Growing number of 'nones' seen as bad, good and fixable

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 16 2012 7:00 a.m. MDT

The number of people who say they are unaffiliated with a religion are increasing.

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Kurt Frederickson often makes the case that pastors need to change how they engage their shrinking congregations. And now he has even more research on his side.

When Fredrickson, an associate dean at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasendena, Calif., speaks to an annual gathering of Evangelical Covenant Church pastors this week in central Michigan, he will be armed with the latest data describing people who don't affiliate with a church — a group that is growing faster than any other religious tradition.

A report released last week by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life showed that while America remains religious, with 79 percent of the population saying they belong to a faith, the number of those who say they don't belong has grown 4.3 percentage points in the past five years. The rise is particularly acute among young adults.

The possible causes of the trend vary from a general distrust in large institutions to an increasing number of people feeling comfortable with disclosing they are unaffiliated with a church, according to Pew researchers and other experts.

Opinions on how to reverse the trend also vary. Some say the rising number of unaffiliated people is a healthy weeding out of "anemic Protestantism," while others say the unaffiliated simply seek spiritual fulfillment in a variety of ways and are not as irreligious as studies suggest

But Fredrickson says the data clearly show that only those church leaders who can find a way to connect with the unaffiliated and with the surrounding communities at large will be able to keep their doors open in the future.

"We need to do church and religion differently to connect with people," says Fredrickson. "We need to change the whole tenor of the religious experience into something deeper and more meaningful" than just stitting in a pew one day a week.

'Nones' on the rise

Pew's latest analysis, titled "'Nones' on the Rise," was a deep dive into several surveys dating back to 2007 and included a poll of nearly 3,000 adults conducted June 28-July 9, 2012. ("Nones" is the nickname given by demographers to people who, when asked their religious affiliation, answer "none.")

The analysis found that, due in part to the increasing number of "nones," the percentage of Protestant adults in the U.S. has dropped to 48 percent, marking the first time in history that the United States does not have a Protestant majority. It also found that less religiously active Americans are becoming more comfortable saying they are unaffiliated. In 2007, 38 percent who seldom attended a religious service identified as unaffiliated. In 2012, that share grew to 49 percent.

The unaffiliated are predictably less religious than the public at large on conventional measures such as church attendance, prayer and the importance they place on religion, but they are not completely irreligious. More than two-thirds (68 percent) say they believe in God and 37 percent classify themselves as spiritual but not religious.

Researchers also found that the unaffiliated believe religious institutions benefit society by forging community bonds and caring for the poor. But few of them (10 percent) are seeking out a faith, and they overwhelmingly say organized religion is too involved in politics, focused on rules and concerned with money and power.

"What that tells me is these people aren't looking to religion for answers," Fredrickson said. "They don't trust the institution."

He believes the church can earn that trust by changing its paradigm from an "attractional" model that uses marketing, liberal doctrine or a contemporary worship style to fill up the pews to a model that focuses on helping the community at large live Christlike principles to make their community a better place.

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