WHEN asked “Do you regard yourself as belonging to a religious group?”, 52 per cent of adults tick the “nones” category. At least, that Is what the 2018 British Social Attitudes Survey found. This means that we are regularly interacting with “nones” (pronounced “nons”) day in, day out, even if we are not aware of it. It is not exactly a great word to describe such a large and diverse demographic, but it is a widely recognised term, and so it remains, for now, the best shorthand for those who would self-identify as having no religious faith.
Professor Stephen Bullivant, a Roman Catholic theologian and a former “none” himself, who has researched this topic extensively, suggests that some 60 to 65 per cent of British adults may be in this category by 2030. The numbers are growing fast.
The majority of this group say that they have very little interest in faith: they are dismissive, hostile, or just benignly indifferent. If this isn’t one of the biggest challenges (and opportunities) for the Church right now, it is difficult to know what is.
If the C of E is serious about wanting to be a Church of “missionary disciples”, which wants to “grow younger and more diverse”, then reaching the “nones” needs to be a high priority for us all. If we want to be a beacon of hope, shining Christ’s light for the benefit of all, then we cannot ignore this demographic, even if they choose to ignore us. The challenge is substantial, not only because of the scale of it, or because many churches have very little contact with “nones”, but also because we do not always find communicating our faith easy; and yet we need to find accessible means to help us do this.
The Church needs, though, not to be overwhelmed, intimidated, or diffident, but to have confidence that God is continually drawing people to himself, and that many of these good people — in families, neighbourhoods, and every community — are hungry for God, even if they have not necessarily articulated it in that way yet.
THERE is good news. Take Tom, for example. Seven years ago, he was living and studying in York, and the possible existence of God rarely crossed his mind. One day, his father wondered aloud whether Tom had ever thought of becoming a vicar. After scratching his head (he neither believed in God nor ever went to church), Tom began to ponder questions of God and faith. When passing York Minster one evening, he found himself walking through the door and into a service. All credit to the clergy at the Minster, Tom’s inquisitive nature, and the intervention of the Holy Spirit, because Tom quickly became a part of the family. He is now the Vicar of St Mary-le-Tower, Ipswich.
Back to the British Social Attitudes survey. It reports that there are roughly 0.8 million “nones” in Britain who both pray monthly or more and rate their own level of religiosity highly, and a further 2.8 million who do one of these, but not both. So it turns out that there are thousands of people a bit like Tom around the country: people who have no religious background and yet who are open — keen, even — to explore faith.
Congregations have some of these “nones” who have become Christians, and they are the go-to people in terms of teaching us what helped them to come to faith. They are also some of the keenest to share their faith, often puzzled about why their Christian friends did not pass on the good news to them earlier.
Interestingly, there is a theme coming out of some recent interviews, which has surprised those of us working on the project “Reaching the Nones”. It is early days, but it seems that the way to reach the “nones” is no different from reaching any other group in the UK. Those we interviewed — former “nones” who are now Christians — offered the following suggestions for Christians, which might sound familiar:
- Be courageous, open, and honest about what you believe.
- Remember that what you have to say might be life-giving for others.
- Don’t decide for others; they may be more interested than you think.
- Don’t dumb down but be careful about your language.
- Don’t over-complicate things.
- Help people know there are no stupid questions.
- Connect to people on real life issues.
- Be honest about your doubts and uncertainties.
- Acknowledge the Church’s imperfections, but don’t dwell on them.
FOR church leaders reading this who want to “do something”, they might like to talk about the “nones” at a PCC or synod meeting, or run a Lent course or sermon series on the subject. They might also consider gently asking the “nones” whom they know what would be useful for them if they were ever to consider faith. Even asking that question could open a fruitful conversation.
Reaching the “nones” might be one of the biggest challenges facing the Church of England today, but it is also one where God is already at work, and where we can all make a difference.
The Ven. Rhiannon King is the Archdeacon of Ipswich and director of the Inspiring Ipswich project. She leads the project “Reaching the Nones”: reachingthenones.org