Talking to the "Nones"

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, February 27, 2014

Talking to the "Nones"

There is little doubt that the religious story of our day is the rise of the “nones,” the religiously unaffiliated, in the United States.  In a historical instant, they have become the fastest-growing and second-largest religious constituency in America, making up one out of every five adults.  If you look simply at Millennials, they make up one out of every three.

In view of the pending release of my latest book, The Rise of the Nones, I am already receiving interview requests.   The most common questions to date are,

So what is a “none”?  What are their characteristics?

Answer: They are not at all what you would expect.

Why has there been such a meteoric rise in their numbers?

Answer:  One answer would be that this is the first generation to grow up in a post-Christian context, and the processes of secularization, pluralization and privatization have taken their toll.  But if you ask them, they will tell you it’s all about lawyers, guns and money (you’ll have to get the book to see what that’s about).

But by far, the most pressing question has been this:

Your church experiences over 70% of its growth from the unchurched.  What is your secret?  What are you saying to the “nones” that is engaging them?

Answer:  I go into more detail on each in the book, with two sample “talks” as appendices, but here are the six major areas I find myself needing to address with the people we are reaching:

*I defend the character of God.  Many look at the workings of the world and feel like they would act more justly than God appears to be.  So as audacious as it may seem, and prone to misunderstanding, I defend and explain God.

*I explain the Christian faith to those who have no memory of it.  We are not speaking to the God-fearing Jews of Jerusalem (Acts 2) but to the spiritual agnostics of Mars Hill (Acts 17).  This often involves the best of the “mere” Christianity espoused by Baxter and the Lewis, but also the essence of biblical theology.

*I show how a life that follows Christ is actually marked by that following.  This means the practical application of the Bible’s teaching to life’s most pressing challenges, conflicts and choices.  The goal is to illustrate what a Christ-follower would do or think, and how it is always the better road.

*I apply both old and new apologetics.  “Old” apologetics addresses such issues related to the trustworthiness of Scripture, the relationship between science and faith, and the divinity of Jesus.   “New” apologetics speaks less to evidence than to experience.  Many of these “new” questions revolve around “so what?”  As in, “So what if Jesus rose from the dead?”  “So what if the Bible is true?”

*I attempt to engage the most pressing barriers the “nones” have to all things religious, which often has less to do with intellectual issues than emotional ones.  As has often been noted, when those outside of the faith look at those inside the faith, they don’t think we look very much like our Leader.  So I deal with the great indictments the world lays at the feet of the church, such as judgmentalism, hypocrisy, anti-intellectualism, the lack of tolerance, and legalism. 

*Finally, I continually work the “grace-truth” dynamic within the gospel itself.  Grace without truth is licentiousness; truth without grace is legalism.  We need the great balance of both.  Positively, grace brings God’s heart, and truth brings God’s holiness.  Jesus said He came bringing both; I am constantly trying to convey His message.

Intriguingly, these six areas are not simply what the “nones” need to hear, it is what they seem to yearn to hear.  Because when it comes to the "nones," I've found:

*Most are not atheists.  They want to believe in a good God.

*They are genuinely interested in understanding the Christian faith.

*They want their lives to be different, and are eager to find out how faith in Christ and the principles of Scripture might help.

*They love, love, love hearing their questions engaged.  If done with respect and not ridicule, understanding and not condescension, they will seriously entertain the suggested answers.

 *They are genuinely disarmed to hear talks addressing the “elephant” in the room, such as homophobia or hypocrisy, thus earning their respect and listening ear.

*They are surprisingly much like the woman at the well.  Jesus was able to reach out to her with radical acceptance, and then deliver the truth (in this case about her promiscuity) in a way that the acceptance was never suspect.  And just like the woman, when encountering both the grace and truth Christ has to offer, the "nones" cannot wait to run and tell everyone, and to have them come hear about Him as well.

Grace and truth. 

There is a hunger for it.

Even among the “nones.”

James Emery White


Pre-order your copy of Dr. White’s new book, The Rise of the Nones (Baker), through Amazon now.

If you would like to examine some of the sermon series given by Dr. White, visit the “Message Downloads” section of the site.  His most recent series, “Spiritual Malpractice,” was a very much a series along the lines of this blog, dealing with the issues of judgmentalism, hypocrisy, anti-intellectualism and legalism.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones, is now available for pre-order.  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Talking to the "Nones"