Here is an engaging article written by RNS columnist Jonathan Merrit about his interview with the innovative James Emery White, senior pastor and author of the new book “Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated”.
When it comes to navigating the interface between faith and culture, there aren’t a lot of pastors I look to. Most I encounter tend to be having conversations that lag somewhere between five and 10 years behind secular society and the academy. This isn’t a criticism as much as an observation.
But James Emery White is an exception to this generalization and is often on the leading edge of pressing cultural conversations. White is founding pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church–a congregation that claims 70% of its growth is from unchurched individuals–and a former president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He has written a new book, “Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated”, in which he explores why so many Americans are allergic to organized religion and what he thinks Christians can do to capture them.
RNS: The fastest growing religious group in America is those with no religious affiliation, the so-called “nones.” Why are so many walking away from church or unwilling to give it a chance?
JW: There are two dynamics at play. The first is the reality of being the first generation to live in a truly post-Christian context. The currents of secularization, privatization, and pluralization have taken their toll. Meaning, there is less of a supportive presence of Christian faith in the marketplace of ideas, spirituality is expected to be kept in our private worlds, and the idea that all faiths are equally valid and true permeates our psyche. But if you ask the “nones” themselves, they would give you another answer along the lines of “lawyers, guns and money.” By that, I mean the perception that Christians and churches are overly entangled with law and politics, filled with hateful intolerance and aggression, and consumed with materialism and greed.
RNS: Many growing churches today are only experiencing transfer growth–that is, Christians moving from one church to another. You argue that this is a problem of evangelism. What are we doing wrong?
JW: This is a significant question, and again, several dynamics are at play. First, too many churches consider transfer growth a kingdom win. They see the church down the street as the competition. Second, in terms of evangelism itself, too many churches are operating as if they are speaking to the God-fearing Jews of Jerusalem (Acts 2) instead of to the agnostics on Mars Hill (Acts 17). An Acts 2 approach in an Acts 17 world is doomed to fail. Finally, there is a culture of spiritual narcissism pervading many church communities. So people talk about going where they are “fed,” can be “ministered to,” and where they get something “out” of the worship experience (as if they are the focus of worship). This consumer mindset will inevitably resist doing what it takes to reach out to the “nones.”
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