“I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore
I don’t know how I’m meant to feel anymore
When do you think it will all become clear?
Because I’m being taken over by The Fear.”
(Lily Allen, “The Fear”)
Imagine that I handed you a masterful treatise outlining the intellectual, sociological, and cultural problems that are turning young people into “nones”—the forty percent of people under the age of thirty who say they have no religious affiliation—and how to win them over. What would you do with it?
I’d advise you to fold it up into a nice piece of origami, then stick it in the pocket of your out-of-season pants. You’ll discover it later like an unexpected dollar bill, and it might even be helpful then. Right now, it would only cause fear.
Before we seek evangelization, we have to seek enrollment. I learned this from Seth Godin about business, but it’s not a business principle. It’s a human principle.
When we encounter someone who is “Other,” like the nones, we often seek to convince, to win over, to show the power of our position. We’re engaging in a game where someone has to win, and someone has to lose.
This is called a finite game, in the words of James Carse. This type of game has strict limits. It deals in scarcity. Its purpose is winning. Elections, sports, and debate clubs are examples of this.
Faith is not a finite game, yet we can easily make it into one. When we do this, we alienate others. If a person feels that they’ve been roped into something that they didn’t opt-in to, their visceral reaction is fear and anger. We all know the uncomfortable feeling of being swept along before we’re really convinced. Have you ever been upsold by a salesman? It’s not pleasant. We’ve been made the object of another person’s ulterior motives to control us.
The alternative is enrollment. Enrollment means helping another person feel comfortable enough to take a metaphorical walk with us. It’s letting them know that they are seen and heard.
Enrollment is an infinite game: a game that is played for the purpose of continuing to play the game. Watch a grandfather playing catch with his grandson or a group of kids playing tag. The purpose of tag is not really to win; the purpose of tag is to keep playing tag.
Enrollment is like starting an infinite game. We create a space where people can stand on a firm foundation with us and feel safe enough to laugh, and maybe even to snort while they do it.
Enrollment means that someone wants to embark on a journey—not get whisked away to a destination.
The Myriad Virtues of the Nones
“The Church will have to initiate everyone—priests, religious and laity—into this ‘art of accompaniment’, which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 169)
The virtue of the nones is that they don’t want to be treated as nones. They don’t want to be called nones (forgive me, nones, I don’t like the word either—I’m using it in this article only to reframe it). They want to be taken seriously as individuals.
They don’t want us to talk about them in broad sweeping categories, as if everyone who didn’t check a box under “Religion” on a form is the same. They are suspicious of broad, sweeping claims (which is generally a good thing); they have a keen eye for spotting inauthenticity; and they don’t have time for things that they don’t think are relevant to their lives.
“Nones” are nones because they’ve chosen not to get on a bus—certainly not a bus with “RELIGION” spray painted on it in bright red letters. If they get on any bus at all, it’s most likely to have peace, diversity, compassion, and love wins painted on it. But that bus isn’t listed on any of the forms that ask about religious affiliation. And so they are nones.
Our fixation with the nones means that we’re putting immense focus on the fact that they are not checking a box. Yet boxes are the very thing that has kept them from identifying as Catholic in the first place.
We want that box to be checked. We want all or nothing. “You’re either Catholic or you’re not,” some say—a well-meaning but problematic phrase. This is an attitude that seeks box-checking, not enrollment.
The nones don’t want to get on a bus that might take them to a place they don’t want to go. They are willing to embark on a journey, though—especially when they feel like they are co-creators of the journey.
And there’s nothing that people are more ready to enroll in than the journey of their own lives.
Enrolling on the Journey of Personal Vocation
When Jesus called the first apostles, he didn’t seek their complete and total dedication from day one. He said, “Come, follow me.” He sought enrollment.
Jesus appealed to them personally. He didn’t have a religious test. He didn’t have a box to check. He simply wanted them to follow him.
To the fishermen, he says that he will make them fishers of men. To Nathaniel, he says that he saw him under the fig tree before Philip called him. To Matthew, he simply says, “Follow me.” He didn’t seek Matthew’s entire heart at the tax collector’s post. He sought to have dinner at his house. Jesus formed his disciples through personal experience.
A person with arms folded, eyes squinted, and ears closed is not going to be swayed by mere facts. But doubt surrenders to experience. And experience can only happen if there’s enrollment.
Most importantly, enrollment gives us the space to get to know people so that we can call them according to their personal vocations and not treat them according to a categorical prescription.
A treatment plan sounds like this: Get better at using social media, hold more Theology on Taps, and engage in New Apologetics.
Calling a person according to their personal vocation sounds like a question: “Eric, what got you interested in organic farming? What kind of gift do you want to offer the world with your life? How can I support you in your journey?” These questions are best accompanied by the sound of a wine cork popping and the music of The Infamous Stringdusters.
Earn enrollment first. The Truth will thrive there.