Islam isn’t the greatest threat to Christianity in America, and neither is secularism, but the rise in religious nones does tell us something important. According to the recent Pew study, religious “nones” now account for 22.8% of the country, essentially tripling in the past 15 years. Should we be alarmed? How should the rise of the “nones” impact our evangelism? First, a little clarity is in order. The survey notes that 15.8 % affiliate with “nothing in particular,” and 4% are agnostic, which leaves only 3.1% as committed atheists. This means there are a whole lot of people—upwards of 50 million—that are still trying to make up their minds about what they believe.
In fact, many of them are spiritually minded. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), and more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%). As you can see, its probable that there are some competing spiritual beliefs among the nones, which reveals significant theological confusion but reflects a spiritual openness, despite the fact that they affiliate with nothing in particular.
Secular evangelist David Niose, author of Unbeliever Nation, has been on an active campaign to call the nones out of the closet. He’s asking them to identify with the secularist movement. This movement is churning out fresh literature to engage the public by making a case for secular living. Sociologist Phil Zuckerman’s Living the Secular Life tries to make a case for principled secular, ethical living with some semblance of community. The trouble however, is that secular-minded people tend to be quite independent and individualistic in their thinking, making it difficult to create communities of secularists. How should evangelicals respond?
While the gospel mustn’t change, how we share the gospel is overdue for change. The rise in nones does reflect a rise in unbelief in the gospel. Why?
One reason is that some people simply find our evangelism unbelievable.
While a person’s response to Christ is ultimately a matter that rests in God’s sovereign hands—something we have no control over—a person’s hearing of the gospel is a matter we do have control over and responsibility for. St. Paul tells us:
- Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. – Col. 4:4-5
- So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. Romans 10:17
Evangelicals have long touted the importance of evangelism, but this often devolves into more mechanical and impersonal presentations. Many of the spiritually-mined nones want nothing to do with that. They see churches as too concerned with power, rules, and politics. Evangelism that acts coercively and not compassionately doesn’t ring true with them.
This means that we should take Paul’s words to heart by doing evangelism “in grace for each person.”
Evangelism isn’t just our responsibility; it’s an expression of personal compassion. When Jesus looked out on those who were harassed and helpless in his culture, he did not conclude they were all damnable and to be avoided. Instead, he felt compassion for them. Compassion motivated his evangelism. Does it motivate yours? If not, you won’t do it “in person.” Unfortunately, a lot of evangelism is an out of body experience, as if there aren’t two persons in a conversation. It’s excarnate, out of the flesh, not incarnate—in the flesh.
I’m reminded of the more passive Christian who looks to get Jesus off his chest at work and into a conversation. “Check!” Or the time in college when I pretended to share the gospel with a friend in Barnes & Noble so others would overhear it! Alternatively, an active evangelist might troll blogs and start conversations to defeat arguments, while losing people in the process. “Aha!” The comment section on a blog is the new street corner.
These approaches are foolish because they treat people like projects to be completed, not persons to be loved. Secularists can smell a bait and switch a mile away.
Paul says we should “know how you ought to answer each person.” This means that most of your gospel explanations will be different, not canned. It also implies a listening evangelism. How can we know how to respond to each person, if we don’t know each person?
When Francis Schaeffer was asked how he would an hour with a non-Christian, he said: “I would listen for fifty-five minutes, and then, in the last five minutes I would have something to say.”
That’s doing evangelism in grace for each person.
If we are to recover personal, believable evangelism, we will need wisdom.
Paul isn’t just telling us to be relational; he’s telling to tell the good news with wisdom. Wisdom possesses more than knowledge of the gospel; it expresses that knowledge with understanding. It considers a person’s life circumstances and applies the knowledge of grace with skill. Another word for this is love.
Love is inefficient. It slows down long enough to understand people and their objections to the gospel. Love recognizes people are complex, and meets them in their need: suffering, despair, confusion, indifference, cynicism, confusion. We should look to surface these objections in people’s lives.
A few months ago I was having lunch with an educated professional who had a lot of questions. After about thirty minutes he said, “Enough about me. You’re asking me questions. I should ask you questions.” I responded by saying, “I want to hear your questions, but I also want to know you so that I can respond to your questions with wisdom.” He told me some very personal things after that, and it shed a lot of light on his objections to Christianity. It made my comments much more informed, and he felt much more loved, declaring at the end, “I wish every lunch was like this. Let’s keep doing this. I have a lot more questions.” Months later, he’s following Jesus and gobbling up the gospel.
Rehearsing a memorized fact, “Jesus died on the cross for your sins”, isn’t walking in wisdom. Many people don’t know what we mean when we say “Jesus” “sin” or “cross.” While much of America still has cultural memory of these things, they are often misunderstood and confused with “moral teacher” “be good” and “irrelevant suffering.” We have to slow down long enough to explore what they mean, and why they have trouble with these words and concepts. Often they are tied to some kind of pain.
We need to explain these important truths (and more), not simply assert them. When we discerningly separate cultural misunderstanding from a true understanding of the gospel, we move forward in wisdom. But getting to that point typically doesn’t happen overnight.
We need to see evangelism as a long-term endeavor. Stop checking the list and defeating people. Be incarnate not excarnate in your evangelism. Slow down and practice listening and love. Most conversions are not the result of a single, point-in-time conversation, but the culmination of a personal process that includes doubt, reflection, gospel witness, love, and the work of the Holy Spirit.
And remember, don’t put pressure on yourself; conversion is in God’s hands. We just get to share the incomparable news of Jesus.
In sum, the rise of the religious nones is telling us how we communicate the gospel matters.
Jonathan K. Dodson (MDiv; ThM) serves as a pastor of City Life Church in Austin, Texas. He is the author of Gospel-Centered Discipleship, Unbelievable Gospel, and Raised? He has discipled men and women abroad and at home for almost two decades, taking great delight in communicating the gospel and seeing Christ formed in others. Twitter: @Jonathan_Dodson
Jonathan’s new book is The Unbelievable Gospel: Say Something Worth Believing (resource website here). You can also get his free ebook “Four Reasons Not to Share Your Faith.”