The Rise of the ‘Nones’

One of the great advantages of the pandemic (not that there have been many!) has been the ability to attend training sessions and other events from the comfort of your own home by video conferencing. (Admittedly, you have to make your own coffee, but at least you don’t need to find a parking space.) The Church of England has hosted a number of these ‘webinars’, including one entitled Connecting with Young Adults – exploring the world of the ‘Nones’. The ‘nones’ (not to be confused with ‘nuns’ – yes, they did make that joke) are a contemporary phenomenon. They were identified by Professor Linda Woodhead in a lecture given in 2016. From about 2013 in the UK, when you ask people what their religion is, just over half of them say ‘none’. We now live in a culture in which ‘no religion’ is in the majority. Amongst younger people the situation is even more stark. 70% of young adults now say they have no religion. Those who do say they have a religion are divided approximately equally between Catholics, Protestants and Muslims. (Of these, I think it is true to say that Muslims are most likely to express their faith actively, through attending worship and so on.)

Dr Ruth Perrin, who presented the webinar said that the rise of the ‘nones’ can partly be explained by their honesty. Older generations, filling in forms, when asked to indicate their religion would be more likely to tick ‘C of E’ regardless of how actively they practised their faith. That expectation is now gone, so younger people are far more likely to say that they have no religion, rather than tick the ‘C of E’ box. The rise of secularism has been going on for centuries, but young adults have grown up in a world where a secular viewpoint has become the norm. Whereas older generations might have had a sense that there was ‘more to life than this’, today’s young adults are more likely to believe that nothing is real unless it can be known by experience or proved by science.

Young adults are also much more sceptical of authority in all its forms – whether it’s government, journalism, financial institutions, or the Church. And the Church has had too many scandals to be readily trusted.

As the webinar presenters said, it’s really hard to have a religious identity in this environment.

How then does the Church reach the ‘nones’? To begin with, we need to understand something of how culture has changed from one generation to the next. Dr Perrin told the story of how, as a young woman, if she wanted to call a boyfriend without her parents listening in, she had to go out to a phone box in the street. To young adults and young people, that is unimaginable: they have their phones with them constantly and are connected to whole networks of people via devices that they have in their pockets and bedrooms. One of the findings of research into the world of young adults suggests that they are ‘connected but alone’. In other words, they can communicate with any number of people anywhere in the world, but they still report feeling lonely.

We inherit values from our parents and grandparents, but what happens in our teenage years affects how we understand the world for the rest of our lives. So, just think what it was like being a teenager when you were one, and how that has changed for each subsequent generation. You may be familiar with this classification: if you were born before about 1939, you belong to the ‘Silent Generation’. Next come the ‘Baby Boomers’ (born 1940 to 1959), followed by ‘Generation X’ (born 1960 to 1979).

Today’s young adults are ‘Generation Y’, also known as ‘Millennials’. Born between 1980 and 1994, they came of age in the current millennium. Then comes ‘Generation Z’, born 1995 to 2010. (Greta Thunberg belongs to Gen Z). (If you are wondering what comes after Z, those born since 2010, the answer is ‘Generation Alpha’.)

You might think that everyone younger than you belongs to the same world, but there are differences between the age groups: Millennials will tell you that they don’t understand today’s teenagers! So, what chance do the church’s Boomers have?!

One criticism that is often made of the church is that we are keen to answer questions that people aren’t asking. There is a disconnect between what we do, and the lives of younger adults. Much of what we do is not meaningful. Imagine walking into a communion service in one of our churches when you have never learned the significance of what is happening to those who take part. It’s just mystifying. (Dr Perrin told the story of a young adult who was invited to attend a church service. She said she would be interested to go, but didn’t think she could because she didn’t have a ‘ticket’. She had assumed it would be like the gym where you need to be a member to use the facilities.)

It’s not that young adults are all hostile to the church (that was more prevalent among Boomers and Gen X), they just have no exposure to or understanding of what we do. Linda Woodhead describes them as ‘maybes, don’t knows, and not sures’, rather than ‘Dawkins-esque atheists’. And it’s not that they don’t care about anything. They do care about many things: the environment, justice, poverty, mental health, issues of race, gender and identity. These are areas where the Church is not considered to have anything very much to say.

We believe that the Gospel has a lot to offer in response to those questions. But Dr Perrin’s point was that we need to begin by listening. During the pandemic, 29% of young adults reported symptoms of depression. How can the Church contribute to the support that young adults need? One local example of good practice is the church’s presence at the Creamfields festival: we have heard from Linda (Buckley, our Reader) about the contact made with young adults attending the festival. Many of them assume that the church wants nothing to do with them, or that it has nothing to offer, other than judgment. But Linda and other church volunteers host a safe space, offering water and Jammie Dodgers, and a listening ear. They have had many valuable conversations with young adults who are prepared to open up to a supportive older adult who is prepared to listen without judging.

Dave Male, the Church of England’s Director of Evangelism & Discipleship, who hosted the webinar asked Dr Perrin if she was encouraged by the optimistic reports of young adults’ interest in spirituality (broadly defined), or in despair because of their lack of interest in the Christian Church. Dr Perrin was torn: she despaired at the lack of connection but believed that:

“God is equidistant from every generation.”

How then do we connect with young adults? It’s not about being ‘trendy’: young adults are very aware of fakery, and are looking for authenticity and sincerity. It is about building relationships which means a consistent, caring presence over time. The Church doesn’t need programmes aimed at young adults, it needs to offer hospitality and relationship.

On the other hand, young adults are digital natives – they have never known a world without the internet and other information technologies. For them, social media is the front door. If you don’t have a social media presence, you don’t exist. We are very proud of the work we have done during the pandemic with taking our worship and other events online. But while many of us (Boomers and Gen X-ers) are at home on Facebook, Millennials and Gen Y-ers have abandoned Facebook (because it’s not cool) and live instead on Instagram and Snapchat. (By the time you read this, they’ll have abandoned those and moved on elsewhere.) We’ll never be able to keep up with them, but that’s not really the point. They’re good at detecting fakery and any attempts to appear ‘relevant’ will be rejected as insincere. What young adults are after – what all of us are after, really – is authenticity and relationship.

You may know that the Church of England is looking at its vision for the 2020s. The Archbishops have expressed this in terms of the Church’s need to be simpler, humbler, and bolder. They have identified as a strategic priority, “A church that is younger and more diverse”. For your prayerful consideration: how can our churches become simpler, humbler, and bolder, and how will we work towards becoming younger and more diverse?

2 thoughts on “The Rise of the ‘Nones’

  1. Thank you. That was interesting. I used to attend Trinity ecumenical church in Accrington when I lived there. At first I found it a bit lacking in some of the old Cof E prayers and hymns I’d grown up with but was taken aback by the friendliness and warmth of the congregation and I grew to love going. Many young people attended and had their own band with drums, singers, guitars etc where small children could join in with maracas etc and attenders took part in talks. People gathered for refreshments and even simple meals. They opened up church to the community for bonfire night and Messy Church, all free. I think that was the way forward as you suggested.


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