St. Vitus' Cathedral in Praguefrom wikipedia

St. Vitus’ Cathedral in Prague
from wikipedia

In Part I and II I 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 more closely at “secular” Christianity in Europe.

In “Recognizing Secular Christians,” Voas and Day point out that, despite the rise of secularism, “many people remain interested in church weddings and funerals, Christmas services and local festivals. They believe in something out there, pay at least lip service to so-called Christian values (mostly concerning duties to others rather than duties to God), and may be willing to identify with a denomination.”[1] Most people in Europe can still specify their religious background, and, depending on the wording of the question, will choose some Christian affiliation. In fact, these nominal Christians comprise more than half the population in most European countries.[2]

With the waning of religious influence in Europe, though, religious identity has remained, but a religious worldview has disappeared. Usually, a Christian worldview has been replaced by a secular worldview. Many Europeans still believe in God, but He is now a much more distant God. Although most Europeans would still not define themselves as atheist or materialist, they have become “practical atheists and materialists.” Of course, once again, there is a wide range of belief across Europe. Western Europe, especially France, is frequently cited as equivalent to all of Europe, and non-Europeans picture a secular, godless society – a picture that is abominable to most Poles.

However, many Europeans continue to search for a spiritual element to their lives. As one young man, fed up with organized religion, put it recently, “I couldn’t stay in the church and remain a hypocrite, giving assent to things I didn’t believe in. But I couldn’t become an atheist, either. There had to be a third way.” 41% of Norwegians, 48% of French and 54% of Czechs claim to not believe in God, but only 10%, 19% and 20% of those respondents self-identified as “atheist,” respectively.[3] Although many European countries have a high percentage of people who do not believe in God, there remain others – e.g. Malta, Ireland, Poland and Italy – where the percentage of people who do not believe in God remains well below 10%.[4] Over half of EU citizens believe there is a God (52%), and another quarter (27%) believe there is some sort of spirit or life force. Only 18% declare that they don’t believe there is any sort of spirit, God or life force[5]

So, although secularism is certainly on the rise, all across Europe, there remains a majority of Europeans for whom God has some importance. Even the Church, although perhaps limited to weddings, baptisms, and funerals, still functions as a part of their lives. In the light of Jesus’ words, though, some importance is not enough importance. In fact, the path where God has some importance seems to be the broad road to destruction, the crowded highway to hell. Religious leaders who don’t conscientiously warn their parishioners of the danger at the end of that road should take a close look at their sheepskin robes, and make sure the wolf pelt isn’t peeking through.

Of course, the words of Jesus are not reserved for a nominal Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Orthodox or Anglican. There was no brand name attached. In fact, Jesus indicates that some might even work miracles in His name – and yet never know Him. Such a description may even better fit some Evangelicals than the aforementioned denominations. And, in truth, what would be the point of converting a nominal Catholic into a nominal Evangelical? Jesus is expecting a radical life change, squeezing through the narrow gate, climbing the black (difficult) trail, building on the hearing and obeying of His commands – a life characterized by a living, intimate relationship with Him, not by affiliation with a denomination, mental assent to a set of beliefs and periodic church attendance.

In the next posts we will begin to look at strategies for life-transformation of nominal Christians. If you are in Europe, how would you describe the “nominal” Christian in your country?

[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. 11

[3] Greeley, Andrew. 2003. Religion in Europe at the End of the Second Millenium. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. Quoted in Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns, by Phil Zuckerman. Cambridge Companion to Atheism, edited by Michael Martin, University of Cambridge Press, 2007

[4] Ibid.

[5] Special Eurobarometer Special Eurobarometer Wave 63.1 225 (June 2005) 9. Apr. 2010

Comments
  1. AS says:

    To answer the question posed at the end of the article, I would say there are varying degrees of “nominal” Christians, as you have already pointed out. There are those who believe in a god, but have no desire to have any contact with the Church. Then, there are those who are deeply devoted to faith, but who most likely do not have the regenerating, indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. These are those whose faith is trickiest to diagnose. They speak of the love of God for all mankind, but their god is not the God of the Bible. Rather, god is a universalistic god who, because of his love for mankind will not condemn anyone and is the same god who rules over Islam, Hinduism, and all other religions. I have witnessed this amongst Catholics and Protestants in Poland and in the USA. Then, there are those who worship a god who exists only to give them power, the Holy Spirit becoming a sort of holy lightning bolt. There is little mention of Jesus or repentance only a god who likes to give them good things and of whom they can demand whatever they want. This goes beyond “health and wealth” teaching to and otherworldly desire to be powerful, to raise the dead and heal the sick, not that God will be glorified, but because one must find power in oneself and manifest that power in the world. This, I find primarily amongst Protestants and it is the scariest form of nominalism I have witnessed, if it can even be called nominalism. Universalism and power-seeking faith are both demonic, but it is difficult to reach these people because they are so sure of their own belief and so proud of the god they have built. There is also a certain element of truth found in these and extracting that truth and building upon it becomes a rather tangled mess.

  2. Great additions, AS :). That is a really good question: is that last group “nominal?” Perhaps, based on the definition that includes following Christ’s commands – yes, they are nominal Christians, holding to the name, but not really the values of Christ.
    However, they are frequently very committed to their idea of God, Jesus and Christianity – they definitely aren’t “secular” Christians.
    Good question.

  3. […] 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 strategy […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s