This past week a number of writers, including Rachel Evans and Christian Piatt, have taken to their blogs to elucidate why young people (in some cases themselves) leave the church (note the ever-important lowercase “c”). Coincidentally, this past Sunday The Daily published an op-ed by me about why I’m considering actually joining the Episcopal Church. Here’s that piece in full…
In a 2011 Gallup poll, independent voters made up 40 percent of the electorate, the highest ever. Politicians, and presidential candidates in particular, understand that while primaries are about appealing to a political base, general contests often come down to wooing the uncommitted. In other words, it is the independent vote that wins elections.
This move toward unaffiliation isn’t restricted to politics. In last week’s issue, Time magazine profiled the “10 Ideas That Are Changing Your Life,” including trends like living alone, the “cloud” and food that lasts forever. Coming in at No. 4 was “The Rise of the Nones,” whom Amy Sullivan defines in her article as people who “have not given up on faith,” but “have given up on organized religion.” They are not atheists or agnostics; they believe in God, but they want to be able to express their belief in unorthodox ways. And, just as independent voters are on the rise, Sullivan reports that the Nones are the “fastest-growing religion group in the U.S.”
I was a None once. Growing up outside of Boston, where Irish or Italian heritage (both of which I have) all but guarantees Roman Catholic membership, I struggled to explain just what brand of Christian my family was. As a student at a Catholic high school in the 1990s, I sometimes simply called myself a Christian. But my Catholic friends would counter by saying that Catholics are Christians too. Then I tried saying I was Protestant and leaving it at that. But my friends inevitably asked what denomination I belonged to, forcing me to admit that I didn’t belong to one. Saying I was nondenominational, however, was never an option; it would have been more like identifying what I was not. In the end, I settled on something like “spiritual, but not religious,” the categorical antecedent to the Nones. (It was only later, in college, that we nondenominational Christians got neatly lumped together under the term “evangelical.”)
This classification endures. Earlier this year, a nondenominational Christian spoken word poet named Jeff Bethke uploaded to YouTube a video titled “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” It went viral, and there was a backlash from those who don’t hate religion, including a Catholic priest who countered with his own video, “Why I Love Religion, and Love Jesus.” Nevertheless, Bethke connected with millions of people who shared his distaste for what he identifies as the hypocrisy of religious people who, among many other failings, claim to love their neighbors but fail actually to care for them.
Although I grew up sharing this sentiment, being a None failed me. My family learned the hard way that without some kind of denominational structure, without some measure of the order and tradition we had intentionally shunned as simply “spiritual” people, church authority can easily become centralized in one or two leaders. Often, their agendas become the church’s orthodoxy, and I witnessed more than my share of abuses of pastoral power. After experiencing this again and again in our tiny nondenominational congregation, my family left, and hopped around from church to church throughout most of my teenage years.
Looking back, I can see that our unaffiliated status was not evidence of a more true or original conception of Christianity as we imagined it, but a way around the difficulties that come from being subject to tradition. We believed we didn’t need the wisdom of the historical church fathers, and it followed that we didn’t need any of the strictures of organized religion. But we were wrong. We were aimless and lost, simultaneously reinventing the wheel and making up the rules as we went along.
Now, after spending much of my adulthood trying to find a place to belong, I’ve turned into the opposite of a None — I’ve become a proud Joiner. Since college, my own search has found me desperate to join. I have considered Roman Catholic confirmation, Presbyterian church membership and, most recently, Episcopalian identification. To that end, I have been attending confirmation classes at my local Episcopal parish since last month.
As I look around at my fellow Joiners, I see that it is specifically those who have lived the life of the unaffiliated who have decided, Sunday after Sunday, for several hours following Mass, to gather and discuss the rhythm of the liturgical calendar, the purpose of baptism, the history of the church and the beauty of the Book of Common Prayer. I’m not sure whether I’ll be confirmed when the class ends in eight weeks, but there is certainly something attractive about the prospect.
It would be foolish to think God requires affiliation as a means of access. We humans however tend to corral into formal groupings, whether it’s organized religion or political parties. In the absence of tried-and-true tradition, we begin to create our own. My guess is that, as the numbers of Nones continue to increase, they will begin to develop traditions, create rules and define their orthodoxy until, ultimately, something like a new denomination will arise. Perhaps in 2022 someone will declare “The Rise of the Joiners” as one of the life-changing ideas of the moment.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily.
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