According to a recent Pew report, “Nones” are on the rise in America. You may ask, “What are Nones?” They’re not religious women who wear habits—in fact, they may be the opposite of that. They’re people who marked “None” on the survey, indicating that they have no particular religious affiliation, and no habit of attending worship anywhere. Pewforum.org says:
“One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling. In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).”[i]
If Christians are going to reach the “Nones,” then we’ve got to figure out how to communicate the abiding truth of the Gospel in new ways. Obviously, the old ways of sharing our faith aren’t working as well as they used to. We can no longer assume that people will understand us when we try to evangelize them by speaking our own secret language, “Christianese.” People who didn’t grow up in church won’t understand us when we talk about being redeemed, sanctified, or washed in the blood. We’ve got to learn to speak the language of the people, if we’re going to share with them the truth about Jesus.
In Acts 17, Paul was very distressed when he visited Athens and saw all the statues to false gods. In the same way, we’ve got to get distressed about the spiritual condition of our friends, relatives, associates, and neighbors who don’t know Jesus. We’ve got to be convinced of their desperate need for salvation—otherwise, we’ll lose them.
When the apostle Paul addressed the philosophers and townspeople in Athens, he didn’t employ the same tactics that he used when he shared the Messiah with fellow Jews in the synagogue. He realized that he had a different audience, and he had to tailor his message to fit his audience. Paul knew their culture—and so we also need to know the culture we’re in, if we’re going to communicate with them. He found common ground with them, saying: “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you (Acts 17.22-23 NRSV).” Then, instead of quoting the Hebrew scriptures, he cited their own philosophers and poets. In convincing ways that they could understand, he shared Jesus—and their interest was piqued.
Are you finding common ground with the people around you? Are you sharing Jesus with them in a way that they can understand? Or are you using outdated language and methods of communication, expecting people to adapt to your particular expression of Christianity? Unless we’re the ones that adapt, we’re going to lose this generation—because they’re not going to adapt for us.
Remember the series of children’s books by Peggy Parish? Poor Amelia Bedelia was always getting things wrong—because she always took instructions literally. When her employers told her to put out the lights, she’d unscrew the bulbs and put them outside. She thought it strange that they asked her to “dust the furniture,” when in fact she should be “undusting” it. Her employers were constantly exasperated with her for doing things wrong, when in fact if they had simply learned to communicate more clearly, she would have understood perfectly. In the same way, Christians often shake our heads at people who reject our message. We say, “If only they could understand!” Did we ever stop to think that maybe we need to change the way we’re communicating? If the world doesn’t speak our language anymore, then we need to learn a new language.
How can we share the abiding truth of the Gospel in innovative new ways? Get to know the culture. Find common ground. Learn a new language, or a new way of speaking. Don’t expect the world to come to you in order to find Jesus. Jesus said, “Go into all the world,” not “Make them come to you.” Do this, and you’ll be able to welcome your friends, relatives, associates, and neighbors into the family of God.
[i] Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project. “Nones on the Rise.” October 9, 2012. http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/. January 25, 2014.