This post was last updated on March 24th, 2021 at 09:11 am.
In the first “Who Are the ‘Nones’?” post, I reported on some findings from a 2012 Pew Research Center report – “‘Nones’ on the Rise”. This report found that the percentage of religiously unaffiliated adults (called “Nones”) is growing in the US, up 5% from just five years ago. Now, one in five adults (and one in three that are born after 1981) is a None.
“‘Nones’ on the Rise” also reports that many Nones have some negative perceptions of the church. A strong majority of them believe religious institutions
- “are too concerned with money and power.”
- “focus too much on rules.”
- “are too involved with politics.”
While churches and other religious organizations can’t base their practices or principles on public opinion, it’s still worthwhile for church leaders and members to be aware of these negative perceptions, to examine where they come from, and to reflect on how their churches might make positive changes and better engage the Nones.
And that’s the focus of parts 2-4 of this series. “Who Are the ‘Nones’? – Part 2” explored the negative perception that churches “are too concerned with money and power.” Now in this third installation, we’ll look at the perception (held by 67% of the Nones) that churches “focus too much on rules.”
As we’ve said before, it can be tough to dig under the wording in survey questions and discern what people really think. Rules can describe a variety of things. It can describe a church’s particular rules about how it functions, or collects donations. Or it can describe matters of morality – right and wrong.
Further research suggests that underlying Pew’s statistic on rules is a pervasive notion that churches are judgmental and look down on others for not living up to their rules and standards for how people should live. That’s the consistent finding of many church leaders when they interact with unchurched people.
Dan Kimball, from his interviews with 20- to 30-year-olds, says that many young people see churches as “judgmental and negative.” In fact, he identifies this as one of “three [perceptions] that seem to be especially prevalent in our current culture—and in my conversations with non-Christians.”
David Kinnaman, President of the Barna Research Group, also says that judgmentalism is one of the biggest stigmas characterizing today’s churches. His book “unChristian” identifies this as one of six major negative views people have of churches. Barna surveys indicate that 90% of those outside the church world say the word judgmental accurately describes Christianity. Churches, according to Kinnaman, are much more known for what they’re against than what they’re for.
We should also note that it’s not just outsiders that have this view of churches. According the the Pew report, 47% of the people polled who do belong to a religion answered the same way: religious institutions are too focused on rules. Altogether, 51% of those surveyed hold this view.
So, about half of all American adults, and about two thirds of the growing group of Nones, view religious institutions as places where people obsess about following rules and judge others for falling short. How should churches respond?
1. Communicate the reasons behind the rules.
It’s easy to judge a person or group’s rules before you understand the reasons behind them.
I remember studying Spanish in high school and coming across a rule that seemed strange to me. In written Spanish, questions begin with an upside down question mark, and exclamations begin with an upside down exclamation mark. It seemed like the silliest thing to me; why add upside down punctuation marks?
Then one day in literature class, I was reading a particularly long and challenging sentence penned by Shakespeare. At the end of that sentence, a question mark was patiently waiting there to let me know that I’d read the whole thing all wrong. I suddenly realized the point of those upside down exclamation and question marks in Spanish texts; they forewarn the reader of how the sentence should be read. How clever is that?
(A note to fiction writers—it drives me crazy when you put “he whispered” at the end of a bit of dialogue. I mean, even if I’m reading silently, I feel like I have to read it over again just to get the right feel for what’s going on.)
My point is that rules often have good reasons behind them, but those reasons aren’t always obvious to outsiders. Maybe religious institutions can do more to communicate the value of the rules to which they hold. It’d be worthwhile for church leaders to examine the rules and convictions they hold in high esteem, to ask themselves why they value those principles, and to think hard about how they can relate the reasons behind their rules.
People on the outside tend to perceive rules as coming from a holier-than-thou attitude; hence the complaints about churches’ judgmentalism. What if they could see genuine love behind the rules, instead? What if they could see a family of people looking out for each other?
2. Admit that you, like everyone, are not perfect.
We all have a hypocritical, self-righteous side. As pastor/author Andrew Byers succinctly puts it, “We can sniff self-righteousness all over the place… except when it is stuck on our own clothes and eking out of our own souls.”
It may at least give critical outsiders pause if more churches openly and honestly admit that, yes, they can be condescending, and no, they’re not perfect – just fallible human beings like everyone else, including their critics.
There’s a valid objection: churches may appear to be holding themselves to low standards and making the excuse that, oh well, no one’s perfect. That’s something to watch out for. Still, is there anything wrong with representatives of a church responding to charges of judgmentalism by humbly admitting that they’re not perfect, that they could do more to understand where others are coming from? That doesn’t mean compromising their principles, just exercising some empathy.
3. Examine the focus of your message.
Recall David Kinnaman’s assertion that churches are known more for what they’re against than what they’re for. Dan Kimball says the same thing and laments, “Why is it that we in the Church focus on the negatives? Why do people on the outside know us only for what we stand against?”
His simple suggestion – spend more time letting people know what you’re for. Talk less in terms of negatives and more in terms of the positive causes that you stand behind.
This suggestion resonates well with my teaching experience. A teacher can gain a lot of cooperation by taking even an inherently negative message – e.g. “Don’t pass notes in class.” – and putting it in a positive light – e.g. “We need to avoid those distractions so we can contribute to the class and pay close attention to what I and your classmates are saying.”
So what about your church?
Have you been challenged with charges of judgmentalism? How have you responded?
Do people see more of what you’re for or what you’re against?
Do they know the reasons behind your rules and principles?
Let us know about times when your church, denomination or organization has faced charges of being judgmental and focused on rules. Please share what your organization has done to communicate its mission in a positive, inspiring light and what kind of response you’ve seen.