by Rev. Cuttino Alexander ’06
Among religious leaders, few topics generate more hand-wringing and debate than “the rise of the nones.”
In 2012, Pew Research Center published a study that revealed a rapid rise in the number of Americans who do not affiliate with any religion. According to the study, one-fifth of the general population and one-third of young adults under 30 select “none of the above” when asked about religious identity.
It seems that just a few generations ago, religious life stood at the center of American culture and society. Now, there is open speculation about how long the church will survive. For a young pastor like myself, this can make for a very uncertain career path.
The reasons for the rise of the nones are hard to pin down. Some point to the effects of secularization. Others blame political backlash, claiming that young people associate Christianity with intolerance and discrimination. Many suggest it is a symptom of broader social disengagement.
The fact of the matter is that organizations everywhere are suffering declines in participation and support—everything from the Rotary Club to the arts council to the local public library. Christianity is in a state of rapid change the likes of which we have not seen since the Reformation five centuries ago. It is a bellwether for many other cultural and social institutions.
Yet, many do not see these shifts as a death sentence. In terms of spirituality, America is unique among industrialized nations. In another study, Pew found that though belief in God is lower among young people as compared to older Americans, over half state that they “have no doubt” that God exists (even as a pastor, I have to raise my eyebrows at such certainty!). Warnings that America is becoming a “secular wasteland” may be premature.
I see opportunity in this situation as well: If the Church is no longer the country’s preeminent social club, if we do not have to be all things to all people, then we are much more free to embrace what sets us apart.
Recently, I worked in a Lutheran congregation in one of the trendiest neighborhoods in Chicago. Every Sunday, incense filled the sanctuary, a pipe organ played, the pastor processed in with elaborate robes. Conventional wisdom would be that this was an anachronism and no one would be interested. Yet, every week, the pews were filled with young people, couples, and families. They were drawn to the congregation’s emphasis on ritual and sacrament—as well as its unapologetic progressive theology and welcome to all. The same can be found in many other communities, particularly in urban areas.
In the past decade, there has been a strong push to recover traditional practices, particularly in worship, within my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and its partners, such as the Episcopal Church or the Presbyterian Church (USA). Perhaps surprisingly, some of the strongest proponents are young clergy like myself.
Our goal is to take our connection to the past—centuries of tradition—and make it relevant and useful today. Sometimes this has opened unexpected doors. For instance, “Beer and Hymns” has become popular in many urban congregations. The title says it all: you meet at a local pub to sing old hymns. Blending nostalgia and irony, this is just one way to celebrate our religious heritage without letting it become a useless relic.
Ultimately, religious leaders of every era are forced to reckon with change. While we never know what will become of the church in the future, the present is not as bleak as the statistics suggest.
A rich and vibrant movement is taking shape just below the surface.
Rev. Cuttino Alexander is pastor at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Mount Holly, North Carolina