A church for “nones” doesn’t offer the hope of overcoming our material oppression
While a church provides community and shared values, faith offers us hope when we can’t see any.
Perry Bacon, Jr., a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote about his own experience with religion this week, in response to Jim Davis and Michael Graham’s new book The Great Dechurching. Bacon grew up Christian, but no longer identifies as such, and puts himself in a category called “nones”—a term referring to people who answer questions about their religious affiliation by checking : “none.”
There are many reasons that people fall away from faith, and they seem to do it across the regional and political spectrum. According to Bacon, “The majority of nones once identified themselves as Christians. About 40 percent of adults between 18 and 29 are nones, and so are plenty of people over 65 (around 20 percent). About one-third of those who voted for President Biden in 2020 are religiously unaffiliated, as are about 15 percent of people who backed Donald Trump. Nearly 40 percent of Asian Americans and more than 25 percent of White, Black and Latino Americans are nones. People without and with four-year college degrees are about equally likely to be nones. This group includes Americans from all regions of the country, including more than one-fifth in the ‘Bible Belt’ South.”
Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times commenting on the same book, argues that a moral decay in Christianity and in Christian leadership is a key factor. He writes, “One thing noted by Davis and Graham is that to many people, the church hasn’t seemed very Christian.” He goes on to cite the growth of the Religious Right, which seems to have culminated in the presidency of the now-four-time-indicted Donald Trump. While Trump has some support among nones, he had much more support from White Evangelicals (both church-going and non-church-going Evangelicals, mind you), over 80 percent of whom voted for him.
The idea that the moral failing of Christian leaders is the reason that religious affiliation is dwindling is shared by progressives, secular folks, and even the Never-Trump segment of Evangelical Christians, such as the late Tim Keller and Russell Moore. There is agreement about why people leave; the number one reason, according to one study, is the lack of LGBTQIA inclusion. Unfortunately, correcting those failures does not necessarily result in increased church attendance.
I find it interesting that Perry Bacon, who is very aware of progressive churches that suit his values, is not interested in attending any church again. He left his own when he found out it wasn’t LGBTQIA-affirming, and his interest waned and finally ended during the pandemic. Bacon longs for the community church offers but is cautious about joining one because he doesn’t want his child to be indoctrinated with ideas he finds offensive. One of his solutions is a “church” for nones. i.e. a community without religious “baggage.” Nor is he satisfied with the predominantly white Unitarian Universalists, and imagines a brand new alternative.
Bacon writes: “Our society needs places that integrate people across class and racial lines. Newly woke Americans need places to get practical, weekly advice about how to live out the inclusive, anti-racist values that they committed to during the Trump years. The anti-Trump majority in the United States needs institutions that are separate from the official Democratic Party, which is unsurprisingly more focused on winning elections than in creating a sense of community for left-leaning people.”
In response, Melissa Florer-Bixler, an MCUSA pastor in Raleigh, thinks the places that Bacon longs for can be found in political organizing. She doesn’t see such organizations as in competition with churches. She writes: “If I want to find places like Bacon, I go to political organizing. These are sites that offer all that he’s looking for. Rather than amorphous sites of “shared values,” here people collectively and persistently redefine the assumptions of our capitalist fever dream by creating new possibilities. That happens actionably—we organize for alternatives to policing, to systems of punishment and surveillance. We organize to thwart death-dealing culture wars that target trans kids and environmental racism that builds superfund sites in historically Black neighborhoods. And we do this not as an intellectual exercise of shared values but in the face of the particular and local forms of violence that face our communities… None of this is in competition with or an alternative to the worshiping community that I am called to as a pastor.”
I quite agree with Pastor Florer-Bixler. I also sympathize with Bacon’s problem and agree with Kristof’s analysis and thus I continue to wonder—what draws people to church? To faith? To Christianity? I believe that a common experience of oppression and a remnant of hope in our faith can lead us to answers. For the Jewish people in Exodus, it was the promise of God’s liberation through Moses. For Christians, it is the promise of God’s liberation through the person of Jesus Christ. Jewish and Christian communities share the hope of God’s liberation.
In order to share in that hope however, we need to feel the full weight of our oppression and, at times, our despair. This is very complicated, of course. For a long time, and perhaps even to this day, church seemed designed to make you feel guilty about yourself, your body, your choices. It was essential to make the point that you were a sinner and in need of saving. That your thoughts and your choices were going to send you to an eternity in hell. A crucial aspect of Christianity was convincing church attenders of their plight and assuring them that it was only Christianity that could save them. Often, our material struggles were set aside for spiritual ones, when they are, of course, inextricable.
These days, some apologists believe that we need to emphasize people’s personal unhappiness in order to make clear the need and importance of Christianity. I don’t think we need to manufacture despair. Instead, churches should be bastions of hope.
Christianity has changed from bringing good news for the downtrodden into a religion of self-help to make us more productive citizens. Instead of being primarily concerned with urgent matters like climate change, trans rights, and systemic racism, Christians too often treat these issues as academic or not relevant to faith.
I wonder what it would take for us to acknowledge the oppressive conditions around us and see God as liberator. Perry Bacon is clearly talking about the epidemic of loneliness, and the promise of community. However, he maintains that community can be achieved without faith at all. We have to admit: if church were the antidote to the loneliness Bacon describes, he wouldn’t have abandoned it during the pandemic–one of the loneliest times in our lives!
A shared narrative of our oppression and of the oppression of the world around us is something that Judaism models for us. For Christians, it seems that too often, our plight as sinners is centralized. It’s then not surprising, after the sexual and cultural revolutions we’ve experienced, that church is not of great appeal to younger folks. Millennials and Gen-Z’ers feel enough judgment coming from their parents. The specter of more of the same at church is a recipe for empty pews.
I believe that understanding our pain and seeing hope for liberation rather than doom and despair is essential. It can seem like a pipe dream at times. It’s hard to believe that a Savior could liberate us from this mess. It does require faith. But our faith shouldn’t be baseless, it should be rooted in the reality and lived experience of Christians. Maybe church attendance is decreasing because many who had faith felt they had little to show for it.
The material consequence of the Gospel is critical for us to share. Israel has a story that it remembers and Jews continue to be targeted to this day. Christians have traded oppression for power, and we bear the consequences in our church attendance numbers. So we must have an answer if our faith is real and if we want our churches to be relevant. The best way to show that Jesus is the liberator we’ve been waiting for is to demonstrate that in our lives, in our neighborhoods, and in our churches. I don’t say that as a church-growth strategy, but rather, because it is true to experience. Churches have too often been used to maintain the status quo. We all could do much more to offer hope to a hopeless world. Our elected officials have failed us, as have our political organizations and families. So, what if we were to remember and tell the story of God saving us? What if we see our plight today and share how we have found hope in Jesus? I think we have that story to tell, that oppression to bear, and that promise of liberation to offer. We need hope in a transformation that would exceed ordinary imagination.
Churches and Christianity too often don’t offer hope in the face of oppression. When they don’t, they become irrelevant. What they do offer can be found elsewhere. But the need for salvation isn’t any less pressing today than it was 5,000 years ago in the Ancient Near Eastern cultures. We are hurting and we need a savior. Moses was the harbinger of God to the Israelites. Jesus Christ is our liberator now, and we are the Body of Christ. May Christians live into the promise and vocation fully.