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Chaplaincy and the Rise of the "Nones"

Have you heard about the Pew Research Group’s studies of religious life in America? According to their research, we’re watching a rise in the number of people they call religious “nones.” These are people who have no religion. They are not necessarily hostile to faith but don’t identify with it. I’ve been reflecting on how this affects chaplaincy here in South Carolina as well as in the Pacific Northwest, where I’m from, and where the numbers of religious “nones” are higher.

Understanding of Chaplaincy

Maybe you’ve seen this: fewer people asking, “Why do we need a chaplain?” and more are asking, “What is a chaplain?” This has long been the trend in the Pacific Northwest and I believe it is no more than a couple of decades away in South Carolina. As older generations die the newer generations replacing them have less exposure to church. If they have heard about chaplains, they will not know the difference between being a chaplain in the workplace and being a pastor in a church. And there is a difference. We must not let them reject us as chaplains because they see us as representing what they have already rejected.

Chaplaincy Needs to Change

That’s one reason I say chaplaincy needs to change. We will have fewer and fewer opportunities to minister to people if we follow models they have already rejected. This is one of the dynamics behind the decision of many denominational churches to change their names and worship styles. They are trying to reach a group of people who are rejecting traditional denominational church.

In the same way, we cannot approach the “nones,” especially those in public safety, with an agenda that is church-driven. We need to be there to serve them, meet them where they are, and address their felt needs. Luckily, there are many creative and effective ways we can do this. For example, we can join peer support teams and take up non-traditional roles in safety, EMT response, or community risk reduction (CRR). Those avenues of service allow us to work alongside first responders in ways that our traditional chaplain role cannot. Some of us may also need to get more advanced training in areas that complement our pastoral skills, such as psychology, counseling, and suicide intervention. Focusing on those things helps us develop a growing understanding of the behavioral health needs of our first responders. If that’s what they think of when they think of having the chaplain there, they can more easily see the value.

I’m no prophet, but I think I can see where we are heading 20 years down the road.

  • The generations with the greatest faith outlook will be all but gone. This will be reflected in the church’s waning influence in the culture. I think we can already see this in some of our societal trends relating to crime, disintegration of the family unit, and general disrespect for human life. Many in the newer generations will have had no exposure to a faith-based message. Their parents will have not taken them to religious services. As the culture becomes more secular, people of deep faith who are in the workplace will be harder to find and their influence will decrease.

  • If our future commanders come from the generations of the “nones,” we cannot expect to have a warm welcome just because we are clergy. If they cannot find a use for us, or if they think we bring our own agenda, they won’t use us much.

  • As we work among the public, the question “what is a chaplain?” will be more common. If we cannot find a way to care for those who do not share our faith, or any faith, we will be used less and less.

  • Here in South Carolina we will see more lawsuits concerning the exercise of faith in the workplace. This does not mean those who bring these suits will win. That will depend on our legislators and court system. But the cost and the hassle of lawsuits and the wish to avoid them will be a strong motivator to abolish many chaplaincies. It’s just expedient. To slow this process, we need to make sure what we are doing is legal.

We are deceiving ourselves to think this is going to be easy. Most of the non-religious are not hostile to the hope we have; they just don't care or don't think that it is relevant to them. I still believe that chaplaincy is a relevant field and our message of hope transcends all cultural winds. And frankly we may be the only “clergy” that some of these folks will ever deal with. We provide a message for a nation that is tired, angry, and so desperately needs a message of hope. As chaplains, we can have an unparalleled access as to first responders and members of the public in their times of most desperate need.

Chaplain Chris M. Wade President

South Carolina Public Safety Chaplains Association

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