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America did two remarkable things: It invited ‘outsiders’ to speak to the gathered body and it actually listened to religious nones.

After the resolutions were debated and the work of the day done, newish Bishop Jim Hazelwood moderated an 1.5 hr panel with 6 “religious nones,” sitting in daytime television style, living room chairs before a room of approx. 500 Lutherans on a Friday night.  Each of the 6 panelists was invited to participate by a pastor. I think it speaks volumes about the deep and non-judgmental relationships between pastors and their non-religious friends that folks would attend and participate.

It feels reductive to summarize the careful, nuanced responses from the panelists. I hope you’ll watch the video. But some general themes I heard from the panel:

  • A perception that Church is an unsafe space for doubt and questioning. The panelists spoke of their high comfort level with not having “all the answers.”
  • A deep desire for authenticity. This commitment to authenticity may mean rejecting a singular religious label because it don’t adequately capture the multiple spiritual traditions someone finds meaningful. They named a fear of “being put in a box.”
  • A fear of being ‘an impostor.” The panelists spoke of not wanting to do things that they didn’t actually believe in.
  • Experiences of feeling overwhelmed by traditional worship services. I heard multiple panelists speak of feeling lost, unsure when to sit and stand, and intimidated. Panelists also spoke of thinking it odd to dress up for Church. As one put it “why should I get up early on a Sunday, get all dressed up, to watch people in weird robes?” This panelist found an easier point of entry with a smaller, Saturday evening service.
  • A number of the panelists, though not all, had some religious background. For these people, late teens and early twenties was a turning point in questioning and ultimately, leaving religion.
  • A deep, dare I say faithful, commitment to big ideas and values. The panelists had thought a lot about how they wanted to move through the world, how they wanted to live ethically, how they wanted to change their community. They just didn’t feel the need to do it within the bounds of a religious community.
  • A fullness to their own life and spirituality. As one panelist said, “I bristle at someone saying ‘I’ve got this thing you are missing.’ as if I’m lacking.”

It makes me deeply sad to hear again and again the panelists articulate a perception that religious communities are intolerant of doubt.

In Bishop Hazelwood’s report the next day, he reminded us that in the mission context of New England, 75% of all people do not participate in any type of faith community. But his big, bold move was this:  he challenged the Lutheran pastors to spend 25% of their time talking and listening to people outside their church. And he offered to go meet with any church council that balked at this re-allocation of the pastor’s time. Bishop Hazelwood made sure to say again and again “this panel is something you can do at your church.”

This panel is also something you can do at your denominational annual meeting. In my experience of attending annual meetings, we talk a lot about new mission starts and outreach/evangelism. We talk a lot amongst ourselves. What if 25% of our time gathered thinking about the future of the Church was with people from outside the Church?

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25 thoughts on “Actually listening to “Religious Nones”

  1. Props to you for finally hearing a None say, “not interested.”

    I think there are increasing numbers who won’t like us more if we are even clearer about the fact that we “allow for doubt,” or dress differently, or do more volunteer “mission” work (there are other ways people can do stuff in their community) And they may or may not consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” (The last best hope of mainline Protestants..) Maybe we need to face the fact that increasing numbers of people are just not that into the God thing. Full stop.

    • Right. Like the man said,”Healthy people don’t need a doctor–sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.”

  2. I think the more and more we listen, the more we will change for the better. From everything I’ve read and heard, religious Nones are not asking for Christianity to be watered down, but to be more robust. I hope you read the article in the Atlantic about this same topic.

    We also did an interview with Dr. Elizabeth Drescher who is writing a book on the spiritual life of the Nones that confirms much of what you heard.

    Forgive the shameless plug, but Confirm not Conform is all about creating a safe place for people to express their doubts and ask their questions. We’re coming out with four new denominational versions this summer. I hope you’ll check it out at confirmnotconform.com

    • We are not asking religion to do anything except leave us alone. I don’t want to talk about religion. I don’t want anyone to knock on my door. I don’t want anyone to tell me I am lacking anything. I don’t want to hear that you “can’t be moral” without faith. I don’t want to hear how my lack of religion is really just faith in something different and not really that different. I don’t want your religion shaping Laws, Schools, Medical care or any part of public policy. Your religion is your business, keep it to your self.

      • AMEN to that Joshua! AND I don’t want to hear all that original SIN blather either. The monotheistic religions will NEVER be compatible with free thought and inquiry because their basic dogmas all include this erroneous assumption that human’s are “fallen sinners”.

  3. I think the more and more we listen, the more we will change for the better. From everything I’ve read and heard, religious Nones are not asking for Christianity to be watered down, but to be more robust. I hope you read the article in the Atlantic about this same topic.

    We also did an interview with Dr. Elizabeth Drescher who is writing a book on the spiritual life of the Nones that confirms much of what you heard.

    Forgive the shameless plug, but Confirm not Conform is all about creating a safe place for people to express their doubts and ask their questions. We’re coming out with four new denominational versions this summer. I hope you’ll check it out at confirmnotconform.com

  4. For me, this had the biggest impact of the weekend. The honesty with which these panelist spoke was both refreshing and rejuvenating.

  5. I can sympathize with many of the opinions of the “nones” except that I am lucky that my church, St. Tim’s, embraces discussion and doubt through Bible study, book clubs, and adult forum discussions. I feel like I am just inside the line.

  6. I don’t doubt that the speaker was perfectly fine w/o what *she* thought religion was (and/or religion as she has experienced it to that point).

    I think frequently, when people say they “don’t need religion”, they’re actually already DOING religion, but just don’t realize it. By saying they don’t need religion, they’re just cutting themselves off from all the other people Doing Religion, in ways they don’t recognize. We may not “need religion”, but I think we DO need other people—other people Doing Religion.

    • Sorry, your assumptions are so far off base I can not even begin to address your argument. You might want to start clarifying and separating YOUR opinions about us from the reality we “nones’ experience. Try LISTENING a little closer without your preconceived ideas filtering out what we are saying!

  7. Reblogged this on Historian Loose on the Northern Plains and commented:
    This conversation is so important. We can all learn from each other. One of the things I so enjoy about the ELCA (Lutheran Church) is that it is not only ok to disagree and to doubt, but that you are welcome, and you can even discuss these things!
    Some of the comments from the panel:
    *A perception that Church is an unsafe space for doubt and questioning. The panelists spoke of their high comfort level with not having “all the answers.”
    *A deep desire for authenticity. This commitment to authenticity may mean rejecting a singular religious label because it don’t adequately capture the multiple spiritual traditions someone finds meaningful. They named a fear of “being put in a box.”
    *Panelists also spoke of thinking it odd to dress up for Church. As one put it “why should I get up early on a Sunday, get all dressed up, to watch people in weird robes?” This panelist found an easier point of entry with a smaller, Saturday evening service.
    *A number of the panelists, though not all, had some religious background. For these people, late teens and early twenties was a turning point in questioning and ultimately, leaving religion.
    *A deep, dare I say faithful, commitment to big ideas and values. The panelists had thought a lot about how they wanted to move through the world, how they wanted to live ethically, how they wanted to change their community. They just didn’t feel the need to do it within the bounds of a religious community.
    *A fullness to their own life and spirituality. As one panelist said, “I bristle at someone saying ‘I’ve got this thing you are missing.’ as if I’m lacking.”

  8. The challenge to clergy to “go out” is an important one. I wonder every time I read that a pastor has 20+ office hours posted. Most of my contact with parishioners happens outside the office and usually outside the church building. This allows for many opportunities to interact with non-parishioners. Do seminarians need to be taught how to go out?

    • It’s pretty hard to go out when the entire congregation expects you to be available at their beck and call. Seminarians don’t need to be taught anything. Congregations need to be taught that the church and pastor aren’t theirs.

  9. I’m the editor of the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York’s bi-monthly newsletter “The Messenger”, and I’d like to re-publish this in our next edition. I will of course give you the credit and include a pointer to your blog. Can I get your permission to do this? It’s an important issue, and you’ve written about it quite well!

  10. I’m very glad to see that the discussion was started…I think there is a great population of believers who aren’t comfortable in a typical church setting. As we evolve as a society, so do we need to as a church body. This doesn’t mean we need to compromise our faith, but find ways to become a comfort to those who may be outsiders. Instead of looking through eyes of judgment and conformity, how beautiful would it be to look through eyes of forgiveness and grace! Isn’t that the true message of our faith…

  11. Isn’t there a lack of any mention of Jesus in this whole discussion? Where is He in this? The expression, “What would Jesus do,” might just maybe fit in here somewhere.

  12. If Christianity were a product or a political party, I would advise assembling focus groups comprising a diverse group of well-educated, affluent consumers in the 25 – 50 year old age-range, and from all the major U.S. population centers, and then I’d just sit back and listen to what they like and don’t like about the brand.

  13. Excellent. The next step is if a church or denomination decides to embark on something like this, is to commit to not only listening but walking away and spending time reflecting on what was heard and doing some introspection into the truthfulness or accuracy of the concerns. Too often, I’ve seen church people balk at suggestions of change to appeal to those outside of the church. In their mind, changing the way things are done in the church are tantamount to changing or watering down the gospel, but the two do not necessarily have to have anything to do with the other. That’s the mental leap that many people need to make.

  14. Props to Bishop Hazelwood for realizing the importance of meeting with church councils over his goal of having pastors spend 25% of their time with those “outside” the church. I had a serious challenge with my former congregation when I, as their pastor, encouraged them (and myself) to do the same. I had serious kickback from congregants who felt they were paying my salary to pay attention to them, not to people who didn’t contribute any financial support to the church. (Of course, the major contributors understood the value of such work; it was the “tippers”, not the tithers who objected.)

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