Calling all Someones

Pastoral Messages | June 1, 2015

I have never had anyone call me from a national polling organization and ask my opinion about something important. Makes me feel kind of left out.

If I’m an average person, and those survey outfits want a cross sampling of average people, how come they skip over me? Routinely. I don’t have the answer to that question, though I still read the poll results with some interest.

The reputable Pew Research Center made a big splash last month when it released its newest findings on the religious lives of Americans. Last year during a four-month period, 35,000 people answered their phone to tell Pew researchers what they thought about God and religion.

Actually, they verbally checked boxes that aligned with their religious affiliation.

If those surveyed could not find a way to fit their round life into the square hole options offered, or they took poorly to the idea of classification, they checked “none of the above.” That checkmark instantly labeled them NONES, the growing category of Americans who profess no particular religious affiliation.

So, who are you religiously if your mother is Greek Orthodox, your dad is Muslim, your husband is Roman Catholic, and you and your husband haven’t been going to church for a number of years?

You just joined St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, by the way – true story here, descriptive of the diversity in our new member classes. What does this new affiliation at St. Paul make you? Do you suddenly become a Lutheran being? Yes, I know you worship at St. Paul.

But do you buy your food at a Lutheran supermarket, drive a Lutheran car – wonder what that would be? – and list your blood type as “Lutheran” when you stick out your arm and donate blood? I don’t think so. Beware! You might be a None.

According to the Pew findings, Nones have grown by more than six percentage points in the last seven years to constitute nearly 23% of the adult population in the United States. Almost every demographic group displayed a significant drop in the number of people who call themselves Christian.

This shift is troubling to those of us who prize a life in Christ. Each successive generation of Americans in the last 75 years includes fewer Christians. Only 70% of Americans now describe themselves as Christians. Few analysts dispute the fact that we Christians are not passing along the faith very effectively. A compelling character to the transfer of faith from one heart to another is missing.

Interestingly, only 3% of the reported NONES think of themselves as atheists. What this means is that Nones really constitute a grab bag of spiritual Someones. Many of them turn to their own voice as their dominant spiritual guide. Others are bored by church, bothered by narrow theological behavior, or stand against institutions. All of them like to custom-tailor their religious identity.

Two bright signs in the midst of the Pew report: The first is personal, fun, and mostly anecdotal. Our 26-year-old son called from his apartment in Boulder two nights ago. “Dad, guess what? I found a church. After trying eight or nine places, I finally found one. The search is over.”

That satisfying word comes after seven years of relative distance from a faith community, and plenty of wondering by mom and dad whether Jacob fit the up-for-grabs spiritual profile pinned to many Millenials.

The second is congregational in nature. We just ran the numbers for our congregation’s growth in the same seven years covered by the Pew report – 2007-2014. It turns out that 1,795 of our current members, or 49 percent of the total St. Paul membership, joined during those seven years of reported decline in the Christian community.

I have no idea what different boxes this group might have checked in a survey asking for their religious affiliation. All I know is that they are very special Someones, and most certainly not Nones!

-Peter W. Marty, senior pastor


Copyright © 2015 Peter W. Marty. All rights reserved. Any use of this material must be attributed to Peter W. Marty. To reproduce this material in any format, please contact Peter.

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