First, the “nones” are certainly not a new group of unbelievers exiting the pews of our nation’s churches. They are merely a group who are identifying more accurately what they have always been, those without any real religious practice.
Dr. Ed Stetzer, who holds the distinguished Billy Graham Chair of Church, Missions, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, has given one of the best clarifying explanations of the nones that I’ve seen. In USA Today, he wrote that “Christianity isn’t collapsing, it’s being clarified.”
He is precisely right. He further explains, “Nominal Christians are becoming the nones and convictional Christians remain committed.” This is the precise secret to understanding what’s going on. Weak Christianity is getting weaker and robust, and orthodox Christianity is getting stronger in terms of adherents, if not by theological maturity.
The nones are simply those who until recently would have identified with a Christian denomination just because that’s what their family has always been. But their pastors know they are just CEO Christians (Christmas and Easter Only). Beyond that, it’s crickets attendance-wise. Even though most are inactive, many do hold some cold-to-lukewarm Christian beliefs in the back of their minds. According to Pew, almost a third say that religion is indeed important to them. So the nones are not some new and growing crowd of atheists, agnostics, or unbelievers.
Other leading sociologists of religion report the same thing. Rodney Stark of Baylor University, one of the world’s leading and most distinguished scholars in this field, gives the same explanation in his important book, “The Triumph of Faith: Why the World Is More Religious Than Ever”: “Today, when asked their religious preference, instead of saying Methodist or Catholic, now a larger proportion of non-attenders say ‘none,’ by which they most seem to mean ‘no actual membership.’”
Stark gets more precise: “The entire change [toward none-ness] has taken place with the non-attending group.”
— Thomas S. Kidd (@ThomasSKidd) April 24, 2019