In 1972, five percent of Americans identified as “nones” on surveys. A none is someone who when asked what their religion is says none of the above. Not Christian, not Jewish, not Muslim, but rather none of the categories work to identify them.
In 2019 the percentage who identified as nones was thirty percent and growing. The latest survey results in Montana indicate that almost forty percent are nones.
And among millennials and generation Z, those folks born from the late 80s into the 2000s fifty percent do not identify with any religion. These are the students I am privileged to work with as a campus minister at Montana State University in Billings.
So, if you looked at the Sidney area, a significant portion of the community does not identify with any religious tradition. If you measure this by church membership and attendance, it’s clear most folks in the Sidney area are not connected.
Not connected is a good way to think of the nones. When you do a demographic breakdown, you find that most of the nones are not atheist or agnostic. Many have a range of religious beliefs but they are not connected to traditions or churches.
This tends to carry over into other areas as nones are not likely to be connected to civic organizations, political parties, nonprofits, or even their local bowling league. They are disconnected from any source of community.
This is a problem, because as human beings we are made for connection, for relationship with one another. In every measure of human well-being, connections to your community matters. They provide ways to socialize and provide help when needed. This becomes important because nones have the lowest levels of income and education of any religious group in the country.
There are various theories why we see so many nones in this country. The lack of social trust in institutions, the politicization of so much of our common life, the nature of our jobs and the economy that doesn’t leave time for folks to be involved in community groups.
But I want to focus on what Diana Butler Bass says is the way we think of religious communities. We tend to think of religious communities as starting with belief. What do you believe is the first question, I get asked as a pastor. That’s how we sort out the various churches and religious traditions.
If you believe the right things you have secured the right to belong to such a group. But the dominant fact of American life is many of us do not know what we believe. We’re still sorting out those questions, so religious communities seem closed off to us.
But what if we turned that around? What if we as churches said, you belong! And in that belonging we create the space for folks to work out their beliefs. So instead of belief leading to belonging, belonging leads to belief!
In that scenario, we wouldn’t ask folks to join our churches if they believe the right things. We would say join us because you belong, you are worthy, we’re better with you being a part of us. The theologian John Swinton writes that love says “It’s good you exist. I’m glad you are here.”
John 3:16 says for God so loved the world. For God so loved Sidney that every person belongs and deserves community.
It may not be Sunday morning worship that builds those connections. Often worship presupposes a set of beliefs. It could be picnics and social events, service projects and volunteer efforts that don’t presuppose belief but could show love of neighbor.
To build communities that welcome all people, that starts with belonging and builds community from that could start the process of rebuilding the social fabric of our country.