Nones and dones find God-breathed belonging

There are times when new directions emerge from meticulous planning and long-range processes, and there are times when new directions completely take us by surprise. Unexpected as they are, one could say they knock the wind out of us; but in actuality, these surprises can be the very breath of fresh air we need.

This is how I feel about the “nones and dones” community in southeast Michigan.

One evening last October, I had a spontaneous idea: I decided to form a new group in Southeast Michigan for religious nones and dones on I realize now I was stumbling upon a community that needed to be formed and entering a conversation that needed to be heard.

‘Nones’ and ‘dones’ may be new terms for some of us, but they represent shifting realities we are all encountering with greater familiarity. The last decade has revealed that religious demographics are changing rapidly in the United States. The terminology of nones and dones emerged as sociological researchers began to explore these trends.

Nones and dones are not merely sociological terms, however. These terms represent the lives and faith stories of real people. Nones are those who are religiously unaffiliated with any particular faith tradition, though many are interested in spirituality. Dones are those who have maintained their religious identity (many of them are Christian), but have left established, institutional religious settings like churches.

The Pew Research Center coined the term “religious nones” when they conducted two groundbreaking Religious Landscape Studies in 2007 and 2015. They discovered that when survey participants were asked to identify their religious affiliation, a sizeable portion chose the prompt “none.” These nones include a large umbrella of people. Some are atheists or agnostics and some are theists. The Pew Research Center revealed that 61 percent of nones believe in God, and many consider spirituality to be a high value.

Sociologists Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope then put a spotlight on “the dones” and researched their stories. Packard and Hope conducted in-depth interviews with Christians who left their church communities behind. They discovered that most of the dones had not existed on the fringe of their congregations; instead, they had served as the most committed members and leaders.

A painful theme emerged in their research. Many dones came to believe that leaving the church was the only way to preserve their spiritual health. After trying to stay, they felt they had to leave when churches condemned their questions of faith, practiced judgment or refused to share power and leadership. Many dones value participatory forms of church in worship, mission and vision. Instead, they encountered churches obsessed with their own survival while refusing to change or adapt in participatory ways.

One day last fall, I began to wonder what it would be like to bring nones and dones together for friendship and spiritual conversation. That evening, I formed a new group on Meetup is a social networking website that allows people to form groups around common interests, forms of activism and conversation topics. Folks join groups online and then set up opportunities to meet locally in person.

Our description reads: We are a community for those who are spiritually curious but institutionally suspicious.

People began to join online, and it was exciting to watch that process unfold. About 50 people have joined our group so far. But the greatest surprise has taken place when we have gathered together in coffee shops, restaurants and homes to talk about spirituality, the teachings of Jesus and our own faith journeys. It has been the very breath of fresh air we have all needed.

The first time we gathered, five people arrived in a pizza parlor to meet one another. This was a small group, but I was stunned that two of the participants had driven an hour to attend our gathering. I realized that we may have opened a door to meet a tremendous spiritual need.

This inkling was confirmed at another meet-up in January. For the first couple of months, we struggled to make scheduling work for a fuller group, but at this gathering, we had the largest showing so far. Most people were meeting each other for the first time.

I could not have anticipated this, but only one question was required to open the stories that participants desired to share. I simply invited people to introduce themselves, asking: “Do you self-identify as a none, a done, something in between or something else?” And miraculously, that simple question opened a world of spiritual stories. For an hour and a half, one by one, every person felt free to tell the stories of their spiritual journeys. It was powerful. The conversation took my breath away, yet it was deeply energizing.

I need to share, however, that some of these stories were quite painful. Held in confidence, this community felt free to share their stories of exclusion and betrayal in churches. Perhaps most painful, when individuals left churches behind, they had to grieve their entire communities in one grand sweep of loss. Just as painful, for many, it seemed there was a dearth of spiritual community on the other side of that decision. I realized it was a rare occurrence for some to have such a space of trust and authenticity.

There was pain within the stories, but the experience itself had a sense of release. It connected us together. That’s what made it powerful. We were in this together, and it felt as though God was doing a new, beautiful thing among us.

So we continue to meet, and I believe we are just at the beginning of what this community will become. It is clear that Michigan nones and dones is a community of healing, connection and friendship. Together, we are reconciling ourselves — and even our painful stories — toward faith and spirituality. We are also reconciling them toward one another.

And for me, that’s the most beautiful surprise. Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Of course, the wild and wonderful Spirit of God would do such a holy thing as this!

To move within our churches,
to move beyond our churches,
to move communities together,
and restore the belonging
we felt we lost.

The God of surprise is the very breath of fresh air that we have all needed.

Renee RoedererRENEE ROEDERER is a PC(USA) teaching elder who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She is a writer, itinerant preacher and speaker, and organizer of Michigan nones and dones.