This post was last updated on March 31st, 2021 at 11:15 am.
A few weeks ago, I wrote “Who Are the Nones?” about the growing number of adults (especially younger ones) who don’t identify themselves with a religion. This group is starting to become known as the “Nones”, a short title based on the fact that they choose “none” as their religious affiliation. The post was based on a study by the Pew Research Center that had some surprising results.
Here’s a list of some of those results:
- About one in five adults in the US do not identify themselves with a religion, up nearly 5% from 2007.
- Among those born after 1981, about one in three are in the None category.
- Among the Nones, about three in four grew up in a home with some religious affiliation.
- A strong majority of this group believes religions
- “are too concerned with money and power.”
- “focus too much on rules.”
- “are too involved with politics.”
This is the first of three articles on the three negative perceptions of churches listed above. In this post, I’ll be exploring why so many religiously unaffiliated adults believe religions “are too concerned with money and power.”
The Need for Discussion
Clearly, I’m writing about sensitive issues. Talking about the negative perceptions of others can rouse people’s defensiveness and anger. Plus, we’re talking about money, which can be a big sore spot in everything from political debates to marriages. This is dangerous territory we’re getting into.
So why should we?
I’m not trying to affirm that these negative perceptions are correct. Neither am I suggesting that churches should craft their identities and policies around public opinion polls. But these negative perceptions do exist, and they’re relevant to any church’s attempt to interact with the broader community and culture. It can be worthwhile to look at the church world from a variety of viewpoints to better understand where the aversion to churches may come from. The goal of this article is to offer some insight and generate some dialogue about these growing stigmas. Every organization should discuss public perception and try to discern why it’s moving in a certain direction. Our discussion is on the Nones, how they view religion and why.
Problems with Polls
There are shortcomings to data from polls.
First of all, while they can be very useful for gaining a broad picture of people’s views about something, they’re not so good at finding the why behind that picture. That leaves a lot of room for interpretation as to why a majority of Nones think churches are overly concerned with money and power. Where does this perception come from?
And then sometimes the wording in polls can be unhelpful for getting a clear picture of what people think. For example, let’s say I surveyed all of you about whether dihydrogen monoxide, a chemical responsible for many thousands of deaths, should be sold over the counter. I’d probably get very different results than if I asked if people should be allowed to buy water. But water and dihydrogen monoxide (H2O) are the same thing.
I have a little trouble with the wording in the Pew Poll – “too concerned with money and power.” I’m no expert on polling, but who decided to put money and power together in the same question? Are people more likely to see the church as too concerned with money or too concerned with power? I get that the two are connected, but the wording leaves some ambiguity about what people really think.
That being said, the Pew report does give us a somewhat clear picture, a picture that tells us that many on the outside of churches think churches have mixed up priorities and care too much about money and influence.
Why is that?
Getting Down to the Why
One possible reason why people see churches as overly focused on money could be the high profile cases of fraud we’ve seen in the church world, where some well known religious leaders have been found to be guilty of fiscal corruption. I don’t know if such incidents go very far in explaining the kind of pervasive negative perception we’re talking about, but these cases do underscore the need for churches to be fiscally responsible and transparent.
Another possible cause could be what the Nones see churches spending money on. The most publicly visible displays of church spending are bigger, better church buildings. J. D. Greear, lead pastor of the Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, expresses concern about the big, fancy church buildings going up across the country. He suggests that, however unfair it may or may not be, the unchurched may see big church buildings as abuses of money that could be better used in other ways.
Let’s turn now more to the “power” side of the Pew survey question. Dan Kimball, author, speaker and founding pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California, says that the way a church is structured can give outsiders the impression that the church’s leaders “function like CEOs and desire power and control.” He suggests that even the names of church positions – “associate pastor”, “executive pastor” – which members may never give a second thought to, can give an outsider the impression that the church is run like a corporation, a money-centered hierarchy with members trying to climb to the top of the ladder and gain influence.
Kimball may be onto something. A Lifeway study cited in USA Today says that 79% of 1402 self-confirmed non churchgoers say “Christianity today is more about organized religion than loving God and loving people.” Again, I stumble over the wording. “Organized religion” could mean a lot of different things. (How many people are looking for a disorganized religion?) But interestingly, it’s the same wording that Dan Kimball heard when he interviewed young people in California about why they avoid churches. Complaints about “organized religion” seem to get at a pervading sense in many people that, under the surface, churches are about gaining power and controlling others.
J. D. Greear has an idea to combat the idea that churches want lots of money to build big, fancy buildings: develop more multi-site churches. When congregations get too big for the walls of their current building, they can start constructing a second site, one that may be closer to congregants on the other side of town. That’s the practice of Summit Church, and Greear sees it as a practical, fiscally responsible strategy that also avoids giving the unchurched the wrong impression.
Some objections come to mind. Many feel that larger, more impressive buildings create a serene, solemn, worshipful atmosphere. Also, congregations may be concerned that multiple meeting places will hurt the unity of the church community. Still, it may be an idea worth exploring for a growing church.
A. J. Rinaldi has a good suggestion of what a church member might say if they hear someone complain that their church just wants more money. He writes, “Rather than take offense, suggest they consider what it takes to operate a local church and how much most churches offer to their community.” People on the outside looking in may not realize all the expenses churches have to worry about. Also, they may not realize the things a church does beyond the church family to improve the lives of others. Pointing these things out to someone may alter their perception and even think more charitably about your church.
Dan Kimball has some suggestions for fighting the “organized religion” perception. You can read his blog post to see them all, but I’ll include a couple here.
- “Evaluate your titles for church leaders and the number of hoops people have to jump through to meet with them. If you’re using titles such as senior or executive pastor, have you ever paused to ask why and what that communicates?”
- “Communicate how your church is organized and why you practice your faith in this way, its basis in Scripture, etc. Explain that a church is like a family and all healthy families do need ‘organization’.”
Transparency – that seems to be what a lot of good suggestions on this topic come down to. It’s easy for people in one group to jump to conclusions or believe negative things about people in another group; it’s part of human nature. These negative perceptions can change if people on the outside can look into a church and see a caring family, and can get to know real, honest, friendly people.
Perhaps if the churched can get a glimpse of the church from the vantage point of the unchurched, they’ll see ways to help the unchurched see the church in a new light.