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Nominal Christianity (1st part)

A typically European phenomenon

An article from Evert van de Poll for Vista Magazine (Issue 31).

One of the most striking aspects of the socioreligious context of Europe is the high proportion of so-called nominal Christians. These are people who are affiliated to a Church and/or identifying as ‘Christian’ in surveys. They only occasionally, or never, attend a Church service, and many of them do not believe in a personal God, let alone in Jesus Christ as the unique Saviour of mankind. 

Despite the declining influence of the Church in society and increasing secularisation, many people across Europe still maintain some sort of link with the Church as an institution, or with the Christian religion. In most countries this is more than fifty percent of the population. 

From the point of view of Gospel communication and church development this is an extremely important aspect of the European context. For all the missiological emphasis on reaching out to the completely secularised and creating churches for the unaffiliated or unchurched, we easily overlook the fact that the majority of the European public has not severed all links with the Christian faith. 

The idea of nominality 

To begin with, the term ‘nominalism’ can be misleading, since it also refers to a philosophical school of thought. With respect to religious identity and practice, it might be better to use the term ‘nominality’ instead. 

Alternative terms are ‘cultural’, ‘notional’, ‘de-churched’ and ‘unchurched’ Christians. In French- speaking countries, the standard term is chrétiens sociologiques (sociological Christians) which has the same connotations as ‘cultural Christians’ in English. Similarly, the Spanish speak of cristianismo sociológico or cultural. Germans speak of Namenschristen (‘Christians in name’) or Kirchenferne which could be paraphrased as ‘peripheral’ or ‘marginal Church members’. This is in fact the precise meaning of the Dutch equivalent randkerkelijken. 

Whatever the terminology, there is always the idea behind it that something is lacking, that something is not as it should be. This is what we call the idea of nominality. It can be described as the discrepancy between a stated adherence to a faith and a committed application of that faith. This discrepancy can be observed in all religions, but it takes various forms. ‘The’ nominal Christian does not exist. In real life, there are many ways in which people can be at variance with the Christian identity they claim. ‘Nominal’ is a technical term, that is collectively used for a variety of phenomena. 

While social scientists try to refrain from giving a value judgment when they analyse forms of nominal Christianity, mission researchers and theologians usually qualify these as deviations from normality, in opposition to another, perhaps truer or more authentic form of Christianity. 

How to define nominal? 

Where exactly do we draw the line between authentic and ‘in name only’? It is virtually impossible to give one precise definition of ‘a nominal Christian’ that will satisfy everyone who uses this term. It all depends on the criteria that are being used. Social scientists usually look at the frequency of Church attendance, but things become complicated when they take in account other indicators such as beliefs or ‘how much does your religion mean to you’. 

In Church and mission circles, ‘nominal’ is often defined by way of negation, of something that is lacking. ‘People who are called Christian, but…’ Of course, everything depends on what comes after ‘but’. Let me mention four negative definitions that are often used: 

1. ‘…not affiliated.’ Some statistics use the criterion of church membership. Nominal Christians, then, are those who identify as Christians in surveys or in conversations, without having a link with a Christian community or institution. While this approach makes us attentive to forms of Christian faith outside the institutional Church, it overlooks the possible discrepancies between Christian identity and commitment within the Church. 

2. ‘…not regularly going to Church.’ Socioreligious studies often use this criterion of attending a Church service, to distinguish between nominal and practising Christians. Usually the line between the two categories is drawn at once a month on average. Obviously, this approach is limited because commitment to the Christian faith implies much more than attending church services. 

3. ‘…not converted (born again).’ In Evangelical circles, this is a classic criterion. Dramatically put, if a person has not entered the fold in the proper way, he really does not belong with the sheep, even though he might go to Church very often and behave very much as a Christian should. This approach leads to a ‘true versus nominal’ discourse that sometimes goes as far as implying that nominal Christians are not really Christians at all. When
conversion is defined in
an Evangelical way, this
discourse creates the
impression that ‘true’
equals Evangelical,
leaving all the rest of the
 Christian population as 
nominals needing to be converted. There is also the risk of an exclusive attitude towards other expressions of Christian faith.

4.‘…not committed to discipleship.’ Some Evangelical authors describe nominality in terms of superficiality, of Christian confession and church membership without Christian discipleship. This approach leads to another kind of ‘true versus nominal’ discourse. Contrary to the preceding one, it does not deny that nominals can be real Christians who have obtained salvation. Its emphasis is instead on spiritual growth and a commitment to living out one’s Christian faith on a daily basis. 

While it is understandable that church leaders are concerned about the quality of the Christian life among their membership, there is a risk of overemphasising the sanctification aspect of the Christian faith, at the expense of other aspects. Moreover, we do not think it is justified to disqualify everyone who does not meet the standards of discipleship as ‘nominal’, a Christian ‘in name only’.

(The second part of the article will be published next week)

Evert Van de Poll

Professor of Religious Studies and Missiology, European Theological Faculty, Leuven, Belgium

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