PRRI released a new report yesterday on America’s “nones” and how the ones who have left are probably not going to come back.

Is anyone really surprised by the report?

People are leaving because:

  • They no longer believe in the teachings (60%)
  • Their family was not all that religious (32%)
  • They specifically leave due to teachings about LGBT (29%)

Other reasons include clergy sex abuse scandals (19%), tramatic event (18%) and too much political talk (16%).

Maybe it’s just because I grew up in the cynical, secular Western US, but what the report shows is simply more of the same – Christianity was a weird thing to do and be where I grew up, and I think that’s just becoming more the case across the US. From my perspective as a teacher of undergraduates and graduates, I would say also: pretty much everyone struggles with teachings and the church/LGBT. The ones who join or remain Christian are the ones who have often really, really struggled, and stay either because they believe, or because they value the struggle, or both. They might continue to wrestle, too.

Where does that leave the church and its responses? I have three thoughts.

1. Avoid the temptation of the numbers game. The church is about living relationships that testify to Jesus Christ. This, I think, has been Pope Francis’ call again and again: to live “the joy of authentic love.” If you don’t have it, you can’t give it.  Seeking after numbers in absence of Christ often means we forget the relationships, and the mercy and love that come along with them.

And, really – if all your parish is doing is seeking numbers by seeking “young people” it feels more icky than welcoming. It’s more like the stalker guy who wants to be your boyfriend because he wants a woman (as an object) than someone who’s seeking a genuine relationship with you because you’re you.

In his speech to new bishops last week, Pope Francis said:

Take special care of the structures of initiation of your Churches, especially Seminaries.Do not be tempted by numbers and quantities of vocations, but search rather for the quality of your seminaries. Do not deprive you seminarians of your firm and tender fatherhood.”

I think his words apply to other structures of initiation (RCIA, baptism, Eucharist, etc). Where the numbers matter is this: if your parish is a dying one, with mostly older folks and scant mass attendance, find ways to live as a smaller group to the best possible. Be people of mercy and authentic love to the people God has given.

2. Encourage active seeking for what is true. It wasn’t a surprise, really, but it was a sad part of the report: the fact that most “nones” are not seeking. It makes me want to know more: are they seeking other things? Or are they in despair? Tellingly, the report also mentions the low voter participation among nones. This point matches studies about political participation and (for example) the Millennials’ distaste for institutions.  On the other hand, Millennials are increasingly seeking action via protests and similar political activities.

It makes me think that passive Christianity – the kind of “we have your music” electronic displays so come visit us on Sundays – isn’t really going to work. But it doesn’t really work for following the call of Christ, either. Let us be active seekers, people who want to seek out others for relationships.

Let us support other active seekers, too, and encourage it in our students. Let us encourage seeking, thirsting for knowledge and desire to act, where we see it, even if it isn’t directly related to the church.

But let us also always encourage truthfulness. Let us Christians be truthful: we have, indeed, been the source of violent actions in the world. (A belief common to some nones is that religion is a major source of evil in the world.) We have done wrong. We have been hypocritical.

Maybe, some day, even some day far away in the future, if we have been truthful about ourselves and committed enough to the truth of Christ in relationships with others, we will then be able to enter into conversation with someone and say things like, “It’s not only religion that perpetuates violence, you know. Beware of thinking secularity leaves you any better off.”

The reason why is…

3. Remember Augustine of Hippo. Here’s a guy who loved seeking, and who was supported in his seeking, even as he remained with the Manichees and his other thoughts for 10 years. But really, it could have been longer, as long as a lifetime. God takes a long view, and so should we who seek to bear Christ for others.

That doesn’t mean I think lots of nones will change – to the contrary. But I think that remembering that other Christians in other times and places wrestled with belief and practice is crucial to the story we know about ourselves- not only for those relationships we seek with Millennials and other nones, but for us in our own seeking after truth, too.