A typical European phenomenon
What is nominal Christianity? While Christians usually define ‘nominal Christians’ by what they are not (see 1st part), this second part of the article of Evert van de Poll for the Vista magazine (Issue 31) tries to bring a comprehensive definition of who are the ‘nominal Christians’
Parameters of being Christian
All negative definitions are problematic for two reasons: by concentrating on what is lacking they do not say much about the ‘nominals’ themselves. Moreover, they are too general because they focus one criterion, or perhaps two. But being a Christian implies more than going to Church, more than being born again, more than the practice of discipleship. It implies all that plus other aspects as well.
In social science as well as in practical theology, it has become customary to summarize all these aspects in the three Bs of believing – belonging – behaving. But even these are imprecise and insufficient. With respect to believing, we should make a distinction, as theologians have always done, between believing ‘in’ (having faith in God) from believing ‘that’ (having faith convictions). Belonging stands for belonging to a Church, but when it comes to that, we should distinguish affiliation or Church membership from actual participation in the life of a Church. Obviously, the two do not always go together.
Behaving, finally, refers to religious practice. This can mean the spiritual life of a believer (prayer, inner life, spiritual development) as well as a believer’s witness and conduct in the public sphere, in society. Not covered by the three Bs is yet another aspect, namely initiation, the technical term for becoming a Christian. This has to do with Christian education, conversion, baptism and so on.
On the basis of these considerations we would suggest the following seven aspects or parameters of being a Christian:
- 1) Initiation (how does a person become a Christian)
- 2) Faith (spiritual experience, meaning, believing in)
- 3) Beliefs (knowledge, believing that)
- 4) Church attachment
- 5) Church participation
- 6) Spiritual life (practice of piety)
- 7) Public practice (witness, Christian conduct in daily life in society)
Do all these parameters have the same importance? The answer depends on whether we are talking about becoming or being a Christian. Theologically, in the so-called order of salvation, initiation comes first and the other aspects follow. In real life, we see that some people already participate in Church life, adopt a Christian behaviour, pray, read the Bible, and adhere to Biblical beliefs, before they actually come to the assurance of salvation and ‘take position’ as a Christian.
As for becoming a Christian, this is a deliberate life-orientation, an initial choice in the process of turning to God as he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. This can be sudden and instantaneous, but it can also be progressive, spread over time; as the fruit of a thoughtful and assumed assimilation of a Christian education. The technical term is conversion, but language in which people express this can vary, as it depends very much on their Church context. It is accompanied by a public confession of faith, often linked with baptism, but not necessarily so.
When it comes to being a Christian, this is an intention, an orientation, a continual choosing with respect to all the aspects of the Christian life. Functioning as a member of a community of believers. Holding to the true doctrine of the faith, practising piety, having a personal relationship with God, the transformation of our life, our daily conduct, our discipleship. Didn’t the apostle James say that faith without works is dead? In the final analysis, all aspects are important and decisive. So, we should consider them as parameters of being Christian, in a comprehensive way.
Ideally, all the aspects go together, but this is often not the case in real life. To be strong in one area of religiosity does not guarantee that a person will be strong in other areas. Inconsistency may be evident in any one of the parameters of being Christian.
Some believe that Jesus died for their sins without belonging to a Church, or without attending Church services. Others in turn are Church members but do not adhere to the major Christian doctrines. Or they will not abide with Biblical norms and values. And then, when it comes to belief, this can mean an affective relationship with God for some, while for others it is more a matter of convictions, or of agreement with the teaching of the church.
Proposed description of ‘nominality’
We would suggest that the qualification nominal, ‘in name only’, is appropriate when the discrepancy amounts to a more or less permanent contradiction with the name one bears. So here is our proposed description of ‘nominality’: Church members and unaffiliated people identifying themselves as ‘Christian’, who are in contradiction with basic principles of being Christian, with respect to becoming a Christian, faith, beliefs, church involvement and daily life.
This description takes up the parameters of being Christian that we have listed above. It can help us to measure nominality in specific areas, and help people move closer to Christ in that area.
A person could be called nominal in the area of becoming a Christian when there is no faith response to God’s offer of salvation through Jesus Christ, no confession of the faith in God and the lordship of Jesus. Someone who holds views that contradict the clear teaching of the Bible, such as a denial of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, can be called nominal in the area of beliefs.
Are we saying, then, that someone who shows one or more contradictions is not a Christian? No, all we are saying is that such a person is a ‘nominal’ Christian.
Definitions and characterisations of the various forms of nominal Christianity are helpful to better understand the people concerned, but we want to move beyond statistics and analyses and connect with them, meet them where they are – outside and inside the church communities – and encourage them to come closer to Christ in areas where they might be ‘far off’. (See above for the parameters of being Christian). A keyword is invitation. God continually invites all people to a deeper faith in Christ and a growing commitment to follow him.
Evert Van de Poll
Professor of Religious Science and Missiology at Evangelical Theological Faculty, Leuven and a pastor with the French Baptist Federation.