Avoiding the ‘great scandal of Christendom’ — nominal Christianity…

Nominal Xians

What to do about nominal Christians?  How to reach nominal believers before they leave the church?


This is the question Christianity Today recently put to three astute observers of the contemporary church—Drew Dyck, Kenda Creasy Dean, and Eddie Gibbs.


Each addresses the question from a different angle, and each has observations worth serious consideration.


Drew Dyck:  Deliver a Jolt


Drew Dyck provides a definition of “nominalism” and offers a biblical antidote, which he describes as a “jolt” rather than a “nudge.”


Nominalism is essentially a spiritual delusion. And it’s a particularly dangerous one, because it can inoculate against the real gospel. Atheists may be hostile to Christian faith, but at least they rightly understand their relationship to it. Nominal Christians, on the other hand, claim a Christian identity for a host of unbiblical reasons: “My grandma was a Baptist.” “I go to church on holidays.” “I’m a good person.” These misperceptions need to be sensitively but directly addressed with biblical truth.


Luke 14 describes Jesus confronting a crowd of would-be followers with some sobering words. Turning to the “large crowds,” Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (26–27). …


There’s still a place for this kind of frank conversation. Often, loving nominal Christians means presenting them with the hard truth of what it means to follow Jesus. Seeing their true spiritual status may be a necessary step toward faith. …


In Basic Christianity, late Christian leader John Stott lamented that “thousands of people still ignore Christ’s warning and undertake to follow him without first pausing to reflect on the cost of doing so. The result is the great scandal of Christendom today, so-called ‘nominal Christianity.’”


My prayer for the church is that we will cease perpetuating this great scandal. When faced with the all-or-nothing demands of the gospel, many nominal Christians will respond with genuine faith. Others will walk away.


But at least they will go freed from the delusion that blinds them to their true need for Christ.



Kenda Creasy Dean:  Radicalize Hospitality


As a seminary professor who focuses on youth, church, and culture, Kenda Dean directs her comments to the needs of this young cohort, especially those ages 18 to 30.


Most young adults in the United States claim to be at least nominally Christian, according to University of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith. Yet a third of 18- to 30-year-olds also say they are religiously unaffiliated. And like Eutychus, most of them were once in church. Author Elizabeth Drescher says 70 percent of nones grew up in Christian homes, which means Eutychus is not someone else’s kid. He’s our kid. He attended youth group and heard Bible stories at bedtime and said grace at dinner. He started out in the church. And then he vanished. What might have prevented such a fate?


I don’t think the so-called “rise of the nones” represents a new wave of religious rejection. We’ve had nones in our pews for some time. The difference is that it is now culturally safer than it used to be. …


Addressing nominal Christianity starts with the church. According to Smith’s National Study of Youth and Religion, several factors during adolescence prepare nominally Christian teenagers to remain faithful as young adults. These assets include having a highly committed personal faith as a teenager, having multiple adults of faith to turn to for support and help, praying and reading the Bible frequently, and especially having religiously devoted parents and identifying a religious experience—all before young adulthood.


Drew Dyson, a United Methodist pastor, found in his dissertation research at Princeton Seminary that congregations that emphasize meaning, belonging, and radical hospitality help young adults who have experienced “faith drift” re-imagine themselves as participants in the mission of God.


Eddie Gibbs:  Disciple Constantly


How is it that so many people in the United States are Christians in name only? The causes are complex, and careful diagnosis is essential. Nominality is not a static state but a progressive one. Surveys suggest the vast majority of “nominal” will eventually become “nones.”


Let’s look at the major contributing factors. The church itself has inadvertently fostered the condition by succumbing to individualism and consumerism. Under such pressures, church becomes primarily about what pleases people and meets their needs. Under such conditions, attendance and even membership do not lead to authentic discipleship—understood as a lifelong commitment to follow Jesus.


The church members most at risk of becoming nominal avoid close personal relationships, which provide the context for encouragement, accountability, and ministry opportunities. These are bored consumers who “go missing without being missed.” At the other extreme, Christians who are burned out may also be at risk. It is not unusual for church leaders who are worn out by ministry demands to move elsewhere and drop out entirely.


Also, unfortunately, biblical illiteracy is disturbingly high among many churchgoers. This creates vulnerability to the prevailing secular culture.


We need to reimage the church so that it engages all people relationally. Nominality should be constantly challenged, and disciples of Jesus who are facing similar issues can assist. When it comes to nominality, no Christian is invulnerable. …



“Three Views: How Can Churches Reach Nominal Believers Before They Become ‘Nones’?” is available online to Christianity Today subscribers.


Drew Dyck is managing editor of Leadership Journal and author of Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith . . .and How to Bring Them Back.


Kenda Creasy Dean, author of Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, is professor of youth, church, and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary.


Eddie Gibbs, professor emeritus at Fuller Seminary, is author of The Rebirth of the Church: Applying Paul’s Vision for Ministry in Our Post-Christian World.


Related resource:  An Earnest Warning about Lukewarmness” is a sermon preached by C. H. Spurgeon on July 26, 1874.




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