The rapid growth in the percentage of Americans claiming no religious affiliation is drastically reshaping the country’s religious and cultural landscape. We speak with Dr. Ryan Burge, a leading expert on the “Nones,” about the characteristics of the growing cohort of Americans who say their religion is “nothing in particular.”
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The rapid growth in the percentage of Americans claiming no religious affiliation is drastically reshaping the country’s religious and cultural landscape. In this episode we speak with Dr. Ryan Burge, a leading expert on the “Nones,” about the characteristics of the growing cohort of Americans who say their religion is “nothing in particular.”
Ann Michel: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks Podcast. My name is Ann Michel. I’m a senior consultant with the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. I’m also one of the editors of Leading Ideas e-newsletter and I’m pleased to serve as the host for this episode. We are delighted to have as our guest today Dr. Ryan Burge, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Eastern Illinois University. He is an academically trained researcher who also happens to be a pastor of an American Baptist church, and as such he has a special interest in using data to understand trends in American religious and political life.
His work made headlines back in 2018 when he was among the first to observe that the number of people in America who claim no religious affiliation, a group of people sometimes referred to as “The Nones,” was actually surpassing the size of the nation’s two largest religious groups — Roman Catholics and evangelicals — and would in all likelihood soon become the largest “religion” in America. In 2021, he released what I consider a groundbreaking book entitled The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going, and this spring the second edition of The Nones has come to press. It’s a tremendous honor to get to talk with you today, Dr. Burge. Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks.
Ryan Burge: I so much appreciate the opportunity.
Ann Michel: Your books are crammed full of data and charts and analysis and lots of detail, but today I’d like to focus on some of the major conclusions and takeaways for our audience, which is mostly pastors and other church leaders. So, to begin the conversation, I wondered if you could, in just a few sentences, define the term “Nones” and describe how this segment of our population has changed in recent years.
Ryan Burge: For me, the Nones are actually three subgroups: atheists, agnostics, and then a group called “nothing in particular.” I hope the biggest takeaway from the book is the importance of the nothing-in-particular as a type of None. So, if we put five Nones in a room, one will be an atheist, one will be agnostic, and three would be nothing in particular. So, most Nones are not atheist or agnostic. They’re nothing in particular.
This group of Americans was about five percent of the adult population in the early 1970s. They stayed about that level until the early 1990s. They got to about seven percent by 1991. And then from that point forth, we’ve seen an exponential rise in the share of Americans who have no religion. I call it a hockey stick. If you look at a graph, the trend looks like a hockey stick. It was flat from the ‘70s to the early ‘90s. From that point forward, it just goes up and up and up. And today, depending on what survey you look at, about 30 percent of adult Americans say so they have no religious affiliation. Among the youngest adults, Generation Z, it’s probably over 40 percent who have no religious affiliation. I think it’s the largest shift in American culture, at least in my lifetime, in the last 40 years. And I think we are not fully grasping all the implications and complications that come in American life because of that.
Ann Michel. So, the next obvious question is why, and that’s really what you examine in your book. You look at a whole wide range of factors that have possibly played a role: secularization, the rise of the internet, social isolation, changing family structures. But the one thing that really jumped off the page for me was your statement, “the best and clearest explanation of the rapid rate of religious disaffiliation can be traced back to the recent political history of the United States.” Basically, you believe that there has been an exodus of liberals from the church with the rise of the Religious Right. So, I wondered if you could explain that hypothesis, and why you think that’s been a significant part of this.
Ryan Burge: This is something that sociologists have looked at now for about 20 years or so, so I’m not the first one to say, “It’s all politics.” There’s a great piece that came out in 2002 that made this claim. And that was when the Nones were a lot smaller than they are today — only about 10 percent versus 30 percent today. But if you look back at American religious history, especially white religious history, we’ve got to be clear that among nonwhite people this looks a lot different. But among white Americans for a long time there was space for both conservatives and for liberals. If you walked into, let’s say, an evangelical church in 1985, you’d be just as likely to sit next to someone who voted for a Democrat as someone who voted for a Republican. And the same was true in a mainline church. So, if you were in a Methodist Church, an Episcopal Church, or even a Catholic church, the pews were very divided. In the 1980s, there were Democrats and Republicans.
Since then, what we’ve seen really is sort of a homogenization process where white religion has become overwhelmingly Republican and now there is not a lot of space — there is no large, liberal denomination in America that even comes close to matching the size and the scope and the power of, let’s say, the Southern Baptist Convention. That convention has 15 or 16 million people; 75 percent of them voted for Donald Trump in 2020. The counterbalance is the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church has about two-and-a-half million members, but only about 500,000 go to church every Sunday and about two-thirds of them voted for Joe Biden in 2020. So, even in terms of scope and scale, there is no large liberal white tradition, Protestant or Catholic. Even Catholics are becoming more conservative over time. And I think what’s happened is a lot of moderate and even liberal white Protestants and Catholics thought, you know, I don’t want to be in an environment where we talk about things like “traditional family values” all the time. I want to be in a situation where I could hear things that I want to hear. They don’t have those options anymore. And so, a lot of people just said, “You know what? I’ll just stay home on Sunday because it’s easier to stay in my bed than go hear something I don’t want to hear.”
Ann Michel: As somebody who goes to a progressive church, one thing that surprises me is that my own children, who are in their thirties, think of “church” as conservative even though that’s not the church that they grew up in. But that’s what they hear on the news and the way they hear church talked about in American cultural life. Somehow, they have conflated “church” with “conservative,” even though that’s not true in every church.
Ryan Burge: There are pockets of liberalism. But I will say those pockets are almost always confined to urban and suburban areas, not in rural America. In my county, Jefferson County, Illinois, which is about 40,000 people in rural downstate Illinois, there are a total of four mainline churches in my entire county. My American Baptist Church has 10 people on a good Sunday. The Episcopal Church doesn’t even meet anymore because they can’t find a priest. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and the PCUSA actually had to join together in the same building because they couldn’t afford separate buildings anymore. I think combined they have 50 or 75 people in both services on a Sunday morning. And then there’s the United Methodist Church. They have a couple hundred people. They are the prominent, wealthy congregation downtown. But they have a looming vote coming over same-sex marriage and whether they are going to stay in the denomination or go, and there’s a good chance that congregation is going to be significantly smaller in 10 years than it is today.
There might be a scenario in 10 years in my county where there might be one functioning mainline church in a county of 40,000 people, when there are probably a hundred, if not more, non-denominational, evangelical, or Southern Baptist, Pentecostal, or charismatic churches. In rural America, we’ve seen the decimation of moderate or liberal religious organizations; for a lot of people who are of those persuasions, who don’t mind Jesus and don’t think it’s bad, they have no place to go and, for them, None might actually be the best place to be because, honestly, it requires less work than being part of a congregation and having to put up with all that.
Ann Michel: I think a lot of us have in our mind’s eye a kind of a stereotypical idea of what a None looks like. We think of a millennial hipster. Young. White. Reasonably well-educated. More likely a guy than a girl. But another major takeaway of your book for me was that as the Nones have grown to be a much larger demographic segment, they have also become more diverse and reflective of the racial and gender diversity of our country. Could you speak to that a bit?
Ryan Burge: What you described, I think, is the textbook atheist – an upper-educated, upper-class white guy living in an urban or suburban area. That’s a textbook atheist. Atheists are 60 percent men and 40 percent women. They are actually the most gender imbalanced religious group in America today. But again, atheists are only about six percent of the American population. They’re relatively small compared to the “nothing in particulars”. And agnostics … I call them “diet atheists” because they’re just slightly less — slightly less income, slightly less education, slightly less liberal on an ideology scale, like 10 percent less of everything. But “nothing in particulars” are a huge part of the Nones. So, like 22 percent of Americans are nothing-in-particular. And among college-age people, 18 to 22, they’re actually the plurality. Thirty-three percent of young people say they’re nothing in particular, more than say they’re Protestant or Catholic. Nothing-in-particular is becoming the default category for American religion.
These folks are not doing well. From an SES (socioeconomic status) standpoint, they’re not getting ahead. They are the least educated religious group in America today. About half of atheists have a 4-year college degree. Only 25 percent of “nothing in particulars” have a college degree. Sixty percent of “nothing in particulars” make less than $50,000 a year as a household. A third of “nothing in particulars” don’t have a college degree, have a high school diploma or less, and make $50,000 a year or less. So, like a third of this group is just struggling. Among atheists it’s less than 15 percent. So, from a societal standpoint, “nothing in particulars” are the group I talk about to reporters all the time, trying to get them to write more about this group. Because I think they’re really important for the future of American democracy and religion. The problem is, “How do I find one?” And that’s the problem. Like they’re everywhere but they’re nowhere at the same time.
From a social science standpoint, I don’t worry about atheists. They’re doing fine educationally, economically, societally, culturally. And they’re actually doing a lot of political advocacy. “Nothing in particulars” do none of that. Educationally, they’re falling behind. Income-wise, they’re falling behind. They don’t put up political yard signs. They don’t go to political meetings. They feel left out, left behind, lost, unmoored, and disconnected from the larger society. I think that is a lot more problematic from a small-d democratic standpoint because they feel like society doesn’t work for them, and that leads to a lot of bad outcomes.
Ann Michel: But it’s also important from an evangelism and outreach perspective for churches because your point that this segment of the population is struggling economically and is also very isolated socially makes them, in your words, “the biggest potential mission field” for the American church. They are people with certain needs that the church could help with, so it’s kind of a good news/bad news thing. But I do appreciate the clarity that you’ve brought to understanding this.
Another thing that was so interesting to me in your analysis is you’ve identified that atheists and agnostics are a pretty small segment of the religiously disaffiliated. They are people who have a somewhat well-thought-out religious worldview. But these nothing-in-particular people don’t. One of the facts in your book that just blew me away was that 15 percent of these folks who say their religion is nothing in particular actually attend religious services at least once a month. I mean, that’s a higher rate of attendance than half the people in my church. So, what’s that about?
Ryan Burge: There’s a great book called Secular Surge by Campbell, Layman, and Green. It’s an academic book, but they make this really interesting point. There’s a huge difference between being secular and being nonreligious, right? Secular people have thrown off the religious worldview, right? They don’t think spiritual things are the answer to questions and they don’t look for guidance from above. They look to science and reason and logic. They’ve gotten rid of religion and replaced it with something else. Non-religious people have gotten rid of that religious thought but have not replaced it with something else. They are defined by what they are not rather than by what they are, and I think these “nothing in particulars” are a group who are defined by what they’ve gotten rid of. But they’re not antagonistic toward religion. They’re antagonistic towards a lot of institutions in American society and religion just happens to be an institution like banks or big business or politics or whatever. They’re distrustful because of that, but they don’t have a specific beef against religion.
That’s why they are still somewhat open to the idea of religious practice. Like a third of them say religion is at least somewhat important in their lives, so they still see some value in it. Yet they’re not willing to be labeled by saying they are Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Buddhist, or whatever. So, I think the most hopeful thing in the data is … I look at these panel surveys, where they ask the same people the same questions over a long period of time — five, six, seven, eight years. I have one that goes from 2011 to 2020, so you can see how people move around over like nearly a decade and during the Trump years, too. And what you find is about 15 percent of those who say they’re nothing in particular at the beginning in 2011 became Christian by 2020. So, there’s movement. If you think about that 15 percent of 22 percent of the population, you’re talking about like three percent of Americans over that period of time went from being nothing to being something.
I wrote a piece for the Gospel Coalition: Should We Bother Debating Atheists? Do you know what percentage of atheists went from being an atheist to being a Christian during that same time period? Less than one percent. And you’re talking one percent of six percent of the population, versus 15 percent of 22 percent of the population. There is the potential to be 30 times more successful looking for the “nothing in particulars” versus the atheists. Because atheists aren’t moving. They’ve adopted a different worldview. Right? And “nothing in particulars” have not done that.
Ann Michel: That’s really helpful to make that distinction because I think it’s so easy for people to imagine that everyone who’s religiously disaffiliated is an atheist, and that isn’t the case. You know, so many of the other things I’ve read about the Nones use the term “spiritual but not religious.” You don’t use that terminology in your book. So, I wondered if you wanted to say anything about that.
Ryan Burge: I don’t know if I find that an incredibly helpful distinction to make. Because I think at almost every level the data say that Americans are deeply spiritual. You know, if you look at even a basic question like “What is your belief about God?” I think people would be shocked to know that over 90 percent of Americans still say they believe in God at some level. So, we are overwhelmingly at least an aspirationally religious or spiritual people. I think what this is really about is institutions and institutional trust. It’s the idea of “I like Jesus and I like God. I just don’t like the church because it’s an institution.” And that’s what people are rebelling against, I think, more than anything else.
I think the biggest crisis that we’re facing in America today is a crisis of trust, and that’s trust of institutions. But it’s also interpersonal trust like, “Do you think another human being can be trusted or not?” That is what religion used to be really, really good at — showing people that institutions may be bad or corrupt in some ways but, overall, they do good things because they’re made of people. And it also teaches us that people who are different than us are not bad. Churches used to be a place of diversity — political diversity, economic diversity, educational diversity — and now they’ve homogenized. And I think that creates these silos, these enclaves, where now you look at other people and say, “You’re wrong. We’re right. We’ve got it all figured out over here.” That’s really bad from a democracy standpoint because democracy works because we tolerate people who are different than us, and we have less tolerance now and less trust now, and I think we’re much more suspicious.
Cynicism is bad. I think we need to be very clear about that. I think we live in an age of cynicism, and I think we need to fight back as Christians, especially. We need to be hopeful people and inject hope into what we talk about — about the future, about each other, about institutions, about society. Unfortunately, we seem to make it worse in some ways because we don’t fight back against cynicism. I think religion used to be the ultimate cynicism fighter. And now that fewer people are going to church, they’re not hearing those messages of hope. And I think they’re reverting back to kind of our worst impulses which are: we don’t trust anyone; we don’t trust any institution; just fight for yourself and mind your own business. That’s not how we’re designed to work in a democracy.
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Ann Michel: Yeah. The loss of the social capital of the church is pretty significant in a lot of ways. If I can move on to another subject, the second edition of your book covers the pandemic years, and you ask the question, “What effect did the pandemic have on these trends?” I think many of us in churches that have seen a significant decrease in attendance since the pandemic probably imagine that the pandemic really accelerated the trend toward religious disaffiliation in a significant way. But, at the end of the day, you conclude that the pandemic wasn’t really that big of a factor. What you’re seeing is just a continuation of the same underlying trend lines.
Ryan Burge. That’s the question I wrote that chapter specifically to answer because so many people were asking me that during interviews over the last 18 months. There are two competing theories that really go in opposite directions. One is the pandemic made us more introspective. It gave us time to pause and think about our lives and our spirituality and then we kind of woke up, and some people said, “Well, I need to get back in church because I need that. I need to have purpose and meaning in my life.” The other school of thought was that people got out of the habit of going to church and then they never got back into the habit of going to church when churches reopened.
If you look at the data, you really see neither theory has that much confirmation. But when I tell people that, a lot of pastors say, “Well, what you’re telling me is disconnected from what I’m seeing on the ground every Sunday. I mean, the pews are emptier.” I think part of that, though, is the fact that, when people answer survey questions, they answer them aspirationally. Like when I ask the question, “How often do you attend church?” No one does the tally marks system, like, “Well, let me see. Last year I went 47 times. That’s weekly.” They don’t do that. What they do instead is say “I’m the type of person, given ideal circumstances (meaning no COVID), who would go every Sunday,” or “I would never go.”
I tell this story in the book. Let’s say there’s an older woman. She’s a weekly-attending Methodist. She’s been going weekly for her entire life. She gets cancer, and she can’t go to church because she’s doing chemotherapy and she can’t be around a bunch of people. So, she misses six months. Then we ask her a survey question: “How often do you go to church?” She says, “Every week.” Is she a liar? No, she’s not a liar. She’s the kind of person who would go every week if she could.
So, I think what we saw during the pandemic is, people still answer those questions in the aspirational way, like “If no COVID existed, I would still be there once a month” or “I would still be there once a week.” And that’s why we’re seeing the disconnect between what people are seeing in the pews every Sunday and what people are answering on surveys.
It’s also hard to know what the decline looks like because we’ve been declining in attendance for 30 years now. If the attendance declined three percent between 2019 and 2022, is that three percent because of COVID? Or is it just a natural decline that was going on in America for the last 30 years continuing through COVID? These are not easy questions to answer, and we might never really truly know the answer to these questions, even in five or 10 years.
Ann Michel: All of this really begs the question, for those of us who are church leaders, what can we do? I really appreciate that in the second edition of your book you really speak to this. Wearing your hat as a pastor, you make some suggestions that I thought were really helpful, so I just wanted to name a couple of them and give you the opportunity to speak to them. One suggestion you make is that churches really need to listen to the stories of those who have moved on from the church and establish relationships and get to know people and really hear the honest truth of what’s going on in their lives. Can you speak to that or maybe to what that has looked like in your ministry?
Ryan Burge: Part of being a social scientist is we have to oversimplify the world. There’s just no way we can explain the world without oversimplifying the world. And it’s unfortunate, you know. I remember when I was in grad school, we had a conversation about a book called Suicide by Emile Durkheim trying to figure out why people took their own lives. He would go around to all these different morgues in Paris and collect the death records of people who committed suicide, and they actually contain a lot of information on age, race, gender, but also religion. What he found was that Protestants committed suicide at a higher rate than Catholics. And he said, “It’s because Protestantism is an individualized religion and Catholicism is more communal.” And I remember we were talking about that in class, and someone goes, “Wait a minute! Isn’t this kind of reductive? Doesn’t every human life matter? We’re kind of being overly reductive by talking about this in broad strokes.” And our professor says, “I’m less interested in why Bob killed himself than why people like Bob killed themselves.” And that’s the way that we have to think about this from a sociological perspective. Bob matters, yes. Bob matters as a human being. As a pastor, Bob matters. But we also need to figure out what were the factors that led to people like Bob taking their own lives. When it comes to the Nones, there are a lot of Bobs out there, and they got to be Nones through all kinds of different backgrounds.
In writing this book, in doing talks and speeches, people come to me afterwards and say, “Here’s my story.” And a lot of times their story will touch on that aspect of what I talk about in the book, whether it be “I got divorced” or “I grew up in a nonreligious household” or “I’m a political liberal in a conservative community and I couldn’t stomach that anymore.” Every once in a while, they’ll tell you something just totally random, you know, like something that happened to them. But what I almost always find is there are commonalities between them and what I talk about in the book.
Then there are some differences, so we have got to be better listeners. Sometimes, it’s politics. They left because they don’t like Trump or MAGA or whatever it is. But sometimes it’s things like “I grew up in a community that does not affirm gay people.” Or “I was abused by my parents, and they said, ‘Spare the rod. Spoil the child’ to me when they were hitting me.” You’ll hear all these stories. Or “I was sexually abused by a pastor.” You can go on and on and on. “I was spiritually abused by a pastor.” So, there are commonalities oftentimes. But every individual has their own story.
There are 80 million Nones in America today. And they all got there by a different path. And I think the key is just to listen. Because you’re not going to be able to solve all their problems. If they were spiritually abused when they were 12 years old, you can’t fix that in one meeting or 10 meetings or even maybe a hundred meetings. Your job is to listen and to validate and say, “I hear what you’re saying.” Also, sometimes people will leave for dumb reasons like, “They moved the service back half an hour, and I didn’t want to do that.” Push back where you think it’s appropriate on things like that. But just listen. And be willing to just hear these stories of trauma because they do exist. Don’t try to sweep them under the rug. Don’t try to be apologetic about it and say, “Oh, but what about this? And what about your soul? And what about this?” No, just listen to them. Be a human being first and be an evangelical second. That’s what I tell people. Just be a human being. And I think you’ll you get a lot more. You’ll build a better relationship by having no ulterior motives, by just being open and listening to what they tell you.
Ann Michel: So, building relationships and social connections was one of the takeaways that I think is so important and understanding that these are all individual people with individual stories. You also had some advice having to do with political polarization and how churches might address political issues in this context.
Ryan Burge: I believe you can’t just not talk about it. I think that’s really bad because if you don’t disciple your folks on these political issues, someone else will, whether it be Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity, or Rachel Maddow or Chris Hayes on the other side. Those people are going to disciple your people if you choose not to. You know power loves a vacuum, and if you don’t speak into the political power that we have as Americans, someone else is going to. But I think you have to do it in a bipartisan/nonpartisan way, which means talking about the Bible. Sometimes the Bible is going to make Republicans feel bad, and sometimes it’s going to make Democrats feel bad.
The Biblical concept I talk about is imago Dei — that every human being is born in the image and likeness of God. And that means that God cares about the unborn, absolutely. But he also cares about the disabled. He also cares about the immigrant. He also cares about people on death row. You know, every human being is born in the image and likeness of God. And I think if we can say you should look at politics through a theological lens, you’re going to get a lot farther and you’re going to get a lot more respect from your people, too. Because it’s going to force them to think about their political ideology.
Here’s what I hate when people go on Facebook. Pastors especially love to be on Facebook. I don’t really know why they almost always give it to one party and not the other party. Stop doing that. If you’re going to be political, you need to be equally critical of both sides or avoid it entirely. Michael Jordan was asked one time, “Why are you not more political?” And he said, “Because Republicans buy sneakers, too.” You know, Republicans need Jesus and so do Democrats. If you only put it on one party, what you’re saying to the other people is “You don’t belong here. You’re not welcome here”. And I don’t think churches should be trying to cut down their addressable market by doing that. They should make it as wide and as expansive as possible. And yet pastors tend to not do that.
So, it’s a tough situation. It’s hard to talk about politics from the pulpit, but we have to. I think it’s our mandate as pastors to try to speak into the lives of our people about politics in a neutral, objective bipartisan, nonpartisan way.
Ann Michel: Thank you for saying that. Because so many of my students think the best thing, if they get any push back at all on politics, is to just clam up and never talk about it. And that’s not our calling. So, I really appreciate what you have to say about that. To draw this to a close, I don’t know if anyone has ever told you that the end of your book brought them to tears, but the end of your book literally brought me to tears. And so, I thought I might close by just quoting the last few sentences of your book, because I found them so poignant. You say “the winds of secularization and polarization are swirling like never before. Most of the seeds we sow are going to fall on rocky soil never to reap a harvest. And it seems that there are fewer and fewer people to spread that seed every year. It’s easy to give up hope, but we must recall the words of the Apostle Paul to the church in Galatia, ‘So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap the harvest. If you do not give up.’ Seed that express the love and grace and hope of Jesus Christ is never truly lost. Do not give up.”
I thought that was such a good word, because I think so many people see these trends and it’s just so discouraging. But I really appreciate the way that you brought your book to a close and reminded us how important it is for us to continue to be to be reaching out to people in our community. So, thank you for that.
Ryan Burge: I wrote those words three years ago, you know. Sometimes you look back and go, “Well, I actually had it in that moment.” A lot of times I’ll write something and go back a day later and go, “That’s awful. I am so bad at this.” And sometimes you write something and, every once in a while, I go, “Okay, I can live with that.”
Ann Michel: Yeah, I was literally weeping when I read that, because I just thought it was so poignant. I wanted to thank you. I have learned so much from reading both editions of The Nones. I’ve really studied it and just found it to be tremendously helpful. And I am grateful that you have paid as much attention to this phenomena as is due. So, I’m grateful for your body of work.
You also have a new book coming out later this year, The Great Dechurching, which you’ve written in conjunction with some pastors. I think that’ll provide a really helpful lens on this as well, so thank you for your work. Thank you for your ministry. Thank you for spending time talking with us today.
Ryan Burge: It’s been an absolute pleasure.
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- Taking Church to the Community, a Lewis Center video tool kit resource
- Understanding the Nones by Ann A. Michel
- The “Nones” and the Spirituality of Everyday Living by Keith Anderson