Nominal Christianity in Contemporary Europe

Posted November 15, 2018 by europeanmission
Categories: Uncategorized

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One of the most striking aspects of the socioreligious context of Europe is the high proportion of so-called nominal Christians. These are people who are affiliated to a Church and/or identifying as ‘Christian’ in surveys. They only occasionally, or never, attend a Church service, and many of them do not believe in a personal God, let alone in Jesus Christ as the unique Saviour of mankind.

Despite the declining influence of the Church in society and increasing secularisation, many people across Europe still maintain some sort of link with the Church as an institution, or with the Christian religion. In most countries this is more than fifty percent of the population.

From the point of view of Gospel communication and church development this is an extremely important aspect of the European context. For all the missiological emphasis on reaching out to the completely secularised and creating churches for the unaffiliated or unchurched, we easily overlook the fact that the majority of the European public has not severed all links with the Christian faith.
The idea of nominality
To begin with, the term ‘nominalism’ can be misleading, since it also refers to a philosophical school of thought. With respect to religious identity and practice, it might be better to use the term ‘nominality’ instead.

Alternative terms are ‘cultural’, ‘notional’, ‘de-churched’ and ‘unchurched’ Christians. In French-speaking countries, the standard term is chrétiens sociologiques (sociological Christians) which has the same connotations as ‘cultural Christians’ in English. Similarly, the Spanish speak of cristianismo sociológico or cultural. Germans speak of Namenschristen (‘Christians in name’) or Kirchenferne which could be paraphrased as ‘peripheral’ or ‘marginal Church members’. This is in fact the precise meaning of the Dutch equivalent randkerkelijken.

Whatever the terminology, there is always the idea behind it that something is lacking, that something is not as it should be. This is what we call the idea of nominality. It can be described as the discrepancy between a stated adherence to a faith and a committed application of that faith. This discrepancy can be observed in all religions, but it takes various forms. ‘The’ nominal Christian does not exist. In real life, there are many ways in which people can be at variance with the Christian identity they claim. ‘Nominal’ is a technical term, that is collectively used for a variety of phenomena.

While social scientists try to refrain from giving a value judgment when they analyse forms of nominal Christianity, mission researchers and theologians usually qualify these as deviations from normality, in opposition to another, perhaps truer or more authentic form of Christianity.

How to define nominal?
Where exactly do we draw the line between authentic and ‘in name only’? It is virtually impossible to give one precise definition of ‘a nominal Christian’ that will satisfy everyone who uses this term. It all depends on the criteria that are being used. Social scientists usually look at the frequency of Church attendance, but things become complicated when they take in account other indicators such as beliefs or ‘how much does your religion mean to you’.

In Church and mission circles, ‘nominal’ is often defined by way of negation, of something that is lacking. ‘People who are called Christian, but…’ Of course, everything depends on what comes after ‘but’. Let me mention four negative definitions that are often used:

1. ‘…not affiliated.’ Some statistics use the criterion of church membership. Nominal Christians, then, are those who identify as Christians in surveys or in conversations, without having a link with a Christian community or institution. While this approach makes us attentive to forms of Christian faith outside the institutional Church, it overlooks the possible discrepancies between Christian identity and commitment within the Church.

2. ‘…not regularly going to Church.’ Socioreligious studies often use this criterion of attending a Church service, to distinguish between nominal and practising Christians. Usually the line between the two categories is drawn at once a month on average. Obviously, this approach is limited because commitment to the Christian faith implies much more than attending church services.

3. ‘…not converted (born again).’ In Evangelical circles, this is a classic criterion. Dramatically put, if a person has not entered the fold in the proper way, he really does not belong with the sheep, even though he might go to Church very often and behave very much as a Christian should. This approach leads to a ‘true versus nominal’ discourse that sometimes goes as far as implying that nominal Christians are not really Christians at all. When conversion is defined in an Evangelical way, this discourse creates the impression that ‘true’ equals Evangelical, leaving all the rest of the Christian population as nominals needing to be converted. There is also the risk of an exclusive attitude towards other expressions of Christian faith.

4.‘…not committed to discipleship.’ Some Evangelical authors describe nominality in terms of superficiality, of Christian confession and church membership without Christian discipleship. This approach leads to another kind of ‘true versus nominal’ discourse. Contrary to the preceding one, it does not deny that nominals can be real Christians who have obtained salvation. Its emphasis is instead on spiritual growth and a commitment to living out one’s Christian faith on a daily basis.

While it is understandable that church leaders are concerned about the quality of the Christian life among their membership, there is a risk of overemphasising the sanctification aspect of the Christian faith, at the expense of other aspects. Moreover, we do not think it is justified to disqualify everyone who does not meet the standards of discipleship as ‘nominal’, a Christian ‘in name only’.

Parameters of being Christian
All negative definitions are problematic for two reasons: by concentrating on what is lacking they do not say much about the ‘nominals’ themselves. Moreover, they are too general because they focus one criterion, or perhaps two. But being a Christian implies more than going to Church, more than being born again, more than the practice of discipleship. It implies all that plus other aspects as well.

In social science as well as in practical theology, it has become customary to summarize all these aspects in the three Bs of believing – belonging – behaving. But even these are imprecise and insufficient. With respect to believing, we should make a distinction, as theologians have always done, between believing ‘in’ (having faith in God) from believing ‘that’ (having faith convictions). Belonging stands for belonging to a Church, but when it comes to that, we should distinguish affiliation or Church membership from actual participation in the life of a Church. Obviously Behaving, finally, refers to religious practice. This can mean the spiritual life of a believer (prayer, inner life, spiritual development) as well as a believer’s witness and conduct in the public sphere, in society. Not covered by the three Bs is yet another aspect, namely initiation, the technical term for becoming a Christian. This has to do with Christian education, conversion, baptism and so on.

On the basis of these considerations we would suggest the following seven aspects or parameters of being a Christian:

  • Initiation (how does a person become a Christian)
  • Faith (spiritual experience, meaning, believing in)
  • Beliefs (knowledge, believing that)
  • Church attachment
  • Church participation
  • Spiritual life (practice of piety)
  • Public practice (witness, Christian conduct in daily life in society)

Decisive parameters?
Do all these parameters have the same importance? The answer depends on whether we are talking about becoming or being a Christian.
Theologically, in the so-called order of salvation, initiation comes first and the other aspects follow. In real life, we see that some people already participate in Church life, adopt a Christian behaviour, pray, read the Bible, and adhere to Biblical beliefs, before they actually come to the assurance of salvation and ‘take position’ as a Christian.

As for becoming a Christian, this is a deliberate life-orientation, an initial choice in the process of turning to God as he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. This can be sudden and instantaneous, but it can also be progressive, spread over time; as the fruit of a thoughtful and assumed assimilation of a Christian education. The technical term is conversion, but language in which people express this can vary, as it depends very much on their Church context. It is accompanied by a public confession of faith, often linked with baptism, but not necessarily so.

When it comes to being a Christian, this is an intention, an orientation, a continual choosing with respect to all the aspects of the Christian life. Functioning as a member of a community of believers. Holding to the true doctrine of the faith, practising piety, having a personal relationship with God, the transformation of our life, our daily conduct, our discipleship. Didn’t the apostle James say that faith without works is dead? In the final analysis, all aspects are important and decisive. So, we should consider them as parameters of being Christian, in a comprehensive way.

Ideally, all the aspects go together, but this is often not the case in real life. To be strong in one area of religiosity does not guarantee that a person will be strong in other areas. Inconsistency may be evident in any one of the parameters of being Christian.

Some believe that Jesus died for their sins without belonging to a Church, or without attending Church services. Others in turn are Church members but do not adhere to the major Christian doctrines. Or they will not abide with Biblical norms and values. And then, when it comes to belief, this can mean an affective relationship with God for some, while for others it is more a matter of convictions, or of agreement with the teaching of the church.

Proposed description of ‘nominality’
We would suggest that the qualification nominal, ‘in name only’, is appropriate when the discrepancy amounts to a more or less permanent contradiction with the name one bears. So here is our proposed description of ‘nominality’: Church members and unaffiliated people identifying themselves as ‘Christian’, who are in contradiction with basic principles of being Christian, with respect to becoming a Christian, faith, beliefs, church involvement and daily life.

This description takes up the parameters of being Christian that we have listed above. It can help us to measure nominality in specific areas, and help people move closer to Christ in that area.

A person could be called nominal in the area of becoming a Christian when there is no faith response to God’s offer of salvation through Jesus Christ, no confession of the faith in God and the lordship of Jesus. Someone who holds views that contradict the clear teaching of the Bible, such as a denial of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, can be called nominal in the area of beliefs.

Are we saying, then, that someone who shows one or more contradictions is not a Christian? No, all we are saying is that such a person is a ‘nominal’ Christian.

Invitation
Definitions and characterisations of the various forms of nominal Christianity are helpful to better understand the people concerned, but we want to move beyond statistics and analyses and connect with them, meet them where they are – outside and inside the church communities – and encourage them to come closer to Christ in areas where they might be ‘far off’. (See above for the parameters of being Christian). A keyword is invitation. God continually invites all people to a deeper faith in Christ and a growing commitment to follow him.

Evert Van de Poll is Professor of Religious Science and Missiology at Evangelical Theological Faculty, Leuven and a pastor with the French Baptist Federation.

Nominal Christianity

Posted October 25, 2018 by europeanmission
Categories: Uncategorized

Following the publication of the latest issue of Vista, which focused on Nominal Christianity,  Dr Peter Brierley shared with us a paper on the topic.

The paper gives an overview of statistics and then explores a wide number of issues relating to nominalism, including what is religiousness, and spirituality; and what invisible or no religion means today.

Read the full paper here

Dr Peter Brierley is a statistician who has been the Lausanne Catalyst for Church Research from 1984, although now stepping down in favour of Dr Larry Kraft.  He was also Director first of MARC Europe (1983-1993) and then of Christian Research (1993-2007) and did multiple surveys of church attendance in that time (and since!).   Christian Research organised the first Lausanne Consultation on Nominalism in 1997, and this paper was written for the second held in Rome in March 2018.  More details of his current statistical work may be found on www.brierleyconsultancy.com.

 

Nominal Christianity in Contemporary Europe

Posted October 1, 2018 by europeanmission
Categories: Uncategorized

Nominal Christianity in EuropeOf course I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was raised as a “nominal Christian”.
My mother was a disillusioned and non-practising Irish Catholic; my father was “C of E” but rarely showed his face at the local parish church. I was christened and went to the local Church of England Aided Primary School but there was no Christian practice at home: no prayers, no Bible-reading (in fact I am not even sure there was a Bible in the house) and no conversation about spiritual things.

When I finally met a believing Christian in my early teens I can distinctly remember thinking: “These guys talk about Jesus as if he was still alive, not like the dead Jesus they have taught us about in school”. It was the start of my journey into faith in Christ and the turning point in my life.

This issue of Vista tackles the complex issue of Nominal Christianity. The lead article by Evert van de Poll provides a description of the phenomenon and traces its essential parameters. We then reproduce the Lausanne Statement on Nominal Christianity which resulted from a consultation in Rome 2018.

Darrell Jackson reviews the Pew Research Center’s report “Being Christian in Western Europe” and René Breuel writes on the vital importance of visual metaphors for initiation into Christian faith. Lastly, an article by Jo Appleton draws on insights from three participants in the Rome Consultation who write about Nominal Christianity from Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox perspectives.

Jim Memory

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Creating Community through the World Cafe

Posted September 27, 2018 by europeanmission
Categories: Uncategorized

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Like the rest of Europe, life for asylum seekers in Gloucester, England, is a ‘liminal space’ where they survive and wait, knowing they could be moved by the authorities at any time.  “It is like living in an open prison without a status, charged of a crime without a name,” says ECM missionary Rita Rimkiene, who with her husband Vidas Rimkus, founded the World Café.

world cafe foodThe World Café is not a ‘ministry’ however – it is a community where the emphasis is on hospitality, friendship and valuing everyone’s contribution.  “My family in Lithuania was great at hosting parties and as a child, our flat was a place where people gathered and shared life. God brought that back to me when I met Him. Vidas and I have always been fond of having people join us for dinner, lunch and sometimes even breakfast”

As more people joined them, they began meeting in a church hall in central Gloucester, and the World Café Community was born.

Twice-monthly social events are held for between 80-150  people, sometimes even more. The asylum seekers and refugees cook meals from their own countries, with occasional British cuisine. “Everybody comes together to eat, share their joys and troubles, celebrate child birth and mourn, share joys when receive refugee status and be encouraged when they are refused. This is the night when friendships are formed,” says Rita.

While local people are encouraged to befriend the refugees and asylum seekers, “at the end of the day it does not matter who befriends who, we all just  need to be encouraged and loved and experience unity despite of our religious, social or ethnic backgrounds. I love seeing people moving on in life and when it is really tough we can stand together.”

The World Café supports asylum seekers who have particular professions like GP’s where Home Office without a refugee status gives work permission. Generosity of local folk enables World Café to fund some of the exams. Recently, a Pakistani lady passed all the exams and is looking for a job.

Dalal was a Syrian 5 Star Hotel chef who recently arrived in Gloucester with his wife and three children. He has been volunteering at the World Café and using his amazing cooking skills around the city at various church events. The next step is to get Dalal into his own catering business with the help of local business people.

The café has also built relationships with other organisations, such as GARAS (Gloucestershire Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers) as well as with Fair Shares, a secular organisation, which helps to find volunteering jobs for all willing.

Rita sees the local involvement as two way: “we want to help local people to use their gifts,” she says “such as sewing, English language teaching, arts, anything really, that can help people to connect and find a new trade or help develop friendship by doing something together.”   This has included a local English teacher who had young children, so couldn’t teach evening classes – but was available for the daytime English club, and even a local charitable trust who has been impressed by World Café’s self-sustainable model which meets both physical and spiritual needs.

And the spiritual side is important too. “The World Café is funded and runs on the compassion and love of local people and churches,” explains Rita. “It welcomes everybody, no matter of their faith and background and is a safe place for inter-religious dialogue. It is a place where Buddhists, atheists, Muslims and Christians feel equal, loved and nurtured.

“Muslims began to come to church on Sunday services. As a result of this, men’s Bible study group started. When people make friends, we hear stories of churches looking after a refugee or an asylum seeking family or an individual. People celebrate Christmas and Easter, take people on holidays, camps and have Sunday dinners. During Ramadan Christians fast together and break fast. People started to pray together and read Holy Books.”

“For example, a young Iranian came to the World Café for a meal. On Sunday he came to church to find out about Jesus, where he joined men’s Bible study group. He went to every housegroup during the week until one day he accepted Christ as his Saviour and got baptised shortly after that. Now he is active within a youth group and has become one of World Café leaders.”

So while asylum seekers and refugees are amongst the most marginalised in society, the vision of the World Café is to give them somewhere to belong  through creating community.

As Rita explains: “The World Café has endless opportunities! ‘The table’ is the beginning of a journey together. As food sustains us physically, open conversation opens a door to our very being – our soul.”

Jo Appleton

Mission from the Margin in Kosovo

Posted September 13, 2018 by europeanmission
Categories: Uncategorized

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Christianity as default is gone: the rise of a non-Christian Europe’, was the title above a recent article.1

We see this kind of message in publications with some regularity, but it struck me that this research was all about young people aged 16-29. I asked myself, a bit skeptically, ‘what will the future church look like?’ I can imagine from a Christian perspective, this is often exactly how the decrease of Christianity is seen. It feels painful and we feel skeptical. What will the church be in the future?

But then, in the same article, another sentence struck me: ‘In 20 or 30 years’ time, mainstream churches will be smaller, but the few people left will be highly committed.’2 Small in number, but highly committed. The church in the margin, as minority, but faithful present in the society. The aspect of Christian alienation might help us to understand the decreasing position of the church in a more healthy and positive way.
In this article we will look at 1 Peter 1:1 and at the Protestant-Evangelical movement in Kosovo. This church exists in the context of Islam, and has already been in the margins for decades.3

In the beginning of 1 Peter we see the author of the document calls his readers: ‘God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered’. (NIV) There are three elements in this verse which relate to Christian alienation: Identity, Estrangement and being Scattered. I will describe each and include some modest comments related to the church of Kosovo to give us possibly a more optimistic and hopeful view on the future of the Christian movement in the margins.4

Kosovo demographicsIdentity of the Christian movement

Why are Christians alienated on earth? It seems logical to say that this is a consequence of being Christian. But, in my humble opinion, it is often seen as an unintended – and even maybe unwanted – consequence. It might have negative associations. We do not long for Christian alienation. But in 1 Peter 1 Christian alienation is related to God’s sovereign love. The author speaks about God’s election and this makes the church a movement of strangers. Because of God’s sovereign love he has chosen the movement of Christians as His representatives on earth.5 So, if this is the case, Christian alienation is not, by definition, a negative consequence of being Christian or an unintentional aspect of Christian life. No, it is just a positive consequence of being chosen and intentional in nature. This is a radical other perspective which might be often overseen.

This consideration can be helpful for churches in the margins. In Kosovo for example, Christians have to face social persecution.6 There is tension within their families because they become Christians. Gossip, insults and disdain occur regularly. But, despite these difficulties which I don’t want to downplay, they may see that alienation, with all the challenges and difficulties, is intentional and a consequence of being chosen through godly love. That’s why Paul said: ‘You are no longer foreigners (…), but fellow-citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household (…) with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.’7 Such a clear identity gives a great comfort in all circumstances for the church in Kosovo as well for all churches all over the world.

Estrangement

The author of 1 Peter speaks about ‘strangers’. What does this mean?
First of all: believers are mentioned as strangers in this world. This because of their calling to live a holy, i.e. distinct, life.8 This holiness makes them different from their environment, because of their identity, because of their calling to live a holy life.
This difference is twofold in nature. 1) Christians feel themselves different in their own environment. This gives an inner estrangement to a non-Christian context. But the distinction also works the other way around: 2) The non-Christian context sees Christians as strange because they have other convictions and they behave differently. The latter one is an external perspective.

In relation to the external perspective Christians in Kosovo are often seen as foolish and even as traitors. This has to do with historical tensions between Serbs and Albanians. Kosovar Albanians know that Serbs are (Orthodox) Christians. From their perspective, the Christian Serbs killed and raped a lot of Albanians during the war at the end of the 90’s.9

With regard to the inner perspective Christians do face the fact that they have to behave differently. On the one hand they keep some distance and on the other hand they try to reach to their own people. This paradoxical attitude, inspired by the notion of Christian alienation, raises the question of how to protect the churches’ identity and at the same time try to be of value within the public sphere? Christians have to live their lives in the seemingly contradictory position of neither distance nor assimilation. Alienated but as seed in their environment.

Scattered

According to 1 Peter, Christians are apparently scattered in their non-Christian environment. This translation emphasizes the notion of being a minority or at the margin of a society. A movement which is scattered has no religious or political power. In Greek the term ‘diaspora’ is used. This also reminds us about the exile experience of the people of Israel during the Old Testament. What was one of the characteristics of the exile? Longing for their home, Canaan.

So, somehow Christians have a kind of diaspora experience.10 They are longing for their home country,11 the eschatological reality with God, and powerless in the earthly reality.
In Kosovo there is no Christian political movement, no Christian lobby, no big churches. In Kosovo we have only Christians who live their lives and share their hope within their families, within their villages. They share their hope for a future reality, but also hope for their country in this earthly reality. There is no room for any kind of escapism. And just in this paradoxical engagement they live their godly missional lives.

Godly lives, in the margin, in a non-Christian society. And from the margins Christians try to live in the midst of their (non-Christian) neighbors. Not as victims, but as victors, as chosen people. Alienated on earth, but not alienated before God.
I know; Christianity as default is gone, but I see the rise of a church in the margin in a non-Christian Europe. Right there where God called the church to be.

Rik and Matched Lubbers are ECM missionaries who have worked in Kosovo since 2013.

Endnotes
1. Sherwood, H., ‘Christianity as default is gone: the rise of a non-Christian Europe’ in: The Guardian, 21 March 2018. See: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/21/christianity-non-christian-europe-young-people-survey-religion (Last consulted on 4-6-2018) Compare also: Bullivant, S., Europe’s Young Adults and Religion: Findings from the European Social Survey (2014-16) to inform the 2018 Synod of Bishops (London: St. Mary’s University, 2018)
2. Ibid
3. Because of the given space I cannot work out all the Bible passages related to ‘Christian alienation’. I chose the first letter of Peter because it is just this letter that turns a marginal indication of Christian alienation to a more prominent quality of the church. Cf. e.g. Gen. 23:4; Ps. 38:13 [LXX: 39:12] and Hebr. 11:13. At the same time we recognize that this designation of the Christian movement never had a central place in the NT. It is just one of the designations for the church.
4. Christian alienation contains a lot more, but for this contribution I have to limit myself.
5.. 2 Cor. 5:20. We deliberately use the terms
‘church’ and ‘Christian movement’ alternately to
emphasize the church as collective.
6.. With social persecution I do mean social tensions which expresses as e.g. discrimination, tension within families, disadvantaged positions on the labour market etc. In Kosovo is, as far as we know, no physical persecution.
7.. Eph 2:19.
8.. Cf. e.g. 1 Pet. 1:15, 16; 2:5, 9.
9.. The difference between the Serbian orthodox church, the catholic church and the protestant church is often unknown in Kosovo. I want to emphasize that it is, in no way, our intention to interfere in any political debate related to the existing tension between Serbs and Kosovar Albanians.

10. I am careful in using the notion of ‘exile’ for the Christian church. This has mainly to do with the fact that the exile was in the OT a punishment and judgement from God.

11. See e.g. 1 Pet. 1:4.