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Congregants flee traditional churches, but this former pastor rejoices

The rise of the "spiritual but not religious" in America has created a lot of conversation among Christians over the last two years. Former pastor Kelly Bean is arguing that the trend might be a good thing. - Image courtesy of Kevin Gebhardt:
The rise of the "spiritual but not religious" in America has created a lot of conversation among Christians over the last two years. Former pastor Kelly Bean is arguing that the trend might be a good thing. - Image courtesy of Kevin Gebhardt:

The rise of the “spiritual but not religious” in America has created a lot of conversation among Christians over the last two years. Former pastor Kelly Bean is arguing that the trend might be a good thing. – Image courtesy of Kevin Gebhardt:

The rise of the “spiritual but not religious” in America has created a lot of conversation among Christians over the last two years. Now one pastor and activist is arguing that the trend might be a good thing. Kelly Bean is former pastor of Third Saturday Organic Community and coplanter of Urban Alley, a egalitarian intergenerational intentional community in north Portland, Oregon. She is author of “How to Be a Christian Without Going to Church,” which explores the benefits of alternative forms of worship. Here we discuss her message and whether it jibes with the Bible’s teachings.

RNS: It is understandable that some people don’t want to wake up on Sunday mornings and listen to a preacher talk past them. But Christians are still called to be a part of the church, so is going lone wolf really an option?

KB: Let me push back a bit. It is one thing to state a warning about the lone wolf syndrome as a statement of fact, and it is another to use it as a response or a rebuke to people who may be feeling for a variety of reasons that they have no alternative but to leave church as they have known it. I hope that those who read my book will hear me loud and clear when I say, “Please, DO NOT GO IT ALONE.”

You are right that the lone wolf individualist is the last thing that the world needs as a representation of Christ, and is it far from the biblical call to be the Body of Christ.

Image courtesy of Baker Publishing

Image courtesy of Baker Publishing

RNS: The word “ecclesia” (translated “church”) in the New Testament almost always refers to a local assembly of people who gather regularly. Does this matter?

KB: One question that is pressing here is, “How do I actually be the Church, rather than just go to church. Another is, “What is the way forward for someone who no longer can find a way to stay in church as they have known it but who is not leaving the faith?” [tweetable]In some cases, people are compelled to leave church to save their faith.[/tweetable] Part of the answer to these questions includes the need to be known by and be in relationship with other Christians, whatever form our Christian community takes.

I love the church, in all its forms. I have friends who are wonderful ministers and priests, and I admire their sacrificial work and calling. I would hate to imagine a world without a visible face for church, and I would never encourage anyone to leave a church they find themselves at home in, or to flippantly chase after “church novelty.” I take commitment seriously.

Yet in many cases, alternative forms of Christian community require even more commitment to each other and the people we are serving than we would have ever spent while attending a congregation on Sunday mornings.

RNS: What are some of the alternatives to traditional church worship?

KB: Christian community can be formed through simple and do-able action, by engaging in real friendship with a willingness learn from and share with others. Neighborhood BBQ’s, scripture studies in pubs, community formed naturally around meeting specific needs in a neighborhood or on the other side of the world, mentoring relationships that lead to deep discipleship, creative connections through art, music and more, living more sustainably by sharing possessions and homes, meeting in living rooms, all can and are becoming rich soil for meeting Jesus and being Christian in a way that transforms our lives and the world, one person at a time.

The good news is that we are blessed with a beautiful and rich heritage of practice, history, theology, liturgy and of course scripture. We don’t abandon our Christian story as we explore new forms, but we make our way forward, charting new territory with reliable guidance.

Kelly Bean, former pastor of Third Saturday Organic Community and coplanter of Urban Alley, a egalitarian intergenerational intentional community in Portland, Oregon. - Photo courtesy of Kelly Bean

Kelly Bean, former pastor of Third Saturday Organic Community and coplanter of Urban Alley, a egalitarian intergenerational intentional community in Portland, Oregon. – Photo courtesy of Kelly Bean

RNS: Can you give us an example of an alternative community that’s really flourishing?

KB: In our consumer culture, flourishing often means large, growing and financially well-positioned. What I found heartening in my research and in the expressions of Christian community “outside of church” that I am personally familiar with is that there are many ways to flourish.

The danger in offering a single example is that we humans tend to like how-to guides and blueprints. I believe that we as people who follow Jesus are responsible to know their times and the place they are situated and respond wisely and appropriately to that particular opportunity. In my book you’ll find accounts of a wide assortment of forms of Christian community. Exploring best practices from a variety of communities can be of help in shaping healthy Christian community in your own context.

One key to flourishing is to know that we don’t hold all the answers or know the new “right” way to do something. I encourage my readers in this way—If you find you are called to leave church, please go gently and instead of going away from something, go toward something. [tweetable]If the Holy Spirit is calling you, she will lead the way.[/tweetable]

RNS: Many of the liabilities of a church community–disagreements, transitions, personality differences, etc–seem to me to be opportunities to growth. They are actually gifts, no? 

KB: I agree with that fully. And, even more, what I can tell you as one who has been part of an Intentional Christian Community for over four years now, is that the more relational the context and the smaller the more opportunities there are for the sort of growth, transformation, and formation through friction in relationship with others. This may not be the most enticing proclamation to make about smaller, relational expressions of Christian community, but it does answer the question. Leaving traditional church and seeking earnest expressions of communities of Jesus in not an escape hatch but a step into the deep waters of growth. Truly gifts.

RNS: In your opinion, what’s the most important thing for pastors and other church leaders to know about the needs of folks who are leaving their churches?

KB: Listen and learn from the questions and critiques of those who are leaving–or catch them before they go and listen and learn. (Maybe if you take them seriously, they will stay.) Empower mature Christians in your congregations to lead freely in the way they are called to–not just to fill help-needed slots–and reconsider the use of your building and your funds. Take frequent deep breaths and remember God knows the story of your church. If we choose to embrace this time in Christian and church history with open arms and hearts, it may be one of the most exciting and promising times for pastors and church leaders.

RELATED: “Why Christians need the church: An interview with Lillian Daniel”

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


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  • I hear the hurt embedded in these remarks. The church can kill its wounded and protect the institution from critique. But Ms. Bean displays a very low view of the church- no remarks, for example, about the value and obligation of corporate worship, being a Eucharistic community, public/corporate witness to the world, etc. Sigh!

  • The form the church takes seems to have infinite possibilities. The universe is not fixed, nor should our definitions of church be. I love the Bible, but we see the Bible the way we are. We ascribe to it what we believe, our history and our experiences. I think we simply need to admit that and be aware of that. Then, I find Kelly’s ideas fascinating, interesting and welcomed. So whether people leave or stay in the organized church it is ok. From the perspective of perspectives God is good and we are fine. Now, let’s go out and deliver “Good News”.

  • So true about people are now spiritual not religious. Bad mouthing religion
    backfired and we all see the results. It doesn’t matter how “spiritual” people
    are if they aren’t Biblical they are still lost/headed for hell. The “good person”
    lie has many deceived into thinking they are okay/fine when they are not!
    Bible says there are none good… not even one so there is no such thing as
    a “good person” or good people. Only God is good…Period! We must Repent!

  • We need to stop being spiritual and start being Biblical! 1 Corinthians 6:9-12
    lists many sins that need to be confronted. If people say they love Jesus and
    then they don’t follow the Bible/religion no Truth is in them! Luke 13 talks about
    bearing good fruit and that fruit is fruit of Repentance not good works because
    many non-believers do good works so the fruit is Repentance. We must Repent!

  • This doesn’t seem all that bad from the appearance but as often as things go, nothing is much that it appears. God has given us a design in the bible. One would think that God blesses His design. What this author, and honest to God what in the world does this even mean?

    “a egalitarian intergenerational intentional community”

    The author advocates for a church against God’s design. Knock yourself out I guess but at least be honest about it rather than coming up with gobblygook euphemisms for it.

  • Dear Karla and Ragus. Both of your perspectives may be correct. I honestly do not know. But, I experience reaction and negativity coming from your words. I do not know if you intend this but it seems true. These are simply ideas. The church has been evolving for thousands of years. I trust God it will be fine. Jesus promised did he not. Where is the love that is patient, kind, not easily offended etc. In our unity as Christians (I believe Kelly is a Christian) there is room for the beauty of distinctions, new practices, forms, language I think. Wish we could all sit down with Kelly and talk to each other. Blessings to both of you.

  • I have met a growing number of people who are less concerned with “lone wolfing” it but, rather, are more concerned with refusing to remain in a place that fosters an unhealthy faith journey. The commonality I hear in their stories are about church leaders who are little more than bullies that shame people into choosing either submission or excommunication. Healthy people are choosing to journey faith in places other than one of such toxicity, especially when they have found churches refusing to welcome conversations about how to address unhealthy leaders. The people I meet aren’t saying they would rather go it alone but, they are refusing to accept a toxic faith story as the only choice for a place journey in faith.

    I have begun to wonder when (or if) we, as believers, will focus our gaze less on creative bells & whistles that we hope will draw someone to come back to church for one more Sunday and more on the hard work we must do to make the church become and remain a healthy place of faith to journey in.

  • I am religious-not-spiritual.

    When it comes ethics, social justice, ‘community’, ‘meaning-of-life’ (if that makes any sense), secular organizations do it cheaper and better. What the Church, and only the Church does within Christendom is religion: i.e. ritual and sacred space (ceremonies, fancy buildings and their furnishings), theology (theistic metaphysics), and mysticism. We can’t get that as good, if at all, anyplace else.

    Church currently both over-reaches and underestimates what it has to offer. It over-reaches, imagining that it has anything whatsoever to teach us about morality or anything else, and underestimates itself since it doesn’t get how important ceremony, sacred space, metaphysics and mysticism are, or how much some people want it, or how difficult it is to get it anywhere else.

    The whole purpose of the church is churchiness: ritual, buildings, metaphysics and mysticism, because if we can’t get that package at church, there’s nowhere else we can get it.

  • People are starting to wise up. Who wants to hear an unqualified pseudo-scientist lecture us about stem cell research or evolution versus I.D.? Or tell us how to vote, how to treat our spouses, how to raise our kids?
    Believe me, they don’t like this at all. Less money, smaller army for the dominionist takeover. It’s wonderful.

  • I’ve read Kelly’s book and have been fortunate to get to know her on a personal level. She put down on paper what I and others I know where thinking. Can I still be a Christian and not go to church? I am a Christian, a well read Christian. One of my go to authors is Philip Yancey. “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” also talks about the church. I can identify with the opening chapter in Yancey’s book, along with the words of Ms. Bean. I was excommunicated in my early 20s from my church because I chose to live with my boyfriend, who later became my husband. Instead of embracing me the church judged and cut me loose. God is the judge and my actions will be judged in front of Him on the last day. I am closer to God now than in all the years of attending a formal church. That is not to say there are not churches out there that can be a home for believers. I just personally have not found one yet. I am encouraged by developing a community of believers within the living situation I am currently home to. It’s not gobbilyguck…it’s real and it’s community and didn’t Jesus himself say, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Matthew 18:20 (NIV)

  • Oh please, Atheist Max, who do you think you’re fooling?? Your condescending insults, your snarky, hate-filled diatribes, your pseudo – theological, pretensions…You’re absolutely obsessed about what everyone on this site believes; otherwise why comment on it at all? Further, I’m willing to wager that you could probably go your whole life without anyone, or groups of someones, actually”imposing”their beliefs on you.That’s just a straw man you’ve concocted within your own overheated imagination; you’re looking for religious bogeymen around every corner! Relax, Max; haven’t you heard? The Constitution as interpreted by our excellent judicial system with protect your god-haunted sensibilities.So…get over yourself, dial it back a notch, and keep on spewing your ill-informed drivel inre religion. All will be well, my friend, and GOD BLESS YOU! .

  • A fundamental problem in the reasoning lies in the statement: “Exploring best practices from a variety of communities can be of help in shaping healthy Christian community in your own context”. Scripture is not central, but human best practices. Isn’t that that central to the thinking of our age? From that reasoning stems views on church, relationships, etc.

    The church (we the church) should create additional an innovative expressions of being church, but we can’t deviate from God’s basic institutions.

  • I’m sorry, but exactly IS …”God’s basis institutions”…, Kruger? What does that even mean? From Our Saviour’s perspective (and mine),…”Where two or three are gathered, there I am in the midst of them”…constitutes HIS idea of church, and I heartily concur! While its certainly understood that in a sense His were metaphorical, and were intended to preclude any number of saints gathering together to formulate a thriving ekklesia, the key word is JESUS in the midst, not man-centered, bogus, contrived pseudo-“religious constructs that more often than not get in the Holy Spirit’s way.Read the Epistle of Acts, Kruger. And remember: Our Saviour called us TO HIMSELF, not man-centered substitutes.The young lady may have stumbled a bit in making her case, but I myself think she is one to something.(Although calling the Holy Spirit”she”…gonna have to draw the line at that.I’ve heard all the arguments, but If Jesus called Him “He”, that’s where I stand).

  • Kimberly Coats

    You chose to live in sin over belief that Jesus needed to die for that sin of yours .. and so your angry at every one in that church for doing what the bible said because you chose sin over Jesus forgiveness .. its not TO LATE to learn about Jesus forgiveness and how you can receive his absolution by means of his people.. THINK ABOUT IT read the bible about x communication
    and how Christians can also absolving you of sin ..

    need help finding all the bible places that deal with these teachings OF God

  • Laurence Ringo
    she stumbled a lot more than just a tad she stumbled ———into Satan being her lord and master
    and the church more than just two or three more than likely used there pastor to tell her so think of the Christians having the unpleasant duty of telling her she wont be in heaven ..until she acknowledges that Jesus had to die for that sin of hers and she willingly receives his forgiveness by way of his church..
    need to know where these teaching are in the BIBLE?

  • yes ———-Jesus even said he always taught in the church
    and that’s where he was when his mom found him Teaching in the church ..

    these so called Christian communities don’t know there bibles
    they pick and choose only the parts they want to ..

  • Seriously, Rob? You need to take a deep breath dial it back a notch, my friend. I’m pretty sure the Lord God Almighty DID NOT put you or any other human being in charge of the final destination of any other human beings, so chill. (Stop and read Romans 14).You don’t know where anyone on this site stands in their relationship with Almighty God, and frankly it’s none of your business! YOU are not the boss God’s people; we already have a”boss”, and His Name is JESUS CHRIST, not Rob.Frankly, you strike me as someone caught up with a Pharisiacal spirit of legalism, judgment, and condemnation. Almighty God is the Judge, NOT YOU!

  • “Intentional Christian Community” . . . Oy vey, yet another denomination that is declaring non-denomination.

    And around and around the dog goes chasing its tail.

    Nothing scriptural about what this person said. Absolutely nothing.

    We live in this world, in the various local communities we find ourselves in for one reason or another.

    The scriptural way is for us to then with one another as a local believing expression of the believing body of Christ.

    And this doesn’t happen just on Sundays, it happens every day, throughout the day. We speak to each other on the phone. We have lunch with each other. We open our homes to meet.

    This is called the normal church life. And it is how the building up of the one body of Christ is accomplished… according to scripture.

    But there’s more… One very important element that the Lord has given us… His one ministry.

    Contrary to Kelly Bean’s declaration of “One key to flourishing is to know that we don’t hold all the answers or know the new “right” way to do something” there is just one “right” ministry… The Lord’s one ministry.

    God is one, and therefore has only one ministry. That’s it. Just one.

    And this ministry has a name, because this ministry is the Person of Jesus Christ.

    What Kelly Bean is speaking of mostly reflects humanism, not God. And although I’m encouraged to hear that believers are being troubled by God to leave the familiar and comfortable environments of traditional Christianity, if they move into what what Kelly Bean describes, they’ll still have a long way to go before reaching the good land that is our inheritance.

  • As a leader of a non-traditional house church that does not meet on Sunday mornings, but rather shares the gospel through backyard cookouts, service projects, community volunteerism, random acts of kindness, visiting neighbors, delivering gifts and inviting neighbors to Bible studies, I really liked this story. No doubt the traditionalists and fundamentalists will object (as they have already), but as people diligently search for Jesus, the form and structure changes to accommodate the need. What many miss and read into this kind of story is that the message hasn’t changed, just the medium. But that will drive some people nuts. Still, I am encouraged and say “more power to you” for those who are brave enough to try something different for the sake of Jesus’ name.

  • Hard to put this tactfully, but what I don’t understand is why anyone would WANT this kind of religion. If you look historically and cross culturally what religion is for the most part is ceremony and sacred space—fancy buildings with graven images, elaborate rituals, public processions, pilgrimages to sacred objects and holy places, etc. One things of Hindu ceremonies, of Athenians processing to Elusis for the Mysteries, of Mediterranean Folk Catholicism with all the saints, ceremonies and processions, all aesthetic and sensual pleasure.

    To me the question is why anyone would want to forgo that—the ceremonies, fancy stuff, the color and music? To me, this is what makes religion appealing—it’s hard for me to understand how anyone could NOT like this! Church is the reward of religion–going good is the obligation, the unpleasant stuff, the price you have to pay for enjoying the art, ceremonies and fancy buildings.

    My guess, and I stand to be corrected, is that the people who object to ‘traditional church’ in favor of kind of non-traditional house-church religion come from evangelicalism and have never experienced this Hindu-Pagan-Folk-Catholic style of religiosity. That what they’re rejecting is the preacher in the pulpit and whining hymns accompanied by a wheezing harmonium.

  • Coming from the evangelical background, I do not get the strict adherence to buildings, liturgy, ceremonies, aesthetics, etc. I do recognize that a great many people like and defend those practices, but why must we all adhere to them? Is something wrong with those of us for whom those rituals possess no value? If you like those things, then knock yourself out, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that is the only form of practicing a religion. This is not a total rejection of the preacher nor the music per se, but it is a reworking of those forms. In my case, there is more teaching and participation as opposed to singular oratory. But at times I do preach, so there is flexibility. We sing, we plan community service together, we have our special occasions and small traditions, we have an open time for anyone to offer prayers, but those are free to change as the needs arise or as they become outdated. But do not mistake a change in form for a change in content, meaning the call to a life of repentance, obedience, love, forgiveness, sacrifice, mission, generosity, etc. Those remain but the form flexes. There is no conflict with the Bible on this approach.

  • Thanks, John.Yours is a voice of God-given reason and wisdom. As always, my contentions are that above all other things, first and foremost YOU.MUST.BE.BORN.AGAIN.Everything else, particularly the modes of worship we construct, are of secondary importance. Becoming rooted and grounded IN CHRIST cannot be substituted by any given “religious”formulae;”Love God and love your fellow man”, as Our Saviour said, pretty much sums up what Almighty God requires of us, no? So…have at it, dearly loved Brothers and Sisters!!!!

  • I may not have been clear. I’m not promoting “strict adherence” to liturgy and ceremony or suggesting that other religious practices are somehow less good. It just seems to me that high church is what’s most ENJOYABLE for most people—like chocolate, good music, fine wine. What’s puzzling to me is that people would PREFER the more austere religious practice you’re talking about—which seems to me like preferring broccoli to a banana split with chocolate sauce, whipped cream and cherries on each one of the triple scoops. (it’s close to dinner time here in PDT-land and I’m hungry!)

    I’m currently involved in an evangelism project. And my take—admittedly speculative and ideocentric—is that if you just show people all the liturgical goodies—the fancy buildings and their furnishing, the costume drama, the smells and bells, processions, ceremonies, etc. many will say, “Wow, this is yummy! Let me have this fun religion! I thought religion was all about preaching and doing good. But now I see that religion is ceremonial, sensual and fun! Let me in!” Tomorrow: another committee meeting on this ;->

    If you don’t like rituals but prefer ‘community service’, and ‘repentance, obedience, love, forgiveness, sacrifice, mission, generosity’ of course that’s fine: it’s certainly better from the moral point of view than pigging out on smells and bells. But it just seems like preferring (healthy) broccoli to decadent chocolate. We don’t have an argument or disagreement here about what’s good. It’s just unimaginable to me that anyone who’s tasted chocolate would prefer broccoli. And I can’t imagine anyone wanting broccoli if they’d tasted chocolate.

    Thoughts appreciated—I’ve got a committee meeting tomorrow.

  • P.S. I should add: for me the issue isn’t ‘singular oratory’ vs. a more participatory style, but talk (whether preaching or more participatory discussion) vs. ceremony. If it were up to me I’d abolish sermons altogether.

  • It would seem, Thecla, that you favor a egocentric”religion”, one that can be shaped, molded, and re-made in YOUR image.But then again, that’s the nature of human-centered religious flotsam and jetsam, the lifeless dregs of rites, rituals, and ceremonies that we all too readily substitute for an actual, life-transforming, life-saving, life-giving relationship with the Risen Saviour. As I’m always reminding people on these sites, if you profess yourself to be Christian, you know that our Saviour invited all to come TO HIMSELF, NOT religion, with all the human-constructed detritus that accompanies said”religions”, where man is the center of his own sad, feeble, tainted”glory”.Whatever one may engage in that is thought to enhance whatever status one thinks he (or she.) has before whoever or whatever their”god”, from Jesus’perpsective love of God and neighbors is paramount, and THAT doesn’t require the trappings of”religion”.

  • Please, please, please I am not addressing the question of what Christianity is all about but the question of how to get people to get interested in it, and give it serious consideration! That is, how you get people by buy into the Christian commitment to love God and their neighbors, which is of paramount importance.

    What I’m suggesting is that one big draw is ceremony and aesthetics. That’s how I got in: I sang the Schubert Mass in G at music camp. I wanted that—and the buildings and liturgy and ceremony, the Latin church music and all the aesthetic stuff. And I believe that this draws people in. And once in they go from there.

    I love religion—the ceremonies, buildings, costume, liturgy. That seems to me what is appealing and attractive about religion, the good stuff. And, to me, you have to pay for the good stuff by being a good person. God gives us aesthetics; we pay back with ethics. And isn’t this a reasonable way to evangelize—to show people the good things, the art, music and ceremony that the Church offers?

    Of course Christianity doesn’t REQUIRE the ‘trappings’—but it’s the ‘trappings’ that make it appealing, enjoyable.

  • Wow, Thecla! Did you even read what I wrote, or re-read what YOU just wrote?? To all intents and purposes, your”religion”, whatever it is, seems to be some kind of product for sale (“buy into the Christian commitment” ? Seriously? )-I also noticed that in your presentation of what you consider a”good religion”, even though you mouth what could be viewed as pseudo -“christian” platitudes, the Risen Saviour Himself seems to have little place in what you consider “christianity”.Why is that, Thecla? You say that it’s the”trappings”that makes Christianity appealing and enjoyable. WOW.I must confess that I didn’t think the purpose of authenic Christianity was to be “appealing and enjoyable”; I didn’t see that description in Scripture. I thought Our Saviour came to seek and save those who were lost, and our response is outlined in Matthew 25:31-36.At any rate, Thecla, I’m afraid that you and I must agree to disagree on this issue; I am puzzled by your mindset and your seemingly self-centered approach, so…I’m seeking clarification of your position. I would hope that the Glory of Almighty God will be your motivation for worship and service, not the simple flesh-pleasing focus on”smells and bells”.I await your reply.

  • I think I get your points Thecla. The last thing I would add is that Christianity is based on Jesus Christ and nothing else. Once you get past the outer wrappings, which can be appealing and even beneficial, then what you do with Jesus is all that matters. If you only want the external rituals and not Jesus, then you miss the point. I agree that at times it may be the rituals that attract people, but those will always be less than the focus of those rituals, meaning Jesus. He is the point, not anything else. Ultimately, if satisfaction is found in the rituals than I fear you may come up short when it really matters.

  • Is it truly possible to be a devout Christian without going to church? Much of Christianity is reliant on traditions and rituals that have been passed down from Christ and the apostles. By changing these traditional practices, are the “spirituals” changing the religion? Part of the Christian teaching is that Jesus sacrificed his life to save us from our sins. Therefore, those who cant “wake up on Sunday mornings and listen to a preacher talk past them,” are not really committed to Christianity and are not really interested in the Preacher’s sermons. I believe that these spiritual people should be considered Nones, not modern Christians. Neighborhood BBQ’s, scripture studies in pubs, etc. should be means for Nones to return to (or enter) Christian life, but they should not be considered practicing Christians. Considering Nones as Christians, belittles the devotion of avid church going Christians.