The Religious Nones: Why People Are Leaving Organized Religion


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Why do people leave the church? The rise of “religious nones” has left many questioning what it is about the church, and institutionalized religion in general, that has people skipping regular church services. 

As church leaders and pastors struggle to grow their congregations, there is an underlying issue of “nones” that needs to be addressed with a higher sense of urgency. 

Could it be the rise in popularity of the new atheist? Is it the growing political divides within churches? Or is there something more to this story? 

Let’s take a deeper dive into what is causing this shift in the landscape and what you can do to remedy the “crisis.”

What Are Religious Nones?

When pondering why churches close, a key piece of the puzzle has to do with religious nones. The biblical principles of marketing detail how to invite more people into your church, but what steps are you taking to ensure your existing members don’t leave?

In the simplest form, religious nones are individuals who say they have no religion, and they are otherwise known as the “religiously unaffiliated.”

They’re the Fastest Growing Religious Affiliation Group in the U.S.

In the U.S. and some parts of Europe and Latin America, the “nones” are more common among young adults—the millennials. This is not a recent meteoric rise though. A 2014 Religious Landscape Study showed evidence that the rapid growth of religious nones in the U.S. did not happen overnight.

The “nones” make up 23% of the adult population in the U.S., and it is higher among the young adult groups than any other age group. Among millennials, 35% identify as atheist or agnostic, which belong to the “nones” category. The median age among them is 36.

Religious Nones Are Fairly Diverse

Aside from the age group, the “nones” are also more predominantly male than female. But data from Pew Research Center reveals an inconclusive study that doesn’t clarify why men are truly more inclined to leave the church or if it is just a matter of coincidence. 

For instance, there are other factors that can also come into play, such as race, ethnicity, income, and level of education.

They Reshape Ethics and Beliefs

When referring to religious nones, the majority of the focus lies on why these people leave the church. However, the continued rise of “nones” is also a significant tipping point that will open discussions about individualism, ethics, and beliefs.

It’s no coincidence that many of those leaving organized religion are young adults. These are individuals who are very opinionated about their beliefs and ethics. They are also the ones who speak out about individualism. They don’t like being tied to a particular religious affiliation or organization that is not consistent with their beliefs, ethics, and ideologies.

Why Are People Leaving Organized Religion?

After defining religious nones, the next logical question to ask is: Why do they leave organized religion? The most surprising thing about this is that many of them leave, and the reasons are not directly related to Christianity—or any religion—at all. 

As small churches grapple for survival and take notes from the success of megachurches, here are some of the issues that can provoke nones to disassociate from the church…

1) They Get Out of the Habit

Discipline is a difficult beast to master, and many of the young individuals who are members of the church have lacked the discipline to continue going. After missing a couple of services, they lose the drive to attend until it becomes a memory of the past. 

2) They Don’t Want to Be Institutionalized

This is probably one of the biggest factors that has religious nones leaving the church. As young people grow and form their ideologies in life, they start to look at a church as an institution, and institutions often carry negative connotations. Unfortunately, many of these young individuals are unable to shake off those negative connotations. 

Church leaders need to use a unique approach to help enlighten young minds to the fact that the church is only an institution that is ordained by God, and humans are simply appointed to govern it.

3) They Lack a Connection with the Church 

Weekly or biweekly church services are not enough to make everyone feel connected in a church. This has especially been a challenge during the pandemic since many churches have had to rely on live streaming worship services

Members of a church require more than simply being ministered to. They must be active participants in the church and be inspired to act without waiting on the church to do something for them. 

It is important to develop a variety of formats to get everyone in the church feeling like they are truly a part of it—like a big family. This can be in the form of community groups, volunteer programs, etc. 

4) The Church Does Not Fit Their Needs

This is what church leaders call the practice of “preferential Christianity.” It’s where members have a deep need that they are looking to fill, so they end up church hopping. The sad reality, though, is that many of the needs of the religious nones who do this are never actually met. 

Whatever it is that a church member needs, whether it’s emotional or spiritual in nature, can never be fulfilled by the church. It must happen internally, and the church only serves as an external support system. 

5) They Left & Never Went Back

This is another common reason why this group is seeing a rise in numbers. Life happens, and they must move to another city. Or in some cases, a pastor leaves to join another ministry, and the members lose interest in the church as a result.

For those whose situations resemble the former scenario, it is not easy to relocate and find a church they connect with. It is a major life change, and finding a church is just as important as finding a new home. 

Sadly, many of these people are too afraid to take a chance, and as a result, they end up turning their back on the church altogether. 

Positive Outlook: Many Nones Are Returning to Church 

Group of people walking into a church as concept for religious nones returning to church.

In his report, the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, Ryan Burge looked deep into the activity of religious migration in the U.S. over a period of several years. He demonstrated that 17% of “nones,” or those who professed to be agnostic or atheist, returned to the church. Of those “nones,” 4% became Catholic and 13% became Protestant.

What does this say about “nones” and their choice to come back to church?

First off, it is important to understand that religious nones leave the church searching for deeper spiritual connection. It might not have anything to do with faith or religion. 

This is something that church leaders can take hints from. Focus on listening to and understanding the needs of your congregation members—especially the youth. They are no longer drawn by traditional fellowship and worship activities, such as preaching, music, or Bible study, so more creativity needs to be used to fulfill them.

Remember, the “nones” are more focused on the practical applications of their religious beliefs. They don’t want to be confined as Christians by simply attending church services. 

Final Thoughts

The growing numbers of religious nones might decline soon—or maybe not—but church leaders can’t just sit and wait to see what happens next. 

It is important to pin down why people are leaving organized religion and how you can reverse that in your congregation. It is also an invitation to assess your church leadership. 

Are you welcoming people in? Or are you turning them away with your method of leadership? 

If you’re a church leader and you want to bring people back into the church, it might be time to turn to a digital marketing agency that can help your church revive itself. Marketing your church can address the issues you are currently struggling with and transform your congregation into a community that gives members a platform to feel understood, supported, and healed. 
Learn more about our church marketing services and get started by requesting a free marketing audit!


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