The Returning Backslider


I left the church — and now long for a ‘church for the nones’

By Perry Bacon Jr.

August 21, 2023 at 5:45 a.m. EDT

I ’m currently a “none” or, more precisely, a “nothing in particular.” But I want to be a something.

“None” is the term social scientists use to describe Americans who say they don’t belong to or practice a particular religious faith. This bloc has grown from about 5 percent of Americans in the early 1990s to nearly 30 percent today. Most nones aren’t atheists but what researchers call “nothing in particulars,” people who aren’t quite sure what they believe.

The majority of nones once identified themselves as Christians. About 40 percent of adults between 18 and 29 are nones, and so are plenty of people over 65 (about 20 percent). About one-third of those who voted for Joe Biden in 2020 are religiously unaffiliated, as are about 15 percent of people who backed Donald Trump. Nearly 40 percent of Asian Americans and more than 25 percent of White, Black and Latino Americans are nones. People without and with four-year college degrees are about equally likely to be nones. This group includes Americans from all regions of the country, including more than one-fifth in the “Bible Belt” South.

In their new book, “The Great Dechurching,” Jim Davis, Michael Graham and Ryan Burge estimate that about 40 million Americans used to attend church but don’t now.

I could not have imagined when I was a kid or even a decade ago that I would be in this group.

During my childhood in Louisville, my father was one of the assistant pastors at a small Charismatic church that my uncle still runs. Our family was at church every Sunday. Members often stopped by our house during the week to get advice from my father. His way of teaching me to drive was sitting in the passenger seat as we went to the midweek Bible studies he led.

Before I left for college, the congregation passed around a collection plate where they gave me several hundred dollars to congratulate and support me in my new adventure.

Once on campus, I attended church more than my peers, while enjoying the freedom of not being in services every Sunday. But in my 20s and into my 30s, I developed a religious life that wasn’t based on my father’s. I was a member of a few nondenominational churches. (These were much smaller but similar in style to the churches run by prominent pastors such as Joel Osteen and Rick Warren.) I was at times quite involved: acting as a chaperone when the church youth group went on a trip; hosting a church-based small group at my house; even giving a sermon once.

I was never totally confident that there is one God who created the Earth or that Jesus Christ was resurrected after he was killed. But belonging to a congregation seemed essential. I thought religion, not just Christianity but also other faiths such as Judaism and Islam, pushed people toward better values. Most of the people I admired — from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to my parents — were religious. And I figured I might as well stick with Christianity, the creed I was raised in.

The churches I attended avoided politics, but I wasn’t out of step with them ideologically. Women served as pastors; there wasn’t any overt opposition to, say, gay rights or abortion. I suspect they were full of people who voted for Democrats. My childhood church in Louisville is overwhelmingly Black; the churches I attended as an adult are in the heavily left-leaning D.C. area and had a lot of attendees who worked in government and nonprofit jobs.

The weekend after Trump was elected in 2016, I remember one of the pastors declaring in his sermon that our church would remain a place that welcomed refugees and other immigrants. Everyone clapped.

But in the years after Trump entered office, left-leaning Gen X and older millennial Americans in particular abandoned church in droves, according to Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University and an expert on the nones. And I eventually became part of that group.

I didn’t leave church for any one reason. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, I was reading more leftist Black intellectuals. Many of them either weren’t religious or were outright skeptical of faith. They didn’t view Black churches as essential to advancing Black causes today, even though King and many other major figures in the 1960s civil rights movement had been very devout. I started to notice there were plenty of people — Black and non-Black — who were deeply committed to equality and justice but were not religious.

At the same time, my Republican friends, many of whom had been very critical of Trump during his campaign, gradually became more accepting and even enthusiastic about him. While my policy views had always been to the left of these friends’, our shared Christianity had convinced me that we largely agreed on broader questions of morality and values. Their embrace of a man so obviously misaligned with the teachings of Jesus was unsettling. I began to realize that being a Democrat or a Republican, not being a Christian, was what drove the beliefs and attitudes of many Christians, perhaps including me.

And I couldn’t ignore how the word “Christian” was becoming a synonym for rabidly pro-Trump White people who argued that his and their meanness and intolerance were somehow justified and in some ways required to defend our faith.

I also came to a more nuanced understanding of my own life story. I had adopted the view from my parents and relatives that my rise from a middle-income household in which neither parent had a bachelor’s degree to Yale University and prestigious journalism jobs could have happened only with divine intervention. Perhaps that’s true. But an alternative explanation for my success was that I was the child of supportive, middle-class parents; they got me into some of the best schools in Louisville; and I did well in grade school, college and my jobs afterward.

Finally, something happened at church itself. One of the men who had been in the church group I hosted had sought to lead one himself. But a church higher-up told him he could participate in church activities but not lead anything because he is gay. I had not realized the church had such a policy. I learned that my church would also generally not conduct weddings for same-sex couples.

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So between early 2017 and early 2020, I went from someone who clearly defined himself as a Christian and attended the same church most Sundays to someone who wasn’t sure about Christianity but was still kind of shopping for a new religious home and going to a service every few weeks. I wasn’t fully comfortable with the idea of vetting churches by their views on policy issues. I had never really done that before. (Perhaps I should have.)

“Your experience is very typical. Most people who disaffiliate do not cite a single precipitating factor. It’s more of a fading away from religion rather than a dramatic break,” said Daniel Cox, director of the Survey Center on American Life.

On this front, the pandemic was kind of a relief. Churches were mostly closed. I couldn’t continue my halfhearted search for a new one. I watched an Easter service online in April 2020, during the early stages of the pandemic. But over the past two years, I’ve been to church only a handful of times — even skipping Easter services.

What has kept me away is having a child. If I were childless, I think I would join a church to be a part of its community, and I would ignore the theological elements I’m not sure about. But my 3-year-old is getting more inquisitive every day. I don’t want to take her to a place that has a specific view of the world as well as answers to the big questions and then have to explain to Charlotte that some people agree with all of the church’s ideas, Dad agrees with only some and many other people don’t agree with any.

I know I’m missing out on a lot, and I worry about denying Charlotte the church experience. Most sermons, theology aside, emphasize universal values such as kindness and generosity. I try to be a nice person, but weekly reminders and being part of a group that’s also trying to act in a compassionate manner are helpful. The churches I belonged to as an adult didn’t have a ton of Republicans, people in blue-collar jobs or people without college degrees, but there were some. So I met people who aren’t like me. People under 30 aren’t really in churches, but being a member of a church would be a great way for me to connect with more people over 50. (I’m 42.) I love live music and people singing collectively.

I know I could be a member of a congregation if I really wanted to. I could attend a Christian church on Sundays and teach my daughter about other beliefs the rest of the week. Or make churchgoing something I do alone.

People have told me to become a Unitarian Universalist. Unitarian churches I have attended had overwhelmingly White and elderly congregations and lacked the wide range of activities for adults and kids found at the Christian congregations that I was a part of. But they have a set of core beliefs that are aligned with more left-leaning people (“justice, equity and compassion in human relations,” for example) without a firm theology.

I’ve also thought about starting some kind of weekly Sunday-morning gathering of nones, to follow in my father’s footsteps in a certain way, or trying to persuade my friends to collectively attend one of the Unitarian churches in town and make it younger and more racially diverse.

But I’ve not followed through on any of these options. With all my reservations, I don’t really want to join an existing church. And I don’t think I am going to have much luck getting my fellow nones to join something I start. My sense is that the people who want what church provides are going to the existing Christian churches, even if they are skeptical of some of the beliefs. And those who aren’t at church are fine spending their Sunday mornings eating brunch, doing yoga or watching Netflix.

An organization called Sunday Assembly, founded in Britain in 2013, has tried to launch nonreligious congregations around the world, including in the United States, but has struggled to gain much traction.

America today is a nation of believers (about 70 percent say they have some religious faith) who don’t regularly attend religious services (only 30 percent go to services at least once a month). I’m the reverse: a person without clear beliefs about God who wants to go to something like church frequently anyway.

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The Saturday farmers market in my neighborhood and a weekly happy hour of Louisville-area journalists provide some of what church once did for me: consistent gatherings of people with some shared values and interests. I’ve made new friends through both. And there are plenty of other groups and clubs I could join.

But none of those gatherings provide singing, sermons and solidarity all at once.

My upbringing makes me particularly inclined to see a church-size hole in American life. But as a middle-aged American in the middle of the country, I don’t think that hole is just in my imagination. Kids need places to learn values such as forgiveness, while schools focus on math and reading. Young adults need places to meet a potential spouse. Adults with children need places to meet with other parents and some free babysitting on weekends. Retirees need places to build new relationships, as their friends and spouses pass away.

Our society needs places that integrate people across class and racial lines. Newly woke Americans need places to get practical, weekly advice about how to live out the inclusive, anti-racist values they committed to during the Trump years. The anti-Trump majority in the United States needs institutions that are separate from the official Democratic Party, which is unsurprisingly more focused on winning elections than on creating a sense of community for left-leaning people.

There are lots of organizations trying to address those needs. But strong churches could address them all. That isn’t some fantasy or nostalgia. Many Americans, including me, were once part of churches that were essential parts of our lives. It’s strange to me that America, particularly its left-leaning cohort, is abandoning this institution, as opposed to reinventing to align with our 2023 values.

I can easily imagine a “church for the nones.” (It would need a more appealing name.) Start the service with songs with positive messages. Have children do a reading to the entire congregation and then go to a separate kids’ service. Reserve time when church members can tell the congregation about their highs and lows from the previous week. Listen as the pastor gives a sermon on tolerance or some other universal value, while briefly touching on whatever issues are in the news that week. A few more songs. The end. An occasional post-church brunch.

During the week, there would be activities, particularly ones in which parents could take their kids and civic-minded members could volunteer for good causes in the community.

I don’t expect the church of the nones to emerge. It’s not clear who would start it, fund it or decide its beliefs. But it should.

And personally, I really, really want it to. Theologically, I’m comfortable being a none. But socially, I feel a bit lost.

I really hope in a few years that Charlotte and I are something in particular.

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The following is from John Bunyan's "The Intercession of Christ,"
also known as "Christ a Complete Saviour."

A returning backslider is a great blessing (I mean intended to be so) to two sorts of men. 1. To the elect uncalled. 2. To the elect that are called, and that at present stand their ground. The uncalled are made to hear him and consider; the called are made to hear him, and are afraid of falling. Behold therefore the mystery of God's wisdom, and how willing he is that spectators should be warned and made take heed. Yea, he will permit that some of his own shall fall into the fire, to convince the world that hell is hot, and to warn their brethren to take heed that they slip not with their feet. I have often said in my heart, that this was the cause why God suffered so many of the believing Jews to fall, namely, that the Gentiles might take heed. 'O brethren,' saith the backslider that is returned, 'did you see how I left my God? did you see how I turned again to those vanities from which some time before I fled? Oh! I was deluded; I was bewitched; I was deceived: for I found all things from which I fled at first, still worse by far when I went to them the second time. Do not backslide. Oh! do not backslide. The first ground of your departing from them was good; never tempt God a second time.'

And as he gives us a second testimony, that the world and himself are so as at first he believed they were; so by this his returning, he testifies that God and Christ are the same, and much more than ever he believed at first they were. This man has made a proof before, and a proof after conviction, of the evil of the one and good of the other. This man has made a proof by feeling and seeing, and that before and after grace received. This man God has set up to be a witness. This man is two men; has the testimony of two men; must serve in the place of two men. He knows what it is to be fetched from a state of nature by grace; but this all Christians know as well as he. Ay, but he knows what it is to be fetched from the world, from the devil, and hell, the second time; and that but few professors know: for few that fall away return to God again. Ay, but this man is come again, wherefore there is news in his mouth; sad news, dreadful news, and news that is to make the standing saint to take heed lest he fall.

The returning backslider therefore is a rare man, a man of worth and intelligence, a man to whom the men of the world should flock, and of whom they should learn to fear the Lord God. He also is a man of whom the saints should receive both caution, counsel, and strength in their present standing; and that should, by his harms, learn to serve the Lord with fear, and to rejoice with trembling.

This man has the second time also had a proof of God's goodness in his Christ unto him -- a proof which the standing Christian has not. I would not tempt him that stands to fall; but the good that a returning backslider has received at God's hands, and at the hand of Christ, is a double good; he has been converted twice; fetched from the world and from the devil, and from himself twice (oh grace!), and has been made to know the stability of God's covenant, the unchangeableness of God's mind, the sure and lasting truth of his promise in Christ, and of the sufficiency of the merits of Christ, over and over.

Of the manner of this man's coming to God by Christ, I shall also speak a word or two.

He comes as the newly awakened sinner comes, and that from the same motives and the knowledge of things. But he hath over and above (which he had as good have been without) that which the newly awakened sinner has not, namely, the guilt of his backsliding, which is a guilt of worse complexion, of a deeper dye, and of a heavier nature than is any guilt else in the world. He is also attended with fears and doubts that arise from other reasons and considerations, than do the doubts and fears of the newly awakened man; doubts built upon the vileness of his backsliding. He has also more dreadful scriptures to consider, and they will look more wishfully in his face (yea, and will also make him take notice of their grim physiognomy) than has the newly awakened man. Besides, as a punishment of his backsliding, God sometimes seems to withhold the sweet influences of his Spirit, and is as if he would now take all away from him, and leave him to those lusts and idols that he left his God to follow. Swarms of his new rogueries shall haunt him in every place, and that not only in the guilt, but in the filth and pollution of them.

None knows the things that haunt the backslider's mind; his new sins are all turned talking devils, threatening devils, roaring devils, within him. Besides, he doubts of the truth of his first conversion; consequently he has it lying upon him, as a strong suspicion, that there was nothing of truth in all his first experience; and this also adds lead to his heels, and makes him come, as to sense and feeling, more heavy, and with the greater difficulty, to God by Christ. As the faithfulness of other men kills him, he cannot see an honest, humble, holy, faithful servant of God, but he is pierced and wounded at the heart. 'Ay,' says he, within himself, 'That man fears God; that man hath faithfully followed God; that man, like the elect angels, has kept his place; but I am fallen from my station like a devil. That man honoreth God, edifieth the saints, convinceth the world, and condemneth them, and is become heir of righteousness which is by faith. But I have dishonored God, stumbled and grieved saints, made the world to blaspheme, and, for aught I know, been the cause of the damnation of many.'

These are the things, I say, together with many more of the same kind, that come with him, yea, they will come with him, yea, and will stare him in the face, will tell him of his baseness, and laugh him to scorn, all the way that he is coming to God by Christ (I know what I say); and this makes his coming to God by Christ hard and difficult to him. Besides, he thinks saints will be aware of him, will be shy of him, will be afraid to trust him, yea, will tell his Father of him, and make intercession against him, as Elias did against Israel, or as the men did that were fellow servants with him that took his brother by the throat.

Shame covereth his face all the way he comes. He doth not know what to do; the God he is returning to, is the God that he has slighted -- the God before whom he has preferred the vilest lust; and he knows God knows it, and has before him his ways. The man that has been a backslider, and is returning to God, can tell strange stories, and yet such as are very true. No man was in the whale's belly, and came out again alive, but backsliding and returning Jonah; consequently no man could tell how he was there, what he felt there, what he saw there, and what workings of heart he had when he was there, so well is he...

From the conclusion in this book:

The priestly office of Christ is the first and great thing that is presented to us in the gospel; namely, how that he died for our sins, and gave himself to the cross, that the blessing of Abraham might come upon us through him. But now because this priestly office of his is divided into two parts; and because one of them, namely, this of his intercession, is accomplished for us within the veil; therefore (as we say among men, "Out of sight, out of mind") he is too much as to this forgotten by us. We satisfy ourselves with the slaying of the sacrifice; we look not enough after our Aaron as he goes into the holiest, there to sprinkle the mercy-seat with blood upon our account.

God forbid that the least syllable of what I say should be intended by me, or construed by others, as if I sought to diminish the price paid by Christ for our redemption in this world. But since his dying is his laying down his price, and his intercession the urging and managing the worthiness of it in the presence of God against Satan, there is glory to be found therein, and we should look after him into the holy place.

The second part of the work of the high priest under the law had great glory and sanctity put upon it, forasmuch as the holy garments were provided for him to officiate within the veil; also it was there that the altar stood on which he offered incense. There was the mercy-seat. And there also were the cherubims of glory, which were figures of the angels, that love to be continually looking and prying into the management of this second part of the priesthood of Christ in the presence of God. For although themselves are not the persons so immediately concerned therein as we, yet the management of it, I say, is with so much grace, and glory, and wisdom, and effectualness, that it is a heaven to the angels to see it. Oh! to enjoy the odorous scent, and sweet memorial, and heart-refreshing perfumes that ascend continually from the mercy-seat to the place where God is, and also to behold how effectual it is to the end for which it is designed, is glorious; and he that is not somewhat led into this by the grace of God, there is a great thing lacking to his faith, and he misseth of many a sweet bit that he might otherwise enjoy.

Wherefore, I say, be exhorted to the study of this part of Christ's work in the managing of our salvation for us. And the ceremonies of the law may be a great help to you as to this; for though they be out of use now as to practice, yet the signification of them is rich, and that from which many believers of the gospel have got much. Wherefore I advise you that you read the five books of Moses often; yea read, and read again, and do not despair of help to understand something of the will and mind of God therein, though you think they are fast locked up from you. Neither trouble your heads though you have not commentaries and expositions; pray and read, and pray and read; for a little from God is better than a great deal from men; also what is from men is uncertain, and is often lost and tumbled over and over by men, but what is from God is fixed as a nail in a sure place.

I know there are times of temptation; but I speak now as to the common course of Christianity. There is nothing that so abides with us, as what we receive from God; and the reasons why Christians at this day are at such a loss, as to some things, is because they are content with what comes from men's mouths, without searching and kneeling before God, to know of him the truth of things. Things that we receive at God's hand, come to us as things from the minting house; though old in themselves, yet new to us, if they come to us with the smell of heaven upon them.

There belongs to every true notion of truth a power. The notion is the shell; the power, the kernel and life. Without this last, truth doth me no good, nor those to whom I communicate it. Hence Paul said to the Corinthians, "When I come to you again, I will not know the speech of them that are puffed up, but the power. For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power." Search then, after the power of what thou knowest; for it is the power that will do thee good. Now, this will not be got but by earnest prayer, and much attending upon God. Also thy heart must not be stuffed with cumbering cares of this world; for they are of a choking nature.

Take heed, moreover, of slighting that little that thou hast. A good improvement of a little is the way to make that little thrive; and the way to obtain additions thereto.

Improve them to others by laboring to instill them into their hearts by good and wholesome words, presenting all to them with the authority of the scriptures.

Lastly, Let this doctrine give thee boldness to come to God. Shall Jesus Christ be interceding in heaven? O then be thou a praying man on earth; yea, take courage to pray. Think thus with thyself, "I go to God -- to God before whose throne the Lord Jesus is ready to hand my petitions to him; yea, he ever lives to make intercession for me." For as the Father raiseth up the dead, and quickeneth them; even so the Son quickeneth whom he will. (John 5:21)

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