Jan Fisher is not a typical seminary graduate. Baptized in a Lutheran church, she received no formal religious education as a child and stopped going to church in college. For much of her adult life, she was a “none” — meaning she would select “none of the above” if asked her religion on a survey.

But Fisher has been on a lifelong quest for meaning. Her spiritual path eventually landed her at an Episcopal parish where her priest suggested she attend a Catholic seminary for a master’s degree in “transforming spirituality.”

As a student at the Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry, Fisher wanted to pursue her education to “continue to grow in my understanding of what God wanted me to do in the world,” she says. Today she is a member of the school’s advisory board. Part of her ministry involves supporting theological education that includes the religiously unaffiliated. Her Jesuit alma mater, Seattle University, is committed to the education of Catholics and to a broader ecumenical and even interreligious community. “We see a growing group of ‘seekers’ — people who feel a stir deep inside them and want to explore it,” says Fisher. “As church leaders, we need to support people in all walks and at all stages.”

Doing so fits within Seattle University’s mission to “empower leaders for a just and humane world.” It also may be financially astute, because “nones” often are described as North America’s fastest growing religious demographic.

Indeed, one-fifth of the U.S. public — and a third of adults under 30 — are religiously unaffiliated today, according to an October 2012 report released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. In the past five years, their numbers have increased from fewer than 15 percent to almost 20 percent of all Americans, including more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics plus 33 million who say they have no particular religious affiliation.

Either renew or plan for the funeral

Reactions by church and seminary leaders to Pew’s “’Nones’ on the Rise” report have varied from “I told you so” to hand-wringing to a call to arms. The Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, blogged that the data are evidence of a “great clarification” in which loosely affiliated nonbelievers (so-called “cultural Christians”) admit that they are not believers. “In a gospel perspective, this is a healthy development,” Mohler wrote. “The church, after all, had better know the difference between authentic Christian faith and ‘fuzzy fidelity.’ This new report should awaken America’s Christians and our churches to the reality of the challenge we now face and the mission field we now serve.” 

 
Source: Aggregated data from surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 2007-July 2012.

Pew Research Center

Not everyone sees the “nones” as nonbelievers, however. In a blog post, Matthew Myer Boulton, president of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, warned about misinterpreting the data as evidence of the “secularization myth,” which can hasten the stampede and provide an excuse for ignoring it.

In general, most seminaries either have not responded to the growing number of “nones” or have renewed their commitment to train ministers to reaffiliate the unaffiliated. Neither approach recognizes the cultural shifts that have produced the “nones” and have caused them to challenge conventional institutions and authority, say some experts. Seminaries that dismiss these shifts do so at their peril and, at best, are out of step with the times, says Dr. Elizabeth Drescher, who teaches at Santa Clara University and is writing a book called Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Life of America’s Nones.

“At worst, it's educational malpractice. It doesn't prepare religious leaders for the world in which they will minister.” Another reaction to the “nones” data warned that seminaries need to “renew or plan the funeral.”

Dr. LeAnn Snow Flesher, academic dean at the American Baptist Seminary of the West, wrote, “The church and the seminary, in their current structures, are at risk of becoming totally irrelevant to contemporary culture.”

Dr. Stephen R. Graham, senior director of programs and services at the Association of Theological Schools, hopes seminaries choose renewal over funeral planning. He thinks financial and demographic pressures, as well as mission, will inspire some in theological education to craft creative responses. “Some schools can, and perhaps should, continue to serve the constituencies that they have served well. It is much easier and less risky to continue doing what one knows, especially if it has worked in the past,” Graham says. “Higher education and the church tend to be conservative in their approaches — and much good comes from what they seek to conserve — but changes in higher education, the church, and societies call for wise innovation.”

Innovation in Seattle

Nowhere is that innovation as evident as in Seattle, known as a geographic Ground Zero for religious unaffiliation, with some of the largest percentages of “nones” in the country. At the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, the response has been one of “radical hospitality” toward people who “name their affiliations in relational ways rather than in denominational ways,” says Dr. Keith Anderson, president of the multidenominational school. He estimates more than half of its students check the “none” box on a demographic informational form. “I think there’s something of a critique embedded in the decision to declare themselves as unaffiliated — a protest against irrelevance,” says Anderson, who is ordained in the American Baptist church but who now attends an Episcopal parish. 

Source: Aggregated data from surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, January-July 2012.

Pew Research Center

Anderson welcomes that critique and sees it as evidence of a universal spiritual hunger. “We need to be curious, not judge it,” he says. “I’m not afraid of this; I see it as an opportunity.” The Seattle School, already a seminary that acknowledges the intersection of theology and psychology, has reached out to the unaffiliated demographic with curriculum changes that encourage connections between spirituality and other parts of life. Their former master’s in Christian leadership is now a master’s in theology and culture, and a recently added certificate program is called “Leadership in the New Parish.”

The “new parish,” Anderson says, is a metaphor for the societal changes facing the church today. “It’s about intersections, not cul de sacs,” he says. “A lot of religions have seen themselves as gated communities. You’re one of us, or not. But radical hospitality says, ‘Let’s sit down at the table of intersections and see what we can learn from one another.’ The church is trying to decide if we open the door or close the door. I think it’s time to set the table.”

This approach has been enthusiastically supported by the school’s board, whose members, like the students, bring many stories of intersections. “Boards are one of the places where the notion of intersections happens most naturally, because most board members are not religious leaders, they’re business people or educators,” says Anderson. “The starting point of their identity is not as members of ‘Church ABC’ but as followers of Jesus who bring with them many roles.”

Seattle board member Tim Condor knows firsthand that radical hospitality is necessary in church as well as seminary settings. At the “emergent, missional” church in Durham, North Carolina, where he is pastor, the congregation is full of so-called “nones.” “We welcome people who want to ask questions, and we welcome without an agenda of ‘you need to be like me to be fully present,’” he says.

Condor admits that he is often the catalyst for conversations about “nones” on the Seattle board, which he believes is more open than many seminary boards. “Some people still see seminaries as training grounds for key leaders, so a higher set of expectations is placed on them,” says Condor, who is working on a doctorate in cultural studies.

Whom to admit to seminaries is a significant fiscal and missional question. “There’s a tendency for seminaries and denominations to become detached from the world,” says Condor. “One possible reaction to the threat of a more secular environment is to close oneself off, not only to certain types of students, but to certain voices in the classroom.”

Instead, he believes seminaries should be in the business of attracting the best and brightest, rather than only focusing on master of divinity students with an interest in professional ministry. “Seattle School graduates are probably more interested in being followers of God in the world than in a professional vocation in the church or even in traditional expressions of faith,” says Condor.

That is also true across town at Seattle University, where curriculum shifts instituted about five years ago were aimed at attracting religiously unaffiliated students. In addition to the master’s in transforming spirituality, students can pursue a master of arts in transformational leadership. It’s one of the school’s fastest growing degrees, says Dr. Mark Markuly, dean of the School of Theology and Ministry.

“This was a mission-driven decision,” he says. “We are trying to engage people of goodwill who take spiritual values seriously and are deeply ethical in their orientation. For a school of theology and ministry to not engage that part of the population, in our region, you’re not doing your job.”

The mix of affiliated and unaffiliated in classrooms and on campus has led to some dispelling of stereotypes, about religious people and about the “nones.” If students enter Seattle University with negative attitudes about formal religion, often shaped by the media or by negative personal encounters, they frequently leave with more positive impressions, Markuly says, though he notes that formal proselytizing is not the school’s mission.

Jan Fisher remembers having class discussions with theologically liberal and conservative classmates. “The school has a unique ability to hold those conversations respectfully in a way that allows people to come together with their differences,” she says. “That’s a key in not turning off people who have been harmed by churches where they haven’t been allowed to be who they are. I’m so grateful that the school supported me in coming to know God, no matter what path I took. It really changed my life.” 


Unaffiliated doesn’t mean nonreligious

That the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans is growing faster than even naysayers might have predicted is hardly reason to rejoice, yet the details of the data from “’Nones’ on the Rise,” the 2012 report from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, can be enlightening for those involved in ministry and theological education. 

• Many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated are religious or spiritual in some way: 68 percent believe in God, 37 percent define themselves as “spiritual, but not religious,” and 21 percent say they pray every day. However, they are not necessarily “seekers” actively looking for a spiritual home.

• Not surprisingly, younger adults are less likely to be affiliated than their elders, although the majority of the “nones” were brought up in a religious tradition.

• The growth of the unaffiliated spans a variety of demographic indicators, including gender, income, and educational level. Yet it has been concentrated in one racial group: whites.

• Although Americans as a whole agree that religion is losing its influence on U.S. life, the unaffiliated are more likely than the general public to say churches are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules, and too involved in politics. Still, a majority of the “nones” say religion can be a force for good in the society.


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