Not my kind of Christian: a response to the Pew Research Center’s 2018 report, Being Christian in Europe

Posted December 17, 2018 by europeanmission
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Beliefs and behaviours in Western Europe are rarely researched beyond the national level. To address this knowledge gap, Pew Research conducted 24,599 telephone interviews in 15 countries between April and August 2017. Additionally, 12,000 ‘religiously unaffiliated’ individuals (atheists, agnostics, and people with ‘no particular view’ – or ‘nones’) were interviewed and their attitudes and practices also recorded. A comprehensive 156-page report was published in May 2018.

The report introduces several new indices that measure New Age engagement, religious commitment, and attitudes regarding nationality, immigration, and religious minorities (indices that echo Vista’s ‘Nova Index of Secularisation in Europe’, or NISE, featured in our October 2010 edition).

In describing Western Europeans, Pew’s researchers distinguish between several population categories: the baseline ‘Western Europeans’ (or WEs), the ‘religiously non-affiliated’ (or ‘nones’), non-practising or non-attending Christians, church-attending Christians (or the ‘religiously observant’), and the religiously committed. It’s important in reading the report to make sure that these categories are understood correctly. At times they appear to be used interchangeably or in ways that do not make the distinctions very clear. With this minor caution noted, it’s time to dip into the riches of the report.

What’s known about the prevailing beliefs of Western Europeans?
According to the report, 71 percent of WEs identify as Christian, though only 16 percent attend church at least monthly. Christian identity remains a meaningful marker for the individual – even where it might not mean what an evangelical missionary means by it. The report demonstrates that WEs are predominantly ‘non-practising Christians’ with 80 percent saying they know about Christianity and its practices, a clear contrast with the two out of every three WEs who profess ignorance of Islam and Judaism.

Belief in God is claimed by 58 percent of WEs, although only 15 percent claim to do with absolute certainty and only 15 percent believe in a biblical God. Half of these, or 29 percent of WEs, understand God as primarily ‘all-loving’. Notions of God as judge, all-knowing, or all-powerful, are far less commonly held by WEs. However, two-thirds of WEs believe they have a soul and 40 percent believe in an afterlife.

Just over one in ten Europeans describes themselves as ‘spiritual’, although a quarter claim to be both religious and spiritual (among whom are doubtless many of the church-attending Christians). Of those who self-identify as spiritual, two-thirds believe in a higher power or force. Only 12 percent of these believe in God as described in the Bible. However, they are more likely to engage in New Age, Eastern, or folk religions, fear the ‘evil eye’, practise yoga as a spiritual practice, and believe in reincarnation, horoscopes, tarot cards, and the abilities of fortune tellers.

Whilst only 8 percent of WEs try to persuade other people to adopt their religious views, a more significant 24 percent give money to their church. This reflects their generally positive assessment of the role of religious institutions in society: helping the poor and needy, bringing people together, strengthening community, and, for some, strengthening morality in society.

What do we know about the religiously unaffiliated (the ‘nones’)?
The ‘nones’ are typically younger, more highly educated, and disproportionately male. Two thirds of them say they were baptised and raised as Christians, gradually drifting away for various reasons, including the church’s negative stance towards homosexuality, abortion, or scandals within the church. Consequently, very few of them ever attend a religious service. It is this population group that is of interest to scholars of nominal belief and practice in Europe, who are likely to describe this group using the alternative definition of ‘nominal’.

Intriguingly, just under one third of the ‘nones’ say they believe in ‘a higher power’. This slice of the atheist/agnostic pie interested the Pew researchers, who labelled them ‘religiously unaffiliated believers’. They are highly likely to believe that they have a soul and less likely than other ‘nones’ to express anti-religious attitudes. They are also more likely than Christians to engage in alternative New Age or other spiritual practices.

‘Nones’ are much more likely to be found in Protestant countries than in Catholic countries and being raised as a ‘none’ makes it highly likely that one will die a ‘none’. Encouragingly, some people raised as ‘nones’ do embrace religious identity and/or practice later in life. Across Europe, 17 percent of the former ‘nones’ have embraced some form of religious affiliation (identity, non-attending, or attending and believing).
Identifying non-practising (or ‘non-attending’) Christians?

For this report, Pew researchers defined the category of ‘non-practising Christian’ by identifying individuals who no longer attend church services (‘non-practising’) but who retain religious beliefs that were sufficiently orthodox to be described as ‘Christian’. Across Europe, non-practising Christians outnumber the ‘nones’ although a majority say they are neither religious nor spiritual! They tend to believe in God (or a higher power), to be more positively inclined towards religious institutions, and favour legal abortion and same-sex marriage. A majority say they are raising their children as Christians but insist that religion should be kept out of government policy.

The non-practising Christian is described by Pew researchers with reference to religious belief, views about the place of religion in society, and views about national identity, immigration, and religious minorities. (Vista’s editors note with some measure of satisfaction, that these are themes that Vista has constantly kept in view from the first edition).

When can a Western European be considered a Church-attending Christian?
Perhaps frustratingly for an evangelical mission or church leader, church-attending Christians are predominantly to be found in the traditionally Roman Catholic countries of WE. Moreover, on the Pew measure of religious commitment (measuring frequency of attendance, frequency of prayer, the degree of importance of religion, and personal belief in God), the most religiously committed, on this index are Portugal, Italy, Ireland, and Spain. The least observant are the UK, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden. A neutral observer with limited knowledge of Protestant evaluations of Roman Catholic Christianity might wonder why missionaries from the latter countries are being sent to the former(!).

When Pew measured for the highest level of religious commitment (by an individual scoring two from four of the following list: attending church at least monthly, praying daily, belief in God with certainty, and religion being very important to them), it’s clear that most Christians in WE show only moderate to low levels of religious commitment. Despite this, they are more likely than others to report that God rewards, punishes, communicates, and interacts with them. At least half of these believe in a biblical God.

The Pew researchers highlight the very strong link between religious observance (not just identity) and civic participation. This results in highly committed Christians also being involved in charitable, voluntary, and community groups and activities. It’s possible that this spills over into their increased likelihood of expressing nationalist views and saying that ancestry is key to national identity. It may also be connected to the fact that they are more likely to express negative views of Muslims, Jews and immigrants, than do the ‘nones’, and are more likely to describe immigrants from Africa and the Middle East as neither honest nor hardworking.

What questions does the Report raise for missionaries serving in, and sent from, the countries of Western Europe?
The report makes important comparisons for missionaries bound for Europe from the USA. These are valuable and, for example, Pew researchers note that 53 percent of Americans say that religion is important to them whilst for WEs the figure is a mere 11 percent. Missionaries from the USA must adjust assumptions and expectations when talking to people about faith and belief.

Even where a missionary, or church leader, might struggle with a non-practising Western European’s claim to Christian identity, there remains the need to take such claims seriously and to discern what meaning is attached to such self-descriptions. Being comfortable in working with such expressions of implicit faith is a necessary skill for the missionary in Western Europe. The report shows clearly that there are many WEs for whom Christianity serves as a religious, social, and cultural marker. Accepting this need not imply a negation of the evangelistic motivation, but it might require a revision of evangelistic assumptions.

Occasionally people ask how a missiologist can write about Europe from an office in Sydney. It’s a fair question, but it’s also fair to ask, ‘How can a missionary from the irreligious Netherlands do mission in the highly religious context of Portugal?’ Of course, my Australian context inevitably influences how I engage with Europe. Equally, a Dutch missionary, shaped by his or her Dutch irreligious context (if the Pew report is correct), will be deeply influenced by this and it will impact on how they do mission among the highly religious Portuguese, sometimes with negative consequences. In fact, one might suggest that because the Netherlands is the only Western European country where ‘nones’ (48%) outnumber ‘Christians’ (41%) and where 40% of people have a negative view of religion, it is time for missionaries to turn their attention to the Netherlands as a mission-receiving field rather than Portugal, Italy, Spain, or France!

An effective national or cross-cultural worker might wisely reflect on how to build connections to the 65% of WEs who believe they have a soul, particularly those who say they are either religious and/or spiritual, for whom the level of belief in a soul increases to between 75-85 percent. Identifying the potential for such connections is a particular strength of this report and there are probably other leads that lie waiting to be discovered.

A final observation – Sport!
My co-editors will probably smile with me making this point! Although 36 percent of WEs are involved in a sports club, only 31 percent of highly committed Christians are similarly engaged. In contrast, 39 percent of the ‘nones’ are involved. If Christians want to meet non-believers, they will need to get a lot fitter and take up sporting activities to meet them! This is especially true for the soccer-mad (and Roman Catholic) European nations like Spain and Italy. Regular church attendance is almost certainly a constraint on regular involvement in sport or recreational activities for highly committed Christians. Even cross-cultural missionaries are prone to making similar mistakes. Pew’s researchers note the tendency for friendship circles to largely include people with a similar religious identity: ‘nones’ hang out with ‘nones’; church-attending Christians with other church-attending Christians, for example.

Making social connections no doubt contributes to the report’s observation that, for example, in France, 8 percent of those who have been raised religiously unaffiliated say that they are now Christian. This is encouraging. Across Europe, the number of former ‘nones’ who have embraced Christianity sits in the region of 10 to 12 percent.

Darrell Jackson is Associate Professor of missiology, Morling College, Sydney. Responses are welcome at darrellj@morling.edu.au

Nominal Christianity in Contemporary Europe

Posted November 15, 2018 by europeanmission
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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

Downlodad Vista 30 here

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