A Quick Overview of the Triple Nones


I remember my surprise at the response to a book I wrote in 2001, Surprising Insights from the Unchurched. The fact that I remember something that took place almost a quarter of a century ago is a testament to its indelible mark on my memory.

My research team studied the formerly unchurched, persons who had been out of the church for a long time (or their entire lives) and later became a part of a local congregation. Because of our large number of surveys and because our research team interviewed many of them in person, we ended up with a treasure trove of insights. We learned so much about why people who had rejected the church decided to come to a local congregation.

But my surprise occurred when the book started selling well, and I got more speaking requests than I could ever handle. Church leaders were fascinated by this research. That fascination of why people attend or leave church continues today.

But it is the latest research that should garner a lot of attention.

The Burge Factor

Ryan Burge is my favorite religion researcher. We are thrilled to have his insights and fun personality on the Church Answers team.

What Burge does that is unique is that he researches research. He looks at the massive amounts of data other major firms produce and discerns patterns and trends. His regular content is aptly named Graphs about Religion.

Burge points out that many church leaders regularly assume they know the precise definitions of terms related to religion. For example, if you ask a church leader who “the Nones” are, you might get a blank stare or an incorrect answer. Ryan Burge, more than anyone else, introduced us to the Nones.

The Three Perspectives

Burge reminds us that there are at least three ways to measure religiosity. Here’s how he explains it:

The most widely accepted approach is called the three B’s:

Behavior – This is almost always measured by religious attendance.

Belief – This is measured in various ways, including views of the Bible, belief in angels, demons, God, heaven, hell, etc.

Belonging – This is what group you identify with on a survey – Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, No Religion, etc. (Burge, What Does it Mean to be ‘Religious’?).

Burge notes, for example, that our data on the Nones come from the singular category of “belonging.” However, when we look at attendance statistics, we need to look at the category of “behavior.” The research shifts to “belief” when, for example, we seek to discover what people think about the doctrines of Scripture.

While church leaders often confuse these categories by assigning attributes and data to the wrong category, hardly any of us, myself included, knew about the “triples nones.” We can now grasp a new category in religious data thanks to Burge.

Meet the Triple Nones

Let’s move quickly to the definition of a triple none by looking at the three perspectives noted above. Simply put, a person has to pass three tests to be a triple none. 

  • Behavior. They never attend church
  • Belief. They have no beliefs about God other than they doubt or deny his existence. In other words, they are agnostics or atheists.
  • Belonging. They claim no religious affiliation or preference.

The most notable data Burge produced in this aspect was the number of Americans that fit all three categories. Only eight percent of Americans are triple nones, meaning that they never attend church; they have no beliefs about God; and they claim no religious affiliation or preference.

So, what does that mean for churches and Christians? Frankly, I’m not sure. I don’t know how it relates to how I approach those who don’t follow Christ and those who don’t attend church. Until I can get my head around this information, I will continue sharing the gospel wherever God gives me an opportunity.

But the triple nones fascinate me. There is a lot more to come. What do you think?

Posted on June 17, 2024

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Don Giesmann says on

    Thank you for the excellent newsletters. Its good we know where the triple nones stand . Very clear.
    The love of Christ and the caring by Christians does reach triple nones. Having relevant preaching and teaching an be a blessing. Hospital visits. Caring phone calls. Having VBS and childrens’ programs can help.

    In Christ,

    Don Giesmann

  • Fred Higgins says on

    Did the questions that the “triple nones” answered, include witchcraft, sorcery, life after death, philosophy, communism and the myriad other possibilities of religion, mentioned specifically? Because if those “religions” were not specifically mentioned, the research is faulty and offers no proof there’s actually a “triple none”.

  • Dr. Larry Elrod says on

    The triple nones may be easier to deal with since they are clear on their preferences. It is the silent quitters still in the church that create the greatest challenge to church growth.

  • Dr. Larry Elrod says on


    The triple nones may be easier to deal with since they are clear on their preferences. It is the silent quitters still in the church that create the greatest challenge to church growth.


  • Robin G Jordan says on

    I see a need to do research into how that particular group of nones became that way and how the other groups of nones became their particular way. This might provide some insights into how members of each group might be approached. It struck me that the body of research that has been done related to the dynamics of denial miht also be useful. One of the findings was that people who deny the existence of something, its extent, its seriousness, and its effects are actually deying it at a more basic level than is apparant to the observer and when working with an individual in denial, one deals with the denial at that level. For example, a person may appear to be denying the seriousness of a problem but they are actually denying the problem’s existence. Like you, I am intrigued.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      That would be fascinating, Robin. We did similar research that was published in my book, Surprising Insights from the Unchurched. The book and it’s accompanying research are old and needs to be updated.