If I could choose an alternative title for this article, it would be: “The Nones, the Priests, and the Future of the Church.” The reason for this change will become apparent in a bit, but for now let us start with “nones.”
No, I’m not misspelling the word nun—although given the alternative title, “nun” might make more sense. Perhaps we should consider nuns for a brief moment. They are wonderful women of God who give their lives to the devotion and service of God. Their holy orders may involve taking specific vows, devoting themselves to prayer, locating themselves amongst the poor and/or oppressed, and giving themselves to peacemaking causes. Although Evangelicals often imagine them as odd, nuns are some of the most passionate followers of Jesus in our world today. They, along with their male counterparts, show us that monastic life can yield powerful results. Lest we forget the ministry of Mother Teresa, who gave herself to the so-called “untouchables” of Calcutta, we know that a life given to community with shared commitments can make a significant impact.
What if church membership was more like a holy order? What if it was more like missional commitments adopted by friends within a local church, rather than voting rights within what is sometimes perceived as a bureaucratic institution? This might be the direction local church “membership” must go in order to capture the imagination of burned-out millennial Christians and the “nones” mentioned in my alternative article title. Nones are more likely to be interested in cause-driven, grassroots community than in structures that appear to mirror American democracy or CEO–driven corporations.
Who are the Nones?
Nones are on the rise in North America, as recent studies demonstrate. This growing population, if asked the question “What is religion?” likely answers: “Not something I think about much.” Nones are often referred to as “religiously unaffiliated.” In the past, the church sought to reach the religiously unaffiliated by labeling them “seekers” and by figuring that adapting the Christian message in “seeker-sensitive” terms would lead many of these individuals to embrace the Kingdom. However helpful innovative approaches to ministry can be for such seekers, nones could be described as “post-seekers,” in that they are not even actively looking for a religion—a fact that is true for 88 percent of nones in North America. Altogether, nones present a fresh challenge for mission and church integration as we move further into the twenty-first century.
As a whole, the 19.6 percent of U.S. citizens that identify as “nones” would still consider themselves to either be “a religious person” or “spiritual but not religious”; they simply are not religious in a classical or institutional sense. How the next generation will end the sentence “Religion is…” will be greatly determined by the way this demographic continues to grow. To be sure, the rise of the “nones” is primarily an urban reality in many ways at the moment. But I would venture to say that the rural parts of the country will soon begin to fill with this group, as well.
Most younger “nones” grew up in proximity to the dominant religion of Christianity. As a result, they perceive Christianity as leading to an obsession with money, power, rules, and politics. As a result of this perception, most of these unaffiliated persons differ from atheists to the extent that they excavate their “spiritual selves” outside the confines of “irrelevant” organized religion—a reasonable reaction when viewed in the context of the prevailing religious narratives labeled “Christian” in the United States, such as the Religious Right. I might venture that the opposite political response—the Christian Left—will only create new problems. The way of Jesus—the way that might appeal to some “nones”—will be one that confounds and confronts both political ideologies.
With the media continuing to cover culture wars and often giving Christians bad press, perceptions about the church are quite negative. If we are honest, some of these perceptions are warranted, and not merely because of news reporting. The media is not the enemy; rather, the problem of our reputation loss lies with a church that has compromised radical Christian values such as enemy love and hospitality. Add to these compromises the laundry list of perceptions on the church documented in UnChristian, the 2007 study by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons:
- Anti-LGBTQ (91 percent)
- Judgmental (87 percent)
- Hypocritical (85 percent)
- Old-Fashioned (78 percent)
- Too Political (75 percent)
- Out of Touch with Reality (72 percent)
- Insensitive (70 percent)
- Boring (68 percent)
- Intolerant of Other Faiths (64 percent)
- Confusing (61 percent)
The perception of outsiders, especially younger unaffiliated persons, is not generally good. For many of the people surveyed in the above-mentioned study, joining a Christian church would actually seem immoral by their standards. They see the church in America as lacking in acceptance and pushing politicized agendas. For these younger people, it is difficult to imagine why the church could possibly be good news. These opinions are often to the embarrassment of millennial Christians trying to sort out their identity as followers of Jesus in an evolving culture. As a result, many young Christians float through their twenties without giving themselves to committed church involvement. The beauty of kingdom community is too often overshadowed by our poor reputation. This leaves the purpose and integrity of church membership at risk.
The North American church is now faced with a situation wherein religious affiliation and structure are no longer considered essential to living a meaningful life. Spirituality, however, is perceived as a space of goodness insofar that it facilitates individualistic, free expression. This reality demonstrates that a stark dichotomy is present in the lives of nones—and perhaps the lives of many Christians as well. Religion and spirituality, structure and experience, have become diametrically opposed. But I would suggest that the New Testament avoids such dualisms.
In the church, dualisms are prevalent. Christians have long split reality into a distant heaven (the goal) from the present, deplorable earth. Yet the Scriptures paint the picture of a coming renewal of Creation, the joining together of the earthly and heavenly (Rom. 8:18-28; Rev. 21-22). We Christians indulge in similarly dualistic thinking when we teach new disciples that becoming a follower of Christ is a separate act from baptism and church commitment. Choosing Christ means choosing the community of Christ as inaugurated through baptism. But how many lone-ranger or church-hopper Christians do you know? Perhaps many of these followers of Jesus actually have something in common with “nones” as well, in that they separate church commitment from their “relationship with Jesus” just as the nones distinguish spirituality apart from religion.
The longer the church continues to reinforce the split-world of heavenly good versus worldly evil, the more the split-world of religion-versus-spirituality and church-commitment-versus-relationship-with-Jesus will be reinforced and affirmed. For Christians, the story ends the way it began: with heaven and earth being the same place. Our traditional dichotomy fails to recognize the complex beauty of the biblical narrative. Theologian Christopher J. H. Wright gets us to the point: “The Bible renders to us the story of God’s mission through God’s people in their engagement with God’s world for the sake of the whole of God’s creation.”
The story of Scripture is one rooted in God’s love for this world. That love is mediated through God’s people for the sake of the whole cosmos. That is the vocational vision that the church must return to if we are going to have a fighting chance in a culture full of “nones”: a vision of peace, justice, and hope; a vision that looks like self-sacrificial love on a cross; a vision shared by a collective people with a shared-yet-diverse imagination driven by a singular cause—offering the tangible benefits of that biblical vision for the sake of our nonmembers. This is the purpose of church membership.
The Church’s Poetic Character and Witness
If we are going to have a conversation about the relevance of church membership in the twenty-first century, we must first reclaim the church’s poetic character and witness. The problem with our current version of church membership—the version in which we join the “institution” and become a “member”—is that it sounds more like a club with exclusive benefits for its members. No wonder we aren’t appealing to the “nones.” No wonder they are not even asking the question about church affiliation. They are not seeking because our institutions fail to captivate them. We simply do not make them curious enough. “Nones” are often interested in causes driven by beauty, by raw spirituality, and by justice. They rarely will join something that does not re-enchant the world.
The book of Revelation gives us resources for understanding what it might look like to re-enchant, to create intrigue, and to go to folks and invite them in. Revelation is a book that has been gravely misused and unfortunately misunderstood. For too long, it has been viewed as describing futuristic doom and gloom rather than the hope for gardens that will bloom. We Christians have made this book something that Hollywood loves to exploit, something that reinforces false dichotomies between heaven and earth. But, as theologian N. T. Wright often says that the biblical picture of hope isn’t concerned with life after death, but with “life after life after death.” The story told in Revelation is not about future gloom, but climaxes in the joining of heaven to earth.
Certainly there are reasons that this book has been misunderstood. It uses odd and cryptic language that is unfamiliar to modern-day readers. It seems farfetched and scary. But what if the whole point of apocalyptic imagery was simply to evoke the imagination of the earliest Christians in Asia Minor during the reign of Domitian? What if John of Patmos is a poet? As Eugene Peterson explains, in reflecting on John’s method of communication in Revelation, “A poet uses words not to explain something, and not to describe something, but to make something. Poet (poētēs) [in Greek] means ‘maker.’ Poetry is not the language of objective explanation but the language of imagination. It makes an image of reality in such a way as to invite our participation in it.”
For a moment it will serve our purposes to immerse ourselves in the opening lines of Revelation. The first chapter begins with these words:
A revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. Christ made it known by sending it through his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the witness of Jesus Christ, including all that John saw.
Favored is the one who reads the words of this prophecy out loud, and favored are those who listen to it being read, and keep what is written in it, for the time is near.
John, to the seven churches that are in Asia:
Grace and peace to you from the one who is and was and is coming, and from the seven spirits that are before God’s throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ—the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To the one who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, who made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father—to him be glory and power forever and always. Amen. (Rev. 1:1-6, Common English Bible)
Take note of the highlighted verse in the final paragraph. We will be returning to this point about being a kingdom of priests in a moment. But first let us look at John of Patmos in a bit more detail.
John the Poet
John’s ability to capture the imagination of the first-century churches is undeniable. Through poetic imagery, he addressed the daily concerns they faced by reminding them of their identity and vocation in the midst of the Roman Empire. Rome created a world in which the strong survived—through military and economic might—and in which the weak either fell into line or fell to the sword. Within an antagonistic system that was bent against the thriving of persons lacking Roman citizenship and/or other forms of privilege, the churches in Asia Minor had to decide what kind of presence they would have locally. In the midst of various sorts of suffering and localized persecutions, they not only survived; their movement grew. They became captivated by a vision of God’s ultimate peace, justice, and hope—one that John eloquently conveys in Revelation 21:1-5:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.”
Although stark dualisms would make sense in a difficult world needing escape, the vision of John’s Revelation is one of unity—a vision that this world will be healed and transformed. Although the dichotomy between the spiritual and religious, the heavenly and the earthly, might seem easy in this first-century context, the vision of Revelation is a fully integrated reality. This is a reality wherein (as Paul says elsewhere) God will be all in all. This is a reality where everything is simultaneously heavenly and earthly. This is a reality that is both spiritual and profoundly religious—at least insofar as God is the central subject of worship within this future kingdom-saturated world. This is a reality that was kick-started with an empty tomb. This world will be flooded with the restorative love and justice of God.
The Church as Priests
In light of that vision of the coming kingdom, a kingdom that was inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we should be driven to embody as our priestly vocation a way of life that points to the coming (and present) healing of the cosmos.
Of course, we take note that John’s earlier declaration (at the beginning of his letter)—that the people of God are “made [to be] a kingdom [of] priests”—is clear allusion to the original vocation of Israel as stated at Sinai in Exodus 19. The Church, like Israel, is called to be priestly stewards of the glorious vision of renewed creation. Unfortunately, we have at times deferred that world so far into the future that we have failed to allow it to seep into our present. God’s renewed world will be consummated in the last day, but make no mistake about it: that renewed world is the very world we are called to embody in the present. For this reason, Paul can talk about our present experience with the Holy Spirit, which causes us to groan for the liberation of God’s creation (Rom. 8). A people with the Spirit live as though that future has already mysteriously begun in their midst. This is what it means to be a kingdom of priests.
Membership: Empowered Priests
And now we come to the practical punchline regarding the relevance of church membership for twenty-first-century culture in the West: Only when the mission of God to restore all things is the primary aim of the local church, will any kind of membership structure matter to a “none” or any other millennial.
If membership is going to have meaning in the future, it must be focused on empowering a community of priests to go into their neighborhoods, cities, and world to proclaim through word and deed that God’s kingdom of hope is both here and still-to-come. We must mediate a story to our culture that says that this world matters—here, now, and today—a story in which God has not given up on this world and will one day make all things right.
Nones might gravitate toward priestly kingdom work. They will not typically care about voting at the annual meeting, and they rarely will be drawn to serving on a church committee. Nones want to get their hands dirty. They want to partner with others who commit themselves to creativity, beauty, justice, transformation, healing, and hope. The rise of the nones can be attributed to numerous factors, but in my experience, it has everything to do with a lack of kingdom imagination propelling churches into the world as forces of goodness and mercy.
Membership as a formal part of a church structure is a tool. It can be wielded in ways that tell a hope-filled story—the kind of story John of Patmos told to a people struggling with hope. Alternately, it can become an institutional position in what can seem like an endless cycle of policymaking and inaction. I do not say these words as a judgment against traditional structures; rather, I say these things in order to invite churches to rethink what drives those structures.
For membership to remain relevant in our culture 20 years from now, it must evolve as a centrifugal force propelling folks into God’s mission of restoring all things. It must become a marker of mutually caring communities—the type that take care of their own while never becoming only inwardly focused. It must become an expression of core values, like our Brethren in Christ core values, rather than a “privilege” mostly defined by the ability to contribute to institutional decision-making. It must become priestly: the means through which we empower people to partner with others in mediating the love of God to our culture. If that is what we will call membership in 20 years, then we should have high hopes for the church.
Personally, I am not completely sure if membership as we have known it will be universally helpful. We may need to change our language. We may need to get rid of the concept and replace it with something new. Or perhaps we will adapt it. Each local congregation, in conversation with our broader family of churches, will have to discern a context-appropriate way forward. For example, in the church plant I lead, we are talking about what it looks like to take on localized monastic vows (shared commitments) that bind us together on a common mission in our context—a step we hope will be a contextually meaningful adaptation of the traditional concept of “membership.”
No matter how our church structures evolve, one thing will never change: We are all members—parts, participants—of Christ’s body, the community of the people of God. As parts of Christ’s own body, we have a mission to join: a mission that ends with God “making all things new.” Some nones and most millennial Christians can get behind that vision. It will be up to us to see to it that our membership structures are behind that vision as well.
. For examples and commentary, see James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014), pp. 26–28.
. Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “‘Nones’ on the Rise,” accessed October 4, 2014, http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/
. Ibid. See also White, The Rise of the Nones, pp. 36-41.
. White, The Rise of the Nones, pp. 22–23.
 UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), p. 40.
 Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Grand Rapids, MI: IVP Accademic, 2006), p. 22.
 For an example, see N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), pp. 148ff.
 Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination (New York: HarperOne, 1991), p. 3.