The percentage of people who are not affiliated with any particular religion keeps growing in many parts of the world. How is this percentage projected to grow in the years ahead? What missiological theories can be applied in understanding the phenomenon of religious disaffiliation? What needs to be done to appropriately address these challenges in our lives? Such questions will be addressed below.
Pew Research Center (hereafter Pew) has highlighted the growth of the nonreligious population in the world in approximately the past decade. A Pew report released in 2015 pointed out that in 2010 there were about 1.1 billion atheists, agnostics, and people who do not identify with any particular religion. The report also projected that the net increase of the unaffiliated population between 2010 – 2050 would be an additional 61,490,000, with 97,080,000 switching in and 35,590,000 switching out. This exceeds even the estimated net increase of Muslims at 3,220,000 for the same period.
billion atheists, agnostics and nonreligious
2010 – 2050
million switching in
million switching out
In another report released in 2017, Pew paid attention to the dearth of newborns among the unaffiliated, explaining why this group is expected to decline as a share of the world’s population in the long run despite the boost in number due to the switching in from Christianity and other religions in Europe, North America, and other parts of the world. This outlook is based on the projection that by 2055-2060, only 9 percent of all babies will be born to religiously unaffiliated women, which contrasts with the 36 percent of Muslims and 35 percent of Christians. The global number of religious ‘nones’ however is predicted to grow rapidly in the coming decades. According to the report, 62 percent of adults in the US expect the share of the population with no religion to increase.
Further, the Pew report states that the majority (75 percent) of the global unaffiliated population live in the Asia-Pacific, the percentage being much higher than those of Europe (12 percent) and North America (6 percent). The natural increase of the unaffiliated in the Asia-Pacific between 2010 – 2015 was 16,850,000 out of the global total of 26,240,000. China, Japan, South Korea, and other densely-populated Asian countries face the challenges of secularization and religious disaffiliation.
The rapid growth of the ‘nones’ has to do with the lower religious observance among younger adults.
The rapid growth of the ‘nones’ has to do with the lower religious observance among younger adults, which is not only an American phenomenon, but also common across the globe. In the US, the share of adults under age 40 who are religiously affiliated is lower by 17 percentage points than that of older adults who identify with a religious group. The gap is even larger in Canada (28 points) and South Korea (24 points). In South Korea 39 percent of younger adults are affiliated with a religious group, compared to 63 percent of their elders. The gap is also high in Australia (23 points), Japan (18 points), and Uruguay (18 points), according to Pew’s 2018 report.
Pew’s survey conducted in 2018 and 2019 updated the changes in the religious landscape of the US. A total of 65 percent of American adults described themselves as Christian, down 12 percentage points over the past decade, and the share of the religiously unaffiliated population was 26 percent, up from 17 percent in 2009. The number of religiously unaffiliated adults increased by almost 30 million in the US over this period, indicating that the trend toward religious disaffiliation has continued.
According to the national census report released in 2015, the majority (56.1 percent) of South Koreans are not affiliated to any particular religion, marking an increase by 9 percent since 2005. The percentage of ‘nones’ is higher among younger adults, with its share reaching 64.9 percent among people in their 20s, than people in their 60s (57.7 percent) or 70s (58.2 percent). A similar trend is observed in Estonia where the majority are nonreligious (54.1 percent), and also in Latvia where the share of ‘nones’ is 63.7 percent.
Behind the rise of the nonreligious population are both socio-cultural and life-course influences on religious commitment. The overall socio-cultural changes affect the growth in the number of ‘nones’. At the heart of the driving forces of secularization lies the quest for financial gain, which has momentum in many advanced economies. Another aspect is the life-course influences in the sense that religious attachments tend to peak during adolescence, decline through young and middle adulthood, and then increase throughout the rest of adulthood. These two aspects combined, younger adults in highly secularized societies tend to focus on making money rather than on religion so that their religiosity tends to decline during early adulthood.
At the heart of the driving forces of secularization lies the quest for financial gain.
At a deeper level, the Enlightenment worldview functions to justify the drive for materialistic prosperity with a this-worldly orientation. The metaphysical dimension exists only as a conceptual category and lacks concrete and operational meanings in this modern secular worldview. Even among religious people with theistic presuppositions, actual practices tend to show a propensity for functional atheism.
Churches and Christian organizations are being affected by secular cultures and practices. In many cases, ministerial decisions are made on the basis of managerial judgment, not by the transcendental norms of the Bible. Ironically, the decision-making based on managerial perspectives tends to undermine the credibility of churches and Christian organizations in many contexts.
In addressing the issues related to the growth of the nonreligious population, we may need to revisit three theories of missiology propounded by Paul G. Hiebert, Donald A. McGavran, and Andrew F. Walls.
In his suggestion of a holistic theology, Hiebert addressed the issue of truth encounter, power encounter, and empirical encounter. He recommended a truth encounter in dealing with other religions, power encounter with animistic spiritism, and empirical encounter with secularism. My interpretation of this suggestion is that we need to approach high religious issues with a truth encounter, folk religious issues with a power encounter, and nonreligious issues with an empirical encounter. This standpoint is meaningful not only in terms of balancing and integrating the approaches and discussions of the previous generation, but also in addressing the issue of religiously unaffiliated people. Furthermore, we need to approach nonreligious people by way of a holistic encounter incorporating all three aspects of encounter. It is not sufficient to encounter this group from a standpoint of high religion, folk religion, or secularism. Integral or holistic approaches are needed to address the issues related to religious disaffiliation and secularization behind it.
We need to approach nonreligious people by way of a holistic encounter incorporating all three aspects of encounter—truth, power and empirical.
In his theory of redemption and lift, McGavran posited that Christian converts in many contexts tend to experience a lift in their socioeconomic position after conversion. The lift after conversion should be understood as a blessing from God who is the source of every blessing. However, the blessing could be a factor contributing to the secularization of Christians who might lead a lifestyle that prioritizes this-worldly concerns over commitment to God’s redemptive work, and thus slowly displace redemption with lift. From the perspective of this theory, keeping God’s blessings only for oneself is wrong. Sharing the blessings from God with others to advance his redemptive work is a sound way of preventing this kind of ironic secularization on the part of God’s people, because asking God to stop blessing them to preserve their spiritual purity is not an option.
Walls explained the history of Christian expansion as a serial expansion that generally repeats a pattern in which Christianity decays and withers in its very heartlands, and then takes root anew on the margins of those areas and beyond. This pattern contrasts with Islam’s progressive expansion from its birthplace and from its earliest years. Walls emphasized that God can dispense even with self-important Christian communities, not depending on any single instrument. One possible practical implication of the theory of serial expansion is the need to pass the baton from one center of gravity of Christianity that is currently decreasing to another center of Christian community that is currently increasing in influence so that they can continue the race of world evangelization.
Based on the above missiological exegesis on the phenomenon of religious disaffiliation, I would recommend three approaches to reach the religiously unaffiliated with the gospel from the perspective of holistic encounter.
First, share the gospel with our neighbors and others in a holistic way. The notions of truth encounter, power encounter, and empirical encounter need to be integrated in our evangelistic and missionary approaches. This means a combination of reasoning based on biblical truths, confronting with prayer empowered by the Spirit, and witnessing embedded in life experiences.
Second, share our resources with those in need as a testimony of God’s provision in our lives. Giving to the needy from a missionary perspective overcomes individualism, materialism, and consumerism that characterize modern secular cultures in many contexts. Sharing resources strengthens the authenticity and relational quality of communities. Giving and sharing help sustain God’s blessings as blessings; otherwise, material blessings could get in the way of our sanctification and maturation. Unconditional sharing is an important part of a holistic witness.
Third, share our responsibilities and leadership with others across boundaries. This kind of sharing can strengthen and facilitate the sustainability and innovation of ministries. We cross frontiers of culture to transmit the vision and impart the mission to people in a different context. Our commitment and dedication over time could bear unexpected fruits in new contexts that used to be mission fields. Serial expansions are possible when leadership is shared and the baton is passed wisely and strategically.
As Oswald Chambers put it well, ‘God’s purpose is not simply to make us beautiful plump grapes, but to make us grapes so that He may squeeze the sweetness out of us.’ God’s squeezing takes sharing the gospel, resources, responsibilities, and leadership across boundaries. Our approach to win the souls of the unaffiliated takes a lifestyle that is sacrificial and inspiring.
When Jesus’ disciples rebuked the woman who anointed him with the very expensive perfume, his response was, ‘She has done a beautiful thing to me. . . . Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her’ (Mark 14:6, 9).
Dr Steve Sang-Cheol Moon is a Korean missiologist serving as Founder and CEO of the Charis Institute for Intercultural Studies (www.ciis.kr). His main ministry focus is to facilitate mission research globally. He occasionally teaches missiology at several Christian universities and seminaries around the world. He is a member of the Lausanne Global Analysis Editorial Advisory Board.