Gary Laderman, Chair of the Department of Religion at Emory University has offered a thoughtful and thought-provoking reflection on the increasing number of people in the US who identify their religious affiliation as “None”.

Having established that there is a precipitous rise in the number of people in the US claming no religious affiliation, Laderman goes on to claim that what we are seeing is “a great cultural metamorphosis”. He attributes this massive change to three factors in contemporary culture.

1. the 1960s are coming home to roost. … The roots of contemporary perspectives on spirituality are found in the experimentation with drugs, and especially LSD; the power and transformation associated with rock and roll; and the liberation found in sexual freedoms and pleasures — all sacred sources for spiritual fulfillment and authoritative personal experiences in the 1960s.

2. popular culture in America rules our spiritual lives and is a more important source of wisdom, morality, transcendence, and meaning, than the traditional institutions like the church that used to provide these religious elements. Films, music, the internet, television, literature–these now are just as important, if not more important, than the teachings found in sacred texts and theological pronouncements for the younger generation as well as baby boomers. Reality TV and rap, Harry Potter and the Super Bowl provide Americans with moral dramas and existential ideals these days, and can make a profound impact on the lives of followers. Organized religion is clearly losing its authority and relevancy in the day-to-day worlds of Americans, and so those forces that predominate in our culture, such as new media, entertainment, and information technologies are now shaping spiritual sensibilities and sacred values.

3. we are a nation of consumers and American desires for food and toys and clothes and healthcare and travel are finally refashioning the spiritual marketplace as well. … you can customize your order; if you don’t want institutional ritual or dogma in your spiritual life, you can customize your own religious choices and activities.

Laderman concludes with a sobering warning for established religious institutions.

Finally, the rise of the “nones” surely suggests it is the end of religion as we know it. Forget churches; forget priests and pastors; forget the Bible; forget organized religion generally. What is sacred are no longer conventional objects like a cross, a singular religious identity like being a Methodist, nor activities like going to church or prayer. Instead, the religious worlds in the contemporary and future United States are robust and capacious, providing an abundance of spiritual possibilities found in unexpected places like drum circles and meditation exercises, sports events and other expressions from popular culture. It is a brave new world for religious Americans who are increasingly unhinged from traditional authorities and institutions.

Is Laderman correct that the message in all this should be to jettison the trappings of traditional religious institutionalism and simply embrace the free-wheeling, decentralized, “brave new world” he sees on the horizon? Or, could there be another possibility? Is it possible that what the increase in non-affiliated religious commitment is doing is really calling contemporary religious institutions to re-imagine the way we do church?

In Isaiah 43:18,19, God speaks through the prophet saying,

Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up.

Then God takes a deep breath and issues the challenge to the religious establishment of the day in the form of a question about this “new thing” that is springing up. God asks,

do you not perceive it?

The challenge to the church is, not to throw our hands up in despair and abandon the nurturing of the spiritual lives of people in our day. The challenge to the church is to “perceive” the new thing God is doing in our midst and to cooperate with the work of God’s Spirit. If we can allow the rise of religious “Nones” to open us to the unpredictable wind of God’s Spirit, we will find exciting new opportunities in our current culture. We have little to lose.