Am I A “None”?

Betsy Shirley

The intensive care unit demands truth, not euphemism. It’s a place to measure out options in time, costs, and chances; a place where people say “die” instead of “pass away.” So when a patient in the ICU replied, “No thanks, I don’t go to church,” after I introduced myself as a chaplain, I blurted out what I’m often too ashamed to admit: me neither.

In religious circles, it’s generated a frenzy of responses: One in five American adults now has no religious affiliation. Among young people, one in three. In headlines, this phenomenon is known as “the rise of the ‘nones,’” named for those who check “nothing in particular” when asked about their religious affiliation. Now, more than 18 months after the Pew Research Center published this statistic in October 2012, there’s one thing everyone still wants to know: Why?

There are theories. Many blame the church itself, its political divisions, its suspicions of unfamiliar sexual orientations, its failure to be “relevant.” Some blame individualism, consumerism, and anti-institutionalism, the hallmarks of a generation they fear will never see beyond the edges of its iPhones. Others say young people are living at home longer, getting married later, and generally not rushing the whole adulthood thing, creating a generation-wide rumspringa of youthful exploration and freedom, a delay in customary adult commitments, like choosing a religion.

I followed the headlines with interest and read the full 80-page report. Though most reactions to nones have focused on their namesake trait – their lack of religious affiliation – the Pew study carefully portrays them as nuanced, paradoxical, and rarely secular.

Many of them, for example, believe in God and pray regularly. Nones tend to think religious institutions are too focused on money, power, rules, and politics, yet 78 percent of them still believe churches strengthen the community and help reduce poverty. And though they aren’t seeking to join any religious group right now, nones were largely mainline and evangelical Protestants as children. Demographically, they are most likely unmarried, under 30, and moderate-to-liberal in their politics.

Something Looked Familiar

I stared at my computer screen, startled. Nones seemed a lot like me. Though I check “Christian” on surveys, I’m not affiliated with any denomination or church. I grew up in evangelical megachurches, but have since stopped attending. I don’t want to abolish churches, but neither am I looking to join one. So I wondered: Am I a none?

One thing is certain: I never intended to become a none. As an evangelical teenager, I was so worried by stories of 20-somethings who had gone off to college and lost their faith that I wrote earnest letters to my future self. “Are you married now? Who are your friends?” I wrote on three-holed loose leaf. “And please, please tell me you still love Jesus.” I kept the letters in a box, to be opened on various birthdays throughout my 20s, a form of insurance, I hoped, against a possibility that seemed too terrifying to face.

I survived four years at a liberal arts university, faith intact, but irrevocably altered. What I hadn’t understood as a 13-year-old is that faith cannot be tucked away and preserved in a box like my letters. It’s a living, growing thing, for which survival means change. And though I definitely loved Jesus at age 13, I was also fairly convinced that homosexuality was a sin, evolution was an evil scheme of secular scientists, and the Book of Revelation was a more or less literal account of what would happen in the end times. It’s good that faith changes. It’s necessary.

Spiritual Puberty

By the time I graduated from college, I started to think that loving Jesus was less about channeling emotive output towards a Lord whose name I lifted on high, and more about reflecting God’s self-giving love towards others.

Yet outgrowing beliefs is uncomfortable, a spiritual puberty every bit as awkward as its biological counterpart. I didn’t feel at home in the nondenominational, evangelical communities where I grew up, but hadn’t figured out what was next. Mainline Protestantism seemed attractive, but almost like a mirage. They ordained women? Welcomed queer folks? Integrated faith and justice, belief and doubt, the intellect and the spirit? It seemed too good to be true.

Family history indicated I’d likely join a new denomination in my 20s. My grandmother was raised Methodist, but converted to Roman Catholicism in her late 20s. My mother left Catholicism in her 20s and joined a nondenominational Bible church after a friend showed her a Campus Crusade tract. So if I’d left evangelicalism to join the mainline folks, the generational cycle would have made a tidy circle.

But, to the surprise of everyone except the Pew researchers, I didn’t.

A Season of Weariness

Throughout my early 20s, I lived in five different states and attended at least as many churches. I experimented with different denominations, but one thing was consistent: I dreaded going to church.

Simply put, church wore me out. Every week added to the litany of “more” – more involvement, more volunteers, more money, more projects, more retreats, more meetings, more events. There was always something else the love of Christ was compelling us to do – good things, but I just couldn’t keep up. On Sundays we sang hymns and prayed beautiful words of praise and gratitude that sounded nothing like the weariness I actually felt.

It’s okay, I coaxed myself. Live into the discomfort. Church is about commitment, not about feelings. Be the hands and feet of Jesus. I feared what leaving church might mean: floating off into a self-centered, self-helpy spirituality detached from other people. I added my name to sign-up sheets for small groups and soup kitchens, hoping the practice of just showing up would stir my lukewarm heart.

But mostly, I just felt guilty. I knew church was supposed to be life-giving, challenging, supportive – certainly not easy, but, at the very least, good. I didn’t know why it sucked the life out of me, and I prayed for help.

Eventually I realized that what I liked best about going to church was rounding up a group of people afterwards to talk over coffee or bagels. This is blasphemy, pure and simple, I thought. Jesus came so that we might have life, not brunch. Yet I had to admit that sharing conversation over coffee seemed more life-giving than church. Soon after, I stopped going to church and went straight to brunch. It felt more honest.

An Intentional New Path

While sorting out all these feelings about church, I joined a series of intentional communities. The first was in urban Indianapolis, where I spent a summer interning at a creative writing center and living in an old Victorian house with 12 other students. After college I moved into an eight-person community in a row house in Columbia Heights in Washington, D.C., sharing a food budget, attempting to compost, and working for Sojourners magazine. Shortly after, I spent a season chasing errant chickens and teaching ESL to Burmese refugees at a 40-person community in rural Georgia.

Whatever the goals of intentional community may be, it always ends up as a crash course in learning to love people who irritate the heck out of you. Alternately, it is letting others see you at your personal worst and allowing them to love you anyway, which I’ve found to be harder.

But amidst perpetually broken dishwashers, floors that were never clean, and pots of soup that were stretched to feed whoever showed up, I started to notice God’s presence in a way I’d never experienced in church. I saw God as we made room for unexpected guests, washed mounds of dishes, and took turns shoveling out the snowy driveway with one broken shovel. I saw God in housemates who shared their food, cars, and compassion in ways I didn’t deserve – mundane moments of learning to love and be loved, a very tangible form of grace. I was grateful.

It was these moments – reminders that God transcends the boundaries of religious affiliation – that ultimately led me to divinity school. I knew there were other people like me, people who couldn’t seem to find God in the church or their religious institution but were desperate to encounter God nonetheless. And I didn’t know how, exactly, but I wanted to help these people find God in their lives, in classrooms, in the community, and, as it turns out, in hospitals.

Holy Ground

So here’s what happens if you let it slip that you’re a chaplain who doesn’t go to church: A couple of patients will frown, some will rattle off a list of churches you should try, and a few will hand you a gospel tract. But the rest will ask you to pull up a chair.

With beeping medical equipment in the background, these patients will tell you things they’d never admit to someone wearing a collar: that they don’t go to church but they have questions about God, faith, death, and suffering.

Their stories are not all the same – they talk about good churches, bad churches, other religions. They describe God as a loving parent, a capricious trickster, or not at all. They talk about the ways they find meaning in life, through their families, their community, their life’s work, and, occasionally, their pets. As they pour out their hearts, you recognize you are on holy ground, right there in the ICU.

So you listen. And as you listen, you catch a glimpse of a God who always seemed to be among the folks who didn’t quite fit in. It’s odd, but you’re grateful that your sojourn outside of churches allows you to empathize with them and the profound sense of loss that comes when they’re no longer able to find God in church.

Several years ago I came across the Benedictine motto succisa virescit – “cut down, it ever grows again.” At the time, the motto struck me as an emblem of the twin Benedictine vows to constant stability and ever-deepening conversion. And that’s true, but now I recognize it as an emblem of an even older Christian truth: resurrection.

I’ll admit there are some dark nights out here in this world where religious affiliation is blurry. Some days I think I should suck it up and just get myself into a pew. Other days I wonder what I would write to my 13-year-old self if I could send a letter back to her.

But it is this pattern – a pattern of life amidst death, light amidst darkness, new growth amidst what was cut down – that gives me hope, even as a growing number of Americans, myself included, struggle to recognize God in the church. To me, this is the terrifying, beautiful paradox of the gospel: Salvation looks like destruction. So although we may show up on polls as “none,” I am confident that something is there, something holy and complicated and good springing to life.

Betsy Shirley ‘15 M.Div. is from Milwaukee. Her work has been published in Sojourners magazine, where she was formerly editorial assistant. She currently lives in a community of eight divinity students in New Haven.