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FIRST-PERSON: Churches that reach the nones, nominals & nomads

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) — There is an abundance of books, strategies and research on two large groups of unchurched Americans. It is my thesis and subject for future research that one group that is increasing its distance from churches has not been adequately studied or pursued by church leaders. For that reason, this article will examine the group I call the nomads. As background, I’ll briefly review the more common unchurched groups: the nones and the nominals.

The nones

The nones represent those American adults that self-identify as having no church affiliation. A recent Pew Research study garnered much attention when it noted that the number of American nones had grown from 15 percent of the population to 20 percent of the population in the past five years. One major factor behind the growth of the religiously unaffiliated is generational replacement, the gradual supplanting of older generations by newer ones. The newer generation has a smaller portion of their numbers who have some type of religious affiliation.

The total number of nones in America is 46 million adults. This number also includes 13 million people who identify themselves as agnostic and atheist. The remaining 33 million adults simply say they have no religious affiliation.

Most research and strategies for churches to reach the unchurched have dealt with reaching the nones. There are, however, two other groups that are largely neglected.

The nominals

About 80 percent of the American adult population has some religious affiliation. But over half of that group states they attend church monthly, yearly, seldom or never. I call that group the nominals. Churches would do well to reach out to this group that is self-identified as both religious and relatively inactive in churches.

Church leaders often call these persons “CEO” Christians, meaning that they typically show up on “Christmas and Easter only.” Though church leaders intuitively know there are large numbers of these persons to reach, few develop strategies for doing so.

The nomads

From my perspective, the nomads are one of the most neglected groups by church leaders. The reason we neglect them is simple: we see them often so we don’t think of them as unchurched. From a definitional perspective they are not truly unchurched. The nomads instead are wandering from a high level of church commitment to a lower level.

Let me offer a simple example. Let’s assume you are in a church of 200 members where everyone shows up every week. Obviously, the attendance is 200 if there are no guests included. Now let’s assume the attendance pattern of these members changes to where they miss one Sunday out of four. Now the attendance has dropped 25 percent to 150 with a relatively slight change of behavior: missing just one Sunday out of four.

It is my thesis that much of the attendance drop in churches today can be explained by the commitment and attendance behavior of church members. Simply stated, a large part of church decline can be explained by members attending less frequently. What church leader has not dreamed of all of their “active” members showing up at one time? Intuitively, these leaders know that less frequent attendance patterns are hurting their churches.

My thesis is anecdotal and unproven at this point. There is no objective evidence that points to a decline in those reporting they attend church weekly or more. Most of the studies include categories that jump from weekly attendance to monthly attendance. So those who attend two or three times a month see themselves as attending weekly rather than monthly. They consider themselves weekly active church members even if they are attending slightly less than they have in past.

It is my contention that less frequent church attendance of some of our most committed members is a real and present challenge before church leaders. Anecdotally, I see the baby boomer generation Christians being at the forefront of this change. As they move into retirement or just have more free time, they are more likely to be somewhere other than church on Sunday.

I hope to have more objective research on this issue in the future. In the meantime, church leaders would do well to see if this issue is a real and present threat at their churches. If so, what types of strategies should we attempt for reclaiming the nomads to a higher level of commitment?
Thom S. Rainer is president of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. This column first appeared on his website, www.ThomRainer.com. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Thom S. Rainer