By now, you’ve probably heard of the “nones,” that 20 percent of the U.S. population – and a third of adults under 30 – who have no religious affiliation.
It’s a rapidly growing group that has zoomed past the Baptists (about 17 percent of the population) and is nipping at the heels of the Catholics (23 percent).
The faith community’s reaction to this trend? Some are alarmed, others are in denial, and still others see it as an opportunity.
Pastor James Emery White of Mecklenburg Community Church is in that third category. He argues in a new book – his 20th – that Christian churches committed to following Jesus’ call to spread the Gospel must connect with these nones.
He said he’s been doing it for years: “Meck,” which he founded in 1992, has been a kind of “living laboratory” on how to woo the unchurched.
His non-denominational evangelical church and its satellite sites – all in north Mecklenburg – have about 10,000 active attendees. And 70 percent of its growth, he said, comes from people who had not been active in another church.
In his book – “The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated” – White urges churches to step outside the “Christian subculture.”
“The mission cannot be simply to keep Christians happy and growing,” he writes. “Nor can it be about attempting to lure believers from other churches by having glitzier services and better programs. Our mission will actually have to target the nones.”
White acknowledges that this will not be easy because most nones don’t really want to be targeted by churches.
White compares most churches to airlines trying to get fliers to switch from, say, USAir to Southwest Airlines with a cheaper fare. But with the nones, he told me, “we’re trying to get people who don’t want to fly. And that’s hard.”
So how does White propose to turn them into church-going followers of Christ?
First, understand who they are. Drilling down into the data, White found that the typical none is not atheist or agnostic. Two-thirds believe in God. They just think churches are too focused on money, power, rules and politics.
“They’re the classic ‘I’m spiritual, but not religious’ person,” said White, 52, who didn’t become a Christian until he was 20. “They love to hear things explained. They have great questions (about religion) that are so legitimate. And for whatever reason, they’ve never been answered.”
White’s next step: Try to answer those questions. Not by watering down the Bible’s vision, but by making a positive case for it.
Finally, he said, focus on love, not condemnation. “It’s how you say what you say. It’s being able to enter into dialogue, where people feel talked with, not talked at.”
-- Tim Funk