Where Nones Become Names

By Brad Fuerst and Mindy Roll

What’s up with the “Nones”?!   Church chit-chat seems to be making a big to-do about the “nones” – that subgroup of young adults ages 18-30 who self-report as unaffiliated with a religion.   A Pew Research Survey in 2012 reported “‘Nones’ on the Rise,” yet this group of “unaffiliated” spanned all surveyed age groups – not just young adults.  Religious leaders and socio-religio prognosticators have, nonetheless, made it a habit of employing the label “Nones” to mean: unchurched millennials.

Some wring their hands over the “nones.” Why won’t they come?

Others attempt to crack the “nones” code. If only we tried…

Still others use the “nones” to speak truthfulness to institutionalized religion. It’s because the church is so….

We would like to propose a retirement of the label altogether – and not just for the sake of political correctness.

It has been our experience that those considered “nones” would not take kindly to the fact that they’ve been so labeled.

And because 32% of adults ages 18-30 describe themselves as “unaffilliated” to any religion, chances are good that a couple of Lutheran campus pastors would bump into an unaffilliated college student from time to time.  And we do.  Regularly. What we’ve found is that these “nones” – so to speak – are actually “somethings.”  Even more respectively, they are otherly-affiliated.

They may be affiliated with a self-determined spirituality.  Their ultimate loyalty may lie with their family, their sense of call (no, the Church does not have a monopoly on a “sense of call”), or their pursuit of success – in the classroom, on the playing field, in a relationship.  These so called “nones” are many times multiply affiliated…and this is what makes serving Lutheran campus ministry so exciting.

There is no better context for the church to be present than among a “spiritual but not religious” young adult crowd whose affiliations are not set in stone.

Instead of seeking to label this sub-group of “unaffiliated” and target them with church anxiety, our campus ministries have found more promise, hope, and life in adopting the posture and virtue of curiosity.

Taylor’s Story

Taylor is a senior at Texas A&M, majoring in Biomedical Sciences with an eye toward vet school. Taylor shares that she grew up in a home that was never antagonistic toward religion or negative about church – it just simply wasn’t a part of their lives. Rather, sports were. And choir. And family. And valuing and loving one another. Not going to church was normal.

In fact, when her great-grandmother was close to death, she called Taylor to her and told her that because she had grown up Methodist, that Taylor was probably one, too. Such a statement was confusing, because – what was a Methodist? The word was foreign, and Taylor had no context to understand what that meant.

Memories of faith are scattered and sporadic. Occasionally attending church in high school. Going to a religious camp in junior high with a friend. Encountering a pastor who told her that she had better get her parents to believe, otherwise she would not see them in heaven. Taylor was horrified. Why be connected to God when God rejected those who had been the most loving, passionate, and caring in Taylor’s life? Church didn’t seem like it had much to offer – except fear and threats.

As Taylor got ready to attend college, however, she longed for something deeper. She wanted to know God, but didn’t know how or where to even begin. She church shopped for a while, then came to Treehouse (Lutheran Campus Ministry at Texas A&M and Blinn) with a friend. She fell in love. People saw her here. It was home.

Three years later, Taylor shares that the changes within her feel immeasurable. Most changed is the way she looks at life – her lens. Before, success and failure were all about her – how worthy she was, how unworthy she was. Her lens was perfection, and it told her that she was never good enough.

But her lens now? God. Grace. Love. The presence of Christ with her and within her. Seeing the world differently – instead of just a tree, now the artwork of God. Instead of just volunteering, now forming relationships. Instead of feeling like she would never be enough, now a peace from within that she is a creation of God, beloved, worthy of love, enough. Prayer has become natural.

Now, Taylor is a leader in Treehouse, where she welcomes others with the welcome she received. She co-leads our outreach to migrant workers. In the fall, she will begin as one of our Bible study leaders, a rigorous position that includes weekly study, contextual work, several meetings each week, and a willingness to grow.

Taylor was never just a “none,” though the label certainly would have applied to her story. Rather, an openness to her gifts and a curiosity about her story have shown, both her and the church, that she is more than a label – she has a name, an identity, and a calling.

Thanks be to God.

Nadinna’s story

Nadinna, like many new students, was looking for where she might find belonging on the campus of the University of Houston.  She just had the traumatic experience seeing one of her close friends overdose and nearly die.  Nadinna was beginning her time at U of H sensing the fragility of life.  A new school year on a new campus in a new city presented Nadinna with the perfect opportunity to try something new.

Nadinna had heard about free lunches being offered at the A.D. Bruce Religion Center, so she took the risk of receiving a meal from some churchy folk.  What the heck?  It was free, right?

Sitting down at the table with folks of different faiths and backgrounds wasn’t so bad for her, so with some time to kill Nadinna strolled down the hallways of the A.D. Bruce.  She checked out what the campus ministries were up to: reading about spring break trips here, noting worship times there.

When Nadinna came by the peer ministry office of Houston Lutheran Campus Ministry, the door was open.  One of the peer ministers, Cody, greeted her.  Not only that, but Cody eagerly told her about the midweek, midday worship service –  “Oremus”-  and that it would be happening in just a few minutes and “hey, you should come!”

She said she wasn’t Lutheran.  He said,  “That’s okay!”

Nadinna’s quest for identity and belonging – that something new – met up with someone “in the Church” uninterested in branding her, uninterested in acquiring a new Lutheran affiliate.  Maybe its the age.  Maybe it’s the context of higher learning.  Maybe this campus ministry’s students appreciate paradox.  Maybe its all of the above.

Regardless, at that moment Nadinna encountered an open door.  Someone interested in knowing her name.  Someone curious about her story.  Cody invited Nadinna for the slight possibility that God could be up to something new.

That something new led to Nadinna seeking out a church where she could become more fully engaged in God’s new activity in her life.   Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church and Houston Lutheran Campus Ministry joined Nadinna in her exploration and intense preparation for Baptism.  She was baptized this past Easter Vigil at Grace.  Cody became her baptismal sponsor.  Pr. Lura Gruen and Pr. Brad Fuerst presided.

As Nadinna was engaged in her catechesis, she discovered elements of her identity she had no idea existed. The woman can preach.  She can lead.  She was a good listener before she came through those Lutheran campus ministry doors, but now she’s listening in new ways to other faiths and seeing opportunity for church to listen to the “the other.”  Perhaps she too, has caught the curiosity bug.

This curious life together is how God sought out both Taylor and Nadinna.  Our Lutheran campus ministries are recognizing more and more the gift of curiosity with today’s young adults.  It is a gift of not having to have all the answers.  Instead of pegging people as this or that – or even worse: labeling them “nones” –  we are seeing the gift of allowing people to come through our open doors as they are – as someones who have names and stories and much to offer.  By God’s grace, we are becoming the ones genuinely interested in the new kinds of questions these named ones will pose about life, God, and the Gospel.

Thanks be to God indeed.

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