The Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) conducted a panel study querying the same individuals over an extended period of time—specifically 2010, 2012 and 2014. Starting with 9,500 respondents, it is, to be sure, a robust study.
But the article in Christianity Today on its findings was terribly misleading: “Plenty of the ‘Nones’ Actually Head Back to Church.”
The real headline? 18.9 percent of the sample studied reported a different religious affiliation in 2014 than they did in 2010. Translation? Nearly 1 in 5 Americans changed their faith over a 48-month period.
The deeper headline? Americans who self-identify as agnostic or “nothing in particular” are four times more likely to switch their religious affiliation than Protestants or Catholics. As in about 48 percent of agnostics and 42 percent of those who self-identify as “nothing in particular.”
But are they actually turning to the Christian faith?
First, about 6 in 10 from the “nothing in particular” group stayed that way across the years of the study. That’s obviously the vast majority. Of the remaining “defectors,” about half moved further away from religious affiliation of any kind into the atheist or agnostic camp, 13.3 percent became Protestant, and 4 percent became Catholic.
That’s not a shift from the “rise of the nones” to the “return of the nones” by any measure. While it’s a hopeful note that nones are being reached for Christ, and should continue to be in the vanguard of our evangelistic efforts, the sobering notes remain:
- The nones are the largest religious group in the United States.
- The nones are the fastest-growing religious group in the United States.
- 8 out of every 10 are remaining as nones as time goes on or moving further away into avowed agnosticism or atheism.
- Only around 2 out of every 10 are currently being won to Christ.
Those who trumpet this as good news do so on the basis that those who shift from being “nothing in particular” cut evenly toward agnosticism or Christianity. And that is hopeful. But let’s not miss the forest for the trees: 6 of 10 are not leaving the nones category at all, and of the 4 in 10 that do, half move further away into a settled rejection of faith.
So the challenge remains: we are currently reaching only 2 of every 10 nones.
For me, that’s not “plenty” of the nones heading back to church.
That’s the vast majority remaining lost and in need of Christ.
James Emery White
Ryan P. Burge, “Plenty of the ‘Nones’ Actually Head Back to Church,” Christianity Today, February 6, 2018, read online.
James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones (Baker).
About the Author
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, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, 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.