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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

"Rise of the Nones" (James Emery White)

TITLE: Rise of the Nones, The: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated
AUTHOR: James Emery White
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014, (224 pages).

Many books have been written about the Church, about how to grow and about how to reach out to people in the neighbourhood. Much attention has also been given to the young people and why they are not coming to church anymore. What about the "religiously unaffiliated?" What about the uncommitted? Who are the "Nones?" This book is an effort to double our efforts to understand this relatively ignored group of people in the hope that more people will notice them.

According to popular author, pastor, and professor, Dr James Emery White, this religiously unaffiliated group called the "Nones" is America's "fastest growing religious group."  In fact, their rise is a direct reflection of the cultural changes happening in society today. What the author hopes to accomplish is to share of who the "Nones" are, their rising influence, why and how the Church can reach out to them.

White begins with a startling observation of how America is becoming more and more "religiously unaffiliated." People are searching for meaning and they are definitely not exploring it within the Church. Currently, the nones are at 25% of the population and is expected to rise further. They are a little more likely to be male, young, white, non-religious, and Democrat. They tend to be liberal, support same-sex marriage, pro-choice, and likely a westerner. Preferring to be spiritual but not religious, the nones cannot be simply reached by seeker-sensitive strategies as they are no longer the kind of seekers who are looking for organized religion to belong to. They are people who reject labels and are products of a new "perfect storm" of negative perceptions of religion in general. They think that religious organizations are "too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics." We are now living in a "Post-Christian" era that is secularized, privatized, and pluralized. This is aggravated by an onslaught of Eastern religions that promote happiness, democracy, and a strong sense of relative belief. White then makes a curious observation how we have moved from an Acts 2 scene to an Acts 17 scenario. The modern cultural context prefers a Bono-style outreach rather than a Bonhoeffer-style.

Thankfully, White does not leave the reader gasping for what to do. In his "most paradigm-shifting chapter," he shows how the Church in general has thought of numerical growth as "biological," "transfer," and "prodigal growth" instead of "conversion growth." As long as churches are not reaching out to unbelievers, especially the nones, the overall numbers will decline. Using a car production line as a metaphor, White points out that far too many churches are focused on fine-tuning and polishing cars made, but not working on the raw materials needed to make cars. In White's words, "The mission cannot be simply to keep Christians happy and growing. Nor can it be about attempting to lure believers from other churches by having glitzier services and better programs. Our mission will actually have to target the nones."

Evangelism is not about building something in the hope that new members would come. It must go beyond the packaging toward a posture that is welcoming, interested in addressing concerns of the nones, providing hope, willingness to change, and be focused on outreach that is strategically geared toward changing attitudes. While "direct proclamation" used to be effective in the 50s-80s, and "community" style appropriate during the 90s through 2000s, the style appropriate for contemporary times is "cause." This is about connecting with the lost through actions to bring about moral justice. People want to fight for a cause that brings about fairness and equity. They want the common good. White takes a leaf from the missionary mindset to help us learn how to relate to nones. Like the missionary, we can reach out by learning the language, the culture, and then translate the gospel through speaking truth and living grace. We need to equip the Church to cultivate a "Christian mind" that will engage the culture with the gospel focus. We need a new apologetics as we engage the world of ideas, of different worldviews. We are challenged to become "mere Christians," people who are flexible enough on the peripherals but do not compromise the foundational. We need to learn to keep unity and to learn to address the perceptions of the Church being "inflexible, hypocritical, judgmental, and just plain mean." He gives several ideas on how to make the Church more welcoming:
  • Friendliness to welcome visitors
  • Children's Ministry to excite kids
  • Appropriate use of music that connects
  • Church building full of welcoming symbols
  • Visual arts and use of visuals to assist people in the church
Finally, White galvanizes the need for the whole Church of God to be at the forefront of outreach. The Church is the very body of Christ that has a mission, whose members are sent by God, and who lives to do the mission of God. If the Church wants to really live for Christ, it must be totally captivated by the heart for Christ and the need of people for Christ.

So What?

This book is a powerful reminder of what the Church needs to do. We cannot be content about past glories. In fact, any Church leadership that constantly trumpets the glories of the past may very well be one that ignores the problems of the present. Worse, it may be hiding her sense of cluelessness of what to do about the future. White cuts through all the smoke and tells us that we need to change. We need to switch strategies from ourselves toward what God is telling us. The numerical decline in many churches is a wake-up call for the Church to start refocusing on unbelievers, especially the rise of the nones. We need to know they exist. We need to learn their culture and language. While we need not behave like them, we can understand them so much that our way of doing Church will be able to invite them to our churches, and to lead them to the gospel promises of God. Do whatever we can, and let God do the rest.

There are lots of wise observations and warning signs that the Church in the West cannot simply rest on her laurels. We need to move and we need to do it fast. Start by equipping one another in what the gospel stands for. Build bridges with the unreached and the uninterested. They may have a negative perception of Church, and if the perceptions are incorrect, lovingly share what it means to be church. Work on changing our way that we live our Christian lives. I appreciate the way White shows us how to be welcoming at the front-door. Let me extend it to the front-doors of our own lives. Perhaps, we can live out the kindness and gentleness of Christ in the world we interact with. People may not want to hear about Jesus, but they are definitely welcoming of Christians living like Jesus among them. Christlikeness is a universal trait that attracts and pleases people. It is something that all Christians are called to do and to reach the world for Christ. This book is a remarkable resource to help us to that.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Baker Books and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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