Posts Tagged ‘nominal Christians’

Poland is undeniably Roman Catholic, statistically and culturally. In light of its Catholicism, the following instruction from a Lausanne paper still rings true: “Formulation of effective strategies for reaching nominal Christians among Roman Catholics involves at least five basic components: correct attitudes, correct doctrine, consistent lifestyles, community and interaction, and practical application and solutions.”[1]

However, the ethnographic survey we did showed me, in part, how superficial that same Catholicism is in the lives of many Poles. Most of the people in our survey cling to beliefs that seemed animistic – regarding the spirit world, ancestors, places of spiritual energy, and ways to achieve spiritual success – not to mention the magic spiritual qualities attached to relics, crucifixes and pictures of Mary. In addition, all of the people in our survey were postmoderns – with the possible exception of our oldest male. The relativity of truth, the reliance on feelings for direction, and the subjective nature of what it meant to be “good” all portrayed a postmodern worldview. And I was surprised! Twelve years as a participant observer, and I still thought Catholic influence had kept Poland more modern than postmodern.

So, although the Lausanne paper mentioned above is still appropriate – it’s general enough to apply to postmoderns as well as Catholics – I think some adjustments need to be made in my own apologetic approach. A consistent lifestyle, community and interaction – from the above strategy – should be top priorities. A defense of absolute truth remains necessary – but it will be ignored if not accompanied by relationship and a consistent lifestyle. Some of our respondents mentioned they listen to people who demonstrate compassion and sacrifice on behalf of others. People like Mother Theresa. Jesus asks the same of us. When we love and live for others, we will gain a hearing.

We also need to rely more on the power of God and prayer. Animism is a utilitarian view of God, dependent on objects and rituals to manipulate the spirit world. In addition, we need to be careful not to fall into an evangelical animism that simply replaces one ritual for another. Thankfully, we have immediate access through prayer and a relationship with the Creator of the Universe to unlimited power that can radically transform lives. The Shrine of the Black Madonna in Częstochowa will not save Poland, nor will the many new relics from John Paul II. The Jewish Messiah, despised and rejected, crucified for our sins – once and for all – can save Poles.

Next up: Freedom in Christ from the burden of manipulating God.

[1] LOP 10: Christian Witness to Nominal Christians Among Roman Catholics, Thailand 1980

While I was posting my series on Christian Nominalism in Europe, I ran across a post from Tim Keller about nominal Christians on his Redeemer City to City blog site. Dr. Keller founded and pastors Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, and is especially noted for his skill in helping skeptics understand faith in Jesus Christ.

Here’s the link to his blog post – it would be great to read the whole post: Questions for Sleepy and Nominal Christians. I’d like to share the end of his article here:

So how do you wake up sleepy Christians and convert nominal Christians? Let me give you what I would call my modernized American versions of the kinds of questions I would ask people if I was trying to get them to really think about whether or not they know Christ. These questions are adapted from The Experience Meeting by William Williams, based on the Welsh revivals during the Great Awakening. He would ask people to share about these types of questions in small group settings each week:

How real has God been to your heart this week? How clear and vivid is your assurance and certainty of God’s forgiveness and fatherly love? To what degree is that real to you right now?

Are you having any particular seasons of delight in God? Do you really sense his presence in your life, sense him giving you his love?

Have you been finding Scripture to be alive and active? Instead of just being a book, do you feel like Scripture is coming after you?

Are you finding certain biblical promises extremely precious and encouraging? Which ones?

Are you finding God’s challenging you or calling you to something through the Word? In what ways?

Are you finding God’s grace more glorious and moving now than you have in the past? Are you conscious of a growing sense of the evil of your heart, and in response, a growing dependence on and grasp of the preciousness of the mercy of God?

Put together, that is a growing understanding of grace.

 

I think these questions fit well with the strategy I outlined in my posts. They also fit with the idea that “God is carrying on a conversation with every person on the planet” – paradigm shifting words for me from one of my professors, Dr. Reggie McNeal.

What do you think? Do the questions fit with a strategy that revolves around the Word, life-on-life witness, obedience-based discipleship, relationship and community, in the power of the Holy Spirit? Do they speak to your heart?

Berlin Cathedralfrom wikipedia

Berlin Cathedral
from wikipedia

In part 1, I introduced a five-part strategy for reaching “secular” Christians:

The Word

Life-on-life witness

Obedience-based discipleship

Relationship and community

The power of the Holy Spirit.

This post will focus on the last two elements of that strategy.

Relationship and Community.

Relationship has two aspects – relationship with God, and with others, or community. In the Matthew passage, Jesus shows that people can do mighty works in His name, yet never have a relationship with Him. They say, “Lord, Lord,” and He says “I never knew you.”  We all have a desperate, created need for personal relationship with God. It is this intimate knowledge of Christ that allows us to take our focus away from the amazing works done in His name, and onto the hearing His words and doing what He says.

Jesus also proclaims His presence with us when we are together. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” [1] This communion of at least two or three is an irreplaceable part of our relationship with Christ. We sometimes take Mt. 18:20 to mean “at least two or three”, and Jesus may have had that in mind, but perhaps He meant exactly what He said – two or three – the basic building block of community.

In that small, basic community unit we have a real chance to see life-on-life witness and obedience-based discipleship with a true opportunity for application and accountability. As two or three people interact with one another, in real life situations, they can quickly see action and reaction, speak into one another’s lives, and experience true transparency.

When we read Christ’s words from Mt. 7:16 about fruit inspection, we see how much more workable this becomes in an intimate group setting. In addition, as we understand what a contemporary European, a “secular Christian,” thinks about church, we can see that the small, core unit may be the only way to woo him to Christ. He thinks that church is a big, old, empty building; or a political system that is hopelessly out of touch; or a gang of mutually enabling pedophiles; or – at best – a group of well-meaning, but naïve individuals. The idea of the Church being family, or a squad of fellow warriors, or a trio of bff’s (best friends forever) has never occurred to him.

Relationship with Christ and one another, in community, relies on the indwelling, transforming work of the Holy Spirit. A strategy for winning “lay liberals,” though, is also dependent on the power of the Holy Spirit, the final component of our strategy.

Power of the Holy Spirit

When we include the power of the Holy Spirit as a key element of our evangelism strategy, we give more than lip-service to Him, and He becomes more than just a spiritual magic wand to make sure we include God in the midst of our hard work to win the world for Him. We actually may need to re-learn the reliance on the Holy Spirit that our grandfathers possessed, but mothers and fathers lost through a poisonous mix of reason and science, charismatic frauds, and unbiblical reactions.

Today’s European continues to search for manifestations of power. Beliefs in myriad superstitions; visits to witches, miracle healers, and New Age practitioners and reliance on astrology and horoscopes cause some to claim that animism is far from dead in Europe. “Opinion polls in Europe show high levels of belief in quasi-religious ideas such as reincarnation, but also in folk superstition: horoscopes, clairvoyance, ghosts, and so on.”[2]

Of course, the Holy Spirit is far more than just another alternative ghost. He is far more than a cosmic Force that enables His Jedi to manipulate reality. Reliance on His leading in our lives, and on His power to change others’ lives, gives us boldness, though, to proclaim His existence and demonstrate His powers of healing and transformation.

In conclusion, although Europe is faced with a rising tide of secularism, it still hangs on to the vestiges of Christianity. But it’s not enough to be a “Golden Rule Christian.” We must enter in at the narrow gate, and we are called to be faithful teachers, who call others to squeeze through that tight passage onto the unpopular trail toward life.

In total reliance on the Holy Spirit, operating in transparent community, we live and proclaim an obedience-based discipleship that can be freely examined through our life-on-life witness. Instead of relegating the Bible to a book on the shelf, between Voltaire and Nietzsche, we boldly acknowledge it as our life authority. Hearing and doing Jesus’ words, we become wise builders, not only of our own lives, but of a new form of radical Christ-following that can be both attractive and challenging for nominal Christianity.

CHRISTIAN NOMINALISM IN EUROPE III: WHAT IS A SECULAR CHRISTIAN?


[1] The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Mt 18:20). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[2] 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. (15)

Frauenkirche, Munichfrom wikipedia

Frauenkirche, Munich
from wikipedia

This and the next post are the conclusion of a 7 part series on Christian nominalism in Europe

Taking Jesus’ words into consideration (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 strategy for seeing nominal Christians transformed by Christ must include the following elements:

The Word

Life-on-life witness

Obedience-based discipleship

Relationship and community

The power of the Holy Spirit.

Of course, these elements are present in any good strategy of Christian witness – and have been ever since Pentecost.  However, the application of such elements may be significantly different among “cultural Christians” from what it would be among tribal animists.

The Word.

It may be very tempting at times to avoid this point of our strategy. The average European practical atheist does not see the Bible as authoritative. So an attempt to bring the Bible into everyday conversation may be seen as fanatical, or at least weird. However, many Europeans think they know quite a bit about the Bible (even if they’ve never read any of it), and are more than willing to share their opinions. When we honestly and consistently refer to the Bible as our authority, we can work in an almost subversive way to change the way our nominal friends consider the Scriptures.

Of course, a one size-fits-all approach, which ignores the vast differences between various countries, will be inadequate. Whereas in France or the Czech Republic it may be rare to find someone who has heard the Bible read – let alone read it for herself – the average Pole, Greek or Croat has probably heard the Bible read many times in church, and likely has read a portion on his own, as well.

Of course, in humility and love, we need to recognize that the Bible is our authority – but it isn’t yet perceived as such by our neighbor. Demanding that our nominal friend submit to the Bible’s teaching is likely to produce a quite opposite effect than what we would hope for. Consistent submission to the Bible, and practicing what we read and hear, however, serves as a life-changing instrument, first in our life, and then by extension in the life of our friend – and such a witness leads us to our next strategic component:

Life-on-life witness.

The Lausanne authors referred to this as consistent life-style, presenting a lifestyle of growth, witness and caring. The key idea is that we would demonstrate Christian living in front of a watching world. We need to allow our neighbor

“to peer into our lives in order to see exactly how we are in the process of growth. We do not clearly model for others the process of change that is taking place in our lives as we apply the Word of God and learn obedience and submission to him in daily practice. This growth is demonstrated naturally if we are in the Word of God together and sharing our actions and reactions to it. This will allow those we are seeking to lead to look into our lives. It will help them to see how the hand of God is at work conforming us from faith to faith into his perfect image. It will reveal to them how we correct sin in our lives and repent from it.”[1]

We also need to model witness and caring. As we allow others to see us “in action,” we are able to live out a witness in front of them that is irrefutable. Who can argue with a life lived in obedience to Christ? However, such a life requires consistency, and especially transparency and openness. In this way, we allow others to be “fruit inspectors” in our life, following in the spirit of Jesus’ words from Matthew 7:16-20. Such a life-on-life witness demands that we take seriously the third component of our strategy:

Obedience-based discipleship.

We must first model such a discipleship in our own walk with Christ. We should not expect others to follow Christ whole-heartedly, when we ourselves do not make Him Lord of our lives. When we work as a wise builder, though, we build a life that can weather storms, and we show to others a storm-proof life.

Obedience, doing that which we hear from Jesus (Mt. 7:24), is a vital component of discipleship. In fact, it may be the one totally necessary ingredient in making disciples. After all, Jesus tells us in Mt. 28:20 that we are to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” James 1:22 reminds us that a true disciple of Christ is a doer of the word, not only a hearer. Unfortunately, we have usually placed a far greater emphasis on hearing the Word. We have frequently unwittingly re-written the Great Commission to read “teaching them everything I have commanded you,” and left out the emphasis on behavior and practice. Especially in the West, we could probably scale back on the knowledge in exchange for a greater emphasis on application, action and accountability.

A couple of years ago, I was in a conference with others involved in theological training from around Europe. The presenter showed Mt. 28:20 on the screen, but left out the words “to obey.” He then asked us what was missing. No one caught the omission! We all thought, at first glance, “teaching them everything I have commanded you” was correct. Oops! Obedience, life application and accountability must be part of our discipleship.

Obedience-based discipleship, especially in the confrontation of accountability, is most effective in relationship and community – the fourth element of our strategy, coming up in part 7.

St. Paul's Cathedral, Londonfrom wikipedia

St. Paul’s Cathedral, London
from wikipedia

As we begin to consider a strategy for reaching nominal Christians in Europe, we should first return to the Lausanne Committee’s work from 1980. Although this occasional paper is over 30 years old, it still gives us a good starting point. The paper focuses on nominal Christians among Roman Catholics, and as a result some changes would need to be made in light of the fact that 1.) a large number of Europeans identify with some other church and 2.) for all Europeans, identification with a specific church is less important than it was even just 30 years ago.

“Formulation of effective strategies for reaching nominal Christians among Roman Catholics involves at least five basic components: correct attitudes, correct doctrine, consistent lifestyles, community and interaction, and practical application and solutions.”[1]

“Correct attitudes” primarily refers to an attitude of love and humility toward Roman Catholics. Both are certainly needed, but of course, not exclusively toward Roman Catholics. Since church affiliation is increasingly less important, as is identification with a particular set of beliefs, perhaps a better, more contemporary strategy would be to search for, recognize and affirm ways in which God is speaking into the life of every individual, whether a nominal Catholic, Evangelical, or Anglican, or a secular, materialistic atheist who is still searching for meaning in life.

Within the strategy component of “sound doctrine”, the Lausanne paper contributors emphasize Bible study as the key to conversion to Jesus Christ. This certainly is key, but Jesus would remind us that simply hearing His words and assenting to them are not enough for a true disciple. Bible study and daily practice are key – not of course for a salvation based on our own works, but as evidence of a radically transformed life. Thankfully, the authors continue with several areas of doctrinal emphasis, including the lordship of Christ, that emphasize both a personal relationship with a Christ, and “that the new birth results in a progressive change of attitude and behaviour. Submission of the will and learning of daily obedience should be taught as basic to true discipleship.”[2]

Further components of the strategy outlined in the Thailand paper are: consistent life-style, one that demonstrates growth, witness and caring; community and interaction, emphasizing the Body of Christ and Family of God; and practical applications and solutions, where once again being a doer of the Word, and not simply a hearer is highlighted.

The Lausanne strategy presents some excellent guiding values for all who live in cultures dominated by nominal Christians. In fact, the paper could be redacted, removing references to Roman Catholicism, and serve as a valid starting point for evangelists in all parts of the “Christian” world. Probably all committed followers of Christ, living radically transformed lives, even those who still retain an affiliation with a church populated by nominal Christians, could then boldly agree with such a strategy to evangelize their fellow “non-practicing believers.”

Taking Jesus’ words into consideration, leaning on an understanding of what we know about “secular Christians,” and even using the Lausanne occasional paper as a starting grid, an effective strategy for seeing nominal Christians transformed by Christ must include the following elements: the Word; life-on-life witness; obedience-based discipleship; relationship and community; and the power of the Holy Spirit. Of course, these elements are present in any good strategy of Christian witness – and have been ever since Pentecost.    However, the application of such elements may be significantly different among “cultural Christians” from what it would be among tribal animists.


[1] 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

[2] Ibid.

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

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.

St. Stephen's

St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna
from wikipedia

In part 1, I began to look at Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount, as a preface to developing a strategy for making disciples of nominal Christians, especially in Europe. Now, I will finish the passage study with a look at the metaphors used by Jesus:

Our first metaphor is that of the two ways, or gates. One is narrow, the other broad. The gateway to life is narrow and difficult – the word used means tribulation, or persecution. The highway to hell, however, is broad, with overtones of prosperous,[1]and by implication, easy. With their relative size and ease, it makes perfect sense that many find the broad road, while few find – or choose – the narrow, difficult path.

“Wide gate, easy way, many travelers” – these words describe the path to destruction. Except for the destination, the road sounds like the perfect choice. There is an “abundance of liberty, no check to your temptations, nothing to hedge in those who walk in it, an abundance of company,” a walk downstream.[2] The destination, however, is destruction, everlasting separation from God, the same fate promised later in verse 23.

The trail to life has a narrow gate, a confined, difficult path with not many friends along with whom to share the journey. Of course, such an idea is not exclusively Christian. According to the Pinax or Tablet of Cebes, a contemporary of Socrates: “Seest thou not, then, a little door, and a way before the door, which is not much crowded, but very few travel it? This is the way that leadeth unto true culture.”[3] Most of the world recognizes the potential benefits of self-denial (Buddhist and Jain ascetics, Catholic and Orthodox hermits come to mind, among many others), but most of us still struggle to make such an unpopular, demanding choice. Jesus, of course, is referring to something more than simple asceticism, and the following verses expand on the choice facing every human.

Through the entire passage, there is also a series of contrasts related to religious people:

(1) the two ways of performing religious duties (13–14);

(2) the two types of religious leaders (15–23); and

(3) the two foundations of a religious life (24–27).[4]

The two types of religious leaders are contrasted by their fruit and their focus. In verse 15, false teachers are referred to as wolves in sheep’s clothing. However, we are encouraged that we can know them by their fruit. All false prophets will transgress the standards of the true believer in one or more of the following three respects:

a)   Their work will seek to glorify themselves, and not God (5:16)

b)   They will be materialistic (6:19)

c)   Their moral lives will not be pure (5:27–32).[5]

False fruits go along with a false focus. In 21-23, the focus is on the amazing works done in Jesus’ name, but the miracle-workers have forgotten to focus on a relationship with Christ. In fact, He says “I never knew you.” Although the possibility of hearing these words may puzzle – or even frighten – those who minister in Jesus’ name, concentrating on a living relationship with the living Christ, putting into practice His word, as a wise builder, removes any fear of hearing those damning words, “Depart from me!”

Jesus finishes with that picture of the wise builder, the man who doesn’t only hear His words, but applies them to life as well. “It is not enough simply to hear Jesus’ call or even to respond with some temporary flurry of good deeds. Rather, we must build a solid foundation that combines authentic commitment to Christ with persevering obedience.” [6] Crisis comes, the flood waters rise, and the wise builder is secure. The foolish builder, however, has no safety, because he has built an infirm foundation. D.A. Carson puts it this way: “Those who pretend to have faith, who have a merely intellectual commitment, or who enjoy Jesus in small doses are foolish builders.”[7]

In the next part, we will take a closer look at “small-dose” (nominal) Christians in Europe.


[1] A. H. M’Neile, The Gospel according to St. Matthew (London: Macmillan, 1915), 94.

[2] Henry, M. (1996). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible : Complete and unabridged in one volume (Mt 7:12–14). Peabody: Hendrickson.

[3] Robertson, A. (1997). Word Pictures in the New Testament (Mt 7:13). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems.

[4] Utley, R. J. D. (2000). Vol. Volume 9: The First Christian Primer: Matthew. Study Guide Commentary Series (65). Marshall, Texas: Bible Lessons International.

[5] Mills, M. (1999). The Life of Christ: A Study Guide to the Gospel Record (Mt 7:15–23). Dallas, TX: 3E Ministries.

[6] Blomberg, C. (2001). Vol. 22: Matthew (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (134). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[7] Carson, D.A. (1984) Volume 8: Matthew The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (194). Grand Rapids, Michigan: The Zondervan Corporation.

Matthias Church Budapest, Hungary from Wikipedia

Matthias Church Budapest, Hungary from Wikipedia

An observant traveler in Europe will quickly notice the abundance of large, old, beautiful churches, but also realize that these churches are usually empty, or nearly so, even Sunday morning, during traditional “church time.” Much has been written about the growth of secularism, the death of Christianity or the rise of Islam in Europe. Most articles focus on Western Europe, where these particular trends are most evident, even conveniently ignoring much of Eastern and Central Europe. However, as we shall see, the existing Church, whether in more secularized Western Europe, or more traditional Eastern Europe, is frequently characterized by a “Christian in name only”, a Christmas-and-Easter, wedding-baptism-funeral form of Christian nominalism.

We will look at Jesus’ teaching from the end of the Sermon on the Mount, where He demands a radical choice, and use His words to examine nominal Christianity in Europe, and propose some strategies for evangelizing Europeans. Probably, some issues will be similar for nominal Christians in America, as well.

Matthew 7:13-27

13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

 15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18         A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23        And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

 24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” [1]

            At the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus presents a series of metaphors that illustrate the truth that there are only two choices for people in the world, no matter how much of a middle ground we would like to see. “He utilizes a “two-ways” genre well-known from other Jewish literature (e.g., Deut 30:15–20; 2 Esdr 7:1–16; cf. also Did. 1:1–6:7).”[2] We see two ways (13-14), two fruits (15-20), two professions (21-23) and two foundations (24-27).

Warren Wiersbe suggests that Christ proposes three tests that prove our Christianity: the test of self-denial (13–14), the test of spiritual fruit (15–23), and the test of permanence or obedience (24–27).[3] A false, counterfeit Christianity will fail these tests. Or, put in the form of three questions:

Did my profession of faith in Christ cost me anything?

Did my decision for Christ change my life?  

In the end, what will God say?[4]

In the next post, we will look more closely at the metaphors in this passage, and begin to apply Christ’s teaching to the case of the nominal Christian.
I’d love your comments as we go through this!

[1] The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Mt 7:13–27). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[2] Blomberg, C. (2001). Vol. 22: Matthew (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (131). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[3] Wiersbe, W. W. (1997). Wiersbe’s expository outlines on the New Testament (35–36). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.

[4] Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Mt 7:6–21). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.