If you ask a lady in a black tunic what she is, and you ask many young people what kind of faith they have, their answer will sound the same, but mean completely different things – Nun, and None. You’ve heard of the rise of the Nones, haven’t you? Not little ladies in religious habits, but young people who’ve given up religious habits.
The rise of the Nones (people, many of them young, who claim to be atheist, agnostic, or have no religious affiliation) has caused no small amount of angst. As young people exit the Church, with hardly a wave goodbye – or, who have no experience with church, or desire to experience church – there are plenty of people sounding the alarm bells. Understandably so. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 1 out of 3 millennials (born between 1981 & 1996) claim to be a None. Nearly 1 out of 4 American adults now identifies as a None. Or, put another way: for every person in America who moves from outside a religious community into one, four are going out the door in the opposite direction.
Not only are they disconnected from communities of faith, they are very skeptical of Christians. Of young people in our country who don’t participate in church, Barna says that 87% say they see Christians as judgmental, and 85% label us as hypocritical. And when given a choice of four images that they believe best represent the Church, most millennials (and most Americans) pick the picture of a pointed finger hovering over an open Bible.
There’s no sugar-coating it. These stats and facts are hard to swallow. American millennials – and Americans – are rapidly changing. The old assumptions don’t work for us anymore; we can no longer take faith for granted in the wider culture.
All of this can lead those of us who carry the name of Jesus to be pretty discouraged. Or frustrated. Or fearful. Or resigned to the way things are now. Or apathetic. Even angry.
Which of those words would I pick to describe our current situation? None. (Pun intended.) The word those stats point me to? Opportunity.
I see our current reality as a real opportunity to really be what we say we are; to really live what Jesus calls us to live. Instead of agonizing over the rapid changes in our culture and the resulting skepticism, we have an opportunity to stop taking things for granted, and get busy being the Church.
And what millennials need to see is a Church that loves like Jesus loved, and values what Jesus valued. People. The hurting, the heartbroken, the hopeless. Millennials – and all Nones of all varieties – need to see followers of Jesus who are focused on what matters, united around grace and pouring it out in ample supply.
The days for arguing over unimportant stuff are over. But so are the days of trying to entertain or excite people with the latest and greatest. Instead, the path for a renewed Church is rather simple: Live and love like Jesus. Speak his truth, not sacrificing grace or truth. And don’t just talk about grace; live it. Worry less about what people think about Church, and point them to Jesus. Be less focused on their hairstyle, or tattoos, or clothing choices, and see in them someone to love.
What if every millennial had a parent or grandparent-type person (biological or spiritual) who cared so much for them that they met them right where they are, staying connected to them, loving them like Jesus loves them? What if, instead of worrying so much about how we do worship, we spent more time caring about who is missing from worship? And what if, instead of seeing the younger generation as people to preach at, we see them as persons to welcome into?
All of it, I think, begins when we see this present age, not as something to fear, but as a season to embrace – to receive as a God-given opportunity to show His grace to a new generation.