James Emery White rocked the Christian world in 2014 with The Rise of the Nones. No, it’s not a horror movie about some Catholic sisters who try to take over the world. It’s a book about the increasing number of people who check “none” on the religious preference form in the U.S. Census. When asked if they are Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, or whatever, more and more Americans are simply saying: “None of the above.”
After staying relatively flat for most of the twentieth century, the number of “nones” in the USA has risen exponentially over the past few decades.
- 1940 : 5%
- 1990 : 8%
- 2008 : 15%
- 2012 : 19%
- 2014 : 23%
The curve is much steeper if we only measure adults under 30 (36%). The curve is even steeper in Europe. In the UK, for example, 66% of 18-24-year-olds say they have no religion whatsoever (James Emery White, Meet Generation Z, 2017).
This is not just because of immigration either. Twenty percent of Americans now consider themselves “former” Christians. The Barna Group decided to do a more thorough study, considering people’s actions and beliefs. In 2013, they found that 37% of Americans were post-Christian. Just two years later, in 2015, that number had jumped to 44%. Not only are we losing ground every year, but the pace of our decline is also increasing exponentially.
The Church of the Nazarene mirrors this trend. If you look at a growth chart for the Church of the Nazarene in the USA and Canada, you will see that the line is flat. We have actually experienced a 2% decrease in overall membership in the USA/Canada region in the past ten years. Only a handful of districts across the USA/Canada region have experienced even modest growth over the past decade, and that growth is mostly limited to a few key churches within those districts.
What these numbers don’t show is that we have had a tremendous explosion of growth in our multicultural and non-English-speaking Nazarene churches. For example, in northern California, the mostly white, mostly English-speaking churches have mostly emptied, but most church buildings now house two or three congregations worshiping in other languages, with some seventeen different languages on that one district. The total district numbers look stable, but that masks a shocking decline among the English-speaking churches. This pattern is duplicated across the USA, although with less diversity in the Midwest. Across the USA, Nazarene churches are mostly shrinking.
Now, hear me clearly. I’m not saying that our white churches are more important, but I am saying that our mostly white churches mostly have a big problem. What we are doing just isn’t working. How we are doing church is not connecting with our non-Christian neighbors—or even with most of our Christian neighbors, for that matter.
In Scottish theologian John Phillip Newell’s 2014 book, The Rebirthing of God, he tells the story of the famous Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, who was a devout Christian. When Jung was just a boy, he was walking through his hometown of Basel, and he saw the newly built cathedral of Basel shining in all its magnificent glory. Twelve-year-old Jung was overwhelmed with a prophetic vision. There above the cathedral of Basel, he saw the holy throne of God almighty, just like in Isaiah 6. Then he saw the judgment of God descending from the throne and falling upon the cathedral of Basel in slow motion. The weight of God’s judgment was pressing down the roof and causing the walls to crumble and collapse.
The church we have was built for a world that no longer exists. If missionaries came to America for the first time today, there is no way they would build the kind of churches we have.
John Phillip Newell believes this was a genuine prophetic vision describing the collapse of the church as we know it now in the twenty-first century. The walls are falling down all around us. The church we have was built for a world that no longer exists. If missionaries came to America for the first time today, there is no way they would build the kind of churches we have. Our church structures and habits are not effective for reaching our world. Our world needs a new kind of church.
When we look at the decline of the church, and when we see the signs of collapse all around us, John Phillip Newell says most people respond in one of three ways.
1. Denial. Nothing is wrong. Nothing to see here. Everybody just go about your business as usual. Don’t mind the cracks in the walls. Carry on, and just keep singing, everyone.
2. Try harder. We see the cracks, and we run around trying to fix them all. We see the decline, and we think the solution is to try harder, to pray harder, to ask God to give us revival of the old ways again.
3. Participate in the birthing of the new. Years ago, I asked Richard Spindle, who was then president of MidAmerica Nazarene University, what he thought about the changing nature of church, and where all this is headed. He said, “Josh, something old is dying, and something new is being born. We just don’t know exactly what that is yet.” God is doing a new thing. The church is literally being born again. Our calling as church leaders is to be midwives to the rebirth of the church. God is calling forth a new way of being the eternal church of Jesus Christ, and it is our job to guide this new, beautiful, tender life safely into the world.
Church, we have a problem. We have to change. We have to become more authentically like Jesus, who was a friend of sinners and ate with prostitutes and tax collectors, who touched the socially unclean, who showed grace to the blind and healed the broken. The main problem with our churches is that we aren’t very much like Jesus. We are stuck.
Look at these statistics about the rise of the nones again.
- 1940 : 5%
- 1990 : 8%
- 2008 : 15%
- 2012 : 19%
- 2014 : 23%
Think about when you first became a Christian. Where were you on this timeline? Think about when you graduated high school or college. Think about when your pastors and your professors got their primary training for ministry. No wonder we don’t know how to reach our world. We were trained by people who lived in a Christian America, and a post-Christian America has caught us all by surprise.
We have been caught flat-footed. We are lame—in both the disabled and the boring sense of the word. We have to innovate. We have to break the old molds and shatter the old taboos. We have to try new things for Jesus and with Jesus. We have to take risks for the kingdom. Obviously, this means we will sometimes fail. It’s going to be uncomfortable, hard, confusing, and disorienting. That’s okay. Fail, and fail again, and fail again, and learn along the way, and slowly we’ll learn how to succeed in this new world.
I believe in the church. The global church is not dying. Many local churches are dying. Our current forms and modes of doing church are changing. But the one, holy, apostolic church is alive and strong. The church of Jesus Christ is resilient and indestructible. We have navigated big changes like this before (about once every five hundred years), and we will survive this era of change and come out stronger and more like Jesus on the other side.
Edison Churches tells the story of ten churches (of different sizes and denominations) who are experimenting and innovating, failing and succeeding, and working out new paradigms of being the faithful new church our world needs. They are motivational proof that the Spirit is alive and well and that the church is being born again right in our midst.