The challenge of evangelizing the rapidly growing segment of the population who choose “none” as a religious preference was one choice among many focus groups featured July 23 during the 2015 Baptist World Congress in Durban, South Africa.
“Nones” are not typically atheists, said Sam Chaise, executive director of Canadian Baptist Ministries: most still believe in a higher power. “Nones” haven’t rejected spirituality or God so much as they’ve rejected both the concept and reality of religion that makes dogmatic statements. For them, the question is not whether the claims are true or untrue, Chaise said: the issue is that religion is seen as bad for society because it is exclusive.
While “nones” may admire Jesus, “They see a disconnect between what they know of Jesus and the church,” Chaise said. “They think we’re homophobic and lack integrity.” For them, “The question is not whether Christianity is true, but whether it is moral and good for the world. If we define Christianity as a set of beliefs, they see it as an exercise of power that creates conflict.”
Those who hope to reach the “nones” with the gospel should carefully analyze their own goals and motivations, Chaise said. They shouldn’t think of themselves as taking God to the “nones,” because God is already everywhere. Any ministry directed toward the “nones” must be shaped by genuine love, not just a means to an evangelistic end: “People can smell when they’re being treated like a project,” Chaise said.
Being present with the “nones” requires the right posture and attitude, beginning with patient relationship building and a willingness to listen, Chaise said: the relationship “is a journey, not an information dump.” It’s better to share intriguing thoughts and leave people wanting more than to shower them with far more information than they want. There’s no place for arrogance, smugness, or superiority in such a relationship.
Ministry grows best from service, Chaise said, because seeing is believing: “The church is a demonstration farm of the kingdom because seeing is believing,” he said. “People should sense something there and then want to know what it’s about.” If people are touched by a loving church that clearly adds value to the community, they are more willing to hear stories of faith from church members.
Jimmy Martin, general secretary of the International Baptist Convention, an association of more than 70 English-speaking congregations located mainly in Europe, agreed that “nones” are not rejecting God, but rejecting religion. They are not “seekers,” but have largely developed their own concept of what faith means and are comfortable with it.
Martin reviewed historical and philosophical roots of the movement, which some trace from Copernicus to Darwin to Freud.
Beliefs of the “nones” include a concept of “truthiness,” the belief that there are multiple truths, and maybe nothing that is fully true, with individuals deciding what is true for them. The variability of truth is influenced by “Wikiality,” he said, playing off the popular Wikipedia website, where articles are written by volunteers. “Wikiality” suggests that there is no defined truth, or truth beyond what the majority decides.
Morality has suffered the same fate as truth: “nones” as “mistakers” have relegated sin to the category of sickness or a mistake, he said, with firm morality a rejected concept. Some believe that perfect happiness can be found on earth as people seek their own truth through feeling rather than reason, he said.
Like Chaise, Martin emphasized the importance of relationship building when reaching out to the “nones.” We should recognize that many of them are not agnostics but “ignostics,” he said, knowing little about the gospel. In addition, many have been “inoculated” against the faith by exposure to a distorted view of the gospel.
A church that is successful in reading the “nones” must be an inviting church with an open door, Martin said, a church where people are genuinely friendly to all, not just to each other. Such a church is willing to listen, not just to give answers.
“Nones” are so skeptical of organized religion that an appealing church must have an atmosphere of acceptance and be truly authentic, Martin added, “where people can meet credible Christians.”