Nones - perhaps you think about the women across the street at Aquinas when you hear the word. Perhaps you think about Dominican or Benedictine sisters or The Sound of Music. Some of you who went to Catholic school may remember fondly (or not so fondly) Sister Mary Margaret who introduced you to the wonders of Math.

But I’m not talking about nuns, but rather the Nones, N-O-N-E-S. I’m talking about the 46 million people in the United States who checked the box “none” last year when answering the religion question in a national survey. In October, the Pew Research Center released its study, “Nones on the Rise” where you can read in great demographic detail that one-fifth of American adults have no religious affiliation, and that the ranks of the “nones” are growing faster than any religious group. Some of them are atheists and agnostics, but the largest number self-identify consider themselves to be “nothing in particular.” Many describe themselves as spiritual or religious, and a signifant number observe spiritual disciplines like daily prayer, but they’re not looking for a congregation that would be a good fit for them.

One detail of the report received a lot of extra attention: overall, one-fifth of American adults have no religious affiliation, but among Americans under 30, that group makes up one-third. Greg Smith, one of the researchers at Pew said on NPR, “Young people today are not only more religiously unaffiliated than their elders; they are also more religiously unaffiliated than previous generations of young people ever have been as far back as we can tell. This really is something new.”

Robert Putnam, a sociologist who has studied trends in American religious life for years, points out that this young generation has been distancing itself not only from religious institutions, but that it “is much less involved in many of the main institutions of our society than previous younger generations were. (…) They’re the same people who are also not joining the Elks Club or the Rotary Club.” And then he adds, “It begins to jump at around 1990. These were the kids who were coming of age in the America of the culture wars, in the America in which religion publicly became associated with a particular brand of politics, and so I think the single most important reason for the rise (…) is that combination of the younger people moving to the left on social issues and the most visible religious leaders moving to the right on that same issue.”[1]

The kids who were coming of age in the 90’s are tired of the ugliness, and they’re looking for a better way.They’ve grown up in an age of fundamentalism, with religiously motivated violence on the evening news and careless God-talk in heated political campaigns. They’ve heard too many reports of the Catholic hierarchy trying to keep stories of child abuse by priests away from the public, and they can’t trust religious leaders who are more concerned about appearance than about justice for the victims or true repentance that might lead to renewal. They’ve witnessed increasingly silly public arguments about evolution or climate change, and they’ve had enough of the condemnation of gays and lesbians in the name of God. They’re tired of the ugliness, and they’re looking for a better way.

For some, it’s easier to trust community made from scratch, than any organized religion. Amy Sullivan last year wrote in Time Magazine about a gathering of American expats in a coastal town on Mexico’s Baja peninsula. Every Sunday, they meet for what they call Not Church.

Many of them long ago gave up on traditional religious institutions. But they function as a congregation often does — engaging one another in spiritual conversation and prayer, delivering food when someone is sick and working together to serve the poor. On a recent Sunday the group (…) featured a sunny-haired ordained Presbyterian named Erin Dunigan delivering a sermon about tomatoes and God’s call to Samuel. (Organized religion, she told them, can be like supermarket tomatoes — flavorless and tough. That isn’t a reason to give up on religion, or tomatoes, but instead to find a fresh, local version worth cultivating.) “It was beautiful,” Dunigan says. “The people who don’t want anything to do with the church or religion were the people who were leading everyone else in the service.”

I love the parallel Erin draws between cultivating tomatoes and cultivating a life of faith, because she emphasizes flavor over looks and shelf life. And I would love to dig a little deeper into the similarities between industrial agriculture and religious institutions, but not today. I noticed something else.

Jesus was about 30 years of age when the good people of his home congregation drove him out of town. At first they were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth, but within the course of a short sermon, they flew into a rage and were ready to hurl him off the cliff.

You don’t belong where respectable people worship!

You are no longer one of us, get out!

And the rage escalated to a point where at least some of them were ready to kill him. As far as the good people of Nazareth were concerned, Jesus was the consummate ‘none.’ In their heart and mind, he was no longer part of organized religion – but as far as the good news of God is concerned, he is of course no less the prophet of the kingdom now than he was before. Only now, he is moving on. He is out there with all the other ‘nones’ and unaffiliated ones, on his way, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God in Capernaum and the villages of Galilee, in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. He’s moving on.

The good people of Nazareth loved Jesus’ proclamation of good news to the poor because they were poor, and they had waited so long for redemption and release – and there he stood, Joseph’s boy, a son of Nazareth, speaking of fulfilment – an end to their captivity and oppression. You know that at least a few of them were hoping that he’d set up shop in his hometown for the great work of redemption, that he’d put sleepy little Nazareth on the map – until they realized that ‘hometown’ meant something else altogether to him. They flew into a rage when he hinted at a couple of stories they knew and loved, stories about two of their favorite prophets.

There were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 

There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.

Jesus reminded the congregation that God’s promise to restore life didn’t stop at the border; even in the days of the prophets of old, God’s mission brought new life to a Gentile widow in Phoenicia and her child, and healing to the General of the enemy’s army. The good people of Nazareth thought, today was finally their day, and he disappointed them by telling them that it was the day of fulfilment for all. At the end of his hometown sermon, Jesus didn’t go elsewhere because the people of Nazareth rejected him – it was rather the other way round: the people of Nazareth rejected him because he was going elsewhere; they realized that he wouldn’t respect the boundaries of here and there, us and them. They rejected him because they weren’t able to transcend the boundaries of their particular community for the sake of God’s mission.

I read this story from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as a parable. We’re no less tempted than the good people of Nazareth to think of ourselves as God’s own hometown. We’re tempted to look at the statistics of shrinking congregations and the growing ranks of ‘nones’ and worry about what will become of us, and before long all we care about are butts and bucks – bodies in the pews and dollars in the budget. We’re tempted to forget that God loves the world and continues to call us to proclaim the good news of the kingdom in the company of Jesus. God’s mission in the world and for the world continues, and the only question the church must answer, in any generation, regardless of whether there are only a handful or millions of us, the only question is whether we are participating in what God is doing today.

Many churches in the United States in the years after WWII got accustomed to viewing the world from a perspective of privilege, but that privileged position has also held us captive. Now we’re learning to look at things from a different angle, and I believe this will be a liberating experience. I believe it will lead us into more honest conversations about how we see God, how we see God at work in the world, and how Christian believers, believers of other religious traditions, and even so-called ‘nones’ participate in that work. I believe looking at things from the margins will liberate churches from the very human desire to convert others to become more like us, and open us to being converted by God into one humanity re-created in the image of  Christ. I believe we’ll be better prepared to grow fresh, local varietals of church life worth cultivating. And just like good tomatoes, some will be heirloom plants and others will be wonderful hybrids no one could have imagined even a few years ago. God’s mission continues – how will we participate in it?

[1] http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/01/14/169164840/losing-our-religion-the-growth-of-the-nones