How to Deal with ”Nones” (Group with No Religious Affiliation)

South American Division

How to Deal with ”Nones” (Group with No Religious Affiliation)

Research author talks about ways to reach a growing group of people who do not formally identify with religions.

Commentary | Brazil | Jolivê Chaves

The growth of those declaring themselves “nones,” i.e., people with no religious affiliation, has been continuously higher than that of the general population in many cultures.[1] Although a minority in the group call themselves atheists or agnostics, the vast majority of nones claim to believe in God but reject religious institutions.[2] In Brazil, they are the third largest group in the religious field, behind Catholics and Pentecostal evangelicals.[3] In the United States, they are the second largest group, after Protestants as a whole.[4]

In my Ph.D. dissertation, defended at Andrews University in March 2021, I studied this group in Brazilian and American cultures from two angles. First, nones were analyzed based on selected elements that characterize the theories of secularization used by the sociology of religion. Furthermore, I analyzed biblical narratives that describe the missio Dei (a concept in the area of ​​missiology that means the “mission of God”) among foreigners in order to find biblical principles applicable to nones, since there is no biblical text directly related to the group, as this is a post-biblical-period phenomenon.

Concept of None

Nones are the result of the change in human thinking, whether by influences coming from the Enlightenment movement of the modern period or assumptions defended by postmodernism today. Among the main legacies of the modern Enlightenment, reflected in the characteristics of this group, is the principle of religious freedom and the autonomy of the individual,[5] described by Taylor as “ethics of authenticity.”

According to this thought, all human beings are autonomous, and therefore each individual must “realize humanity” in a specific and personal way.[6]

Among the main causes of the phenomenon of nones, associated with postmodernism, are relativism and the functional aspect of religion. The religious menu is built individually, based on personal taste and functionality, following a religious market model without taking into account the biblical content as a norm of faith and practice.[7]

Other causal influences of the phenomenon are the emphasis on direct communication with the transcendent without institutional mediation—what Davie calls “believing without belonging,”[8] and the metaphysical, subjective, and existentialist religiosity without dogmatic parameters, brought to the fore by modern spiritualism, originating in the late 19th century.[9]

Finally, scientific and technological advancement is also a factor that explains the phenomenon of nones, as it promotes secularism, especially reflected in the small portion formed by atheists and agnostics. As Berger attests, pluralism generates an increase in religious disaffiliation and weakens institutional boundaries. This contributed to the growth of this expressive group as the last stage of the process of religious change.[10] As young people are the most susceptible to social change, nones are more substantially represented among them.[11]

Relationship with Nones

My study concluded that there are at least eight areas considered sensitive in the missional relationship with nones in the two cultures under study. Some of these are critical or difficult to relate to from a missionary perspective; others can be seen as an opportunity for missional access with the group. The research in focus analyzed the eight sensitive areas in communication with this group and suggested, for each of them, missiological principles that can serve as bridges in the relationship with the group in each of these areas.

The first area is the identity of God. Most nones reject religion but not God. However, few of them believe in the God described by the Bible; most see God as a force or energy.[12] Missionary work based on the saving power of God, the New Testament focus on the manifestation of God's energy, and the study of the person of Christ as the perfect revelation of God are principles that can help these people have a real encounter with God.

The second critical area in the relationship is the Bible as the source of truth. Strongly influenced by postmodern concepts, nones relativize the content of faith, reducing truth to the individual level.[13] Storytelling, the adequacy of biblical content to needs, relational/application study of Scripture, the use of Hebrew logic, which, unlike Greek logic, does not see extremes as opposites but as complementary, and the integral mission are some suggested principles that can bring the nones closer to the biblical text.

The third critical area is institutional religion. People who identify with this group reject religious institutions, seeing them as a symbol of oppression and power.[14] However, research has shown that the local congregation plays an important role in the spiritual development of members and the formation of relational communities. It is in the local church that the development and discipleship of members to fulfill the Christian mission takes place.[15]

In this case, nones can be reached through a personal approach, including friendship evangelism, the salt model of evangelism, the ḥesed attitude (acts of kindness, welcoming, and selfless service, among other ways to demonstrate God's love), and small relational groups. At the right time, such people will be able to overcome prejudice against institutions and eventually join the church's collective worship.

The fourth critical area is cross-cultural barriers, arising from the difference between the nones' worldview and the biblical worldview. The principle of contextualization, suggested in this research, can help to overcome these barriers.[16]

Opportunities

Three areas present opportunities in a missionary relationship with nones. These are cases where the gospel can offer what they want or expect. The first of these is cultural/religious pluralism. People who claim to have no religious affiliation appreciate the access to religious products, syncretism, and the freedom afforded by pluralism, while criticizing the competition for membership and the commercial nature of faith encouraged by the same pluralism.[17]

Diversity of approaches is a suggested principle for relationships in a pluralistic society, including contextualized music. The challenge here is to be relevant within the parameters of sacred music, as well as involve relational groups, social ministry, activities for children, and the use of social media, among others. The goal is to create a connection with nones and expose them to an experience with Jesus, the Word, and the power of God.

The second area of ​​opportunity is openness to relationships and community life. Nones value relationships and the community experience.[18] Some insights into approaching this trait might be friendship evangelism and an attitude of acceptance. This does not mean accepting people's mistakes, but creating a connection that allows the individual to feel included, something fundamental to the change that the gospel brings. The goal is to develop communities in which this group of people feels accepted before making a cognitive decision.

The third area of ​​opportunity is the social role of religion. Nones look positively to institutions that provide social services for the benefit of people in need and the environment. In general, they seek a relevant “cause” of which to be a part, even if these are promoted and led by religious institutions.[19] The principles of solidarity action and incarnational ministry can demonstrate the social role of religion and present the authenticity of the Christian community, being a bridge to attract them to the faith.

Finally, the areas of communication and technology represent both a critical relationship and an opportunity for missional contact with the nones . They appreciate media-accessible religious products but criticize churches that use the media to seek out members, exert political influence, and gain financial benefits.[20] Therefore, some recommended principles for mass communication in the missionary relationship with this group involve the judicious, non-partisan use of the media and balance in matters of a commercial nature, ensuring that the content is relevant to the listener's interest and the awareness of humanitarian issues and socio-environmental causes.

Therefore, as Christians and disciples of Jesus, we need to notice the cultural wave of contemporary change as one of the most significant opportunities to reach people for Christ. Intentional and planned action by the church to promote mission with nones is recommended. Such a project may involve theological education, mission agencies, and training in practical approaches, among other elements. The growth in the number of nones in recent decades requires a proportionate effort on the part of the church to reach them for Christ.

Jolivê Chaves is a doctor in theology and regional director of the Latin American Theology Seminary in Bahia.

References:

[1] One in six people in the world identifies as non-religious. They are 16% of the planet's population, about 1.2 billion people. Christians are the largest religious group, with 2.3 billion adherents and 31.2% of the world's population. The second largest group is the Muslim, with 1.8 billion followers, representing 24.1% of the population. See Pew Research Center, “Christians Remain World's Largest Religious Group, but They Are Declining in Europe,” April 5, 2017, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/05/christians-remain-worlds-largest-religious-group-but-they-are-declining-in-europe/. Dividing the world into six large areas, non-religious represent the following percentages of the respective populations: Asia-Pacific 21.2 percent; Europe 18.2 percent; North America 17.1 percent; Latin America-Caribbean 7.7 percent; Sub-Saharan Africa 3.2 percent; and Middle East–North Africa 0.6 percent. See Pew Research Center, “Religiously Unaffiliated,” December 18, 2012, http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-unaffiliated/

[2] See Pew Research Center, "Nones on the Rise"; Pew Research Center, "When Americans Say They Believe in God, What Do They Mean?" April 25, 2018, http://www.pewforum.org/2018/04/25/when-americans-say-they-believe-in-god-what-do-they-mean/

[3] Pew Research Center, "Brazil`s Changing Religious Landscape," July 18, 2013, https://www.pewforum.org/2013/07/18/brazils-changing-religious-landscape/

[4] Pew Research Center, "America's Changing Religious Landscape," May 12, 2015, https://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

[5] See Voltaire. Treatise on Toleration (London: Penguin, 2016), 6–15, 24–35, 108–14, 137.

[6] See Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 50.

[7] Peter L. Berger, The Many Altars of Modernity: Toward a Paradigm for Religion in a Pluralist Age (Boston, MA: Walter de Gruyter, 2014), 2, 3.

[8] Grace Davie, The Sociology of Religion (Los Angeles: SAGE, 2007), 44.

[9] Courtney Miller, “‘Spiritual but not religious’: rethinking the legal definition of religion.” Virginia Law Review 102, no. 3 (2016): 833–94. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43923324

[10] Peter L. Berger and Anton Zijderveld, In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), 147–48.

[11] See Pew Research Center, “A Closer Look at America’s Rapidly Growing Religious Nones,” May 13, 2015, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/13/a-closer-look-at-americas-rapidly-growing-religious-nones/. Pew Research Center, “Nones on the Rise”; White, Rise of the Nones.

[12] Pew Research Center, "When Americans say they believe in God, what do they mean?" April 25, 2018, https://www.pewforum.org/2018/04/25/when-americans-say-they-believe-in-god-what-do-they-mean/

[13] See Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005); Iannaccone, Finke, and Stark, "Deregulating Religion"; Stark and Finke, Acts of Faith.

[14] See Pew Research Center, “5 Key Findings About Religiosity in the U.S.—and How It’s Changing,” November 3, 2015, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/03/5-key-findings-about-religiosity-in-the-u-s-and-how-its-changing/; Pew Research Center, “More Americans Now Say They’re Spiritual but Not Religious,”

[15] See Thomas Luckmann, The Invisible Religion: The Problem of Religion in Modern Society (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 106; Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (London: Penguin Books, 1966), 177-78.

[16] James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014), 155-56; Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Silver Spring, MD: Ellen G. White Estate, 2014), 57.

[17] Pew Research Center, "More See 'Too Much' Religious Talk by Politicians." March 23, 2012. https://www.pewforum.org/2012/03/21/more-see-too-much-religious-talk-by-politicians/

[18] Pew Research Center, "About the Pew Internet & American Life Project," June 27, 2007, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2007/06/27/about-the-pew-internet-american-life-project/; Jon Paulien, "The Post-Modern Acts of God," Scribd, November 18, 2004, https://www.scribd.com/document/7240142/The-Post-Modern-Acts-of-God

[19] James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014), 101.

[20] See Pew Research Center, “The Modern News Consumer: News Attitudes and Practices in the Digital Era,” July 7, 2016, https://www.journalism.org/2016/07/07/the-modern-news-consumer/; Text ex Machina, “New York Times Study: The Psychology of Sharing: Why Do People Share Online?,” July 18, 2011, http “Religion and market: Business-religious media.” REVIEW, no. 1 (2005), 67; Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Routledge, 2001), 105–12.

This article was originally published on the South American Division’s news site