More about the “Nones.” Who are they, anyway?

You remember, last week’s Pew survey stirred up a frenzy of speculation (and angst) about what it might mean that the number of religiously unaffiliated in the US has grown by 5% (and yes, I contributed in my own small way, to that frenzy).

There’s been a lot of commentary about the “nones”–who they are, why they have rejected institutional religion. Much of it is like a recent piece by Brian McLaren which focuses on college students who have been turned off by conservative Christianity.

Elizabeth Drescher offers a more nuanced approach, pointing out that the Pew Survey focuses on belief, rather than on practice:

My hunch is that questions about “belonging to a community of people who share your beliefs and values” confuses the idea of community as a gathered social-spiritual network (a tribe) with the fraught subject of doctrinal religious belief and, further, the problematic language of religious values. We know, of course, that attendance at religious services of all sorts is down (except, perhaps, among religious groups in which doctrinal pluralism is something of a core value), but that does not allow us to conclude that religious or spiritual community is not important in the United States among those who identify or formally affiliate with institutional religions as well as those who do not.

Still, it’s clear that McLaren, Drescher, and most Episcopalian commentators on the survey imagine the “nones” to be well-educated, middle-class or upper-middle class, and probably white.

The reality, revealed by the Pew survey itself, is rather different. Jeff Sharlet points out the connection between disaffiliation and economics:

so the Pew study of the Nones has distracted many from what I think are the most interesting numbers: the largest percentage, 38%, is in the under $30,000 income bracket. Another 34% are below $74,999. Which means 72% are poor, working class, or, for a family of four, lower middle class. Those identifying as “atheist/agnostic,” a much smaller group than the “Nothing in particulars,” skew 62% under $75,000. Look at the education demographics and you’ll find more evidence for the hypothesis that what these numbers show is economic absence as much as religious absence. 45% of those identifying as Nothing in Particulars (NiPs) have no college, roughly the same as many religious affiliations.

He also points out the historical connection between disconnectedness from religion and economic downturns. The Great Depression was the last historical period that saw such numbers of the “unchurched.”

If he’s right, that might require rethinking how one does outreach to the religiously unaffiliated (the “unchurched”).

Why would people want to attend church? continued

A follow-up to the previous post. We tend to assume if we just got things right, whether “things” be the liturgy, or coffee hour, or theology, or even the building, then things would be OK and people would want to join us. But there are deeper issues.

Brian McLaren writes (h/t Steve Knight)

“‎Christian mission begins with friendship — not utilitarian friendship, the religious version of network marketing — but genuine friendship, friendship that translates love for neighbors in general into knowing, appreciating, liking and enjoying … This knowing-in-particular then motivates us to protect our neighbor when he or she is under threat, as a little Rwandan girl understood: just before she was brutally murdered during the genocide, she said to her slayer, ‘If you knew me, you would not kill me.’”

Also this: “They don’t believe because your God isn’t desirable.” This is a reflection on debates between Christians and atheists, with the underlying assumption that one can prove the existence of God, or the superiority of the Christian faith, by rational argument.

But I think the same dynamic is in play in other areas, in the common deployment of terms like “inclusivity.” Not that I’m against inclusion, mind you, but sometimes I think we are so focused on the outward symbols of inclusion that we forget the importance of God’s love and our love of our neighbor.

Structure and Mission–Today’s ruminations

This evening, I will be making a presentation to a small group of interested Episcopalians on Mission, Structure, and Budget. We’re meeting on Tuesdays in May to talk about the key issues that will be discussed at this summer’s General Convention. This one promises to be a major focus, even though on the surface, it doesn’t seem particularly interesting.

So today, I’m preparing. I’ve got charts and graphs, lots of statistics (I won’t present very much budget detail). But I’m also reading a lot, re-reading the debate that’s been taking place at least since the fall of 2011, and reading other pieces. For example, Seaburynext offers a series of reflections on their “Great Awakening” conference that took place this past January. At it, Bishop Jeff Lee (of Chicago) invited participants to write for themselves permission slips. Bishop Lee, Diana Butler Bass, and others have been reflecting on what was written.

McLaren has this to say:

The same with structure. In the modern/colonial era, colonial structures competed for “religious market share” and each claimed greater legitimacy than the others. As we emerge from that “my structure is better than yours” mindset, we realize that any structure can become problematic … and that any structure (including episcopal ones!) can serve our essential message, meaning, and mission.

That’s why an Episcopal Church that uses organ, incense, and vestments can be more of an emerging church than one that uses a rock and roll band, blue jeans, and uber-casual style. If it’s focused on a missional understanding of the church derived from a Kingdom-of-God understanding of the gospel, it’s emerging from the old paradigms.

If we take those understandings as seriously as we should, we may see Episcopal Churches finding permission to experiment, explore, and evolve into new styles and structures. In that way, Episcopal identity may become more like the fair food or healthy eating movements (united by a common vision and values) and less like the old McDonald’s (united by the externals – the same menu, pricing, uniforms, and golden arches).

I’m struck by what Brian says, given the news we learned today that shows a lack of interest in revising The Hymnal 1982. Those under 30 were most opposed. To use his language, The Hymnal 1982 can be “missional” if it helps us proclaim the Gospel and if we are allowed to experiment and develop new styles alongside it.

Among the things for which people asked permission:

As I read what people wrote on their permission slips, I’m struck by how much we long for permission to turn loose of fear. “Permission to say where the church is failing,” one person requested. “I want permission to try radically new ways of “doing” and “being” (the) Church whether or not they succeed.  I want to be allowed the grace to fail,” wrote another. “Permission not to be afraid of failure,” another requested.

The seaburynext blog is here.

Meanwhile, Steven Ayers has some things to say about the role of the clergy in the Episcopal Church of the future.

More on GLBT inclusion

Wow! It’s been an eventful week!

First, there was the spat over Sojouners decision not to run an ad. I posted about that here.

Then we learned that the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted for full inclusion of GLBTQ clergy.

The same day came the news that chaplains in the US Navy could perform same-sex blessings. That was walked back later.

And in Uganda, continuing confusion over the progress of the anti-gay bill, that would allow capital punishment. Episcopal Cafe has the rundown on the on-again, off-again debate.

To follow up on the Sojourners issue, my friend Brian Maclaren, who served on Sojourners board of directors, shares his pilgrimage on full inclusion. In Part I he writes:

But at this point I was a pastor and had to deal with the conflict between two commitments: first, one of my primary job requirements – to keep together rather than divide my congregation on the one hand, and second, to stand up with integrity and be counted as an advocate for people I had become convinced were being treated with neither justice nor compassion. I negotiated this tension by speaking up when I could and by seeking to use my influence to increase sensitivity to people whom I felt were being treated by Christians in a truly sub-Christian way.

But at every turn I felt that I couldn’t speak out too strongly too fast without dividing the church that I was called to serve. At times I probably pushed too far too fast – and got angry letters and emails about it, and at times I didn’t lead strongly enough – and got angry letters and emails about that too, just from other people.

In Part II he writes:

If I were to boil down messy contemporary reality to an equation, here’s what it would be:

– You can’t lead a coalition of progressive Christians without being an outspoken leader on LGBTQ issues.
– You can’t lead a coalition that includes mainstream Evangelical and conservative Catholic Christians if you are an outspoken leader on LGBTQ issues.

For progressive Christians, it is often difficult to comprehend the excruciating problem for conservative Christians to move toward a position that fully includes Gays and Lesbians, what the toll is personally, and what the toll is for their relationships. Brian’s two posts on the topic may help others comprehend.

For a profound theological perspective on the Christian argument for same-sex blessings, Eugene Roger’s piece in Christian Century is breath-taking.

More on Rob Bell

Brian McLaren’s Huffington Post essay in defense of Rob Bell and rebutting Al Mohler. In the context of dealing with Mohler’s attacks, McLaren also asks some pointed questions about “the decline of mainline Protestantism.” Perhaps the most salient concerns the conservative argument that mainline Protestants succumbed to secular culture. Here’s his response:

To more and more of us these days, conservative Evangelical/fundamentalist theology looks and sounds more and more like secular conservatism — economic and political — simply dressed up in religious language. If that’s the case, even if Dr. Mohler is right in every detail of his critique, he’d still be wise to apply the flip side of his warning to his own beloved community.

In another blog post, McLaren points out other evangelical voices who support Bell, if even only partially.

Rob Bell himself gives some background on why he wrote the book here.

My friend (and former student!) the Very Rev’d Jake Owensby, Dean of the Cathedral of St. Mark in Baton Rouge, has written a thoughtful series of posts on heaven and hell. You can read it here.