Book Review: The Rise of the Nones, by James Emery White
James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated. Baker Books, 2014, 224 pages. $15.99.
Let’s begin with a boring statistic: 8.1 percent. According to an American Religious Identification survey, that’s roughly how many Americans in 1990 were willing to identify themselves as having “no religious identification.” Fast-forward eighteen years to 2008 and that same ARIS study number becomes 15 percent. Give it four more years in the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s 2012 study it becomes 19.3 percent. That’s one in five Americans. In other words, in a space of about 20 years, the number of Americans willing to claim no religious identity has doubled and there is no indication that trend is slowing down. This is the fastest-growing religious demographic in America. The statistics aren’t as boring anymore, now are they?
Apparently, “Nones” are on the rise. As the body commissioned to preach the gospel to and disciple all nations, the question becomes, “What is the church going to do about it?”
In The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated James Emery White steps in to provide an answer, or rather, a vision for the American church to reach those Nones with the gospel of Christ. As the former president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and the founding pastor of Mecklenberg Community Church—one of the fastest growing churches in the nation—he seems particularly qualified for the task.
With a clear, engaging style, vivid illustrations, biblical roots, and a proper sense of history, White lays out a clear path for churches to make the changes necessary to deal with the shifting religious sands. The book breaks down into two parts. In the first, White tells us who the Nones are, and in the second, he lays out a plan to reach them.
WHO ARE THE NONES?
How good of an archer would you be if you didn’t know how to recognize a target? You might shoot with enthusiasm, strength, and joy, but if you don’t know what to aim at, odds are you’re not likely to hit anything—at least not anything you’re supposed to. Many churches today are like archers who can’t recognize the target. They want to reach the Nones for Christ, but they don’t really know what they look like, so their aim is off.
In the first (and very helpful) part of the book, White strives to paint a portrait of the Nones for us. Actually, strike that. It’s more like a portrait as well as the broad landscape in which these strange new figures make sense. First, we get a barrage of statistics establishing the rise of the Nones; this is not a passing fad, nor can we simply assure ourselves it’s just Millennials taking their time coming back home because they’re putting off having kids for a bit. They’re not.
So what do they look like? Well, they’re not hostile atheists, but rather apatheists who are ambivalent about religion (26-27). White says many of them are not opposed to the idea of God in general, but are turned off by a church full of lawyers (power), guns (politics), and money (money). Nones are the product of a secularized, privatized, and pluralized post-Christian world in which many think they’ve heard and rejected the gospel, but most, in fact, don’t even have the basic theological furniture in place to make a decision about it (90-91). Infected with “bad religion,” they don’t believe they’re sinners, but “mistakers.” They don’t look for solid arguments, but statements that have a feel of “truthiness,” and “wiktiality”—truthiness approved of by popular majority opinion (63).
This is why the old methods simply won’t work. A revival with a simple gospel message won’t likely be understood (or attended). If you build it, they won’t come because they’re not looking for it or attracted by it.
DECIDING TO REACH THEM
So, how do we reach them? White says the most important shift comes when we determine to try. White says the problem is that our churches are focused on the wrong sort of growth. Instead of seeking the more difficult conversion growth that pulls in Nones and non-believers, we’re busy with biological growth (having babies), prodigal growth (reeling people back in), or transfer growth (taking members from other churches) (74) As a result, all of our programs, preaching, and care go into maintenance mode or catering to these other kinds of growth.
Only when we understand and prioritize conversion growth will we make the sacrificial changes necessary to bring them in. To return to our earlier metaphor, now that we know what the target looks like, we need to actually become “none-targeted” (96) and decide to shoot for it.
MARKS OF NONE-TARGETED CHURCHES
So what are some of the marks of churches that reach Nones? For one thing, we need to move past the “if you build it they will come” mentality (88). Nones might like coffee, but they respond to a cause like poverty reduction (100), and they’ll come check out a community that invites them into one. For Nones it’s Cause –> Community –> Christ in order of interest. Still, when they do come, they need to experience grace and truth or, rather, the uniquely powerful truth of grace (121) that sets apart the message of the gospel from all other systems.
Preaching and teaching is still center-stage and it can’t be dumbed-down, even if we need to put a high premium on “translation.” We must endeavor to connect to and invert hostile cultural narratives and habits of mind as well as refocus our apologetics less on older, evidential approaches to the moral objections Nones tend to have towards the Bible. This can only happen, though, if there is a community that embodies this and has space for those in process, a community that puts a premium on the lived unity of the body instead of the sort of Christian infighting that turns Nones off (142, 145).
Finally, in a more practical, some might say pragmatic chapter, White says you need to open “the front door.” In other words, pay attention to the church itself and the weekend gathering. Cultivate a friendly, open atmosphere (153). Clean up the pews and keep things tidy; how you keep the church building demonstrates the reverence you have for the Lord (159). Music isn’t everything, but excellence matters, and like the old Reformers, we shouldn’t be scared of mixing it up a bit (157). Develop a solid children’s ministry; people might find your preaching a bit wanting, but if their kids love the children’s ministry, they’ll stick around (155).
CONCERNS AND COMMENDATIONS
Though I found myself largely nodding my head in agreement through the book, I did have a couple of questions. Though most of the pragmatic moves White mentions are either harmless or mostly helpful, I still wondered at a couple of points: “While that’s probably good for getting people in, what about what happens to them as they stay?” Yes, they come with consumer concerns, but should their continued experience reinforce those concerns? Comfy stadium seating might say you’re expecting company (160), but how does that affect the long-term formative experience of worship? We want to bring in and convert Nones, yes, but how do these changes affect our long-term discipleship?
As for keeping the main thing the main thing and avoiding unnecessary conflict, I’m all for it. But what about when the doctrinal distinctives come up? White appeals to John 13-17 about the primary unity in the New Testament being “relational unity” (145), as opposed to absolute uniformity or unanimity. Yet Paul talks about the unity of believers resting in one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Eph. 4); in other words, there’s a unity of confession, of theology. So what happens when you can’t agree about baptism? In that same vein, I’m sure White has an answer, but I would have liked to see him touch on the way a church with strong membership practices should approach the “Cause –> Community –> Christ” paradigm. And further, how does this approach handle the bleeding off of millennial evangelicals into other “older” traditions, away from the lowest, common denominator evangelicalism they grew up with?
Questions aside, as a young adult ministry director, I can safely say this book provides a timely word. We cannot bury our head in the sands on this issue. Based on the millennials I come across, White’s analysis of the Nones seems spot on. Indeed, a decision to engage the Nones will essentially be a decision to engage millennials as well.
In The Rise of the Nones, White has done more than ring an alarmist bell. He’s given us a clear resource to understand and respond to the challenge ahead. While I would caution pastors not to fret about older pews, or whether the organist should start showing up in skinny jeans, this book will help you share the timeless gospel to those who do.