Reaching ‘nones’ means knowing our neighbors

By Eric Van Meter
Special Contributor

“The big thing about pastoring in Arkansas is that you have to understand the culture in Arkansas.”

That statement, coming from one of our retired clergy colleagues, sounds like a line from Yogi Berra, or maybe Larry the Cable Guy. But like all the best comedy, it’s funny because it reveals something true about us.

Eric Van MeterI think of this in relationship to the “nones,” the self-proclaimed religiously unaffiliated that have gotten so much attention since the release of a Pew Research Center/Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly survey a little over a year ago. Churches were shocked to find that “none” is the fastest growing religious group in the country, and that one-third of adults under the age of 30 do not affiliate with any religious group.

Pew tells us plenty about the nones, which is both helpful and terrifying to us religious folks. Most of them are young. Most believe in God. About one-fifth of them even pray every day. They view organized religion as a societal good, especially in care for the poor.

But they still believe the church is motivated primarily by money and power, and so they stay away.

What to do?

The reaction to the data has ranged from worry to outright panic. Almost overnight, the nones became the church’s most targeted group. People wrote books, launched websites, hosted online chats. Nones feature prominently in the strategic plans of many churches and annual conferences, including here in Arkansas.

All of which may indeed be a good start. We are more aware now of a trend that has been years in the making. As a group, Christian churches are like children caught making faces in a mirror. When we realize someone else is watching, we change both our focus and our behavior.

In our haste to address the situation, however, we may have gotten a bit ahead of ourselves. We may buy into the idea that we can correct the entire problem at once, searching for a magic formula (social media, anyone?) that will bring the nones back into the church fold.

The problem with broad data is that it unintentionally implies broad solutions. It tells us in general terms what is happening in the religious (or irreligious) landscape of our country. But it fails to remind us that blindness to individuals is part of what shaped this landscape to begin with.

We need to remember that, while “none” may be a helpful category for academic discussion, the group it identifies consists of individual human beings, each with a unique story and perspective.

Person by person

As a campus minister, I work with those who would be classified as nones every day. In fact, I have a sub-congregation in my ministry—one that does not come to Bible studies or worship, but that shows up regularly nonetheless looking for help with life. They don’t identify as United Methodist, and some would not even call themselves Christian. But they find meaningful connection with a United Methodist student group. Why?

Because we know what it’s like to be a college student on this campus, regardless of religious conviction or practice. We know their names, their majors, their family situations. We answer their questions about God and try to speak faith into their lives, but we never let that become a pretext for our relationship. We try to act like Jesus would when we are with them, and we keep the door to more formal religious participation always open.

So far, it has not turned out to be a wildly successful strategy in terms of numerical growth. The 15 or so nones in our congregation represent only a fraction of the population of ASU. We’d love to see more.

But there’s another important piece of data for us to remember. The vast majority of the nones (90 percent) have no desire to be part of a religious group. They will not be convinced by slick marketing or refined “product.”

The only point of entry they will consider is relationship—when one person cares enough to be a Christ-like presence with no strings attached. It’s terribly inefficient, but it’s the best we’ve got.

All of which brings me back to my friend’s statement about knowing Arkansas. And it makes me think of an image my colleague Sam uses.

“People want to fix the church with a seining net,” she says. “But fish around here are too smart for that. You’ll do better and have more fun using a single hook.”

If we are to reach the nones, we won’t do it through mass marketing or strategic planning. We will do it through individual connection and caring. The most important thing we need to know about the nones is who they are in the places where we live.

We can’t love categories in the name of Jesus. We can only love people. And that starts not with research summaries, but with knowing our neighbors.

The Rev. Van Meter serves as director of the Wesley Foundation at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. He may be reached at eric.vanmeter@arumc.org.