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Rise of the Nones: What the New Data Tells Us About the Non-Religious

The Pew Forum recently released, and USAToday’s ever-vigilant Cathy Grossman reported on, another study I think is helpful for us to understand the context in which we live. In the study, they indicate the number of Americans with no religious affiliation (identified as the “Nones,” as in “none of the above”) is climbing.

I had the opportunity to look at the data beforehand, and was not particularly shocked by it, though many will likely trumpet this as a huge shift.

It’s not. This is simply the natural progression of what is taking place in our context.

A big part of what is happening is that the “Nominals”—and by that I mean nominal mainliners primarily, but nominal evangelicals as well—are shifting and becoming the “Nones.” This makes sense, as the cultural currency (in other words, the value a society places on identifying as a Christian) is decreasing. And thus, we see a movement away from Christian identity as a cultural value.

I’ve written on multiple occasions about how the term “Christian” is used. Most recently I talked about “census Christians” (census Christians are those who, when filling out a form, pick “Christian” rather than “Hindu” or “Jew”) and “churchgoing Christians” (churchgoing Christians considering themselves Christians because they occasionally attend a church.) I believe this move is primarily the result of people who are “census” and “churchgoing Christians” shifting to the category of those who don’t have any identification at all—the Nones.

Furthermore, I don’t think this is all bad.

As I’ve discussed on The Exchange (see the entire episode here, as well as a short clip here), there is great opportunity in being able to speak with more definition and clarity about what a Christian is and is not.

So, should we be alarmed?

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Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is a professor and dean at Wheaton College where he also serves as Executive Director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, has earned two master’s degrees and two doctorates, and has written hundreds of articles and a dozen books. He is Regional Director for Lausanne North America, is the editor-in-chief of Outreach Magazine, and leads the Stetzer ChurchLeaders podcast. Ed is frequently cited in, interviewed by, and writes for news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He is the Founding Editor of The Gospel Project, a curriculum used by more than 1.7 million individuals each week for bible story. His national radio show, Ed Stetzer Live, airs Saturdays on Moody Radio and affiliates. He serves as interim teaching pastor of Calvary Church in New York City and serves as teaching pastor at Highpoint Church.