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EPISODE 33: The Rise of the Nones
An increasing number of Americans are saying they have no particular religion. They are part of “The Rise of the Nones” and we need to know how to tell them the good news of the gospel. Ben Hein has had quite a bit of good experience in conversations with many of these people and his compassionate approach is refreshing. . .
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The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going by Ryan P. Burge (Fortress Press, 2021).
Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World by Tina Isabella Burton (Public Affairs, 2020).
Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I'm your host, Randy Newman, and today the question that matters is how do we reach out with the gospel to people who say they have no faith whatsoever, people who might be considered nones, N-O-N-E-S. And I'm delighted to have as my conversation partner, Ben Hein, a good friend of mine and pastor of a Presbyterian church in Indianapolis. Ben, welcome to Questions That Matter.
Thanks, Randy. It's good to be here.
I should tell our listeners. Ben was a seminary student in a class that I taught on evangelism at Reformed Theological Seminary. And remarkably, he stayed awake the whole time. It was really delightful, and I really was thrilled to get to know him, and he and I have developed a really great friendship since that time, since he got over the shock of the grade that I gave him, whatever that grade was. I don't remember what it was.
It was good. It was good.
It was good? Okay, good to hear. That’s good. He's still smiling. But Ben has had a great number of ministry opportunities, where he has interacted with people who would say they've walked away from the faith or they never did have faith, and they identify themselves as nones. And so, I really value his perspective on this topic.
We should begin with just sort of a statistical reality. There is a very significant, rising number of people who, when they are asked, what religion do they have, they say, none at all. They don't have any faith. And this is statistically solid and very significant. And lots of sociologists and people who study religion and American culture are saying this is something we really need to pay attention to. So, Ben, what have you heard about this trend? And how do you see it?
Yeah. I mean, we can definitely just look at the numbers, whether it's Pew Research or I think Ryan Burge is someone we've talked about who has done some really good work on this. And it seems like, if we're just going to go from a purely numbers perspective, the number is somewhere around 28% to 30% of, I think, the US population, adult population, now identifying this way, as a none. But if you look by generation, that's going to be lower in the Baby Boomers than it is in Gen Z. And so, I don't have an exact figure in front of me, but I think it may be as high as 40% in Gen Z. And I don't know what it would then be for Baby Boomer, but obviously much higher in the younger population than in the older population.
Right. Yeah, you mentioned Ryan Burge’s book. It's called The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are and Where They Are Going, and he's a professor of political science and really understands about societal trends, and he has several charts in his book with, again, Pew Research and other documentation, that the percentage of people who are still faithful to the Catholic faith has decreased a bit. People who are evangelical have decreased a bit. People in mainline Protestant churches have decreased dramatically. Jewish and other faiths are about the same, but on these same charts, the line of the increase of nones is dramatically different. It's going up and going up rapidly and going up among a younger audience. So, we should not ignore this trend, but we shouldn't be horrified by it. We want to talk today about how do we interact with people like this, and it's probably really bad to begin with, “You’re a None! Oh, that's horrible!”
Yeah, I don't think that's wise.
No. So tell me about some of your experiences with this group of people.
Yeah. I think one way, too, maybe to bridge the conversation is we can maybe have a tendency, I've seen, to apply a stereotype to this group of people. And so, for example, there may be—I've definitely experienced this, where we stereotype as those who are not Christians, those who are not religious, that they are antagonistic atheists who are drawing hard lines in the sand towards religious faith and that sort of thing. I don't think that's the case. I don't think the statistics bear that out. I don't think my experience bears that out.
One thing that I appreciated about Burge’s research is, when he brings in some other research into the conversation, he kind of shows that really, you only have about 5% identifying as atheist, 5% as agnostic, and then you roughly have 20 plus percent, depending on the generation, that’s really just nothing in particular. And so, this idea that everyone we encounter who's not Christian is going to be, let's say, hostile to faith or having made some firm decision of, “I'm not going to be Christian.” I don't think that's true. I think you have a number of people who are just uncertain, who are sort of walking through life not really sure what they believe. They’ve heard Christians believe that, they've heard that other people believe this, and they just really haven't landed in one place or another.
And I also think one thing that's been something I've learned in my experience is you have some folks who are identifying as none, as nothing in particular, because that's their family of origin. I think that's more and more the case in the younger generation. And so, as families, let's say Millennials or Gen X, as they are becoming irreligious, their children are going to be raised as not being religious. But then you also have others who become nones by choice. They make a choice. They walk away from their faith community.
And how we respond to either one of those groups of people, I think, is significantly different. Some are going to have a background with religion, some are not. And so I think those are some other categories that we can bring into the conversation of, how do we approach this group of people?
Well, you know, this is a really important thing, I think, in evangelism and discipleship and connecting with people. We need to be really, really careful that, when we understand that somebody might fit into a certain category, we should not, we must not assume, that they're all the same, that all nones are the same, that all Millennials are the same, all Baby Boomers are the same. I hope that that's not true, because I'm in that category and man, some of the stereotypes I hear.
So, this is especially important in apologetics and evangelism. We study and learn about what people believe, but then we need to be really, really good conversationalists and draw out and find out what this individual person we're talking to believes and holds dear and what really are the big deals in their life. When I've done seminars on Jewish evangelism, “Okay, so Christians learn what Jewish people believe.” “Yeah, but you really should talk to the individual Jewish person and find out exactly what they believe.” And you’ve helped me appreciate that, because you've told me that not all nones are the same, even just in the categories you just said, by birth or by choice. Even within that, there's probably infinite variety.
Yeah, I think that's right. My experience, too, there really are some differences along generational lines that you kind of brought up. I'm not at all trying to say that there aren't really committed atheists in the Gen Z generation. That hasn't been, by and large, my experience in interactions with Gen Z, those in their twenties and thirties who are not Christians. I can't really remember the last time I had a conversation with a committed atheist that was in that category. The committed atheists I tend to talk to tend to be older, Gen X, Baby Boomer who have made some intentional decision to be atheist, to be agnostic. And so we can’t assume everyone's the same, and to assume that the people were encountering all hold the same beliefs, have the same story, had the same experience, have the same perceptions about religion. We just can't assume that anymore.
Yeah. Good, good, good. All right, let's just go down this rabbit trail just for a short bit. This isn't going to be the main thing of our conversation, but I'm always fascinated with the fact that, when you lived here in the DC area, you got involved in a free thinkers’ group of skeptics or atheists. And were you the only theist in the room?
Definitely the only Christian. There may, from time to time, have been another theist walking in to join the conversation, but by and large, the only Christian for sure.
So, there are these organized groups. This wasn't just some informal gathering. They had a presence on the internet, and they met for meetings and gathered for meals, and you went to a whole bunch of these things. Just tell us a little bit about that experience, and what were some of the things you learned from that?
Yeah. It was one of the most formative experiences of my life. Really one of the best experiences of my life, if I can be quite honest. To give credit where credit is due, I joined the Free Thinkers Group because my heart was pricked in our evangelism.
Oh, nice going. Sure, okay.
Yeah. Nice save, right? Yeah. I mean, again, people might hear this as, “Oh, you were the lone Christian in an atheist group. That must have been really hard,” and all that. Frankly, it wasn't. It was really natural. It was really kind. I had a really warm experience. Some of the kindest people I've met as an adult were within this group. And so, it really was a great experience. And I was able to come into that because, this group, their kind of core value was seeking truth. And many of them had a background where they felt like Christianity wasn't intellectually stimulating, wasn't a pursuit of truth. But I was kind of able to come in and say, “My experience has been I found truth by converting to Christianity. It has given me a picture of the world. It's given me a hunger to learn about the world and to know, to pursue questions that matter.” And so, I would kind of flip the script a little bit when I would meet folks there and say, “You feel like intellectual truth and pursuit of knowledge comes by leaving religion. I actually found those things by joining religion, by becoming a Christian.” And so, it was on that we maybe disagree about our answers to the questions, but we agreed that the questions themselves were important. And that core agreement really just bore out some really fruitful friendships and really fruitful conversations and meaningful opportunities to share the gospel and to hear what other people believe. And I couldn't say enough positive about it. I know it's not for everybody. I also wouldn't recommend we go flood the atheist groups and sort of take over those spaces, but my experience in that space for three or four years was really, really positive, really fruitful.
Now, as I'm remembering it, you didn't come to faith until your mid-twenties or late twenties, is that right? And would you have maybe not used these words, but would you have called yourself a none or nothing in particular before that time?
Yeah. Yeah, I think so. So, I became a Christian in 2010, just a couple of years after graduating college. I'm in my mid-thirties now. So, I don't qualify as Gen Z. I don't fit this kind of maybe the major category for what we see as deconstructing and so on. But in some ways that was my story. I had some experience with Christianity growing up. I’ll spare all the details. It didn't seem relevant. No one reached out to me during my hard struggles with life. And so, yeah, by the time I got to college, I had these perceptions of what Christians thought, didn't really think it was relevant or important to me. And then that all changed after college, making some Christian friends who kind of invited me in to study the Bible and come to church with them. And obviously that changed, and now I'm a pastor. But yeah, going through that experience myself allowed me, I think, to really build a bridge with folks in this community and to engage them on, for lack of a better word, like on their terms. On where they're at, what they believe, listen to them, enter into their story, rather than asking them to engage kind of where I'm at and on what I think. So yeah.
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As I've gotten to know you and listened to your story, I'm reminded—not just your story of coming to faith, but also your experiences with interacting with people. You've really emphasized respecting the questions that people ask, listening carefully. And I think that it's a very common error that a lot of Christians do of dismissing questions a little too quickly and dismissively or even disdainfully. We need to listen carefully and hear the image of God in that person that's longing for connection to the supernatural, the transcendent, and respect that. One of the proverbs says that a fool does not delight in understanding but only in revealing his own thoughts or his own ways. And I think we can be guilty of that pretty often. And you're trying to push us in this other direction of, “Well, let's really listen to these questions and let's affirm that there are parts of their questions that we probably share with them.” So that’s helpful.
Yeah, I think that's right. I think we sometimes we want to be quickly dismissive or defensive. We think we need to come to the defense of the church or come to the defense of Jesus or something like that, which I think is just a faulty perspective. And really to respect the question, to respect the real... often the pains and the wounds that are behind the question. From those who have had negative experiences with Christians or with Christianity. And to meet them there in that space rather than trying to quickly dismiss or get defensive over it.
Now, some of our listeners might say, well, this sounds like Randy and Ben have come to agree on this and isn't that wonderful? But I'm pretty sure we would argue that we're basing this on scripture, that scripture would encourage us along these lines. So, give us some biblical support, Pastor Ben.
Yeah. Some of the classic passages are you look at… These do come up in evangelistic, apologetics conversation all the time, but you look at how Paul interacts with different groups of people, right? And so, you have Paul in Acts 13 in the synagogues, very religious dialogue, right? Going to the scriptures and the religious story of God's people and the people of Israel. Compare that to Paul at Mars Hill and being able to draw on the idols around him, the pagan religion, and starting in that space and engaging on their level. I think that's kind of a classic paradigm for really being able to engage with people where they're at, right? And we're not proposing a script. It's not a one size fits all solution to engage with folks.
But I think some other scriptures that have been particularly helpful for me in this cultural moment, where we're seeing so many young people particularly walking away from Christianity or rejecting Christianity because of their perceptions and what they think we believe versus what we actually believe, and having had these negative experiences. So, a couple of passages that have been fruitful for me to meditate on are 1 Thessalonians 5:14, specifically where it encourages us to encourage the fainthearted and be patient with them all.
Good, good, good.
And thinking about… fainthearted is a pretty good descriptor for a lot of people today, particularly a lot of young people who are uncertain about life's big questions, to encourage them, to be patient with them. Jude 22 says to have mercy on those who doubt. The compassion, think about what does it look like to have compassion in conversation with those who are just going through a lot and have a lot of questions and aren't quite sure what they believe anymore. And lastly, I've also been really struck by Jesus's compassion in the gospels when He looks out at the crowds as those who are like sheep without a shepherd. And it's really sorts of almost a judgment on the religious leaders, that they are not caring for the people in their community. They're not caring for God's people.
A recent study, Springtide Research, that came out. I don't know much about this group, and I'm still working through all their findings, but they do a yearly study on the state of religion and religious beliefs in young people. And they found that, in the first year of the pandemic, which I suppose to be 2020, only 10% of young people said their religious leader reached out to them. I read that and I just thought, “What is happening? Where have we dropped the ball in our churches, where we're just not caring for the people who are already here, let alone reaching the ones who aren't here yet.” And so, when I think about, again, Jesus’s compassion, I think there's a lot of young people in particular today who are like sheep without a shepherd, who haven't been cared for, and then trying to bring that into the conversation with them and to acknowledge, “Yeah, that's really hard. Whatever your experience is, that's not great, and we need to do better.”
And I find myself regularly praying and asking God to give me that compassion for people, because I can't manufacture it. Now, I can help by reflecting on how gracious God has been to me, how amazing the gospel has been to invade my life and make me a different person. And sometimes it's very helpful for me to look back and think, “All right, what was I like before I was a Christian? And where would I be today if God hadn't come into my life?” Oh, my, that's a disturbing picture, and I need to allow it to disturb me so that I do have compassion on people. But quite often it's, “Lord, would you change my heart? Would you give me a love for lost people?” And that's at the very heart of God's will for our lives, so we know He will answer that prayer.
Well, it’s a good reminder. So, let’s turn it now a little bit more of, so who are these people and how do we talk to them? I'm going to put in the show notes a reference to another book that I just recently finished, and I found it just fascinating and disturbing. It's called Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World by Tara Isabella Burton. And what she's saying in this book, with a tremendous amount of research—she's a good researcher and a great writer—is that, among these people who say they have no religion or they’re nones or nothing in particular, or they are spiritual but not religious, they're amazingly religious. They're really into their SoulCycle class, or they're really into social justice or other political causes, or they're really into Harry Potter, or they're really into being very, very healthy in a very religious kind of way. You could read that book and just be horrified and think, “Oh, my goodness, what has happened to us?” But we could also look at it and say, “What a marvelous opportunity. People are looking for something outside themselves, something transcendent to connect them to something bigger. And for those people, the gospel is really, really good news.”
We're mandated by the C.S. Lewis Institute to quote C.S. Lewis in every one of these podcasts, so now we've come to that part where I have to. Not really. But there was one place where Lewis remarked—I think this was in a letter or maybe in an essay, I don't remember. But he said, “When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into paganism, I am tempted to reply, ‘Oh, would that she was! I wish it was true that she was pagan, because’” he says, “‘the pagan, as history shows, is a person eminently convertible to Christianity.’” They're essentially pre-Christian, and he says, “They actually have more in common with Christianity than the hard-boiled atheist or very, very secular materialist.”
And so, I read Tara’s book and thought, “This is a whole new opportunity for us and a really great one to find out, ‘Okay, what are the big deals for people?’ And say, ‘Yeah, I see why you are looking for connection and community or transcendent or beauty or drama, because God made us to connect in a deep way with him.’” So, anyway, I'm ranting and raving, and I'm not letting you talk. Sorry.
Yeah, well, I want to make sure we hit our C.S. Lewis quota for the podcast. I wanted to bring up there, too, and just to sort of build on what you're saying. I think he modeled this really well in the radio broadcast which became Mere Christianity, which is: He knew the questions and the fears and the anxieties and sort of where people were at because he was one of them.
And he was able to enter into, and so you don't really have, when you look at the radio broadcasts and Mere Christianity, it's not this pure presentation of statements that you need to assent to be a Christian. It's woven in with this context of people who are at war and anxious and not sure what is right and wrong and what's happening to the world right now. You sense that woven into his material, being able to know… Yeah, he knew his audience. He knew the people because he was one of them.
And so, what are the ways in which we can do that in our conversations with folks, right? We value these same things. We value community. We value justice. We value beauty. And how can we connect our story and our value of these things to the questions that people are asking: Where can joy, where can beauty, where can justice, where can that really be found? We have our own experiences that we can connect with.
I would encourage our listeners that, thinking through, for example, someone who would say they're deconstructing right now, right? We might not have an experience of deconstructing and rethinking all of our faith beliefs, but I know many Christians who have had to make a difficult decision, let's say, to leave their church, right? Maybe because of a conviction, a change in belief, they've left their church. Or they've rethought core beliefs, maybe about baptism or church government. And they had to realign themselves with new faith communities. Those are hard spaces for us to be in. Every Christian I know who's ever had to leave their church or decided to move knows that that's a super hard experience. Well, how much more so, right, when you're rethinking everything, and you're not even sure if you can be a part of a community anymore. And so, we can take our experiences, our values, and I think bridge that, a really fruitful conversation into the lives of these people who are still very religious in many ways and value everything that you said. It's not an impossible thing. I think there's a lot of hope, a lot of opportunity, and I think every Christian I know is equipped for this because we all have stories, right? We all have stories we can connect into the lives of others, and we just encourage our listeners to take that step of faith just to have those conversations.
Are you a fisher of men? Do you want to be a fisher of men? Do you struggle with this call that Jesus places on us to be fishers of men? Discipling others is also a significant part of that whole enterprise, and it's a way to abide in Christ. It's a way for us to know Christ more fully, become more like Him, and participate in His work of building His kingdom. So, as we disciple, we become coworkers with Jesus. As He helps us mature, He allows us to help Him mature others and nurture them towards reproduction and expanding of His kingdom. And so, we have many free small group resources on our website, many different things to help you in this discipleship process, both to grow as a disciple and to disciple others. So please check out our Study Courses.
Yeah. And to keep drawing out and to keep listening. I'm thinking also, if someone shares with us about deconstructing their faith, they walked away from a certain faith, we can tend, in a knee jerk kind of way, to zoom in on a why question, “Well, why did you do that?” Or, “Why did you leave that?” And eventually that may be part of our conversation, but maybe a better starting point is what. “What has that been like? What has that experience been like for you? How has this gone for you? How has that felt?” And we tend to want to zoom in on doctrine. “Okay, you used to believe this, but now you believe this. Well, here's why you should believe this.” And yes, those must be included in the conversations eventually. But if we jump there first and negate, “Wow, that must have been hard!” or, “That must have been confusing.” I read in one book on evangelism the value of using the word “wonder.” “I wonder why that is.” Or, “Have you ever wondered why?” Or, “Have you ever wondered what is it that draws us to beautiful art or community or connection with people?” “I wonder why justice is such an important thing for us. And before jumping in with, “Well, here's what the Bible says,” allowing people to feel the sense of wonder and almost confusion that the scriptures then can point to with clarity.
Yeah, I think wonder is a great word. I would also encourage the power of silence in conversation. I think many people who have had a bad experience with a church or Christianity in the past are sort of loaded maybe to expect that we're going to be defensive or be quick to try and address the question or dismiss it and to just hear the story or hear that this was my experience and let that hang in the air and sort of communicate with our presence that I'm not going to run from what you just said. I'm not going to quickly respond to what you just said. I'm processing what you just told me. I'm here with you. I'm listening to you in this moment. My wife and I have found, honestly, that that has been very powerful, when we invite people over into our home and just sit across the dinner table and share a meal with them and just let them share their story and tell us what's happening, and just to let that kind of hang in the air for a little bit.
Because I think one guiding lesson that I've learned, and I think this was certainly my experience in my conversion, was people are uncertain if there is a God who cares about them. They're uncertain if there is a God who is loving, who is kind, who cares about them, and if they have an experience with a Christian or a group of Christians who care, who are kind and who listen and take the time to respect them, they might really start to believe that there is a God, that these things Jesus said are really true, and it has to, I think, so often, just be in that space of genuine conversation, care, and compassion.
Well said. Thank you. Yeah, I've heard about a number of your experiences with people coming over to your house and these kinds of things, and that's why I wanted to have you on the podcast.
I'm thinking also: A lot of people say, they use this phrase, “I'm spiritual but not religious.” And I think there was a period of time when that was just this cliché that people really hadn't thought through that much. So, I did hear one time about there was this woman who she told some Christian friends, when they asked her about her religion, she said, “Oh, I'm spiritual but not religious.” And they said, “Oh. What does that mean? What do you mean by spiritual?” And for her, it was this horrible realization of, “Oh, actually I'm neither. I'm not spiritual or religious,” but I think today… so that's a very good question to ask. But I think today I think a lot of people, again if Tara Burton's book is right, if what Ryan Burge says about the nones is right, then there are a whole lot of people, they would say, “I'm spiritual but not religious.” And you'd say, “So tell me about that. What do you mean by spiritual?” And for them, there really is a whole lot of spirituality, some of which would be very different than our Christian faith, but some may have some commonality or some ties in. So, I think that's worth exploring, certainly not dismissing as just a cliché.
Oh, absolutely not. And people are going to use different words to express that. I think there's a desire and a hunger for transcendence, something outside of ourselves. Beauty and joy and meaning. I mean, I've even had some of my friends say things to me like this: They've said, “Ben, I've heard it said that I have a hole in my heart that only God can fill. And to be honest, I really want what you have. Tell me how to get it.”
Oh, my goodness!
And you're sitting there and you're trying to express to them, “Well, it's faith in Christ and all that,” and they're like, “Yeah, but I don't have that. But I still want what you have.” There's a hunger. And I think it's an amazing opportunity for the gospel to have some really wonderful conversations and to see people either return to the faith or believe for the first time. I think it's a really fruitful time, and we should have a lot of hope and a lot of expectation for what God might be doing during this season.
Yeah. Good, good. Well, let me read one little bit from Tara Burton's book, and then I'm going to give you a chance to say one more thing before we wrap things up. So it better be good.
So, Tara Burton's conclusion: She starts by saying some things with numbers. Just 8% of white Millennials identify as evangelical, compared to 26% of seniors. The rising Generation Z, those born after 1997 might be the least religious, yet 34% of them say they're religiously unaffiliated. 13%, twice the rate of the general population, identify as atheists. And then the next line of her next paragraph is, “and yet new gods are everywhere.” And that sums up the previous 200 pages of her book, because that's what she explores, all of these gods that people are looking to. And so, again, like you say, it's really a magnificent opportunity for us. So, any last thoughts before we bring this to a close?
Yeah. One thing I would say is I think, the way we're wired, we want quick fix solutions. We maybe want: What's the practical takeaway that we can do tomorrow, and in a year our church will be abounding with former nones who have now made conversions. That's just not going to happen, I don't think, by and large. It’s not as simple as telling your pastor to do a sermon series on issues that matter and all of a sudden, we're going to see revival break out. It's a long time, right? For me, when I joined the Free Thinkers group, it was three or four years before some of those folks attended an evangelistic Bible study that I led. It was a long time, long conversations, getting to know, hearing their story, and all that. And so, my encouragement would be to value those moments and those conversations with friends, with neighbors and really think about—I'll say this again—your story.
What has God done in your life? Have you been through a season of your own doubt? Have you re-thought elements of your faith? Have you walked through seasons of grief or shame or whatever the case may be? Has God met you in those places? And if the answer is yes, then I think you have a powerful testimony and witness to people to see that belief in Jesus really makes a difference and to meet people in their space. And so that would be my big encouragement, is to really reflect on your own story, what God has done in your life, and to think about then how can I through relationship, through conversation, bring that to bear on maybe someone else's life?
Nicely said, very good, and a great place for us to wrap up. Well, Ben, I'm so encouraged by my times with you, I really am. And I want to say to our listeners, yeah, there's plenty of things going on in our world that could be rather discouraging. But I am regularly encouraged by people like Ben Hein and people of his age group. God is raising up young men and women in the seminary classes that I teach and other places where I teach that I think there's some great days ahead for the church. So, may the Lord encourage you, Ben, and all the people in your age bracket, whatever demographic title we want to give that. I'm very encouraged by that.
And we certainly hope you listeners are encouraged by these podcasts, Questions That Matter, and all of our resources at the C.S. Lewis Institute. Please check out a couple of things we’ve put in the show notes below and many of the resources at our website. And may it be that God would continue to work, so that you love Him with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.