Hypocrisy, repentance, and the religious nones
Why do more and more Americans identify as religious “nones”? And how should Christian parents and educators respond? We’re using the SOAR method to break down a report from the Associated Press.
KELSEY REED: Hello, welcome to the News Coach Podcast from WORLD Radio and God’s WORLD News. We’re here to come alongside you, learning and laboring with you as you disciple kids and teens through culture and current events. My name is Kelsey Reed. And I’m here with Jonathan Boes.
JONATHAN BOES: Hello!
KELSEY: Together, we want to model conversation and apply tools that you can use at home or in the classroom. And as ever, we want to invite you—record your questions, write them in to us. We love to hear what you are thinking about your questions or comments. What topics are drawing close to you? What can we help engage with you? Send those questions, comments to email@example.com.
JONATHAN: Absolutely. And if you like what you’re hearing on today’s episode, wherever you’re listening, rate and review, subscribe to this podcast—that really helps people find us and what we’re doing here.
So every so often—you hear those papers? You might be able to guess what we’re doing here today, if you hear those papers rustling. Every so often, we like to dig deep into a single news article, so that we can practice our tools in actions, specifically what we call the SOAR method—survey, observe, analyze, respond—going step by step, as we look through a single article, to break down what is being said, how it’s being said, what’s happening. Today, we’re looking at an article from the Associated Press, written by Peter Smith. And the title of this article is “America’s nonreligious are a growing, diverse phenomenon. They really don’t like organized religion.” So we will link to this in the show notes, so you can read it as well and practice the SOAR method for yourself with your own kids or students. And again, you can find those show notes in our podcast description, or if you’re listening on the website, that is at the bottom of the transcript.
KELSEY: I really can’t say enough how much I appreciate slowing down to use the SOAR method. It is something that I really need to practice as I glean through the news on a weekly basis, on a daily basis. If I will slow down and use this method, it helps me to not merely react to what I’m seeing in the headlines. This particular headline, it is one of those that I probably have been fine-tuned to react to. And let me give a little bit of my background again, to remind people why. I am a pastor’s daughter. I am a former pastor’s wife, as in, I’m still the wife of this man who was a pastor once upon a time. And just working alongside of the church has been my entire life. And so, when I read something about a phenomenon in this culture really not liking organized religion, it hits close to home for me, and I have to organize my thinking, organize my response emotionally, towards what is happening in this article. So we’ve said survey, observe, analyze, respond. We’re waiting for way late in the process to even move into analysis, and then organizing our response according to what we’re actually seeing in the article, not merely a knee-jerk reaction to what we think might be going on.
JONATHAN: Yeah. I think for many Christian listeners, as soon as something like religion comes up in a headline, there is immediately that knee-jerk response, often that defensive response of “I am ready to fight against whatever bad thing is said about religion in this article.” And well, you know, we want to step back, slow down, observe what is being said. What can we affirm? What can we challenge? But that all starts with the big picture of Survey. So what are we seeing as the big picture idea of this article?
KELSEY: Often related directly to the headline, we see that big picture really usually in the first couple sentences. So we’re talking here about a population of Americans who are really moving towards what is called the “nones.” Nones as in N-O-N-E-S. Not a “nun.” And I think we could insert a nun joke here, but I think that’d be in bad taste. So we’re not going to do that.
JONATHAN: It is ironic, though. I mean, it’s just the fact that it’s—you always have to spell it out because it sounds so much like “nuns,” and just that the word—it sounds like is a religious order of people who are like committed to dogma, which is the exact opposite of the other version of “nones.”
KELSEY: It does chase itself around. So when we say the “nones,” and we may say this a couple times in the episode, we just want to make sure that we’re clear on what we’re saying. N-O-N-E-S. And I think two terms that come out for me in this survey work—I’m going to do these definition of terms, just like we’ve tried with “nones,” survey. These are the people that we would call the “de-churched” or the “unchurched.” That’s what we mean by the nones, or those who would tick on a survey about their religious background or preferences, that they would take the “none” category. That’s where it comes from.
JONATHAN: Yeah, that’s where you’re going down the list, “Christian . . . none, check.” And that’s the nones.
KELSEY: So I use two terms, de-churched and unchurched, that I also want to give a quick definition, because I will use them again, because these were consistently in conversation during my seminary years, as we were preparing, many of us, to go into church planting teams. We needed to think about these areas in our nation where we were seeing a community of people who were increasingly de-churched, which meant they were coming out of the church, out of organized religion, or those who really had never been in church at all, and those we would call the unchurched. So a growing population of those who are not attracted to organized religion, who have left it. So that’s our big picture here.
JONATHAN: So the big picture: There is a group of people in—specifically we’re talking about America—with no religious affiliation, and that group is growing. So I think then we can move into more specific observations. What do we see, specifically, going on in this article? I guess this is where we often bring out the who, what, when, where, why, and how—those good journalistic questions.
KELSEY: And I think one of the great places to start, even though that’s hopping into a lower place in the article, is to not get into the why quite yet, before we start talking about who are these de-churched and unchurched people. Where do they come from? As I mentioned briefly, when we are talking about church planting in our seminary groups, in our ministry groups, we’re looking at the United States to understand the different regional cultures. This is something I’m bringing to the article when I say this, that we’re looking at different cultural places and regions where that is a phenomenon. But it is also a phenomenon in specific generations. So one of the things I noticed in the article is that four in 10 people under 30 would mark themselves on that survey as “none.” And also 30% of U.S. adults, in general, claim to be not affiliated with a religion, an organized religion. And that is a survey that was done by the Associated Press. So who are these people? 30% of U.S. adults, and four of 10 who are under 30.
JONATHAN: We can step back even here and observe some of the reporting, journalistic tactics used in this article. We are looking at survey data as well as personal reporting. We’re using these statistics, the so many—was it four? Four out of 10 in the younger generations claiming no religious affiliation, and then overall from adults, 30%. So they are making this claim about the growing number of religious nones, and backing it up with statistical data.
KELSEY: Then, as we get into some of the particulars of these folks beyond that quantitative data that is reflected, there are many conversations with a variety of folk. Throughout the article, we see a sociology professor, who actually happens to be a pastor of a Baptist church too. Did you notice that?
JONATHAN: I did. That was fascinating.
KELSEY: So I was going, whoa, he’s having to take two hats. That reminds me of a trend. And I’m going to be pointing to something that, again, I’m bringing some outside information into this article, which really belongs in the analytical space, but because of the fact that this is a conversation, we sometimes have to do observation and analysis at the same time.
JONATHAN: And that’ll happen with any conversation with kids or students. You know, you want to try to keep in these categories, but conversation also eventually takes on its own life, and you might end up blending the categories, so it’s—you know, there can be good things that come out of that, jumping a little bit ahead.
KELSEY: Right. So I notice about him, and this is something that I notice as I bring my wisdom to an article, I noticed that he is even a tentmaker of sorts, that he has one job in education, and then he’s also a pastor. That is something, to just have in the background that, as this trend continues, many pastors are actually having to dip into two different vocational expressions.
JONATHAN: When you say “tentmaker” there, is that a reference to the Apostle Paul?
KELSEY: It is. It’s a great thing to think about. Many of the apostles actually had to engage in another profession outside of their work as missionaries. But specifically, Paul made tents, apparently. That’s something that we know about his profession. And so we use that as shorthand for those who have a second vocation at the same time as a ministry vocation.
JONATHAN: When he already made them? It was past tents. And if he ever went inside them? That was pretty in-tents.
KELSEY: You know what, you are just too intense for me. So, some more observations of the people that we’re speaking of in this article, those who are bringing out some of the qualitative or the relational data, not merely the quantitative or numeric data. I also noticed so many different folk who are discussing what they experienced of the church, and why they no longer want to go to church, or be a part of organized religion at all. Right out the gate, I noticed a man who discusses still this need for spirituality. And it’s talked of a couple times in the article, the desire for a spiritual feeling. But instead of getting that through maybe liturgy and things that are common trappings of the church, they have made their own liturgy, as it were, their own experience of being out in nature, playing music on his guitar—this to him stirs him more in a way he’s calling “spiritual.”
JONATHAN: So we’re seeing that these nones haven’t necessarily rejected all idea of spirituality. It really is, as the title said, organized religion that they are eschewing. One of the big things I observe about the who here—well, first off, just a broad detail is that we’re casting the net wide to people in many different regions, as you touched on. And they all have different stories and different reasons. But it all mostly seems to come down to ways they have felt hurt by organized religion. So we see Emma Komoroski identifies as a lesbian. The quote she has here is, “I didn’t really fit, and people don’t like me.” So she left organized religion. There is another man named Alric Jones, who left the church after the church kept soliciting money from his wife, even after they were in financial distress. He’d lost his job and been injured and they couldn’t give any more but the church kept asking them for money. So he left organized religion. There’s another person here, a reverend actually, who mentions scandals. He is not one of the nones, but he is a spiritual advisor at a recovery center. He is an Episcopal reverend. And another person mentioned mental health, that when they brought up mental health concerns, it was attributed to, “Well, you must be sinning,” or “You’re demonically possessed.” And because their mental health concerns weren’t being addressed, they left organized religion. So all of these circumstances, various different issues, but all coming back to a personal hurt.
KELSEY: I noticed scandals mentioned multiple times, the abuse that was—and they even called out the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Church, calling out the fact that those were the reasons, and abuses by leadership. This—I can’t help but immediately be having a sober and even a grief response to this. Because those who were meant to be shepherds were acting as wolves, that it is those wolves in sheep’s clothing, as it were, that are causing people to leave the flock.
JONATHAN: I feel us wanting to get into the analysis here. Do we have other things we want to bring out in our observation, before we start really analyzing why these people have left the church, why they identify as nones?
KELSEY: I do think that we’ve talked some about what was attractive about not being in a structured situation. We’re identifying now kind of the broken aspect, the way what of the response that is the negative. So we’re drawing that out, which is pushing us towards recognition, that there is an appropriate response in the church. And we have to do so through analysis. But just sitting in that space of the broken places, I think that’s fully appropriate, to slow down long enough to recognize that so much hurt has been perpetuated by the church. I think some more things to observe, before we move into those places of deeper analysis and response, is to see some of the ways that these nones have sought to feed that longing of their hearts, to be in a place where they feel that spiritual feeling or gain that community that they know that they need, which I find also very interesting. They recognize they need these aspects in their life.
JONATHAN: That community thing really jumped out in my observations, because the article actually goes on to praise the need for community. It talks about a 12-step program, people dealing with addiction. And it’s explicitly stated in the article that the loss of community can make addiction worse, and it’s community that can help heal from addiction. And community is one of the big things you will lose if you leave organized religion.
A lot of these people have held on to some sort of belief. One of the quotes in this article points out that a lot of these nones wouldn’t consider themselves atheist or agnostic. They still hold to some sort of spirituality. But having left organized religion, it’s that community aspect that you really lose. And this article affirms the goodness of community. It shows that people are trying to find that community in other places, other than organized religion. We see people trying to find community in a 12-step program, we see people trying to find community in a retirement home community, and using those communities as a substitute for the community that arises in a religion.
KELSEY: We also see just this effort to find community in even a homeschool community. Yes, now homeschool for so many of us means an outpouring of one’s religious conviction, and an opportunity to continue to disciple that next generation within the framework of our belief. These are communities that are more secular. They’ve even named themselves as “secular homeschool communities” that recognize the need for, yeah, that fellowship—can you even call that fellowship? Fellowship is a word that seems so imbued with Christian meaning to me. So anyway, they’re looking for those relationships that allow for one another to share burdens, to teach one another’s children, to foster just a wonder and a curiosity about the world. That, as opposed to what sounds like—their response to, they named it “toxic communities” or “toxic environments.” That, to me, sounds like heavily legalistic, behavioristic, even moralistic—they’re running away from that, to try to foster something that produces wonder and curiosity in their children. I understand those instincts. I understand the desire to be in a place with, maybe, unfettered freedom, or at least that encourages the enjoyment of life and of the beauty of creation, but has taken all of that off of the foundation of the One who created it in the first place. So just interesting other observations of places where they’re seeking out all of the goodness, but with none of the brokenness. And it leads me to that question: Will they find it? Will they be able to correct those things that they have experienced of brokenness in organized religion?
JONATHAN: I feel like that really naturally now brings us straight into analysis, where we can look at the reasons they have left and what they have replaced religion with. And we’re always analyzing against a biblical worldview. And so, you’re already touching on the idea of hurts in the church, and that’s something that really stood out to me. I wrote it out beforehand in my notes as a single sentence, which is: Everything that the nones hate about religion is actually not a part of true religion, and almost everything they love about “spirituality” is part of true religion. So you see this dismissal of mental health concerns—we did a whole episode on mental health. You know, that has been a problem in the church, that mental health is not taken seriously. That is not a part of true religion, to say that mental health doesn’t exist. That’s actually—that does not line up with a biblical view of the human person. One person left because pastor refused to visit a dying relative, because that person wasn’t a member of the church. You know, that’s against so much of what we see in scripture. We see in scripture that visiting the sick and the needy is so essential to faith. It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re part of the church. Another person talks about, you know, they can’t accept the picture of a “big bearded dude in the sky.” Obviously, that’s not the true picture of the Christian God. Down the line, every single thing that is seen as a critique of the church here is—I’m not saying it’s not a real problem, I’m sure these were real hurts these people experienced. But those problems aren’t arising from something intrinsic to religion. I would say—again, analyzing against a biblical worldview—what these problems are arising from is something intrinsic to humans, which we would call sin.
KELSEY: So we would affirm the critique that is embedded in all of these conversations that we are reading and observing in this article. There is real reason to critique our religiosity—I don’t even know if that’s a real word, but I’ve played with it before—our tendency of doing the trappings of religion, without really seeking to serve from a transformed heart. I’m thinking of what a challenge it must have been for the disciples to hear that true religion, in what Jesus was describing in John 13, was the religion of the servant leader, the one who humbled himself even to the point of washing stinky feet. I love that from Sally Lloyd-Jones’ work in the Jesus Storybook Bible. She paints that picture so clearly, of the stinky feet. You see it in that image, and you go, “Yeah, that’s what I’m supposed to do as one who proclaims Christ.” I don’t want to do that. I’d rather stay clean and tell other people what it looks like to live a clean life. That sounds like just the Pharisee-ism that He was pushing back against. And that I hear criticized, the hypocrisy criticized in the church. And I affirm that, and I see it in my own heart. And I affirm that critique of myself.
JONATHAN: The asking for money also came up more than once. And that’s interesting to me, because there is something we would affirm in the idea of an offering or a tithe. But at the same time, the Bible speaks strongly against those who would take advantage of the poor. And it seems like, from these examples in the article, we’re seeing instances where churches pestered people for money, even when they were in dire straits, where instead Jesus lowers Himself to be with the poor and needy, and does not neglect them.
KELSEY: Indeed. In one of Jesus’ first sermons, he came specifically into the synagogue to grab a scroll from Isaiah, to proclaim good news to the poor. I’m going to just read it. He said, from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus posture is one of service, of welcoming the poor, the oppressed, and His ministers of the gospel—those who say that they’re ministering in His name—we are meant to do the same. And so my heart is broken over seeing these details of where the shepherds, again, have instead of caring for the flock, have harmed it or have failed to—by sins of omission—have failed to care for those who are in need.
So we’re analyzing and affirming what we hear of the critique that is being made of the church and her leaders in this. I want to move into some challenge to some of the things that I’m seeing. You mentioned the “big bearded man in the sky,” and some of the ways that I think cultural influences have crept into people’s perception of the church and of God Himself. I see so many things that I would challenge, but that I understand people without good teaching or without the scripture—I want to say this, I have compassion, that they’re not seeing an accurate picture of who Jesus is, not seeing an accurate picture of even what is described in the scripture, or what the church ought to be. And so they’re devolving into their own version of who God is or what spirituality means. I saw this quote—Jones is his last name, he’s in central Michigan—he says that he doesn’t believe in organized religion anymore. But he believes that there is a God and he believes in basic ethical precepts, that people should be treated equally, as long as they also treat others equally. Which—that’s a pretty difficult thing to unpack.
JONATHAN: I think you can find that in the book of First Modernity.
KELSEY: Yeah, there you go.
JONATHAN: And that actually leads me to one of my challenge points. It’s directly related, I think, to this quote, again, that a lot of these nones are not atheist or agnostic. And I’m sure some of them wouldn’t identify as atheist or agnostic. But I actually want to challenge that idea. And I want to challenge it just by giving a kind of a metaphor.
The movie Oppenheimer came out this year. Rated R, not for kids. But it’s all about the invention of the atomic bomb, how this scientific community, the culmination of these incredible theories, the brilliance of Einstein, the brilliance of Oppenheimer, it’s this weapon that kills untold, horrible numbers of people. So imagine somebody comes up to you and is like, “I don’t believe in gravity. I’ve, you know, I’ve seen what science has done. Science created the nuclear bomb. Science has done all these terrible things. I’m just, I’m done with science. I don’t believe in gravity.” Now, that sounds totally absurd to us. And I think the reason why that sounds absurd to us is because we understand that the facts of nature, like gravity, those are real things. And our feelings about them, whether or not scientists did bad things, don’t affect those facts of reality in any way. We can’t just pick and choose what facts to believe about physics because of what science has done, or because of how we feel about things, what sounds good to us. We can’t just pick and choose a grab bag of, you know, “I’d like to believe in relativity, but I don’t think gravity is a thing.”
Now, when people take that approach to religion, and they—we see them picking and choosing what they want to believe, but without reference to any real logic or tradition, it’s hard not to see that as some form of agnosticism. Because I think if you really believe that the spiritual realm is exists, that the spiritual exists as much as the physical, then this sort of picking and choosing based on your feelings of what to believe should seem to us as absurd as just picking and choosing what to believe about physics.
KELSEY: That’s such a good point. And I would maybe take it—maybe it’s a layer deeper, in that what we feel is absolutely a part of it. Our feelings drive us to becoming our own authority. Like, this rule is making me uncomfortable, I’m just going to X out this rule, because ultimately I’m the authority over what I believe and what I experience. Francis Schaeffer talks about that, again, descent into the absurd that happens when we take out the authority of God over all things, and make our own self the authority proclaiming what is true, saying that truth is okay for you, but it’s not going to be for me. That’s when we move into the absurd and the irrational, because we’re making our lives a plate that we’re serving ourselves out of the particulars that we want. What I mean by particulars is, what details do I feel like are going to stick to me, but which ones do I not want on my plate, not willing to live according to one universal truth that is sustained by One Eternal Authority. Instead, I want to be in charge.
JONATHAN: And I think there’s even something in there that, for Christians, brings out the importance of the Christian tradition and the believers who have gone before us, to remember that the Church Universal is not just all the Christians who exist on earth now, but as all the Christians who have ever been. In that, there’s a level of accountability, and a humility of understanding that it’s not just us and the truth trying to figure it out based on our feelings, or our limited here-and-now knowledge, but we are in a community that can only come through an organized religion of believers, who have been wrestling and thinking and praying for centuries.
KELSEY: Yeah, there’s so many who’ve gone before, who have wrestled with these ideas and gained maturity. You know, they are those who have lived long, and who have much wisdom to pass on. And I just think of parenting as a great way to illustrate this as well. Any child who is, let’s just say three years old, because we love to talk about terrible twos, terrible threes, that’s that area of life where a child is starting to recognize that they have a will. I really think that they’re starting to really go, you know, “mine” and “no,” and all these things that come out. But they, even if they recognize something about what they want, they cannot take care of themselves. They don’t have enough maturity, strength, wisdom, knowledge. They haven’t spent enough time on Earth to be able to do what it would be. They haven’t spent enough time on Earth to do what is required in order to take care of themselves. They can’t just go roam in the wild. They need somebody to care for them. It’s the same with anything that we learn, that there’s somebody ahead of us in our learning who, if they are worth their salt, cares enough to be able to turn around to the person behind them, and provide for them things that they need to know in order to engage the world, things that they need to eat in order for their bodies to be healthy. And this is what you were making me think of as you’re describing that that’s what is going on in organized religion, is, “Look, we have tasted and seen that this is good. And we know that you also need it for your nourishment.”
JONATHAN: I think that, in this, there is a call for parents and teachers to be good modelers of the faith. So going back to this idea of these nones who consider themselves spiritual but not religious, and this idea that you can kind of pick and choose what to believe based on what feels right, undergirding that being a worldview that kind of sees the spiritual as “less real” than the rest of reality: I think it’s easy for Christians who are mentoring kids to accidentally model that kind of worldview, the worldview that makes the spiritual less real than the tangible, physical things we see, or that separates them needlessly. So, you know, hypocrisy in the church is something we see a lot of in these examples. And when we, as Christians, are hypocritical, when we proclaim the name of Christ but then live and speak completely contrary to His word in front of our kids—the classic example, if we are doing all the right things on Sunday morning but then we come home Monday through Friday and none of that matters anymore—then I think what we’re modeling to our kids is this exact same worldview of the nones, that the spiritual things, we can kind of pick and choose when and where they matter. And, you know, I think that’s a hard thing, because we are never going to not be hypocrites, because we’re sinful people. But I think the thing about Christianity is, it doesn’t say we should be perfect. It says we’re going to screw up. And what we can do is—when we are hypocritical, when we do portray the spiritual things of the world to our kids as less real—we can repent, and we can repent to our kids and say, “I screwed up, but God is good.” And that points them back to the gospel.
KELSEY: I’m so excited. I almost talked over you I’m so excited that that’s where you’re going with this, this idea of repentance, which pivots us perfectly into more of this response section. I think so much of what these dear folk in this article are reacting to is that hypocrisy, is that lack of repentance in the church. And it is at the crux of how we engage with our children, our students, is having that mind of recognizing we mess up daily, hourly. I love that hymn, “I Need Thee Every Hour,” because it is so instructive to my heart about this posture that I must have, of recognizing that I cannot do this apart from Christ. I can’t parent, I can’t teach, I can’t podcast apart from Christ, apart from His Spirit in me.
And so as we ask the questions that we ask in this section, how do we respond? How do we respond to this specific topic area? You’ve already started touching on that in terms of our modeling of that humility, of recognizing that we have done wrong, that we continue to do wrong, and that it is the church that is that broken body of people who need the Lord’s broken body in order to be transformed, in order to be made new. So when we are characterized by His body broken for us and His Spirit in us, we can do that learning. We are freed up, unfettered, like these folk are pointing towards, to be able to be filled with wonder and curiosity. We can do that when we realize that He has paid the price to free us from our sin. He has put His Spirit inside us to sanctify us and make us more and more like Him every day, that we have the privilege of learning and growing. I wrote recently a very brief newsletter thought on Deuteronomy 6, because it encapsulates this idea that we love the Lord with our whole being—our hearts, our minds, our soul, the very core of ourselves, our strength, is all meant to be wrapped up in loving Him. But to remind ourselves of that, we’re supposed to put His word on the very lintels of our doors, our doorposts, the framework of our house, the frontlets between our eyes. I don’t know what a frontlet is. So I’m trying to imagine what that might be. And I have some friends who are building houses right now. And they are literally taking verses and writing it on the studs of their home. And what an image of what it means to be surrounded by His truth—outwardly, inwardly with every part of our being. But that is an unfolding process, just as constructing a home is an unfolding process that takes time before that beautiful, final work.
JONATHAN: I think part of the response too can be invitational. Back to what I said in the analysis section, that pretty much everything we see as a critique of the church here isn’t something that’s part of true religion, it’s a twisting of true religion. But also, I think a lot of the things that the nones love about spirituality, are truly found in Christianity, in religion. And so I think there can be an invitation there. And what I mean by that is, we see people here saying how they feel close to God, close to something spiritual, through things like music, and through things like nature. And I think sometimes, in the church, we drive an artificial wedge between the spiritual and the physical. But we know that nature proclaims the glory of God. Nature is a spiritual experience, not because we’re worshiping nature, but because nature is created to worship God. And God works through music. He created music to glorify Him. And when we hear good music, we are seeing and hearing—rather, we’re not seeing music, unless you’re synesthetic. But we are, you know—anything good in this world is part of God’s good creation, and anything broken in this world is twisted by sin. The goodness of good music is a reflection of God’s goodness. So these people are looking for something good and spiritual, and they’re finding it in places where there are good and spiritual things. What we have is, we can say, “hey, the reason you feel so spiritual in nature? I can tell you where that’s coming from.” And then to be invitational in our community, so many people here feeling excluded or feeling like to be part of the community, they were asked to give money or to clean themselves up from sin before they even stepped through the doors of the church. To get rid of any thought of that and just be radically invitational, even to the broken, to come and see the goodness of God, I think can go a long way towards showing people that what they’re looking for in this spirituality is truly found in the church, and to not let our experience of the spiritual begin and end with the church service, but to see the good spiritual things in nature and music and art and attribute them rightly to their Creator.
KELSEY: So it gets really practical in terms of how we can respond. I’ve been thinking through these categories, the categories of leader, the categories of family, maybe even just the category of just neighbor. What do we do with this phenomenon in culture? How can we very practically engage in this area? I would say, leader, you know, we’ve talked about repentance. What does it look like for you to very clearly repent of the ways that your leadership has been broken, and to seek to serve in a way that is going to where the need is, rather than requiring people to come to you? I am thinking about a lovely church in Sumter, South Carolina. He has a church that he planted along with two other men, and they’re tentmakers as well, because this church is all about ministering to the broken, the addicts, those recovering. And it’s built around the ministry of Celebrate Recovery, so one of those 12-step programs like mentioned in this article. Very practically, he has opened the doors to this humble building, expressing hospitality, preaching the gospel, connecting it to this recovery program. but doing so where it’s not only the recovery program, the 12 steps—it is tying it and anchoring it into Christ, and not becoming a burden as those leaders for this very broken, very just “least of these” fellowship—he knows that it would be so burdensome for them to try to support him by tithing, by being the ones to give him a salary. And so he’s not only not taken a salary from the church, they also have multiplied the leaders, and they are tent-making leaders. One of them works in insurance. Another one is a retired military personnel. Each of them have different income so that they can serve. So to the leader, what could that look like in your context, to very practically put the needs of those across from you as higher than the glory of leadership, maybe?
JONATHAN: That’s so good. And I have one other thought about response, which—we’ve been talking about response, a lot of it as being, you know, Christian parents and educators or leaders. I want to think about response also in the context of somebody listening to this, maybe a parent or teacher in the church, but who has felt these hurts, and who maybe feels this draw to just do away with organized religion, because like you said, so many of these people, it’s the de-churched who are coming out of religion where they’ve been harmed. You know, there’s this quote in the article that says, if you look at religions, they have been wracked by scandals. It doesn’t matter what denomination. And my thought about that is, absolutely. And if you don’t want to be in a group that’s going to have a scandal, the easiest way to do that is, for sure, just to not be part of a group. But I think what we see is that any group of people is eventually going to have brokenness or scandal. It’s easy to point out in religion, especially because religions are often explicitly proclaiming to stand against the things that bring about scandals. But you know, you see the same problems in sports teams, political parties, companies, charities—no group of humans is immune to scandal. And so, back to the response idea. When I look at the people in this article, I see people searching for a community that will not be wracked by scandal, searching for essentially a sinless community. That could come off as a false dichotomy. I understand there are churches where, structurally, they have been designed with a lack of accountability or designed in ways that can promote evil. But any group, even the most well-structured church, can fall victim to scandal. Even the most well-structured company can fall victim to scandal, the most well-structured 12-step program. Wherever people are in charge—my biblical worldview tells me that wherever people are the driving force, we are going to see the effects of sin. And so we can bounce from religion to religion and community to community looking for the one without scandals. But for myself, when I feel tempted or burned by organized religion, I look at the world, I look at the fact that every group of people is marred by sin. And so I want to find the community that can acknowledge sin, can say sin is real, can tell me why we see it everywhere, but can offer a path of acceptance and grace in that. And I see that most clearly in the church. Hopefully, that makes sense. I feel like I rambled a bit.
KELSEY: I think it did. I think that when the church is operating as she should, then she is that place of welcome, that place of hospitality, that place where it’s not an “I’m living better than you, I can tell you what to do,” which—I’m just tying that again into one of the things that is said specifically in this article. Jones says, “I’m not prone to listening to anybody telling me that this is the way it should be.” Another practical response is hospitality, allowing people to see that you don’t have it all together, but you still love and are marked by a love that has been poured out for you. One of the biggest blessings of my life in ministry—and actually two of them—one was when we worked in youth ministry, and we had kids just over hanging off of our balcony, eating dinner, playing video games, listening to music, and we just had the opportunity to love them, and to show that we weren’t perfect. And they looked at us with wonder, because we weren’t constantly trying to tell them what to do. But we were living out a life of faith in front of them. And we, I think they heard it in our conversation, they heard it in the ways that we spoke to one another in love, and the ways that we spoke to them. So that was a very practical outpouring and modeling. But the other huge pleasure of my life was when we had a small group in our home that was comprised of neighbors who were not only non-believers, but some of them were dabbling with pretty intense pagan-type practices. And they were in our home, because they had seen something different in the way that we were parenting our children. And they wanted to be around that. Super humbling—sorry, catching my voice, because I knew I wasn’t parenting well. There was so much that was lacking. But they had still somehow seen Christ in us and wanted to be near that. So there’s something to pass on, families. You can also have that beautiful rub into the neighbors around you, just merely by being willing to welcome them into your lives and being transparent about the Lord’s work there.
JONATHAN: Our brokenness can be a better testimony than our perfection.
KELSEY: As we wrap up, this passage from James was just coming up, to think about what true religion looks like as opposed to all these trappings of organized religion that were critiqued well. Starting in chapter one, verse 26: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
There’s a lot to unpack there. And there are many more passages that could help instruct us in terms of, what does it mean for us to love this world but not be characterized by it? So we pray that we would all be pressing towards that goal of Christ, that we will be defined by His body, that we would be His body as the church. And we know—parent, teacher, mentor of kids and teens—He has equipped all of us for this work.
Why do more and more Americans identify as religious “nones”? And how should Christian parents and educators respond? We’re using the SOAR method to break down a report from the Associated Press.
Check out The Concurrently Companion for this week’s downloadable episode guide including discussion questions and scripture for further study. Sign up for the News Coach Newsletter at gwnews.com/newsletters.
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See more from the News Coach, including episode transcripts.
- Read our source article with us at the Associated Press.
- For more on why people leave the church, listen to our previous episode, “Reckoning with deconstruction stories (with Amy Auten).”
- Read Scott Lucky’s Review of The Great Dechurching by Jim Davis and Michael Graham at the Gospel Coalition.
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