29 October 2012
The Rise of the "Nones" and My Trip to Asheville
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently released its study "Nones" on the Rise, which stated that the percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans has risen to 20% - and tops out at 34% among those under 30.
This increase in the unaffiliated corresponds to a decline in those that identify as white (evangelical and mainline) protestants.
There are plenty of takeaways from the report, but it is clear that there are simply fewer and fewer people with whom the church has a traditional, historic affinity - people who might attend a church out of expectation, obligation, or habit, be it for familial, ethnic, or cultural reasons.
It is also clear that the cultural space the mainline churches inhabit is shrinking fast.
The challenge here is not about finding some great new outreach program, but entering into our culture, which is increasingly defined by the unaffiliated - and discovering, as Elizabeth Drescher has argued, the many spiritual connections there.
This place of the church in culture (or lack thereof) came home to me in a dramatic way on a recent trip to Asheville, North Carolina.
It was my first time in Asheville and I loved it. But it was the short jaunt to nearby Biltmore Village that put this all in perspective for me. It demonstrated how a culture that is so close (as close as our homes, schools, work, community, internet) can feel like worlds away in the church.
Asheville has a thriving downtown with great local restaurants, cafes, lots of local artists, and repurposed old buildings. The old Woolworth store is now an artist’s co-op. The old Bell Telephone building is a pub. It is an artistic, slightly urban, hip, and young town (and not just because of the college) but because of the culture - and the skiing, I’m sure. It is progressive, southern, eclectic, home spun. There are a ton of independent stores and restaurants, bookstores, coffee shops, and restaurants. It is ironic and irreverent.
As I sat in Izzy's coffee shop, surrounded by hipsters with their MacBook Pros, it reminded me of the New Media Project case study on House for All Sinners and Saints, "Ancient Liturgy for Scruffy Hipsters with Smartphones."
Asheville is a snapshot of unaffiliated, millenial culture, which we rarely see in the mainline - a culture that feels uncomfortable and almost threatening to church going folks: too many tattoos, mashups, too many choices, too much irony.
Just outside of Asheville is the Biltmore Estate. Built by the Vanderbilts, it is called “America’s largest home.” In a post-great recession, #occupy culture, I didn’t have the stomach to go see how the uber 1% lived. So, we went to Biltmore Village. Located just outside the Estate, Biltmore Village was built for the Estate workers and modeled after an English village, complete with an Episcopal cathedral. Whereas Asheville was bustling on Sunday afternoon. Biltmore was quiet.
It is quaint; obviously a planned community. The feeling was of conformity, consumeristic, and over-done earnestness. There were shops like the Thomas Kincaid Gallery, home decor and Christmas shops, where most of the merchandise was made in China. There were also a few chain stores. It felt like a place that church folk would be far more comfortable.
The Church's commute
That Sunday afternoon was one of those moments where the disconnect between church and culture crystalizes. Walking through the Biltmore Village was like walking through a typical mainline church - so disconnected from the prevailing culture just down the road - and with fewer people. Our churches are like Biltmore Village - so close but so far away from Asheville.
I have previously posted about the cultural commute to church. This was different. This time it was not so much about how people have to culturally commute, as how the church must become culturally engaged, because as the Pew Study shows, dramatically fewer people are bothering making the commute to church at all.
We need to move from church as mall to church as tribe, from church as service provider to church as a creative co-op, from church as English village to church as urban center, from church as insulation from culture to church as immersed in culture.
Churches say they want to engage with young adults and the unaffiliated, but they don't, can't, or are afraid to understand and engage their culture. This creates a huge gap. When you welcome young adults to your church, you must also engage the culture in which they live - a culture which is widespread and becoming the norm, but is almost entirely absent from our churches.
We've got to be more Asheville and less Biltmore Village.