Thursday, September 21, 2006

Distinctive Christianity in a Nominal Christian Culture, Part 1: Definitions

One question that occupies a lot of my attention is "How is Christianity to be distinctive in a culture where everyone assumes themselves to be Christian?"

I've thought about this and discussed this for hours and hours over the last few years. This would often become the conversation at conferences, emails, and casual get-togethers with other pastor types. The topic of nominalism might come in the form of various questions. How do we get the old "traditionalists" (in the bad sense of the word) to embrace a more vibrant form of the faith? How do we reach those who show no fruit of conversion and faith but claim to be Christians? Is there a way to increase the commitment and engagement of large numbers of inactive church members. All of these questions, and many more, really are questions that in one way or another stem from a kind of nominalism--"Christian" in name only.

This was the context in which I grew up. To put it charitably, most folks in my home town thought of themselves as Christians. Some evidently were by their profession and their lives. Some, no doubt, were not. But, most people didn't condemn themselve or think so poorly of themselves to self-identify as "practical atheist" or "unbeliever." Even the poolhall hustlers and the alcoholics claimed they knew God, "always said their prayers," and the "God knows their heart."

Many assumed the label "Christian" because they were certainly not practitioners of any other religion. They were not, for example, muslims. In fact, until I returned home during my sophomore year in college as a professing muslim, very few people had ever seen a muslim. No, everyone at least believed in some way, and that made most everyone "Christian" since that was either a family or community legacy bequeathed to all. Nominalism.

The more I think about the situation, the clearer it is to me that in trying to reflect genuine Christian distinctiveness in a nominal Christian culture definitions are critical. The root problem might be described as a failure to define "Christian" and Christianity in terms that bring into sharper contrast regenerate and unregenerate life, in terms that stress spiritual conversion, faith, grace, love and hope over and against moralism, patriotism, and spiritual relativism.

In my experience, there are some major misunderstandings, culprits really, that create confusion and cloud distinctions. Here are a few:
  • Christians are moral people. That is, being a Christian means being nice. It means doing good, observing the golden rule. A Christian is someone who is pleasant, kind, and morally righteous. To be sure, Christians are and should be moral. But being moral doesn't make one a Christian any more than being black makes you a good dancer. Both stereotypes (Blacks are good dancers, moral people are Christians) are pervasive and powerful; neither is true.
  • Christians are descendents of Christians. In other words, you are a Christian if your family members were Christians or you're from a "Christian" country or area. The fact that everyone must be "born again" should make it clear that geneaology and history are not sufficient forces for making one a Christian. But in a nominal Christian culture, your lineage is oftentimes assumed to be the only certification you need to claim the name of Christ. And in my experience, it works both ways. If your family is reputed to be "un-Christian" (a peculiar term, suggesting that somehow there was a reversal of the birthright you should have had), it would be difficult for any individual to escape the family reputation and live as a Christian. There would always be the family spectre looming over your head. Did I mention I am from a small town? This is a particularly powerful phenomenon in small towns.
  • Christians are church attenders. Well, we all know that's true. I think it was Lloyd-Jones who said that going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than putting kittens in the over makes them biscuits. An alarming image... kittens in the oven... but you get the point and no doubt you have your probably know firsthand people who believe this myth.
  • Christians are people who prayed the prayer or walked the aisle. A great deal of the world's nominalism has its roots in this shallow view of conversion and salvation. Many churches have portions of their membership comprised of persons who have prayed or walked the aisle but who have not come to savingly know and delight in the Lord. An innumerable number of people not discernibly living as Christians can make this claim. And many of them have been given every assurance by well-meaning pastors and Christians that they are Christians because they've at some point performed these outward acts. And yet, such assurances are not ours to give--especially on grounds as paltry and extra-biblical as this.
  • Christians are people who have been baptized. This is much like the item above. Superstition grows up around the act of baptism, and people begin to believe that the act itself makes one a Christian. So, there is pressure to "baptize" children. Or, there is the notion that at certain ages "it's time" or "past time" to be baptized. It's the Christian thing to do. Well, true, but only true Christians should do it.
  • Christians are people who belong to a Christian society. This one is akin to the idea that Christians are descendants of other Christians. It's simply enlarged to a geographical territory. So, "America is a Christian nation" and, therefore, I am a Christian. Or, this is the Bible belt and everyone here is Christian. I think we would all be helped if we reserved the term "Christian" for people only. Only people are able to become Christ-like ones; only people are converted, born again, given a new heart, etc. Cities, movies, books, plays, etc. may be more or less informed by principles consistent with Christianity, but strictly speaking they cannot be Christian. I'm aware that probably no one means to believe that inanimate objects are "Christian" in this sense, but this is a post about definitions. So, precision is what matters and the tendency to refer to inanimate things without saved souls as "Christian" is not helpful. It contributes to the sense of nominalism that is the problem.
These are some of the false definitions, the lies, that nominal Christianity propagates. Fruitful Christian ministry must supplant these notions with Gospel truth. Faithful Gospel labor must work against these currents to present a joyful, abiding-in-Christ, free, grace-filled, spiritually-minded, heaven-directed, Jesus following, God-loving, observant Christian witness. Our people must understand that being a Christian is not being a good person; it's being a new creation, with a new heart and a new mind wrought by the Spirit of God. They must know that being a Christian has little to nothing to do with which family you come from; it's a matter of belonging to the family of God, of being His inheritance and portion, of dwelling in His home, of being a living stone in His temple. Our people must be taught not to confuse the city of man with the city of God, the kingdom of this world with the kingdom of our risen Lord and Savior. We must impress upon them the grandeur of things to come, of the One to come, so that they don't fall for the false promises and deliverers of this world. And all of these contrasts and distinctions must inform how we speak against prevailing definitions of nominal Christian culture.

If definitions are critical for puncturing the walls of false profession and nominalism, then preaching and teaching is critical. Preaching is the one discursive event frequent enough and central enough to address this challenge. Above all things, what we need is a kind of preaching that achieves precision, division, charity, and clarity. We need something far more than eloquence; we need power in the pulpit--the kind of power that tears down facades, rips off masks, explodes through defenses and pretensions, and yet builds, constructs, engineers and designs new lives in Christ Jesus. In our next post, Lord willing, we'll consider preaching in a nominally Christian culture.


Anonymous said...

thank you for this post. whenever you get a chance, can you write something on what it means to be "missional" or "emergent"? anything that helps one understand how these two movements affirm or deny the power of the Gospel would be helpful.


FellowElder said...

Justin Taylor's primer on the emergent church movement is perhaps the best short piece I know of. You can find that at,,PTID314526|CHID598014|CIID2249226,00.html. A good book-length treatment is Don Carson's Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church. Those would be the best places to start.

Anonymous said...

The topic of "Nominal Christianity" is one of the most critical topics America needs to hear. Thank you for posting this, may we as Christians confront this in a Christ-exalting way that brings forth repentance leading to good fruit.

Gavin Brown said...

Good word.