My first church plant was situated in an eclectic inner-city neighborhood mostly comprised of the “nones and dones”. We benefited by partnering with a coffee shop that doubled as a ministry. They were around for years before us and had relationships in the neighbourhood. One of the key demographics we served was at-risk youth. Today, both expressions no longer exist, but one of the leaders recently wrote a story about the passing of one the youth. It was posted in the newsletter of the supporting church, which happens to be our version of an evangelical mega-church. When I read it, something was a bit off.

The article was great. How it was introduced was not, but then again that wasn’t unusual. To set context for the reader, the church described the outreach as a ministry to “atheists”. The trouble is, that wasn’t true. There were few avowed atheists in the community. So why did they use a descriptor that built a false opponent?

Many faith traditions have a dubious knack of consistently describing outsider culture through the lens of prejudice. I guess that could be all traditions and people, but I’ve noticed this trend particularly pronounced in contemporary churches that are white, conservative, Protestant, and racially segregated. Congregational sameness seems to decrease the capacity to reach beyond insider culture. Internal culture is also solidified when anything that differs is regarded with veiled defiance.

Back to the newsletter.

This church, and many like it, had only one familiar descriptor for people who didn’t attend a regular religious service–they called them atheists. It’s their prejudice describing non-churchgoers. The sad part is it’s abjectly false.

Just because you don’t go to church, doesn’t mean you’re an atheist. It’s inaccurate and not supported by any data. In both Canada and the United States, avowed atheists are between 5-8% of the total population. That’s it. I don’t know if it’s mainstream media that purports this segment to be stronger than it really is, or if the church is inflating this demographic because of the habit of labelling any non-believer an atheist. Probably a bit of both.

What should we make of the real numbers? Well a few things. Firstly, there are very few atheists so it’s pointless to call non-churchgoers that. Today, only about 20% of people attend a monthly religious service (in Canada a bit higher in the US). That means 80% do not. But, again, that doesn’t mean 80% are atheists. That number is extremely low. Only 5-8% in some recent data, and under a 10th of a percent in the most recent (2011) Stats Can data. So who are the approx. 75% of people? They are the nones and dones.

In my upcoming book I make the case that the church has made the mistake of describing the decline of religious affiliation through the lens of marginalization. Culture has certainly pushed the church to the margins, but the institution is mostly to blame for its own problems. Nonetheless, the fact that 75% of people are now claiming no religious affiliation strikes me as a profound opportunity. This opportunity becomes more pronounced when we dig a little bit deeper and discover that of this 75%, most are generally neutral about Christianity (or Jesus to be more specific), and would consider themselves spiritual but not religious!

Neutral to Jesus, spiritual, and the majority of people (around 75%). If that doesn’t scream opportunity to you then you’re stuck in the closet of sameness! In my next post, I’ll explore the SBNR (spiritual but not religious) demographic in more detail.