Four Ways to Engage “The Nones” from Timothy Keller’s “Center Church”
32, 21,15, 9.
No, these are not some newly discovered set of numbers from the hit TV show LOST. They represent one of the fastest growing religious groups in America: Nones, people who self-report as having no religious affiliation.
Last week Tuesday the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reported that Nones are on the rise, now encompassing 19% of adults, up from 16% in 2007. Read that again: Now nearly 1 in 5 adults have no religious affiliation.
The numbers at the top represent percentages by age who are None: 9% of the Silent Generation, those over 65; 15% of Boomers, 50-64; 21% of GenXers, 30-49 are None; and fully 1 in 3 (32%) Millennials, 18-29, have no religious affiliation at all.
Read those numbers again, especially that last one. 1 in 3 young adults are None when it comes to religious affiliation. If that number or the others weren’t enough here’s the kicker: 88% of Nones aren’t even looking to be part of any religious group, including your church.
What do you make of these numbers? What’s your reaction? Your response?
I know I have been deeply burdened this past week by those last two numbers, the 32% and the 88%. Especially the 88%. That number means Nones aren’t even seeking. Which means there is very little the church can do to reach those non-seeking Nones. Or is there?
In light of these numbers I believe one of the new go-to books for church leaders will be Tim Keller’s new book, Center Church: Doing Balanced Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. This book is Keller’s ministry brain squeezed out into a nice ministry manual for people like you and me who want to better engage our culture with the gospel in hopes of reaching the Nones for Christ. One of his best sections that might offer some help is chapter 16, “The Cultural Responses of the Church.”
Part of Keller’s argument in Center Church is that the dynamic tension of church and culture is the issue beneath many of our struggles as the church. Therefore, it can be helpful to look at models of cultural response to help the church develop what he calls “a Center Church vision for cultural engagement,” (194) with hopes of reaching Nones.
As Keller points out, there are four basic categories and models that mark Christian cultural engagement: the Transformationist model; the Relevance model; the Counterculturalist model; and the Two Kingdoms model. These models largely reflect the work of Christian thinker H. Richard Niebuhr and his classic book Christ and Culture. While he outlines several strengths and weaknesses for each, Keller believes all four have running through them guiding principles that can help Christians relate to culture in hopes of reaching culture.
Without going into great detail here, these are the four models of cultural engagement: The Transformationist model engages culture “largely through an emphasis on Christians pursuing their vocation from a Christian worldview and thereby changing culture” (197); the Relevance model believes that “God’s Spirit is at work in the culture to further his Kingdom,” thus they have an optimistic view of culture and tend to reinvent ministry in light of culture (202); the Counterculturalist “places its emphasis on the church as a contrast society to the world,” believing that God does not act redemptively through cultural movements outside the church (205); finally, the Two Kingdom approach “comes from the teaching that God rules all of creation through the ‘common kingdom’ in which all people operate by natural revelation (e.g. Our human conscience) and the ‘redemptive kingdom’ in which Christians are ruled by special revelation (e.g. Scripture)” (209).
Which of the four models closely represents your own view of church and culture? How does your ministry philosophy reflect these models?
Keller emphasizes that each model contains an essential truth about the relationship of the gospel to culture, yet none of them alone give us the full picture of how we can engage our above numbers in gospel-centered ministry. What we need is an important word: balance. “Center Church ministry is neither undercontextualized nor overcontextualized to the city and the culture. Because the city has potential for both human flourishing and human idolatry, we minister with balance, using the gospel to both appreciate and challenge the culture to be in accord with God.” (246)
He ends this wisdom-drenched section on gospel and culture with several important points of consideration. Here are some points to consider as you wrestle with the None numbers this week, whether you’re a lead pastor, small group leader, or faithful workplace light (246-247):
-Be informed and shaped by Scripture all of the time.
-Minister with boldness and confidence as well as with humility and irony, for the gospel creates both in you at the same time.
-Hold to one true gospel, yet learn to creatively adapt it in culturally specific ways.
-Live as both residents and foreigners in this world.
-Take a view of cultural engagement that is informed by the whole of the biblical storyline so that it is neither too pessimistic nor too optimistic about the possibility for cultural change and so that it affirms the presence of both common grace and pervasive sin in every culture.
In light of the rise of the Nones, we need to courageously, creatively engage culture in greater measure with both gospel clarity and Christlike charity. If we commit to this, we just might experience in our day what the early church experienced in theirs: The Lord adding to our number daily those Nones who are being saved.
Jeremy Bouma has spent a decade ministering among our postmodern culture, first in Washington D.C. and most recently as a pastor in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA—a hyperlocal idea curator dedicated to helping the 21st century West Michigan church rediscover the historic Christian faith—holds the Master of Divinity and Master of Theology from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and writes atwww.novuslumen.net.