The Rise of the Nones and the Collapse of the Middle

By Tom Gilson

The Pew Research Center has reported recently on the continuing increase of the “nones”–the religiously unaffiliated. Over the past five years, says Pew, “the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).”
On first glance it might appear that Christianity is in decline. The truth is rather more complex–in some ways encouraging and in other ways ominous, for what the numbers signify is a widening polarization of American society due to the collapse of the middle.

Nominal Christianity in Decline

The “middle” to which I’m referring is nominal Christianity, which is where many of these new “nones” have come from, according to researcher Ed Stetzer. Nominal Christians are decreasing in number, but convictional Christians are holding virtually steady. Church attendance, says Stetzer, has hardly changed in America since the 1940s. What we’re seeing, then, is not so much a decline in practicing, believing Christians, as a relatively sudden shrinkage in the number of nominal believers.

The Partially Understandable Riddle of Congregational Christianity

Nominal Christianity’s decline isn’t hard to understand; in fact, I’ve never quite grasped the appeal of what Stetzer calls congregational Christianity. One of his two categories of nominal Christianity, congregational Christianity essentially comprises those who would say “such-and-such a church is my church,” but whose beliefs are weak and who attend infrequently. (His other nominal category is cultural Christianity: those who identify as Christians simply because they live in a culture that’s been significantly shaped by the faith.)

Congregational Christianity has long baffled me. Sunday morning services are generally called worship services. What or whom do congregational Christians worship, if not the living God as sovereign King over their lives? And why would they make time for Bible lessons when they hardly believe in the Bible?

The Collapse of the Middle

Yet truly congregational Christians were once commonplace. In my youth it was not considered unusual for people to attend church purely for the social connections it provided, or even the business contacts. Some of these congregational Christians didn’t realize it, but they’d been labeled the C&E crowd, as in “Christmas and Easter.”

Church attendance still swells on those two holidays, but not like it used to, if my impressions are correct. I’ll say this for the C&E crowd, though: At least they knew what Christmas and Easter were about. Most Americans did, once upon a time, but no longer…

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The Rise of the Nones and the Collapse of the Middle