Reaching “None” Families

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Today’s post comes from Colleen Derr, Associate Professor Wesley Seminary.

I didn’t know there was the option of “none”! Supposedly the fastest growing religious group in America is “none” – people who have no religious affiliation at all. I grew up in eastern PA during the 70s where everyone was either Catholic or Protestant – those were the only two options. A lot has changed in the last 40 years but one thing hasn’t – families still have the most influence on the religiosity or lack of it in their children.

Researchers Bengtson, Putney, and Harris (2013)1 conducted a 35-year longitudinal study in search of the answer to the questions: Is faith passed down in families and if so how? The results of the study are compelling and encouraging! They concluded that amid the apparent disintegration of the family unit, families are still surprisingly successful at transmission of faith and that parental influence has not declined over the past thirty-five years. The authors conducted interviews with four-generation families who successfully held to the faith from the earliest generation to the youngest and identified the following as most impactful: parental warmth (particularly a caring father, grandparents), same-faith marriages (with divorce being a deterrent), strong interconnections between home and church, and the modeling of faith in the everydayness of life.

So how do we end up with a growing number of families identifying themselves as “none” when it comes to religious affiliation? The researchers also offered a compelling look at the reality of unchurched or de-churched families – families who identified their religious tradition as “none”. They too demonstrated a great influence on their children and were highly successful in transmitting the “faith” they held. The difference is that the culture in America has changed in the past 35 years such that it is now deemed “acceptable” to have no religious affiliation. Research suggests that it isn’t that there are more “none” families than previously, it is just those who have been “none” all along now have the freedom to identify themselves as such.

So if the family has the most influence on the faith potential in children and if the practices of faith are transmitted from one generation to the next within families, how do we stop the cycle of “none”? Are there things that we can do – those of us who serve in the local church and have a heart for its families, especially the “none” ones?

First, it is helpful to recognize the reality of who these families are. We tend to imagine that unchurched or de-churched homes are heartless, angry, and abusive and that the children are in need of rescuing not just from spiritual peril but also from physical and emotional peril as well. And while that may be the case in some instances, the statistics suggest that in many of these homes – the majority of these homes – children experience warmth, caring, and security. The critical ingredients that make faith transmission possible!

Then what can we do to break the cycle of transmission of no faith? How do we respond to these homes? A few thoughts come to mind:

  1. STOP wearing the big “S” on our chests. When we function as if we are superman/superwoman ready to save these children from a horrible life, we alienate both the parents and the kids. Many are loved, well cared for, and respected but they do need a Savior – we just need reminded that we’re not Him.
    The question is: How can we share the need for a Savior to people who feel safe?
    Today’s families want:
  • • Community – do our contexts provide that for all shapes and sizes of families?
  • • Meaningful relationships – do we reach out to forge relationships with families who are out side of our community of faith but live in our neighborhoods?
  • • Value for their time – families are busy and their time is precious, do we provide events, ministries, opportunities that are of high-value so that they see time with us as time well spent?
  • • Investment in things that bring them together not separate apart – families spend much of the week going in opposite directions and different places, they long for a chance to spend time together and they enjoy hanging out with other families experiencing the same life stage. How can we provide times like that?
    They want the best for their children, they want something lasting, and they need hope.
  1. SEE the children as valuable to the Kingdom (and your local church community) on their own. Using children in order to get the “big fish” or the adults in the family is disrespectful and ingenuous. If you are fortunate enough to have children show up to your ministry with or without their parents or adult caregivers – see them as a blessing and a vital member of the church community on their own.
    What are the ways you:
  • • Celebrate them – not just in your children’s ministry setting but also in the corporate, all church setting as well?
  • • Invest in them – through time spent in and out of ministry environments, investment of church resources (financial, physical plant, and its people), through intentional, purposeful, and strategic discipleship.
  • • Accept them – as children who are noisy, high energy, full of life and laughter, inquisitive, occasionally messy, and usually quite honest.
  • • Love them – unconditionally and in a way that shows them through words, actions, attitudes, and behaviors how God loves them too.
  1. BUILD relationships that extend outside the doors of your church, perhaps relationships that may never connect inside the church. We used to sing the song “One door and only one, and yet its sides are two. I’m on the inside – on which side are you?” Please don’t stay on the inside!
    Can we see the home as a partner in ministry, even non-religious homes? What would that look like? How do we build relationships and partnerships with unchurched families?
    How do we discover:
  • • Who they are
  • • Where they live
  • • What they value
  • • What they need
  • • What we have in common
  1. RESPOND with respect, love, and compassion. Is it possible that these families have value and that a friendship with them would be as beneficial to us as it is to them?
  • • Do you see the value of families beyond adding numbers to attendance and offerings?
  • • How are the families not yet in your community of faith valuable members of your broader community?
  • • Do they know that you value them – their uniqueness, their friendship, their skills, and their personhood?
  1. MEET – their needs without strings attached. When our friendships with unchurched families reveal needs, is it possible to respond to those needs with the only desire being to show the love of Christ and be okay if they never attend our church?
  • • What needs is your ministry qualified to meet?
  • • What services can you offer or resources can you provide families?
  • • Who can you partner with in the community to meet needs of families?
  • • Do you know the most common needs of families in your community?
  • • Remember that people need to have the most basic needs met first: food, shelter, water, safety, health, employment, childcare, and friendship.
  1. LOVE – the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighboring families as much as you love your own.

The good news is that Psalm 78 still works! Families play a significant role in the transmission of faith to the younger generations. Families that are warm and caring, who have a strong connection with a local body of believers, and who model faith in the every day moments of life do pass on their faith to “the next generation – even the children not yet born” (v. 6). We need to celebrate families, help them see the great responsibility and opportunity that is theirs in the continuance of faith in their family, and partner with them in living out that faith. But we must also find ways to interrupt the transmission of religiosity in families who select “none”. What can you do to encounter, encourage, and love these families?


1 Bengston, V. L. Putney, N. M. and Harris, S. (2013). Families and faith: How religion is passed down across generations. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

One Comment on “Reaching “None” Families”

  1. Colleen, thank you for this timely article! I am at the very beginning of my capstone project and this is what I am desiring to write about!

    Would you have any authors or publications that addresses this very problem with the church that you would recommend to me?

    **Now I have a new reference to use…yours!

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