Jump directly to the Content


Why Evangelicals Aren’t Afraid of Being Outnumbered by Nones

Church leaders believe Christ still offers the answers that the religiously unaffiliated are looking for, even if religious baggage is driving them away.
Why Evangelicals Aren’t Afraid of Being Outnumbered by Nones

With 28 percent of Americans saying they don’t belong to a religious tradition, the “nones” now outnumber any single faith group in the US, according to a Pew Research Center study released last month.

Their retreat from church, Pew polling shows, is fueled not only by secular disbelief but also by negative perceptions of Christian institutions and leaders. To evangelical Protestants—currently 24 percent of the country—the trend might seem like a defeat. Or like a massive opportunity.

Evangelical leaders recognize the factors that are leading people away from faith: Christian environments where they feel their questions aren’t welcome; hurt and distrust around scandals in the church; and societal shifts that make orthodox beliefs less culturally acceptable, to name a few.

But they still say the church shouldn’t feel threatened by the trends around disaffiliation and deconstruction or fear the rise of the nones.

“We have an opportunity to reach them by going back to the center of our faith and the message,” said theologian Katie McCoy, director of women’s ministry at Texas Baptists. “The gospel is still the gospel. It doesn’t matter the cultural trends; people are still looking for everything that Jesus provides.”

Most religious nones aren’t atheists or agnostics. Over 60 percent of the unaffiliated consider themselves “nothing in particular.” Americans in this group were often raised Christian; 83 percent still believe in God or some higher power, and 59 percent say their spirituality is an important part of their lives.

“They want to look beyond themselves, but they’re suspicious of organizations, including the church,” said Mark Teasdale, evangelism professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, who cited the country’s overall decline in institutional trust. “The problem is that it leaves them lonely and without a sense of purpose because they cut themselves off from community. … That leads to anxiety, and there’s no real sense for how to solve that.”

Americans whose faith is “nothing in particular” are the least involved across the board. “They are less likely to vote, less likely to have volunteered lately, less satisfied with their local communities and less satisfied with their social lives,” Pew researchers wrote.

“As the relational ties are less strong, people try to fill that void,” said McCoy, who writes on issues of gender, sexuality, and relationships and has seen identity politics take the place of Christian formation.

Those outside the church are also seeking out their own form of spiritual connection, as New Age trends like crystal charging, sage smudging, and energy healing become more mainstream. Americans who fall under “nothing in particular” are more likely than any other group to use crystals (20%), jewelry (19%), or tattoos or piercings (14%) for spiritual purposes and to believe objects and places can have spiritual energies, Pew found.

So why aren’t they turning to religion? Among nones, around 30 percent don’t see a need for it. Over half (55%) say they dislike religious organizations or have had bad experiences with religious people.

Women and younger people are more likely to say they left their faith due to past interactions with religious people.

Compared to the rest of the population, nones skew young; most are under 50. But Gen Z isn’t approaching faith exactly the same as skeptics in previous generations. Apologist Mary Jo Sharp has noticed that today’s teens and 20-somethings tend to frame theodicy questions with how they see Christians living out their professed faith.

“For instance, the traditional question of evil morphs to, If God is good, why do Christians behave so badly?” said Sharp, founder of Confident Christianity and a professor at Houston Christian University. “The hypocrisy of Christian believers has become one of their more frequent apologetics concerns.”

Multiple leaders told CT about how Gen Z takes a more holistic approach to faith, looking for its implications for politics, social issues, and daily life.

And for the unaffiliated of all ages to trust the church and see its value, it’s going to take Christians working against some of the negative perceptions.

“We show we care about the common good, particularly in physical ways, because they can appreciate that,” said Teasdale. “And we show that we actually care about their concerns; we meet them in their anxiety and their loneliness. The best way we can do that is by offering our relationships.”

Sharp similarly said that, rather than just bringing people along to church, Christians “now need to think about emphasizing the local church’s engagement … in ways that visibly demonstrate commitment to the two greatest commandments: in short, love God, and love others as ourselves.”

Nones were ambivalent over whether faith actually encourages people to treat others well—45 percent in the Pew study said it doesn’t. Compared to atheists and agnostics, the unaffiliated who are nothing in particular hold a better view of religion, but half still said they believe religion does “equal amounts of good and harm.”

More than a quarter of nones associate “superstition and illogical thinking” with religion. Eric Hernandez, an apologist with Texas Baptists who specializes in reaching younger generations, emphasizes the importance of the church being a safe space for questions and intellectual engagement.

Hernandez said Q&A events in the state have drawn unchurched and unaffiliated members of the community. “We’re seeing more people check the ‘none’ box.” He’s excited to get to answer their questions about science and faith or to correct what might be a distorted or incomplete view of Christianity.

Even if people say they were raised in the church, “I’m not so sure that they do understand,” he said. “We want to make sure the God they’re rejecting is the biblical view of God.”

Erik Thoennes at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology said the rise in disaffiliation can also offer a helpful “clarifying effect” that comes with “a greater difficulty of being a Christian in a public way.”

Rather than feeling the pressure to appeal to the unaffiliated or the next generation, Thoennes has seen his Gen Z students turned off by attempts to market the church or make it cool. They’re still asking questions and wrestling, but they’re looking for an authentic and genuine expression of faith.

So Thoennes, a pastor at Grace Evangelical Free Church in La Mirada, California, is leaning on what the church has always been built around: the power and beauty of Christ. More people may be lost and seeking, but Christians believe the church still has the answer.

“I don’t have to stay atop of the latest trends to make sure dechurching doesn’t happen at my church,” he said. “It’s simple: Stay focused on Jesus.”

[ This article is also available in Português. ]

Support Our Work

Subscribe to CT for less than $4.25/month

Read These Next