Oxford has a lot of churches. Some are big and old, others are young and growing. Some have large youth groups, family involvement and a staff of volunteers with more people than another church’s entire congregation. Some have a small but consistent group of college students who faithfully arrive five minutes late each and every Sunday. Some have their own official iPhone app. Some don’t even have their own building.
Yes, there is likely a church for everyone and anyone in this small college town, but that does not mean Oxford is an exception to the rising trend in the religiously unaffiliated as documented by the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project.
According to the poll research released last October, the percentage of adults in the United States who claim to be religiously unaffiliated, or “nones” (those who are atheistic, agnostic or of no particular religious belief), has risen from about 15 percent to nearly 20 percent in the last five years alone. Further, the percentage of under-30-year-olds who are “nones” is much higher, at 32 percent.
Terry Mattingly, a nationally syndicated columnist, journalism professor and former theology professor, has been writing on the subject of religion since the 1970s.
“In between (the religious and the nones) is about 60 percent of the American public, and it’s very hard to describe their beliefs, and it all depends on what kind of question you ask them,” Mattingly said. “It’s just a kind of a wishy-washy section that I like to refer to as Oprah America. It’s a world of religion where things are kind of based on your emotions and your feelings.”
Mattingly discussed a multitude of possible reasons many people would either be leaving the church or not even going in the first place, but what is most apparent is that those who are marginally or not very involved in church are most likely to stop going.
Over the years, the number of marginally involved has been adding to the number of nones. There are now more people who would rather sleep in on Sunday than spend their time pretending.
“(It’s) a significant change, but it’s actually not a change that affects who’s in the pews that much because those people were hardly in the pews anyways,” Mattingly said. “I’ve heard some conservative Christians say that in a way this is a plus, because people are at least being a bit more honest.”
What seems to be causing the most significant change — the big issue, as Mattingly put it — is the sex culture of America, or other social issues.
“What unites the nones is ‘lifestyle liberalism,’ which is not the same thing as political liberalism,” Mattingly said. “It’s a kind of moral libertarianism, a kind of ‘don’t judge me, leave me alone’ lifestyle.”
Mattingly said that these lifestyle issues, and the church’s avoidance in dealing with them, are oftentimes what will cause people to not only leave the church, but also stay away.
“I think a lot of liberal, or non-religious, Americans have this image in their mind that evangelical mega-church pastors are standing up in pulpits and are just preaching on homosexuality week after week after week, and they’re just not,” Mattingly said.
He said that many pastors don’t address these issues because they see that divorce, premarital sex and cohabitation are just as likely to take place in a Christian’s life as in anyone else’s life.
“And so to some degree, the pastors are scared of their own people when it comes to talking about these issues,” Mattingly said.
This avoidance of certain issues is one of the biggest reasons youth leave the church when they go off to college or into the “real world,” according to the viral blog post “Top 10 Reasons Our Kids Leave Church.”
“If young people are going to leave the church, they might as well leave because they’ve rejected what their churches actually teach,” Mattingly said. “They should at least have a chance to accept it or reject it. Which means an articulate presentation of what churches believe is crucial.”
So how are the churches in Oxford acting or reacting to this rising number of nones? As previously mentioned there are a variety of churches, but there is still a large number of students and town residents who don’t attend religious services Sunday mornings or nights.
Brent Colee has been the youth pastor at North Oxford Baptist Church for over a year now, and he talked about how conversations about keeping kids in a church and encouraging them to grow in their faith have been going on for a long time.
“We live in a culture, or town, where they are pushed to grow up fast and pushed to enjoy the college scene,” Colee said. “Being a young teenager in the Grove, it’s accepted to kind of do what the college kids are doing. I had a conversation last year with a parent whose daughter was a freshman in high school whose friend went home to change clothes because the college guys would hit on them more if they were dressed a certain way.”
Colee said that he and the staff at North Oxford have been going through a course on apologetics with the youth group in order to teach them the basics of their faith so they can defend their beliefs. However, he feels students ranging from ages 18 to 24 have the most difficult time because oftentimes the church they attend does not provide ways for them to be involved.
“That’s one of the reasons that students walk away — there’s nothing for them during that crucial, pivotal time,” Colee said. “They feel like they’re no longer important, they feel like they don’t have a place, because they’re not old enough to be a part of the adult Bible studies, but yet we have classified them as too old to stay in the student ministry.”
Because of this, Colee, along with North Oxford’s college pastor, Fish Robinson, has put a lot of time into discipleship with college students. Whether it is taking them out to get coffee, lunch or, in Colee’s case, inviting a student to live with his family for a semester, both pastors have placed an emphasis on making themselves available to students in need.
Colee hopes these sorts of efforts will inspire other older and wiser members of the community to step up and invest in the lives of students. He said this type of ministry is beneficial to anyone of any age, but especially to college students, and especially those who are far away from home.
“There’s not a magical fix,” Colee said. “We’ve got a college pastor here, but not a lot of churches are able to do that, and so it’s just a matter of getting people to see the vision, to see the need, and I’m just not sure how we’re going to do that.”
Curt Liles, a former youth pastor in Brandon, moved to Oxford to plant The Life Oxford two years ago with college students in mind. A big reason for this move was that former students had trouble finding places to fit in within Oxford, or left their faith altogether.
“In our church culture, in Mississippi, especially in youth groups, you see a lot of peer-influenced activity,” Liles said. “You see a lot of people coming to events or even making some sort of professions or life decisions, and I would be willing to state that a lot of that is probably driven by peer acceptance in society.”
Liles said many Christian life decisions, even ones that have merit, can often lead to a weak faith and leave students coming to college without a firm grounding. Then they realize the freedom of college and don’t feel required to attend church. As a result, Liles wanted to form a church that would be welcoming to these students.
“Not as formal, not as structured, not as religious, but really about the core essentials of our faith, about Jesus, about his love for us, about our need to be forgiven and to know God, and so we tried to focus on those things and not so much on the things that tend to divide, things that tend to run the younger generations from church,” Liles said.
Liles makes a big deal about relationships in the church and talks about how important they are for the 18-to-24-year-olds Colee mentioned.
“For me, one of the things that college students, even the college students who don’t have a disagreement with the Bible or big problems with living these horrible lives, they just frankly get to a point where they don’t see a lot of people in the church that can understand them,” Liles said.
One of the main reasons Liles brought The Life to Oxford was to connect these students with people like them and to redefine what church can be like for them.
“I think oftentimes with people who tend to get disenfranchised with the church and decide to leave it, it is often the amount of, or the content of, the church’s programming that doesn’t seem relevant to where they are, and so they choose to do something more useful with their time,” Liles said.
So Liles has been trying to create a different atmosphere at The Life, one of community that extends throughout the week rather than just during scheduled meetings at a building with a cross on the top of it.
J.D. Shaw, pastor at Grace Bible Church in Oxford, places all of his focus on biblical teaching and equipping parents to raise their children in a godly household. He said that following scripture and making disciples should be the only goal for Christians because everything else will flow from that.
Shaw doesn’t worry about getting college students to show up for his services, because he knows that there are people looking for a church, and they’re looking for one that preaches the Bible well.
“I don’t do anything here I wouldn’t do in any other town in the world,” he said. “We just worry about teaching the Bible. We started a 5 p.m. service and we put an ad in The Daily Mississippian for that, but outside of that, in my eight years being a pastor in a college town we’ve never advertised or never tried to really reach out to college students; we’ve just tried to teach the Bible faithfully.”
When it comes to the nones and the unaffiliated, Shaw said that many Christians will turn them off to the idea of church, but he said that is what can make the Gospel more powerful.
“The church’s message is not that we’re full of good people,” he said. “The church’s message is that we’re all messed up and we have a savior who is very good, and he loves us in spite of the fact that we’re messed up.”
Shaw said that if Christians were more humble and real, then nones might feel more comfortable coming to church. He said that Jesus appealed to those who were the nones of his day, and that the religious people were the ones who killed him.
“Jesus was profoundly humble in the sense that he never ever saw distinctions in people,” Shaw said. “He didn’t care if you were the most powerful or the least powerful. He didn’t care if you were the most moral or the least moral. He just cared that if you were interested in him, then he was interested in you. That’s humility; it’s about not seeing distinctions in people.”
Shaw said there is no quick fix for bringing the religiously unaffiliated into churches but that it does start with discipleship and community and preaching Jesus.
Colee, Liles and Shaw are focusing not only on creating environments where people can experience Jesus, but also on preparing people to encounter others of different beliefs who might like to meet people like him.