What Happened to the Nones?

You don’t work in adult faith ministry for long without encountering parents grieving over the fact that their children no longer coming to Church. They are often among the most active members of the parish community; the five-percenters, if you will.

Some parents shared feelings of guilt over their children’s lack of faith. As a parish leader, the appropriate response might be to be reminded them that faith is ultimately embraced or rejected in the heart. Or we could pray over the awesome power of God’s grace, which works mysteriously upon the heart and bears fruit in God’s time. In addition, there are good resources out there that can help all of us continue to be witness of God’s love to those who have left – without driving them even further away.

Those are the appropriate pastoral responses, but the Church also needs to think hard about why many people simply stop believing and never return.

Dave Cushing, in his essay, “Don’t Panic About the Nones Who Stopped Believing”, invites us to look at the problem through a particular lense from the Catholic tradition: the stages of faith.

There are varying numbers and names, depending on the writer. The main point is that our faith is not a static reality; it has to develop along with the rest of our mind and body.

There comes a time when many teenagers and young adults begin to question or stop believing the faith that was instilled in them by parents and church community. According to Cushing, this is not in itself a bad thing, but the sign of a new stage. Rather seeing it as a catastrophe, the leaving behind of our childhood faith is appropriate, maybe even necessary, for spiritual growth.

The problem is that our churches are often ill-equipped to wrestle with the doubts and uncertainties that are often a part of what writers call the “adolescent” or “critical” stage of faith. They end up walking away from the church because it is not longer place where they can encounter the respect that their questions deserve.

In my experience, Church planners (and grieving parents) tend to see these doubts as mostly coming from external influences that have been absorbed from the culture outside the church walls. In this scenario, we are at war with secularism for the hearts and minds of our kids – if we could only find fresh and exciting ways of re-presenting the certitudes that they are tempted to abandon. There is a growing industry of highly produced programs and media-savy personalities centered around this premise.

But what if spiritual maturity is obtained by passing through the critical stage of faith? In that case, the community needs to own and embrace this stage, rather than blaming it on external bad influences. Can we accompany those in the critical stage, allowing for more uncertainty, refinement, and even critique?

More importantly, can we ourselves model a “post-critical” phase of faith that is both joyfully committed to God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ, and at the same time are unthreatened by uncertainty and shades of gray?

If that sounds vague, let me suggest a few ways that we could open up breathing room for the critical faith experience:

 Learning from others

“I felt I have not the right to want to change another if I am not open to be changed by him as far as it is legitimate.”
– Attributed to Martin Buber

The Church is said to possesses the “fullness of the truth,” but that does not mean that the churches today, or in any given era, teach everything there is to know about God. Rather, the Church as a whole, stretching across all time and spaces, in both the heavens and on earth, contains the fullness of truth – and only by virtue of it’s foundation in Jesus Christ.

This should give us humility, as all expressions of our common Faith come from a particular cultural, historical and linguistic context, and are going to be limited by them. Historically, Christian doctrine has developed as Christians raise legitimate questions and objections that arise in various settings, spurring us to reflect more deeply on the identity of Jesus Christ and the implications of being a disciple in the world.

We have to consider the most compelling reasons for doubting Christian claims today. We also have to learn more about the real life experiences that lead some question certain Church teachings (or misunderstandings of those teachings). In doing this, we demonstrate that Catholic Christians listen carefully to other viewpoints – not simply as an exercise in patience, but out of a genuine desire to grow in knowledge of the truth.

Hierarchy of Truths

The Second Vatican Council suggested that there is a proper ordering and prioritization of Christian beliefs. While that doesn’t mean watering things down or ignoring aspects of Christianity that that we don’t like, we shouldn’t present the entirety of Christian teaching as if it was an all or nothing package. If faith is a living and growing reality, we need to prioritize some things and give people the space and time to wrestle with other things.

For example, in the official Lutheran/Catholic dialogues, discussion on faith, justification and eucharist have taken priority over differences in secondary maters like Mariology.

Scale of Probability

We can talk about the Christian faith in a way that preserves insights of the tradition but also acknowledges the varying degrees of certainty with which those insights can still be affirmed.

For example, the existence of God is higher on the scale of rational probability than the idea of a Trinune God. Or, the concept of a personal God is more accessible to reason than the claim that a man over two thousand years ago rose from the dead. Admitting that some things are harder to demonstrate or are less comprehensible from a strictly rational viewpoint doesn’t disprove anything. Nor does that honesty lessen the importance of some of the more mysterious elements of Christianity, such as the ressurection, but it does should make us more understanding when certain aspects of the faith are challenged.

Honesty About Church Failings

We can also humbly acknowledge that we as the Church, both individually and corporately, have often failed to live up to our own beliefs and mission. Sugar coating the past is no longer an option. Honesty about the Church’s failings presents an opportunity to reminding them that they too are the Church. That is, they are a part of the solution to whatever the contradictions or problems they have experienced or learned from the study of history.

Many Catholics who are active in their parishes today will admit that they drifted away from the Church or faith for a time, but eventually returned.

“After college, I began to take my faith seriously” is a variation that I used to tell people about my own journey.

After reflecting on Cushing’s article, I think there might be a better way to describe my own experience. After a period of floating adrift, my faith eventually found the space to develop in a way that commitment to the Church could be an authentic expression of my faith.

What is changing today is that many of those who are unmoored are no longer returning. Going forward, I think that church leaders should think hard about how we can be a space where all the faithful can trust that their concerns and objections will be taken seriously.