Deliver a Jolt
When we think of the evangelistic challenge presented by ardent atheists, outreach to nominal Christians seems like a breeze.
After all, nominal Christians have a positive view of the faith, enough of one to identify with Christianity. They're not apt to rail against religion or deny the existence of God. When it comes to reaching them with the gospel, it's tempting to think they just need a nudge.
But actually, they might need a jolt.
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).
We may balk at his approach. We instinctively want to make people comfortable and remove obstacles to faith. But on numerous occasions, Jesus made prospective followers decidedly uncomfortable and pointed out just how difficult it was to follow him.
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.
Don't get me wrong. We shouldn't needlessly offend. We must be winsome and wise in how we communicate the Christian message. But at some point, like Jesus, we have to spell out what following him entails—and let the chips fall where they may.
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.
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
You could argue that the world's first recorded "none" was a young man named Eutychus, who started out in the church at Troas and then dropped out of it. Literally.
You know the story. Paul is preaching "on and on" to the disciples, and Eutychus—perched precariously by an open window—dozes off and tumbles three stories down to his death. Paul interrupts his sermon to look for Eutychus, finding him outside the church—dead. Yet Paul takes the young man into his arms and reassures the startled crowd, "Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him" (Acts 20:10, NRSV).
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.
Nones may be prophets in our midst, calling the church to stop sermonizing long enough to pay attention to young people who are zoning out, dozing off, fading away, or slipping out the back door. Nones don't hate the church; they just find it utterly irrelevant to their lives.
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.
Churches that deepen nominal faith pull Eutychus into the center of the room, surround him with faithful mentors, and immerse him in practices of meaning, belonging, and radical hospitality.
When nominally religious people experience the church as a community of people who embrace first and preach later, who celebrate life in those given up for dead, who err on the side of grace in matters of doctrine and politics so that no one, ever, must sit on the margins—we're far less likely to lose people around the edges.
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.
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 "nominals" 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.
More churches are taking steps to address the challenge. Two programs in particular have been widely adopted and show encouraging results: the Alpha Course and MasterLife, a LifeWay book series. Alpha began modestly in 1977 in an Anglican church in London as a way to introduce never-churched and de-churched Brits to the basic truths of the gospel. Since its inception, churches ranging from Pentecostal to Roman Catholic have adopted it, and 15 million people worldwide have attended Alpha. Leaders at Pasadena Covenant Church, for example, use the original program, plus Alpha Marriage and Alpha Parenting courses. One couple told me that they had to "create a waiting list for future courses due to capacity limitations."
Leland Hamby, senior pastor of Alhambra Baptist Church in California, says they started MasterLife—an in-depth training experience to disciple believers—12 years ago. "You learn how to abide in Christ, live in the Word, pray in faith, fellowship with believers, witness to the world, and minister to others," says Hamby.
Both programs stress that conversion leads to lifelong discipleship. The sessions take place in small groups. They are spread out over weeks and often include a meal. In both programs, conversion to Christ leads to serving Christ within the church and in daily life. The learning environment is both relational and nonjudgmental.
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.
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