Christian Nominalism in Europe III: What is a Secular Christian?

Posted: March 20, 2013 in Bible Study, Catholic Church, Church Growth, Church Planting, Europe, Missions, nominal Christians
Tags: , , , , , ,
St. Mary's Basilica, Krakowfrom wikipedia

St. Mary’s Basilica, Krakow
from wikipedia

In Part I and II I looked at Matthew 7:13-27 as a beginning point for looking at “nominal” Christians, or (borrowing D.A. Carson’s term) “small-dose” Christianity.

Three Dollars Worth of God

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

— Wilbur Rees

Three dollars’ worth of God is a pretty small dose. Yet, such a picture appropriately describes the nominal Christian. The nominal Christian identifies himself as a Christian, but this identification does not have a great deal of impact on daily life.

The phrase “secular Christians” can be applied to the most important component of the broad intermediate group. These are people who call themselves Christian, but who for all practical purposes are secular. They live in a world centered on their social relationships, in which God has no everyday role. They do not expect God’s help, fear God’s judgment, or believe that things will happen God willing. They are indifferent to religion for the good reason that it gives them nothing of practical importance.[1]

            In their article regarding the “unexcluded middle,” David Voas and Abby Day contrast such secular Christians with “religiously committed Christians who identify with a church or denomination, believe in God, and attend services with some frequency.”[2] In the light of Jesus’ final words from the Sermon on the Mount, however, such a definition of a committed Christian is much too anemic. The Lausanne Occasional Paper 10, Christian Witness to Nominal Christians Among Roman Catholics (1980) says, “The heart of true Christianity is being a disciple of Jesus Christ in the terms of faith, love, and obedience.” Such a definition is much closer to the picture of the wise builder who has entered through the narrow gate.

Several terms are used to describe nominal Christianity: “Cultural Christianity”, “fuzzy fidelity”, “believing without belonging”, or in Poland, “believing, not practicing.” Such people are sometimes termed “lay liberals” or “Golden Rule Christians.” The last term seems somewhat ironic, when one realizes that the Golden Rule, from Matthew 7:12, is immediately followed by Jesus’ words, “Enter by the narrow gate.” In addition, religious researchers see many degrees of commitment along a continuum that includes three dimensions: belief, practice and affiliation. Belief is usually measured through surveys that ask respondents whether they agree with certain doctrinal points or articles of faith. Affiliation has traditionally referred to belonging to a particular Christian denomination, although more recently focused simply on whether one identifies oneself as Christian. Most researchers measure practice based on attendance at services. “For reasons of practicality it makes sense to work with three standard measures of religiosity: self-identification with a religion, frequency of attendance at religious services, and belief in God.”[3]

However, a definition of practice that focuses primarily on attendance at church services doesn’t fit with Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount, especially not with 7:21-23. Of course, such an attendance-based definition is much easier to measure. But a more biblical definition of a nominal Christian is the one used by the Lausanne Committee in the aforementioned working paper:

A nominal Christian is a person who has not responded in repentance and faith to Jesus Christ as his personal Saviour and Lord. He is a Christian in name only. He may be very religious. He may be a practising or non-practising church member. He may give intellectual assent to basic Christian doctrines and claim to be a Christian. He may be faithful in attending liturgical rites and worship services, and be an active member involved in church affairs. But in spite of all this, he is still destined for eternal judgment (cf. Matt. 7:21-23, Jas. 2:19) because he has not committed his life to Jesus Christ (Romans 10:9-10).[4]

            Of course, this type of definition is difficult to measure through surveys. In the end, only God knows the truth of a person’s heart, and only God knows the depth of His relationship with any human being. Only Jesus can say, “Enter into My presence” or “Depart from Me, I never knew you.” We can, of course, examine the fruit of a person’s life:

“What fruits does Christ seek? He seeks:

(1) the fruit of the Spirit, or Christian character as described in the Beatitudes and Gal. 5:22–23;

(2) the fruit of the lips, testimony and praise to God (Heb. 13:15);

(3) holy living (Rom. 6:22);

(4) good works (Col. 1:10);

(5) lost souls won to Christ (Rom. 1:13).

Professing Christians may be involved in religious activities and pretend to be saved, but if they are honestly born again, they will reveal these fruits in daily life.”[5]

In the next post, I will try to describe “nominal” Christianity in Europe in more detail, and summarize the Lausanne plan for reaching nominal Christians. In the final 2 parts, I will attempt to bring together the Matthew passage, what we will see about secular Christians in Europe, and the Lausanne plan as the basis for a strategy for reaching our “Christian-in-name-only” friends and neighbors. As always, questions, comments, or corrections are welcome!!

[1] Voas, David and Abby Day. 2010. Recognizing secular Christians: Toward an unexcluded middle in the study of religion (ARDA Guiding Paper Series). State College, PA: The Association of Religion Data Archives at The Pennsylvania State University, from http://www.thearda.com/rrh/papers/guidingpapers.asp. (3)

[2] Ibid. (2)

[3] Ibid. 6

[4] Lausanne Occasional Paper  10: Christian Witness to Nominal Christians Among Roman Catholics, Thailand 1980 from http://www.lausanne.org/en/documents/lops/55-lop-10.html

[5] Wiersbe, W. W. (1997). Wiersbe’s expository outlines on the New Testament (36). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.

Comments
  1. […] looked at Matthew 7:13-27 as a beginning point for looking at “nominal” Christians, and in part III, a definition of a “secular” or nominal Christian. In this post, I will look a little […]

  2. […] CHRISTIAN NOMINALISM IN EUROPE III: WHAT IS A SECULAR CHRISTIAN? […]

  3. […] (parts 1 and 2), leaning on an understanding of what we know about “secular Christians” (3 and 4), and even using the Lausanne occasional paper as a starting grid (part 5), an effective […]

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