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The Nones are Something: Wendy Dackson


My Facebook feed recently had an interesting piece from Huffington Post’s religion blog, entitled 10 Facts about the Transforming Global Religious Landscape.  I find the facts interesting, but not surprising.  Christianity and Islam are the two dominant religions throughout most of the world; Judaism is only the dominant religious affiliation in Israel, and claims a smaller percentage of world population than folk religions (although it has, arguably, the greatest cultural impact of any single religion, being the parent of both Christianity and Islam).  The majority of the world’s Hindus are geographically located in India and a few neighboring countries.  None of this is news.


What many people, especially loyal adherents of specific religious traditions, may find surprising or even upsetting is the data concerning those who do not claim affiliation with any religious tradition.  The article calls them the “nones”, and they cover a fairly wide swath of humanity.  This group includes atheists, agnostics, the “spiritual but not religious“. Probably a fair number of people who accept most of  the teachings of a particular tradition, but do not attend its worship services or submit to the authority of its temporal leadership, fall into this large category as well.  Christianity claims just under a third of the world’s population; Islam just under a quarter.  The “nones” are the world’s third largest spiritual grouping, at around 16% of people living on earth.


A religion such as Christianity, which is bound by the Great Commission (most familiar as Matthew 28:16-20), and called to spread its message of “good news” to all nations, preaching repentance from and forgiveness of sin (Luke 24:44-49) needs to take the phenomenon of the Nones much more seriously than I believe it is doing.  Especially if the final point of the HuffPost essay is correct in its claim that the Nones have spiritual convictions, we cannot fall into the trap popularized by those religious leaders who dismiss them as unformed, vacuous, self-serving, or just too lazy to go to church.  This was my biggest flash-point with Lillian Daniel’s book on the Spiritual but Not Religious, and it led to a review of her book and a set of more personal responses and reflections that have appeared here on Lay Anglicana.


The Nones believe.  We, as Christians, need to respect that, and find out what forms the content of that belief.  It might also be a good thing, while we’re at it, to learn the source of that belief.  I think it is very likely that, if the content has some component of the teachings of one of the major religions, then the person holding that belief has had substantial contact with the institutions of that religious tradition.  If s/he now identifies as unaffiliated, we must ask why. If the contact has not been direct, and a person thinks the teaching and practice of the religious tradition is good but still refrains from identifying as a member, we must also ask why.


People refuse to affiliate with, or choose to leave, institutional religion for a variety of reasons, and I believe it is a very foolish community that does not make an honest attempt to understand the phenomenon of the Nones, or the Spiritual but Not Religious.  Dismissing them as spiritually vague or lazy, while insisting they need the churches (and simply saying so more loudly when objections are raised) is not ‘evangelization’.  Evangelization means sharing good news.  Treating people like spiritual dimwits is the exact opposite, and those who reject it should have the admiration of thoughtful people of faith.


Yet, doing so has become popular.  Lillian Daniel’s book is perhaps the most egregious example, but the attitude has trickled down even to educated lay Christians.  A recent Facebook conversation yielded the following comment by someone who claims to be concerned with mission, but said the Spiritual but Not Religious are “sometimes curious but uncommitted and privileged people who may or may not have concern for the deeper things of ministry and mission”, and that they are “unwilling to see beyond their own privilege and social location.” My interlocutor in this conversation has a postgraduate degree in mission studies from a liberal denominational seminary.  If this is what is being taught as “mission”, I cannot be at all surprised that churches are failing to reach the unaffiliated.


People may leave a church for a variety of reasons–moving to a new area (and not reaffiliating once they are settled), forming relationships not sanctioned by their spiritual community, realizing that there isn’t much there for them.  There is also the possibility of having been victimized by people in power in the church who have misused their positions of authority.  The cases of this last are notorious, but overall, I think not the overwhelming reason people cease to claim religious affiliation.  But good “mission” involves understanding the reasons, and not blaming those who do not respond to our message because we have failed to deliver it authentically and convincingly.


I have a very different take on the Nones, and most specifically those who have been formed in a Christian tradition but no longer attend or self-identify with a particular church.  It is rooted in James Fowler’s Stages of Faith (see my earlier blog post about the Big Bang Theory of Faith for a brief synopsis).  Churches, and the training for their ordained leadership, are geared to a Stage 3 Synthetic-Conventional faith. When people reach a more deeply questioning Stage 4, the vast majority of Christian churches cannot accommodate their journey any further.  Rather than stunting their own growth, people leave.  It could be for a time, and there may be a return at some later point.  But the inquirer will be a different person—and the same church structures may not be able to accommodate him or her.  My suspicion is that rather than being vague, lazy, or unable to see past his or her own social location, someone who leaves is being very rigorous about their spiritual growth and broadening their view.  A boxed-in church, even a liberal one, cannot be home to this person.  And so, rather than trying to grow in a situation that does not allow it, the inquirer has little choice but to forge his or her own path.


This is not a happy situation.  People who leave often miss their communities—the ritual, the celebration, the support.  But people who have outgrown their churches often find that the community is no longer a place of support, and even feel marginalized when they attend or attempt to participate.  If they have gone to great efforts to develop gifts and offer them back to the community, they may feel their gifts are rejected (this is my particular relationship with the church at the moment).  They may feel the questions they raise are dismissed by the church.  And so, after a period (often years) of feeling rejected and devalued, they leave.


The church may have become very sad news to those who have left it.  And possibly even sadder when they try to return and find that their journeys and insights are dismissed, and that to be part of the community once more they have to regress in their spiritual growth.  As well, the churches may look very silly to those who have a vague idea of their message, but who hang back from entering.


A few years ago, I contributed an essay to a collection on the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr edited by two Church of England Bishops; my offering concerned an exploration of Niebuhr’s “outsider ecclesiology“.  I am convinced that the most important thing the church can do for its mission is to take the Nones/SBNR seriously (not just dismiss them as lazy, vague, or privileged), and attempt the difficult task of viewing the church from their vantage point. My opening quote from William Temple in a recent Lay Anglicana offering indicates this need—it is the fault of the church if it fails to preach the gospel in a way that appears to outsiders as authentically good news.  We need to develop leaders–ordained, but perhaps more usefully senior lay leaders—who can hold up a mirror to the church so the church can see itself as those who are not already convinced by the gospel do.  We need to develop theological language that respects those who stand, with good reason, outside the Christian community (and we have to really enter into dialogue, not just some cheap Christian ‘pitch’ that sounds like a telemarketing script).  We have to treat our critics as intelligent, thoughtful people of goodwill who deserve our respect—otherwise, they have no reason to respect us.  So far, what I see from ‘mission’ studies has neglected this.  We train people for ‘mission fields’ far away from home.  That is the easy route.  The more difficult is to enter into respectful conversation with the people we ride elevators with each day.  The risk is that we will be changed in the encounter, and see a bigger vision of the Gospel than we get cozily wrapped up in by our refusal to change.



In most of the world, the Nones are the second-largest spiritual grouping (and in China, the largest).  To behave toward them in condescending or dismissive ways is a betrayal of the Great Commission, and a commitment to fail in its execution.

5 comments on this post:

Caroline Mercer said...

Dr Dackson,
I have just read the work you submitted, above the point where comments are invited. I am refreshed, and encouraged. While I own to being a Christian through years of involvement in various rolls within principally the C of E in England. I have found it increasingly difficult to participate in any formal act of community worship. To the point that certainly for at least the past year I haven’t set foot in a Church Building, other than as a tourist, to attend a Concert or Recital or with an Architectural interest.
Thank’s in some measure at least, to having read your thoughts, I no longer feel as guilty about this, or that I am feeding my ego for looking for something that I have not found in congregational worship.
Thank you.

05 November 2013 15:43
Wendy Dackson, PhD said...

Caroline, I’m pleased you found this helpful, maybe even a little reassuring. I think congregational participation is important, but may not be the primary need throughout everyone’s spiritual life. Just as the purpose of a school is to help someone grow to a point where s/he can function outside that environment, congregations may need to think about what happens to people when they can function outside their environment.

Caroline Mercer said...

THank you Wendy.

05 November 2013 22:17
05 November 2013 16:51
Joyce said...

In these days when there is so much choice of method of expressing spirituality and Christianity, I too question the absolute necessity of frequent corporate worship for adults.
A few Christmasses ago I was with friends after yet another kerfuffle and struggle at yet another church that had convinced itself and the City Council’s officers it was wheelchair-accessible,singing a carol and looking at a nativity scene, when I thought, ‘I’ve done this more than fifty times already. Do I want to do it again or shall I have a break and miss the next half-dozen ?’
Even Christmas gets samey.
In my own youth we were advised to say to the sort of person who stated he could worship God just as well on the golf course on Sundays as in Church, ‘But we all need fellowship with other Christians.’
We still do need Fellowship with other Christians for many reasons, but it’s no longer the case that the only way to encounter them is to attend services on Sundays plus a possible midweek meeting. In my teens the chances were one’s house was one of millions on a waiting list even for a telephone line unless one’s mother was the District Nurse and Midwife or one’s father ran a business from home. The Parish Magazine was delivered once a month at most. Announcements were read during Sunday services. If we missed Church for any reason two Sundays in a row we could lose touch with what was going on. There was no local radio, so no spots for discussions with local clergy or news of local churches. Thought For the Day on the Home Service before work or school, The Daily Service, Five to Ten and Choral Evensong if you were a housewife,and that was it.
Fast-forward four or five decades:
the Lent before last, Richard Haggis and I did the Litany daily on MSN via mike and webcam. I was in Derby, he was in Oxford. Neither of us had to leave the house. On i-church we follow books in the chatroom for Lent and Advent and the authors are invited. On Second Life there is a Posada before Christmas. Shopping centres nowadays have retail chaplains, supermarkets have Sunday Schools,discotheques and nightclubs have tent missions. There are prayers on facebook and twitter one can read on the bus.Margaret Barker,The Archbishop of Canterbury and Tom Wright are on YouTube. And so on and so on.
Q : Is congregational worship a good thing to take part in ? A: Yes.
Q: Does everybody need,however, to take part in it every week ? A : Not necessarily :some do,some don’t.
Q : Would those present at ‘The Last Supper’ recognise what Anglicans are doing queueing up to kneel down in a row along a rail for what we call Holy Communion ? A : Possibly but it would probably take them some time.

06 November 2013 16:50

[…] Last week-ish or so, a Relevant Magazine article from a few years ago turned up in my news feed, posted by a friend whose work involves training for prospective ordained ministers. I read it, realized who had written it originally, and commented concerning my opinions of the piece and its author.  Because, not long after the Relevant piece was written, I had contributed a three-part series to the Lay Anglicana blog on Lillian Daniel’s When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough. You can read my responses to her book here.  And here.  And here. […]

12 November 2015 12:41

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