Elizabeth was twenty-one when I first met her ten years ago. At the time, she was struggling to discern her life's purpose and direction. Disillusioned by the church, Elizabeth experienced several interruptions in her life, involving lost relationships that left her emotionally numb, rebellious, and uncertain.
Elizabeth expressed her distaste for common church beliefs such as "hell." Her negative experiences of church, as well as the deaths of members of her family, culminated in the wounding of her soul, which ultimately led to a search for new images and outright rebellion.
She painfully connected the notion of going to hell to being punished for not doing everything she was supposed to do. She was skeptical of religion and yet she would pray over meals and, periodically, about her struggles. Elizabeth suggested that her experiences of the church were about being told that unless she followed the “right way,” she was doomed and would never be right.
Elizabeth was clear that putting God in a box is not the way it was meant to be. “Right now,” she explains, “I'm not practicing any religion since work, school and life have me extremely busy. I do pray about things every once in a while, but the whole religious thing is kind of out there right now. I do believe that there is a God. I just have not found the strength to return to church or decided what I want or need right now.”
Typical of many people struggling with trying to make sense of life, when the Elizabeths of the world suffer from family losses and do not have a safe space to sort things through, it becomes easy to shut down from hearing anything about God, religion, faith and the sort.
Elizabeth is an example of a group of people called the NONES, a group of people who don’t identify with any religion or church. The NONES are now the fastest-growing religious group in America—the latest Pew Research Center survey, reports 25 percent of the country—80 million people—say that they are NONES. Disconnected from the church, these religiously unaffiliated and people have always been with us, of course, but their new classification and the vast numbers who have flocked to their “non-label” in just a few short years have been breathtaking.
For some reason, I resonate with the Elizabeths of the world. There’s no other way to put it: I identify with the NONES. Whether it's listening to a barista with tattoos, who has no desire for the church, or a middle-schooler who believes an iPad mini is a gift from God, or understanding the so-called irresponsible college graduate who can't find employment and lives in their parent's basement.
I wasn't able to give Elizabeth any answers, at least none that would satisfy her. I just decided to be present with her, to acknowledge her, to let her know that she was seen, heard, and had a safe place to belong and sort things out to dream again when she was ready. I decided to walk with her and allowed her to question doubt, and even rebel.
It brings me joy to walk with the Elizabeths through their "a-ha" moments. I’m passionate about sharing before and after stories with people of how God unexpectedly steps in and changes everything. And I’m still listening, watching and drawn to other Elizabeths, as I believe that somehow connecting with others by sharing stories to finding meaning satisfies a fundamental hunger and calling for me.
I'm drawn to the NONE's search for meaning in a world saturated with information, most of which is unfiltered and not fact-checked. What would it look like for others to connect with the Elizabeths of the world? What would the workplace be? What about our schools? What would our places of worship?
Will you and your congregation join me in connecting with the Elizabeth’s in the communities surrounding your churches to allow them to be seen, heard, inspired and find a place to belong?
On the Journey,