A Pew Research Center study released last year, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” showed that a rapidly growing number of Americans, when asked to declare their religious affiliation, indicate “none.” Nearly 23% of the population declare themselves unaffiliated with any faith—almost the same proportion who identify as evangelical Christians. Alarmed by this trend, traditional faith groups—and by extension religion publishers—are anxious to reach these “nones.”
Recent and forthcoming books analyze the phenomenon, and books for ministers and churches offer guidance on how to bring the nonreligious into (or back into) the fold. But the real challenge lies in publishing books that successfully reach the disaffected themselves. Discoverability becomes an even knottier problem when readers don’t think they care about your topic. How will those indifferent to religion find books they’re not looking for, especially if they avoid anything that carries a whiff of religion?
Often the first step for religious book publishers trying to attract the nonreligious is a title that’s fresh and contemporary—one that confronts unbelief head-on, preferably with a dash of humor. Cliché-free cover art also helps (no pastels, please). In Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious, released in January by InterVarsity Press, Editor Helen Lee says Dark writes “that the lines between ‘Christian and non-Christian,’ between the ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious,’ are not nearly as stark as some might think. He acknowledges the mystery and uniqueness of our faith journeys and allows us to talk about religion and Christianity in ways that are more nuanced and gracious in tone and attitude.” The tone Dark wants to set for the book extends to the look and feel of the jacket, Lee says. It is clean and modern, in vivid red and black.
Some “nones” are known as “dones”—the formerly religious who have turned away from institutionalized religion—and publishers hope memoirs by ex-believers who have circled back to faith will resonate with them. In 2015, Howard Books published Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome, a memoir by Reba Riley, who left the fundamentalist church of her childhood and sampled 30 different religions before her 30th birthday, finally landing in a place she calls the “Godiverse.” Howard will release the paperback March 15.
Nelson Books published Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans to critical acclaim (PW gave it a starred review) in 2015; the memoir traces her journey through disillusionment and back to church as she explored the meaning and power of the sacraments. Coming in April from Nelson is Outlaw Christian: Finding Authentic Faith by Breaking the Rules by Jacqueline Bussie. “A number of our authors affirm the doubts and questions many people feel about religious faith in general and the institutional church in particular,” says Jeff James, v-p of marketing for Nelson Books. “They are also willing to explore points of view that run contrary to common stereotypes,” as in The Faith of Christopher Hitchens by Larry Taunton, which will be released in April.
In fall 2015, Penguin Random House’s Convergent Books imprint published Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber, a pastor whose first book, Pastrix (FaithWords, 2014), was a bestseller. Bolz-Weber’s goal is to explode the conventional wisdom about what it means to be a Christian, and Accidental Saints has more than 50,000 copies in print, according to Convergent.
Charismatic evangelical Christians believe in signs and wonders—speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing, deliverance from demonic spirits. Larry Sparks, publisher for charismatic press Destiny Image, says, “Even the modern church, with its lights, show, music, and ‘relevant’ preaching, none of which is inherently bad, is failing to retain people, because atmosphere can never substitute for a genuine encounter with God. The church needs to distinguish itself as an otherworldly venue where God can be experienced.” In October, Destiny Image will publish God Is Good: He’s Better Than You Think by Bill Johnson, pastor of Bethel Church in Redding, Calif. “I see a generational shift with many young people and young adults flocking to major centers of spiritual activity like Bethel Church,” Sparks says.
In November, charismatic Christian publisher Whitaker House released Unanswered: Lasting Truth for Trending Questions by Jeremiah Johnston, a professor from Houston Baptist Seminary who reaches out to the unaffiliated with speeches and with radio shows in which listeners can ask questions and raise issues that keep them out of church.
Mainline denominational publisher Chalice Press (Disciples of Christ) also wants to appeal to those who are questioning. Marketing director Steve Knight says that Becoming Religish: A Guide for Soulful Living in a Spiritual-but-Not-Religious World by Rachelle Mee-Chapman, coming in June, is “not a Christian book.” He adds, “It’s for spiritual seekers who choose to remain outside of institutionalized faith. She wants to help readers create authentic, right-fit spiritual practices for themselves and their families.”
Finding Elusive Readers
According to Pew, the fastest-growing groups of nones are those ages 18–29 and 30–49, and reaching the former is a special focus for Nelson Books. Says James, “We are engaging millennials with voices from their own generation,” with authors including Jefferson Bethke (It’s Not What You Think: Why Christianity Is About So Much More than Going to Heaven When You Die), Rich Wilkerson (Sandcastle Kings: Meeting Jesus in a Spiritually Bankrupt World), Judah Smith (Life Is _____: God’s Illogical Love Will Change Your Existence), all of whom published books in 2015, and Chad Veach, whose Unreasonable Hope: Finding Faith in the God Who Brings Purpose to Your Pain will be released in May. “We try to speak to millennials in more conversational and authentic ways, using the digital environments where they feel comfortable and it is easier to interact,” James says, referring to channels such as Facebook Live, Google Hangouts, Instagram, Periscope, and YouTube. He declined to give sales figures for the books, saying only that most exceeded expectations.
One way to reach the nonreligious might be through other, seemingly unrelated topics. Whitaker House recently released two diet and exercise books: Diet Diagnosis by David Nico in December 2015, and Kick-Start the New You by Ingrid Macher in January. Along with advice on getting fit and eating better, the authors recount their spiritual transformations and Christian faith, “although neither emphasizes God or the Bible,” says Cathy Hickling, publicity manager. “Macher has six million social media followers, many of whom are diehard fans who learn that she’s a Christian after they’re sold on her methods. David Nico is similar—most of his followers just like his very detailed, up-to-date knowledge on diet and nutrition.”
Norman Wirzba, Duke University professor of theology and ecology, has written on ecological issues (From Nature to Creation; Food and Faith; Making Peace with the Land), and readers uninterested in religion might find their way to his books through those topics, before moving on to The Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity (HarperOne, Mar.). In The Way of Love, Wirzba writes that love, not religious trappings, is fundamental to Christianity and that “to fail to love is to lose God.”
On Being Jewish
Joni Sussman, publisher of Kar-Ben, cites a 2013 Pew survey finding that even though “American Jews overwhelmingly say they are proud to be Jewish and have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people,” 22% self-identify as “Jews of no religion,” a segment that has been increasing over the past 50 years. Says Sussman, “We publish several books each year that, while Jewish in theme, do not presuppose a Jewish connection.” This spring Kar-Ben will publish Og’s Ark, a Jewish folktale, and a Kar-Ben Sesame Street title, Shalom Everybodeee! Grover’s Adventures in Israel. “Both of these stories easily resonate beyond the Jewish community,” Sussman says. According to Sussman, Kar-Ben markets its children’s books to secular Jewish families through parenting magazines, parenting and “mommy” blogs that review books for preschoolers, websites for intermarried families, and other media aimed at parents and families, but not specifically aimed at the Jewish market.
Jewish Lights launched its SkyLight Paths division in 2001, expanding its audience to the spiritually eclectic. Says publisher Stuart Matlins, “We saw that while many people were interested in spiritual growth, they were less firmly planted in traditional religion. We wanted to help them find and enhance the spiritual in their lives, to find meaning through the wisdom teachings of the world’s great religious traditions.”
A 2015 SkyLight Paths title, Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent by Rabbi Rami Shapiro, is aimed squarely at the unaffiliated, and coming this May is Gospel—The Book of Matthew: A New Translation with Commentary Reclaiming Jesus’s Wisdom as Spiritual Guidance for Everyone, translated and annotated by Thomas Moore. Moore also is the author of A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World (Avery, 2014), and his Care of the Soul (HarperCollins, 1992) was a bestseller and groundbreaker among the generic, nonsectarian spirituality books that began to gain popularity in the late 1980's and ’90s.
As the trend toward “no religion” picks up speed and fewer Americans align themselves with a standard faith, there may be no end of books for the religion-averse who still find themselves spiritually hungry.
Correction: An earlier version of this article attributed a quote to David Dark that should have been attributed to Helen Lee.