When volunteers sign up to serve food or organize a clothing drive at Rescue Mission of Salt Lake, Chris Croswhite doesn't ask them whether they believe in God. He couldn't tell you how many of his current helpers are nonreligious because the subject doesn't usually come up when people are busy cooking or cleaning.
"We've made an intentional decision that there is no need for a person who simply wants to help another human being to have (to meet) a faith requirement," said Croswhite, the organization's executive director.
Rescue Mission is built on Christian principles, including belief in Jesus' bodily resurrection and the authority of biblical teachings. Homeless or impoverished men and women who visit have access to spiritual care, in addition to resources like clothing, food and shelter.
But Croswhite recognizes many people who share Rescue Mission's goal of serving people in need aren't religiously motivated. He appreciates nonbelievers' help in increasing his organization's impact, noting his leadership team has talked about the importance of making religious "nones" feel welcome.
"We want to be able to build partnerships with the entire community serving the homeless, not just people who agree with our faith perspective," Croswhite said.
His approach makes practical sense because the nones constitute a fast-growing pool of volunteers. Today, one-quarter of U.S. adults, including 39 percent of people ages 18 to 29, are religiously unaffiliated, according to a new Public Religion Research Institute survey.
Partnerships with religious nones can help organizations do more good in communities without undermining their faithful calling, Croswhite noted.
These interactions also benefit nonbelievers, who often continue to value community service even after leaving organized religion, and find common ground between the two groups, said Mike Aus, executive director of Houston Oasis, a secular community that gathers Sunday mornings for live music and informative talks.
"Just because we're no longer religious doesn't mean we don't want to make the world a better place," he said.
The nones and religion
One of the common misconceptions about the religiously unaffiliated is that they have a bone to pick with all faith groups, according to Aus.
"We don't sit around talking about why we're not religious," he said, noting that Houston Oasis members are more likely to discuss goals, achievements and opportunities to serve their communities.
Aus, who used to be a Christian pastor, left religion because he stopped believing in the theology he taught. He doesn't have ill will toward organized religion and he, along with others who developed Houston Oasis, have tried to bring some of a congregation's best aspects, such as a strong social bonds, to his new community.
"We did not create the Oasis movement out of hostility towards religion, but, rather, to provide a positive, compassionate and accepting environment for secular people who still want to enjoy the sense of community and support that religion provides for believers," Aus said.
PRRI's new research on the nones shows many of these Americans have good memories of religious practice, even if they now question its role in their lives and in society.
"More than two-thirds (68 percent) of unaffiliated Americans say their last time attending a religious service, not including a wedding or funeral service, was primarily positive," PRRI reported. Only 1 in 5 say it was mostly negative.
The more troubling finding for groups like Rescue Mission looking to recruit nonreligious volunteers is that two-thirds of the unaffiliated (66 percent) say that religion causes more problems than it solves.
These two figures may seem to contradict each other, but they can be partly explained by understanding how nones now experience religion, said Daniel Cox, PRRI's research director. The unaffiliated get a lot of their information about faith groups through mainstream media, which generally favors negative storylines.
"What they're seeing is the worst case scenario: clergy involved in malfeasance, sex abuse scandals, financial issues. Without a personal connection, they're unable to see the day-in, day-out positive contributions that religious people make," he said.
In other words, people who don't attend church often don't hear about a successful donation drive or other community service projects spearheaded by a local house of worship. Their negative impression of religion's role in society could be softened through interactions with groups like Rescue Mission, Cox added.
"I think people will be attracted to the fact that they're addressing a particular social ill, and they won't care whether they're spiritually or religiously motivated," he said.
A recent study from LifeWay Research, the research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, supports Cox's argument. The survey showed that half of unchurched Americans — adults who haven't attended a religious service in the past six months except for a holiday or special event — say they would attend a community service project hosted by a local Christian church.
Community service has been a key part of Houston Oasis throughout its nearly four years of operation. Two of the group's five core values focus on service: "Meaning comes from making a difference" and "human hands solve human problems."
"We wanted a commitment to service to be in the DNA of the organization from the get-go," Aus said, noting that it can be hard for people to find volunteer opportunities on their own. Going to a service event as a group may make nonbelievers feel more comfortable among religious volunteers or organizers.
Houston Oasis members plan to contribute 1,000 volunteer hours to their city this year. A small team of coordinators has organized outings to the Houston Food Bank, Books Between Kids and other charitable organizations in the area, and a mobile blood bank comes to their meeting place one Sunday a month.
Although community service opportunities aren't always entangled with faith, some of the major volunteer projects Houston Oasis is involved in are led by religious groups, Aus noted. For example, the Meals on Wheels Thanksgiving drive is run by Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston.
"The main distribution and preparation hub for the Thanksgiving drive is in First Presbyterian Church downtown," Aus said.
He hasn't noticed any resistance within Houston Oasis to serving at faith-based organizations or alongside religious volunteers. In fact, stacking books or serving food next to believers helps members build bridges across religious difference, Aus said.
"We're working side-by-side with church members," he said. "We're wearing Oasis T-shirts and they're wearing church T-shirts. Most of the time, really good conversations come up."
Rev. Greg Han, director of interfaith relations at Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, agreed that volunteering together helps believers bond with nonbelievers, including Houston Oasis members.
"Acts of service are excellent opportunities for learning about one another," he said.
As Aus noted, most Houston Oasis members don't have a grudge against people of faith. But in case some do, LifeWay's research has shown that service projects, like the Thanksgiving drive, can break down barriers between communities.
One in 3 people who haven't attended church in at least six months say they'd be more interested in listening to what Christians have to say if they saw them care for people's needs because of their faith, and 22 percent say the same about seeing believers use their faith to solve problems in the community, LifeWay Research reported.
Benefits like the potential for new friendships to form reinforce Croswhite's instinct to welcome any volunteer who shows up to help at Rescue Mission. The organization is focused on feeding, clothing and caring for people, not ensuring that everyone handing out food or blankets feels the same about God.
However, Rescue Mission leaders do require groups that partner with them on religious events or chapel services to share their faith, Croswhite said, noting "we have an application process, and they have to be in agreement with our statement of faith."
He added, "We never deny who we are as a faith-based organization, and we have a cross on the front of our building, but we want to be welcoming to everybody."
Like Rescue Mission, Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston doesn't require volunteers to pass a religious test, both because it wouldn't be practical and it wouldn't be fair, Rev. Han said.
Religiously unaffiliated Americans are "an important, growing demographic," he said. "Just because someone is designated (as a none) doesn't mean they don't want to be engaged with other people in acts of meaning and service."
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