Reaching “Nones”

I recently read Christel Manning’s book, “Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children” and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in better understanding the nuance, diversity, and experiences of “Nones” when it comes to religious beliefs and practices.

The premise of this sociology work (academic, yet readable–especially if you skim through the sociology of religion methods sections) is straightforward:

“The fastest growing religion in America is—none! One fifth of Americans now list their religion as “none,” up from only 7 percent two decades ago. Among adults under 30, those poised to be the parents of the next generation, fully one third are religiously unaffiliated. Yet these “Nones,” especially parents, still face prejudice in a culture where religion is widely seen as good for your kids. What do Nones believe, and how do they negotiate tensions with those convinced that they ought to provide their children with a religious upbringing?

Key Points

  1. Nones are diverse in worldview. Some believe in a personal God, some have positive feelings or connections to the idea of “church,” some are passionate about a secular philosophy, some are disinterested in any “big questions” about life. You get the point–there are significant opportunities to connect with Nones when we take the time to understand how they view life.
  2. We don’t know if marrying and starting a family brings Nones “back” to church. Oftentimes people confidently declare, “oh, we don’t need to worry about those young adults, they’ll come back once they start having kids.” Manning’s research in Losing Our Religion, shows that we have little evidence of this for Generation X and Millennial parents. At the same time, changes in life stage do prompt many Nones to consider life’s biggest questions (which may or may not lead them to a church).
  3. How Nones perceive your church (and other religious folks) varies greatly by location/region.  When we interact with Nones, we’re not interacting with “blank slates” or people who lack negative and positive opinions about us. Being aware of what it’s like to be a None parent in your community can help us empathize and connect with Nones more effectively.
  4. For Nones, passing on worldview to children isn’t a binary decision to go to church [or not.] Many parents who are Nones are highly interested and concerned about forming their child’s worldview (just like religious folks are!), and will seek our resources and opportunities to cultivate their child’s ethical and religious worldview. How would they perceive your ministry opportunities?
  5. None parents value a chosen religious identity, not a forced one. (And so do most Americans). Offering opportunities to explore the rationality of Christian belief resonate with those seeking to make an “informed” decision. Cultivating settings for those already in our parishes to recognize their own personal responses of faith is key to developing a religious identity that is not merely “ascribed” in a child.

Regardless of where you live, it’s likely that there are Nones in your community–and Nones attending Mass, catechesis, and more at your parish. This is an opportunity, not a problem–how will you be more ready to reach out and engage Nones, especially parents, this year?

Colleen Vermeulen

Colleen Vermeulen

Colleen Reiss Vermeulen, M.Div., M.N.A., blogs, ministers in parish life and lay/deacon formation, and serves as a U.S. Army Reserve officer. She and her husband, Luke, have been married since 2011 and live in Ypsilanti, MI with their two young sons.

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