In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien writes of a race of ancient tree shepherds called the Ents. In the midst of the war between good and evil engulfing Middle-earth, the Ents are insular, worrying more about their lost Entwives. Many have fallen so deeply asleep that it is not clear whether they will ever reawaken.
Young hobbits Merry and Pippin begin a relationship with the leader of the Ents, Treebeard, and do everything they can to open his eyes to the needs of the world in light of its great conflict. The hobbits are somewhat successful in their efforts, and Treebeard gathers together the few remaining mobile Ents for an Entmoot to discuss the matter.
The Ents are maddeningly slow and methodical. After days of convening, Treebeard breaks away to give the hobbits an update. Hoping to hear about their decision to go to war against the forces of the Dark Lord Sauron, all Treebeard reports is that they have decided that hobbits should be added to the accepted list of other known creatures.
In the movie version, only when Treebeard sees the carnage enacted by the evil wizard Saruman against the forest does he bypass the slowness inherent in his race, call the Ents to action, and go to war. As Gandalf the wizard had earlier predicted, if the Ents awakened, they would discover they were strong.
And they were.
I am reminded of this scene often in relation to the rise of the nones. Personally, I am not surprised by the many findings of the studies on the nones rapid rise. It's just the latest manifestation of a cultural trajectory we've been on and that I've been charting for some time.
But I am grateful. Why?
Because I pray it will be the desperately needed wake-up call for American Christianity – a wake-up call to shake us from the trivial and divisive, the mundane and the meaningless. This is no time for such things.
The need is too urgent, the day too dark, and the challenge too great.
This is no time for cross-town church competitions for transfer growth and then patting ourselves on the back for reaching the already convinced as if we somehow made a dent in hell.
This is no time to cling to outdated forms of communication or style because of the fear of change – not to mention the selfish attitudes we turn into theological fences we then build around our personal taste.
This is no time to cave in to spiritual narcissism, in which the primary concern is whether people are fed, are ministered to, or "get anything out of the worship experience," as though the mission is caring for believers as consumers instead of dying to ourselves to reach a lost world.
This is no time for seminaries and their leaders to bow down in front of the academy, as if the ultimate goal is getting another paper into another academic journal on some inane issue irrelevant to anyone but fellow academics, when students are in desperate need to be trained and developed to lead churches to their fullest redemptive potential.
This is no time to keep putting evangelism down in the name of discipleship as if spending energy on one takes away from spending energy on the other, thus falsely spiritualizing a passive approach to outreach.
This is no time for denominations to protect outdated programs, agencies, policies, or strategies that no longer work – continuing to foist them onto churches in the name of effectiveness, self-preservation and revenue stream.
This is no time to wave the flag of social ministry and justice issues so single-mindedly in the name of cultural acceptance and the hip factor that it becomes our collective substitute for the clear articulation of the gospel.
In other words, this is no time to wander around looking for Entwives or spend time worrying about how to classify hobbits.
It's time to wake up and engage the battle at hand.
And that battle is clear: we must do whatever it takes, barring any reduction of the gospel itself, to bring this world to Christ. The rise of the nones will only continue. Our only hope, and the heart of our Great Commission, is to stem the tide by turning the nones into wons.
And it can happen.
Sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark have written that at the time of the American Revolution, only about one-fifth of Americans could be considered "churched." By the time of the Civil War, that number had increased to one-third. Today it is more than half. Granted, that trend has now reversed, but the climb in involvement throughout early American history can be recaptured. "The churching of America," Finke and Stark offer, "was accomplished by aggressive churches committed to vivid otherworldliness."
If we make that same commitment again, we may just find – as did the Ents…
… that we are strong.
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Baker). Click here to order this resource from Amazon.
Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America