Review of ‘The Rise of the Nones’ by James Emery White

The-Rise-of-the-NonesJames Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014). Paperback | Kindle

According to a May 2015 report from Pew Research Center, “The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing.” Sociologists refer to this latter group as nones. When asked to state their religious affiliation—e.g., Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, etc.—they choose “None of the above.”

Nones constitute a rapidly growing segment of the U.S. population. According to data from the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, nones nearly doubled between 1990 and 2008, from 8.1 to 15 percent. Pew’s own data indicate that the share of nones grew by nearly 42 percent between 2007 and 2014, from 16.1 percent of the U.S. population to 22.8 percent.

For Christians committed to obeying the Great Commission (Matt. 28:16–20), nones are a new people group to be reached with the gospel. The question is how. In The Rise of the Nones, James Emery White provides an “analysis” of this demographic (Part 1) that explains “a revolution of mindset and strategy” which the church needs to effectively evangelize them (Part 2).

White has a good handle on both the intellectual and practical aspects of Christian ministry in an increasingly secular culture. He is founding senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, 70 percent of whose total growth has come from nones. And he has a Ph.D. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

According to White, “The real mark of a none is not the rejection of God but the rejection of any specific religion” (p. 23). In that sense, they are “spiritual but not religious.” This spirituality does not turn them into “seekers,” however. Rather, it is consistent with what Jonathan Rauch describes as “a disinclination to care all that much about one’s own religion, and even stronger disinclination to care about other people’s” (p. 27).

White analyzes the causes of this rejection of religion, and the worldview that results from it, in Part 1—an analysis that need not detain us here. Rather, I’d like to focus on the advice for reaching nones that he outlines in Part 2. White notes that most churches’ outreach strategies “rest on a single, deeply flawed premise that people want what you have to offer” (emphasis in original). In the very next sentence, however, he writes: “More often than not, they don’t” (p. 89).

Like Jonathan Rauch, many—if not most—nones simply don’t care about religion. When churches send out slick mailers promising a church experience with a casual atmosphere, contemporary music, relevant messages, and good coffee, nones chuck them in the trash because they already have those things…without organized religion.

What is needed is a new mindset, a mindset that is willing to change the way we do things in order to effectively reach a post-religious generation. Unfortunately, too many churches cater to the spiritual consumerism of existing Christians, even as they vocalize a desire to reach the lost. White doesn’t mince words: “we say we want them [i.e., the nones] in heaven—but we act like they can go to hell” (p. 84).

To reach nones, we need to think of evangelism as both a process and an event. “The goal is not simply knowing how to articulate the means of coming to Christ,” White writes in reference to the conversion event. Rather, he continues with reference to the process of conversion, “it is learning how to facilitate and enable the person to progress…[to] where he or she is able to even consider accepting Christ” (p. 93).

The process of evangelism looks very different in a nominally Christian culture than in a post-religious society. In the mid-twentieth century, when Christian influence was at its peak and churches could assume most Americans identified with and had a basic understanding of Christianity, the process looked like this:

Unchurched → Christ → Community → Cause

In other words, first unchurched people accepted the gospel, then joined the church, then started supporting the church’s mission.

To reach Baby Boomers, who had been raised in church but left it out of disillusionment in young adulthood, churches tried a different evangelistic process, which looked like this:

Unchurched → Community → Christ → Cause

In other words, unchurched Baby Boomers needed to trust the church again before they could express commitment to Christ and support the church’s mission.

White argues that the nones require yet another change in the evangelistic process, which looks like this:

Nones → Cause → Community → Christ

“Today,” White writes, “it is cause that arrests the attention of the world” (p. 101). Nones are interested in the common good, not personal conversion. Some Christians seem to be interested in conversion rather than the common good. Jesus was interested in both. “Jesus wed mission and message together seamlessly,” White says, “proclaiming the kingdom that had come while healing the leper and feeding the hungry. He mandated concern for the widow and orphan, the homeless and naked, the imprisoned and hungry while speaking of the bread of life and a home in heaven” (p. 102). If Jesus, so the church; we should be interested in both conversion and the common good too.

Notice that White has not discarded the event of evangelism, namely, a call to repentance and faith. The strategy he outlines pertains to the process whereby nones see that conversion to Christ makes sense. “Even if it takes a while to get to talking about Christ,” he argues, based on ministry experience, “[nones] get there” (p. 108).

White’s discussion of mindset and strategy includes far more than I’ve outlined in this review. To get that, you’ll need to read the book. And I worry that a focus on cause may become as unattractive to nones as slick mailers advertising a “casual atmosphere” and “good coffee.” Nones don’t need to go to church to get coffee; do they need to go to church to get a cause? A church not committed to the common good is not representing Jesus well, but nones won’t necessarily come to Christ just because the church pursues it.

Regardless, I recommend The Rise of the Nones for its thought-provoking analysis and guidance regarding mindset and strategy. I haven’t touched on all the points White makes, but I hope this review has given you a better understanding of the challenge of and a strategy for reaching nones. They’re not interested in religion—yours or their own. To get them to Christ, you must start with what interests them and draw them—slowly, patiently—to Jesus.


P.S. If you found this book review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.


Review of ‘God Loves Sex’ by Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman III

God-Loves-Sex Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman III, God Loves Sex: An Honest Conversation about Sexual Desire and Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014). Paperback / Kindle

God Loves Sex is two books in one.

The first is a theologically and psychologically informed exposition of the Song of Songs. Eschewing centuries of allegorical interpretation, Allender and Longman argue that the Song is “a collection of related erotic love poems that emphasizes the goodness of sex.” They work their way through the Song topically rather than sequentially, highlighting what the Song says about desire, beauty, sexual play, the struggle for intimacy, and the glory of sex. The authors situate the Song’s celebration of sex within the broader biblical teaching regarding the sanctity of marriage. And in a concluding chapter, they note how the Song’s “poems help us understand God’s love of pleasure and play, his commitment to remain faithful to us even when we are adulterous, and finally that he loves to see human beings flourish and grow in fruitfulness and joy.” Thus, even as they eschew an allegorical interpretation of the Song, they find spiritual meaning within it.

The second book in God Loves Sex is the fictional story of Malcolm, a young single man and recent convert to Christianity who joins a small group that is studying the Song of Songs in a fashion similar to Allender and Longman’s exposition of it. Malcolm relates his story through journal entries that the authors place before and after each chapter of exposition. The spiritual journey he relates is one of deepening Christian commitment that goes hand in hand with his journey from sexual brokenness to wholeness. Some readers might be shocked by Malcolm’s references to extramarital sex and drug use, not to mention the use of alcohol by Christians in the small group. These things happen both before and after Malcolm becomes a Christian, though overall there is a clear trend line toward chastity and sobriety. As an ordained Pentecostal minister, I wouldn’t be surprised to find some churches deciding against to use God Loves Sex because of references to these practices, especially by churches that emphasize God’s instantaneous deliverance of people from sinful habits and teach total abstention from alcoholic beverages. On the other hand, some readers might see in Malcolm’s story a realistic portrayal of their own struggles and find, as Malcolm does, that Scripture—especially the Song of Songs—teaches a better, more truly life-giving way to think about and pursue sexual intimacy.

What I most appreciate about God Loves Sex is the authors’ attempt to open up “an honest conversation about sexual desire and holiness,” in the words of the book’s subtitle. Christians teach the sinfulness of sex outside of marriage. But too often, this “no” to sin leaves little room for a “yes” to sex inside of marriage—and not just the sexual act itself, but all the desires, emotions, conversations, and actions that surround the act, making it even more enjoyable, and contributing to the happiness and wellbeing of a husband and wife. There is more to sex than sex, in other words, precisely because that is the way God made men and women.

If so, then sexual desire and holiness cannot be separated in the life of believers. God Loves Sex—both the exposition and the fictional story—show what an integrated sexual holiness might look like. And how such holy sexuality always points beyond itself to the God who created us as sexual beings.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

People of the Great Commission

Steve Wilkens and Don Thorsen, Everything You Know about Evangelicals Is Wrong (Well, Almost Everything): An Insider’s Look at Myths and Realities (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerBooks, 2010). $16.99, 224 pages.

What is evangelical Christianity?

In Everything You Know about Evangelicals Is Wrong, Steve Wilkens and Don Thorsen set out to discover “an adequate and accurate definition” by identifying and critiquing several caricatures of the movement on the basis of “the empirical realities of evangelicalism’s history, its present composition, and its trajectories toward the future.”

The chapter titles identify the caricatures. Readers learn that “Evangelicals Are Not All…”

  • Mean, Stupid, and Dogmatic (ch. 2)
  • Waiting for the Rapture (ch. 3)
  • Anti-evolutionists (ch. 4)
  • Inerrantists (ch. 5)
  • Rich Americans (ch. 6)
  • Calvinists (ch. 7)
  • Republicans (ch. 8 )
  • Racist, Sexist, and Homophobic (ch. 9)

Wilkens and Thorsen don’t deny that some evangelicals are any—or all—of these things. Rather, they argue that “we should not confuse the social [or theological] agendas of particular evangelicals with evangelicalism’s agenda.”

Both outsiders and insiders to the evangelical movement contribute to this confusion, by the way. For example, the New Atheists caricature evangelicals as anti-evolutionist and anti-science. What to do, then, with Francis Collins, who is both an evangelical and an evolutionist? Some evangelical historiographers caricature the movement as Calvinist revivalism. What to do, then, with my denomination, the Assemblies of God, which is a founding member of the National Association of Evangelicals and not Calvinist?

Caricatures aside, evangelical Christianity encompasses a diversity of theological commitments, denominational loyalties, political affiliations, ethnic identities, and social classes. It always has. The leaders of the Great Awakening—Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and John and Charles Wesley—exemplify this diversity. Edwards and Whitefield were Calvinists. The Wesley brothers were Arminians. Edwards was a Congregationalist. Whitefield and the Wesleys were Anglicans. Edwards died before the American Revolution, but his sons were Patriots. John Wesley publicly denounced the Revolution. He also published expurgated versions of Edwards’ writings on revival and preached Whitefield’s funeral sermon.

Does anything hold this diversity together? Evangelicals tend to be conservative doctrinally, although this conservatism is generic rather than specific. Remember, not all evangelicals subscribe to a pre-trip rapture of the church, young-earth creationism, biblical inerrancy (as opposed to biblical infallibility), or Calvinist soteriology. For evangelicals who subscribe to these specific beliefs, chapters 3, 4, 5, and 7 may be tough to read. Evangelicals tend to be conservative morally, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into political conservatism or allegiance to the Republican party. White evangelicals tend to be Republicans, but African-American and Hispanic evangelicals tend to be Democrats.

At the self-acknowledged risk of oversimplification, Wilkens and Thorsen settle on this definition of evangelical Christianity: “Evangelicals are people of the Great Commission.” In the Great Commission, Jesus commanded his disciples to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). This is “the basic impulse of evangelicalism,” which derives its very name from euaggelion, the Greek word for “gospel.”

Evangelicals are gospel people.

I heartily recommend Everything You Know about Evangelicals Is Wrong to anyone, whether an outsider or an insider, who struggles to understand the meaning and significance of the evangelical movement. The book debunks stereotypes, complexifies issues where needed, and simplifies definitions where possible. Most importantly, clarifies the nature of evangelical Christianity, which has tremendous influence in North America and growing influence worldwide.


P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

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