Black, White, and Gray: Trends in the Religious Unaffiliated, the “Nones,” by Age - Brad Wright
A lot has been written recently about the rise of the "Nones," people expressing no religious affiliation. Sociologist Brad Wright offers a fascinating insight by looking at the percentage of people at various stages of life report affliation. Young adults are not suprisingly the group with the highest percentage but Wright offers this chart.
Once again, the percentage of being unaffiliated increased in each group, but relatively speaking, it’s increased most among the middle-aged and the elderly. In both the percentage of the unaffiliated more than tripled, compared to the 2.5x increase in the young. There is some lagged effect, as the elderly are catching up the middle-aged in the past decade, but overall, the rise of the religious nones is something that spans all age groups. Thus it’s a societal-wide change more than just an age or generational change.
This data doesn't tell us why there is the rise but I have a theory: Church offers little for discerning significance in life.
A few random thoughts (mostly intuitive perceptions.) For many older adults who grew up in the church, there is disillusionment with church life. Young adults have who are interested in the church are out starting up independent congregations that are narrowly targeted to their particular age demographic. Older Christians feel rejected. As a traditional congregation tries to become more appealing to the younger demographic, long-time congregants experience a loss of rhythms and routines that were meaningful for them. With those gone, worship no longer seems meaningful. Some look for other congregations but I sense many see the work of integrating into a new community faith community as too much work. As the number of congregations with familiar patterns dwindle and close, they slip out the door into the ether.
Dr. Eileen Lindner, Deputy General Secretary for Research and Planning of the National Council of Churches USA, gave a presentation a saw a couple of years ago. She points out the fifty years ago congregations and denominations were engaged in a whole range of work that ministered to the world. Beginning the 1960s and 1970s, para-church organizations began to emerge to do the things congregations once did ... like Young Life and Habitat for Humanity. Many of the things churches once did have been replaced by nonprofit organizations that may not have an explicit faith connection. In one sense, the church is victim of its own success, having encultured values of service into the broader culture. But the downside is that it frequently feels like all we are left with is squabbles about internal politics. Congregations and denominations are struggling for an identity and purpose in relating to the world.
As I’ve written several times, conservative congregations typically respond by offering programming directed toward therapeutic healing, personal piety, or political action to stop the “barbarians at the gates.” Liberal congregations also offer therapeutic healing and personal piety, but also frequently include political action they discern is directed toward “social justice.” To me, much of it appears to a be a “me too” response to broader movements in the culture, hoping to leach off of the meaning people find in these movements rather than the church itself generating the meaning for congregants. Religion (right and left) becomes so captive to the categories and contours of cultural politics that theological understanding is lost. And if you want to do political action, there are far more dynamic venues than the church.
And that brings me back to my overarching theory: Church offers little for discerning significance in life. Too much of church is about a narrow personal piety (a niche market) while trying to make ourselves relevant to the culture with “me too” strategies from the periphery of culture. Until people see how daily life connects with God’s unending mission, I think the Nones tribe will continue to grow and prosper.