Hope and The “Nones”

The  newspaper reported a few weeks ago on the results of the most recent American Religious Identification Survey, a broad study American religious demographic changes.  (Click here for the full report.)  The most interesting to me were these:

  •  34 million people indicated no religious identity, and that number was up 20 million from 1990, now at 15% of the total US population.
  • 27% of Americans do not expect a religious funeral.
  • For some reason Asian Americans are substantially more likely to indicate no religious identity than other racial or ethnic groups.

It seems there’s a general movement away from Christianity toward unbelief and agnosticismJohn Ortberg responded by asking whether we’re witnessing the same process of secularization that took place in Europe a few decades ag0.  While only 76% of American’s population is nominally Christian, only 3.9% consciously identified as belonging to another religion.  But, that’s not to say other religions aren’t growing:  The ARIS study found that Islam is growing in the US and that “adherents of New Religious movements, inc luding Wiccans and self-described pagans, have grown faster this decade than in the 1990s.”  But the greater trend is a movement toward uncertainty, ambiguity in belief.  Ortberg notes that

Barry Kosmin, who co-authored the survey, commented that more than ever before “people are just making up their own stories of who they are. They say, ‘I’m everything. I’m nothing. I believe in myself.'” He said that faith is increasingly treated as a fashion statement that serves as a vehicle for self-expression rather than a transcendent commitment which demands costly devotion.

So, what does this mean for a new church like The Upper Room in Squirrel Hill?  Though often considered Pittsburgh’s Jewish neighborhood, Squirrel Hill is already high on the people who would have checked “None” on the ARIS survey.  In our grant writing for The Upper Room, a Percept demographic study of the neighborhood suggested that 38.3% of the people living here have no faith committment

How does the church relate with the “Nones” of our neighborhood, especially when many of them are de-churched?  Here are some thoughts based on Lesslie Newbigin’s writing about “The Congregation as Hermeneutic of the Gospel” in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.  There Newbigin suggests that a church in this context will have six characteristics.

  1. It will be a community of praise.
  2. It will be a community of truth.
  3. It will not live for itself, but will be “deeply involved in the concerns of its neighborhood.”
  4. It will be a place where congregation members live out their “priesthood in the world.”
  5. It will be a community of mutual responsibility.
  6. It will be a community of hope. 

Of these, I think hope, the conviction that this world and life has a purpose, may be the message that the “Nones” most need to hear.  If one doesn’t expect a religious funeral (as 27% apparently doesn’t), then there is no proclamation of hope beyond death.  And if there’s no hope beyond death, then life has no meaning.  To be rooted in our own self-constructed identities provides nothing more than a coping mechanism without any sense of larger purpose to life.  When that purpose is discovered in the Kingdom of God a clear reason for hope and purpose is given: God’s work of redeeming, healing, and restoring a broken world through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  That hope of course leads to the other characteristics Newbigin lists: experiencing restoration in our own lives leads to praise, gives us an anchor of truth, and a reason to be responsible to one another.  That hope also is what moves us forward, with all members of the community caring for the world in concrete ways, specifically in our own neighborhood and workplaces. 

So, where do we proclaim hope in Squirrel Hill?  In the face of depression, loneliness, addiction? Into broken relationships and places of grief?   Into the places where the economic crisis has affected even a relatively well-to-do neighborhood?  I don’t think this is the only answer or way of approaching the un-religious population, but it’s a start.  It’s certainly not a vague or ambiguous hope we’re called to proclaim: it’s the hope of the resurrection of the crucified Jesus which means it will never lead to easy answers.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15:13

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