In this previous post I discussed how often the church labels non-churchgoers as atheists even when they’re not. Yes, the majority of people don’t attend a monthly religious service, but that doesn’t mean atheist. Depending on which stats you decipher, 5-8% of North Americans would tick that box. In fact, the numbers are even lower if you look at the official census data (released every ten years) from Canada. Under 50,000 from a population of 32 million would claim “atheism” as their religion. The bulk of disenfranchised religious affiliates are the nones and dones. Here are people with little to no religious exposure, or those who grew up religious but no longer claim affiliation (or do so only in name).
Here’s the problem the church in the West faces. As a whole, it lacks distinct competencies to connect with people who don’t look like them. The church suffers from sameness. People in church communities look, earn, talk, and believe the same things. (Multi-race churches are essentially non-existent, but that’s a post for another time.) What suffers in a culture of sameness is how the church participates in God’s mission–specifically the love for the neighbor (the other). This is a key reason why as a whole Christianity in the West is declining.
One way to reverse decline relies on the re-orientation of church mission towards God’s unfolding mission in the neighborhood and city. That requires ways to connect with outsiders. We can start by not categorizing non-believers as “atheists”, even “outsiders”, or heaven forbid, “pagans”.
I’ve realized through my ministry predominantly in a post-Christian context that it’s easier to connect with non-churchgoers than one may think. Although nearly 80% of people (these are Canadian figures, American stats are less but the concepts remain the same), do not attend a religious service at least monthly, the majority of these people would claim to be spiritual, just not religious.
What do we know about the spiritual but not religious (SBNR) crowd?
First off, what is spirituality? I’ll borrow from Brene Brown,
“Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives.” – Brene Brown
Spirituality is a human quality, and we fill this need whether it’s by church experience or something else. In consumer culture we are taught to seek out our desires which creates a number of different avenues we can seek spiritual fulfillment. In a post-Christian culture, the majority of people are seeking to connect spiritually. However, there are at least two things in the way from making a gospel connection.
One, the church has long expected outsiders to make the culture shift in order to fit in. So although the SBNR segment is open and relatively neutral to the idea of Jesus, there are few churches capable of connecting the gospel story in their language. Two, although SBNR dones and nones are neutral to faith in general, the vast majority aren’t deaf. They are well aware of the demonstrable hypocrisy in the most vocal versions of contemporary Christianity, namely white evangelicalism. When subjected to fundamentalism, an overwhelming majority reject this church. (Consult PRRI and the book, “White Awake”, for source material.)
So how can you and your church connect with the SBNR segment? I don’t really have answers here since a lot of it has to do with your unique context and relationships. But I can tell you a story from my own church plant that is comprised mostly of SBNR dones.
At Cypher Church, we’re constantly trying to figure out ways to connect the spiritual side of our events (services) to a non-churched crowd. It’s easy the throw a cool event, it’s harder to come up with ways to go deeper at that event. It’s an even bigger challenge when most of our own spirituality is rooted in past church experience which is unfamiliar to most in the community.
At one event we decided to try something different as a way to meet the SBNR where they’re at. We knew most people are spiritual, so we tried to tap into that memory. At the end of our evening we had a segment to pause. We had everyone lie down, close their eyes, and walk through some thoughts or prayers. Someone went around to pray for those who wanted prayer as well. The experience worked really well. The reason why? Most were familiar with the spiritual experience from prior connection points like mindfulness exercises and yoga.
Now, I should note, this wasn’t my idea, in fact I was skeptical as it played out since it was risky. But upon reflection and debriefing I realized I did not give the dones and nones enough credit for being deeply spiritual people. Indeed, Christians don’t give enough credit to non-churchgoers for being far more interested, understanding, and participatory in spiritual things. I’ve repented of my error since.
Which brings us to the question of why does this matter?
When it comes to connecting with society, the church tries to act like it’s being marginalized. What’s really happening is self-inflicted. The church can’t figure out how to adjust its culture from exclusivity to co-creating. The result is a slow push to the irrelevant margins. If a church has interest in connecting with God’s mission beyond the safe confines of the church walls, they will be surprised to discover the massive opportunity with the majority of culture. The dones and nones are already searching for deeply significant and spiritual encounters. What’s missing is a competent church to join the conversation.