Religion in the Age of the “Nones”

Hospitality & Greetings

Current research indicates that one-fifth of the U.S. population identifies as “unaffiliated” with any religion and one-third of young adults under the age of 30 identify as religiously unaffiliated.

Sociologists have now shifted their generational studies to “After the Baby Boomers.”  One extensive study on the topic in recent years was conducted by sociologist Robert Wuthnow, a professor and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University.   Wuthnow identifies a number of cultural influences have shaped this generation of adults now in their twenties and thirties and extending into their early forties.

Wands in circularThe words Wuthnow uses to describe these influences are:  uncertainty, diversity, fluidity, searching, and tinkering.   There are several developmental trends of younger generations coming after the Baby Boomers:

  • They are sexually active earlier;
  • Psychologically independent earlier;
  • Many have an extended dependence on their parents who are living longer.
  • They are marrying later;
  • Having children later;
  • Starting their careers later because of the uncertainty and fluidity of the employment options available.
  • Establishing themselves in communities more gradually.

All of these factors affect religious communities, particularly in terms of membership affiliation, extent of involvement, leadership development, and, of course, with regard to money and financial well being.

Fewer younger adults say that religion is important to their lives than any previous generational cohort.   Instead, they describe themselves as “atheist,” “agnostic,” or “nothing in particular” in response to survey questions about their religious identification.

This group of religiously affiliated younger adults are being referred to as “Nones,” an arguably unsuitable and unnecessarily negative label.  However, they are are not without beliefs and values that matter to them.   Generally many young adults consider themselves to be “spiritual, but not religious,” and are open to spiritual deepening.  When asked if they are looking for a religious community, eighty-eight percent (88%) say they are not.  Perhaps this is due to their less-than-satisfying encounters with religious communities rather than a desire for community.

Those ten percent (10%) or so who are looking for religious communities are interested in those inclusive of theological diversity.  They generally believe in evolution and do not object to bigger government structure and services.  They are more accepting of homosexuality and a woman’s right to  reproductive freedom and access to abortion. This group is less certain about the existence and nature of God.

 Studies clearly indicate higher degrees of congregational involvement by younger adults who are married or in committed partnerships with children.  However, this is after some amount of “church shopping” and “church hopping.”  This pattern may be driven by the the fact that fewer young people were born and raised in a faith community, or that it is hard to fit a prescribed schedule or program into a busy life.  Fewer young men than women are attending alone, with increasingly mobile lifestyles and delayed partnering and child-rearing.   Essentially, these folks are piecing their spiritual and religious lives together with whatever raw materials they can find.

bricolage-bike 3The description that Wuthnow thinks best suits this generation of younger adults is that they are Tinkerers (2007, pgs 14-15)The idea came from the studies of a French anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, who lifted up the important role of the bricoleur (the tinkerer) in preindustrial times.  A bricoleur uses the tools of his or her trade and any objects or materials at hand to fix things and keep them in good repair.  In doing so, the bricoleur produces a bricolage, an improvised construction made up of a variety of materials.

bricolage 1Among many contemporary adults, personal experience trumps doctrinal teachings.  Their life experiences and encounters with religion are diverse and they place high value on freedom of thought and choice.  They are improvisational and inventive, adept at piecing together seemingly disparate religious teachings and cultural components into their religious bricolage.

Internet studies show a significant number of adults are regularly looking online for religious and spiritual guidance.   Many simply don’t know where to find a place to tinker with a diverse collection of religious ideas and theological perspectives—so they go it alone.

What challenges does this new religious landscape pose for our communities? 

When I read and listen to the descriptions of the Millennials, Nones, and Tinkerers, I feel a mixture of discouragement and hopefulness

In my heart I believe these young people—and the growing segment of unaffiliated adults in general–would heartily embrace the inclusive and diverse theological environment Unitarian Universalism offers—if we could find one another on the religious landscape.  In fact, Unitarian Universalism doesn’t show up in the surveys and isn’t evident as an option in much of the research being done by Pew Research Center and Faith Communities Today.   We weren’t mentioned by Robert Wuthnow as the kind of open and accepting religious community that would appeal to this generation of younger adults.

With barely 1,000 congregations and fewer than 200,000 members world-wide, apparently we just don’t stand out enough for the researchers to include in surveys.   The ones who do often find us through or the Church of the Larger Fellowship, our premier, world-wide virtual congregation.

An infusion of young adults and newcomers of any age would bring great energy, innovation, and talent into our congregations and our movement.  If this occurred, we would come alive in new ways as a religious movement, yet again.    And we must, so that we may flourish and grow and have any significant impact in the world.   I remain optimistic and hopeful.

In my head, I know this would require a cultural sea-change in most of our congregations.  Collectively, we would need to reach out farther and more effectively throBig surfugh electronic communication venues and social networks to enhance our visibility and attract younger adults.  We would need to redesign our programs and entry spaces to clearly and visibly reflect our diverse perspectives, principles, and values.

We would need adequate levels of professional staff in our congregations to offer the spiritual guidance and religious education opportunities to guide and accompany young people on the developmental journey, which is increasingly complex in today’s world.

We would need to expand our palette of worship and musical offerings to appeal to a wider range of ages and theological interests.  We would need to be intentional about the relational needs of our communities:  to balance the attention given to our established friendships with the needs of our newcomers.  We would need to practice authentic hospitality, helping those new to Unitarian Universalism feel truly welcome and included, within our buildings and beyond.

I am quite convinced we could grow in numbers and in our influence as a religious movement if we could imagine such a future for ourselves.  I mean, really imagine ourselves doubling, tripling, or quadrupling in numbers of people in our communities:  see their faces, hear their voices, and feel the buzz of the energy they bring.

new visionThere are seekers  looking for the kinds of relationships and activities already going in many of our congregations:  excellent professional ministry, high quality religious education for all ages, open and attractive facilities, fantastic music, and the vibrant energy that emits from people who really care about one another.  They are out there, with the tools of their trades, ready to Tinker with all the wonderful material we have to offer for their religious bricolage.

Vision—Courage—Energy—Commitment–Diversity–Generosity–Stewardship:  these are what it takes for a community to come alive and flourish.

Meeting_at_the_Oasis bricolage 2

Research and Reports on Generational Trends and Religion

  • Wuthnow, Robert.  After the Baby Boomers.  2007.  Princeton University Press

Innovative Ministries that Appeal to the Unaffiliated

Stewardship as Ministry

Balancing money & heart

Regardless of religious affiliation, there are things that are being learned about congregational stewardship that can be of great help to us—particularly in managing the realities of today’s economy.  There is much wisdom to be gleaned from current research about congregational giving, fundraising, and stewardship.

  • Stewardship is a ministry.  It is much broader in scope than fundraising, and requires a highly relational and pastoral approach.
  • All of the resources of the congregation or faith community are involved in the broadest scope of stewardship:  money, property, people, time, and energy.
  • Hospitality, careful tending and management of resources, and a clear vision and mission are key aspects of stewardship in the congregation.
  • Giving and generosity are matters of the spirit and are at the heart of stewardship.
  • Giving is a spiritual discipline at its core, a practice that reflects one’s faith as well as spiritual depth and maturity.
  • Becoming a generous person involves a lifelong, developmental process which begins in infancy with receiving love.  Generosity evolves with mutually-reinforcing experiences of giving and receiving.
  • There is a direct relationship between one’s deepest held values and the motivation to give.  We contribute our time and resources to those things that matter most in our lives, as reflected in our bank statements and budgets.
  • Our religious leaders—particularly ministers and religious educators—must take an active role in modeling and teaching good stewardship in order for the concepts and principles to take root in their congregations.
  • Regardless of the economic context, congregations with the highest household giving levels focus on an inspiring mission and vision, engage in a visible, year-round stewardship program, and ask for levels of financial support that are proportionately appropriate for each individual or family.
  • Generous congregations provide a safe environment in which to talk about money and its role in peoples’ lives.  They offer training and support in personal financial planning and giving choices so that generosity can be practiced.
  • Generous behavior in faith communities is often expected but cannot be taken for granted.  It is important to express appreciation and gratitude for all that people  contribute and for all gifts received.

making an offering

For more resources to promote generosity among individuals and households in your Unitarian Universalist congregation:                                       

Ecumenical Stewardship Center, with links to a number of denominational stewardship websites:

Lake Institute for Faith and Giving:

Alban Institute:

Talkin’ bout Your Generation: Getting Them to Give–a guest blog post

(NOTE: I am very pleased to introduce Kimberley Debus as our guest blogger for this post, member of UU Congregation of Saratoga Springs, NY. Learn more about Kimberley and her Notes From the Far Fringe blog at the end of this post.)

One of the areas congregations struggle with most is stewardship. If your church is anything like mine, it’s like pulling teeth to even find people to head the stewardship campaign, no less getting people to give in a way that’s meaningful. I can’t deny sometimes wishing that in our Unitarian Universalist congregations, we had a culture of tithing – the magic 10% that seems to flow freely from the pockets of many evangelical Christians. But we don’t, and we struggle to get people to see the value of our congregations and put a dollar figure to it. Many will donate countless hours to committees, justice projects, and doing the physical work of the congregation, but that only goes so far when there are mortgages and light bills and salaries to pay.

Not surprisingly, generational theory can play a role in stewardship. I actually have some first-hand knowledge of this, having been in charge of my congregation’s stewardship campaign in 2010. Here’s what we did:

One Pitch Does Not Fit All

Instead of one pitch about supporting our congregation for everyone to hear, we created four different pitches, each with their own flavor. Now we did have some common themes – namely, that true stewardship is a commitment of not just money, but also of our time and talents. We’re using the Time, Talent, and Treasure theme a lot when we talk to both potential members and current ones, asking for a yearly commitment to give of all three in some measure, knowing people have varying levels of each at different times.

But then, instead of one big stewardship event, we had a series of Generational Parties. We asked members of each generation to create an event that would (a) be something they’d like and (b) address the pitch with certain generational emphases. The general pitch is the same – here’s our budget, here’s what we’re looking for from you, here’s what “fair share” means – but the place, the style, and the emphasis were all different.

The Silent Party

At first, the Silent on our stewardship committee didn’t much care for this idea. In true Adaptive form, he said, “but we should all be together – why are you separating us?” But we assured him it would work, so he and his wife hosted a dessert party, and they gave an effective pitch.

Pitching to the Adaptives requires an emphasis

  • relationships and building new relationships throughout the year
  • pastoral care, especially as they are the generation now most likely to need home visits, hospital care, rides to doctors, etc.
  • care for the earth – carrying on the causes of compassion, freedom and equality
  • leaving a legacy – making sure there’s a place with a strong tradition to continue this work
  • outlining budget goals and providing detailed rationale – not just “we want to grow” but “we need more RE classrooms”
  • a stress on fair share and proportionate giving
  • a bold “ask” – asking for real and exact numbers

The Silents party was a success – new friendships were formed, and when it came to the post-event canvass (followup calls), our Adaptive committee member, who previously thought this was crazy, said, “my wife and I will call all the Silents.” His conversion rate was great – despite having more fixed incomes and more snowbirds, he was able to get in several cases an increase in pledges.

The Boomer Party

This was an all out shindig – great wines and local beers, great appetizers from a local gourmet foods market, and quite the crowd at the home of one of our more generous Boomer couples (they have served in leadership since their arrival 5 years ago).

Pitching to the Boomers requires an emphasis on

  • vision–going beyond the hard numbers to who we are and how we see ourselves
  • enhancing the quality of programs, with a view toward making us “the best”
  • highlighting the spiritual benefits of a faith community – how having a strong congregation helps them become stronger and more effective
  • addressing concerns over retirement and the benefits of continuing to give
  • asking for opinions – what will best serve us as we head into retirement, take on different leadership roles, consider life in the empty nest (often you’ll get a whole new set of classes, programs, and small group ministries)

Now some of this did happen at our Boomer party, but interesting, our host had just lost his father and was himself dealing with learning he has a serious illness. The host spoke at length about all that our congregation – and indeed, our denomination – had done for him, and he spoke of his hope that we would continue to be that kind of place for others. Talk about vision! It worked beautifully, and again, we saw increases in pledges.

The GenX Party

We held a pot luck after church one Sunday, with a couple of parents downstairs with the kids so that the adults could talk. It was wonderful – one of our newer families is Indian, and the food they brought was an amazing addition to the rather basic American pot luck fare we are used to. I hosted this party, along with another member of our stewardship team – we settled on a Sunday potluck, knowing that most GenX families could stick around for an hour but probably couldn’t make time during the week due to the endless
music lessons and scout meetings and soccer games.

Pitching to GenX requires an emphasis on

  • the practical side of the budget – how much it costs to send a child through RE, how much one month’s utility bills are, what we spend on supplies
  • focus on youth programs – what we have and what we want in the most encouraging and safest way possible
  • emphasis on fair share, knowing that this is the generation currently carrying the largest debt load; GenX doesn’t want to be seen as slackers or shirking their responsibilities
  • rising leadership – that this is the generation stepping into leadership roles, and part of leadership is a responsibility to give time, talent, and treasure
  • short-term projects rather than long-term commitments; we can’t fund the next ten years of RE, but we can build a playground

This party was a huge success – for several, it was the first time they’d been seen as leaders, and in fact one woman in her early 30s said “yes” to a leadership role, which she admitted she’d have shied away from, thinking she was too young. For others, they finally understood the pragmatic side of fair share and stewardship – could see it in real terms, and could see how they could help shape the here and now… several sheepishly raised their pledges by significant amounts, having finally learned what was expected of them.
Interestingly, we also built an ad-hoc committee on digital media, and are in the process of not only updating the website but also getting more active in Facebook and Twitter.

The Millennial Party

This was a casual gathering at a local coffee shop. There weren’t too many people in attendance – we are, admittedly, not doing a great job attracting and keeping young adults – but those who are with us are very committed, and were happy to sit together for a little bit in a bustling hangout.

Pitching to the Millennials requires an emphasis on

  • community – doing things together
  • improving the world we live in; big projects we can do together
  • the many ways to interact – Sunday services, small groups, special interest groups, group discussions
  • adult RE – many of this generation are unchurched and can use some of the same kinds of lessons we give our kids, about world religions, our principles, etc.
  • like GenX, the practical side of the budget – how much it costs to send a child through RE, how much one month’s utility bills are, what we spend on supplies
  • space to be heard – this generation knows they are small in number in our congregations, despite being large in number in the world

These gatherings were great for the adult Millennials who are just now finding their place in the world. They saw that their investment is a way to build community to do big things, not just a nice place to get personally fed. While many of our Millennials are naval families on limited budgets, they still saw ways to give a fair share, and understood the time and talent portion of stewardship.

So what did we learn?

We learned that by addressing the unique perspectives of these generations, not only how they see the church but also where they are in their lives, we could help them best give and feel a sense of ownership. They seemed to better understand their fair share and the benefits of giving. In real terms, we saw an increase not only in the number of pledge units, but also an increase in the pledge amount (a solid 10% increase!) for 2011.

Further, we got more time and talent commitments from the Xers and the Millennials – rather than feeling overshadowed by the Boomers who are in leadership now, they saw that it’s time to step up and take the congregation to its next stage.

And finally, we saw relationships being forged – many of those who gathered in these generational parties got to know their peers a little better, and for our newer GenX and Millennial families, they got to make some new friends.

Again, generational theory isn’t the be-all, end-all of anything…but it is a good tool for the toolbox.

Kimberley Debus, is a Unitarian Universalist from Sarasota Springs, NY and soon to begin her seminary training at Union Theological School in NYC. Kimberley served her congregation as stewardship chair 2010, and has also served as Board Secretary, Worship Committee Chair. She is currently on the digital team, getting her congregation more present on Facebook. Twitter, updated website, etc. You can find Kimberley on Twitter as @KGDebus and her wonderful blog Notes From the Far Fringe at: