Narrating the Gospel: The relevance of Charles Taylor’s ‘A Secular Age’ for mission in Europe

Posted May 5, 2019 by europeanmission
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A secular age

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Hard news was obviously in short supply on Friday December 28th, 2018. Hence, The Times ran a feature about a YouGov survey of 1,660 people in the UK. The findings suggested that there are more people attending church (albeit less frequently), a reduction in the number of professed atheists, an increase in the number of agnostics, and an increase in the numbers of those who say they pray occasionally.

This single survey is hardly a game-changer, but it does seem to confirm what other surveys of the last five years suggest: that it’s time for a review of the way that many Christians in Europe have become conditioned to thinking about faith across the continent. Most of us tend to see the history of Christianity in Europe in two main periods. During the first period from around the 4th to the 18th century, Christianity provided the framework for understanding morality, faith, social order, God, and just about the whole of life. After the Enlightenment of the 18th century, science and reason overthrew religious credibility and authority and the slow, steady demise of Christendom set in. If life in the earlier period was lived under a sacred canopy, in the latter it was lived from a secular launchpad.

For academics who retained an interest in studying European Christianity, a debate raged about how best to support this version of events with the best statistical data available. Callum Brown provoked attention (and sales) with his book The Death of Christian Britain (2001, 2009). Grace Davie puzzled, at a late stage of her thinking, over Religion in Britain: A Persistent Paradox (2015). Some argued that modernity was necessarily and inevitably secular. Others described national Churches dealing in things of ‘ultimacy’ and ‘transcendence’ on behalf of their respective nations. The debate was lively and fascinating.

In the middle of these debates, I was trying to advise Baptist churches in the UK about the nature of their mission task through into the early 2000s. It was challenging. Many church pundits and commentators were convinced that secularism had triumphed, the churches were in terminal decline, and that the churches of Europe should either oppose science and reason to their dying breath, or that they should strike an uneasy truce with secularisation.
Twelve years ago, Charles Taylor took around 800 pages with A Secular Age (2007) to tell a different story. Taylor was a Catholic, Canadian philosopher with a huge reputation. In 800 pages he says a lot of things that deserve much more space than we have available in this short article. However, it’s worth trying a short summary.

Here we go! Taylor suggests there are three ways to understand how ‘secular’ is used. Firstly, prior to the fifteenth-century Protestant Reformation, ‘secular’ was used to describe all the non-sacred things that religious people did. Eating, washing, travelling, and trading, for example, were all ‘secular’ activities, pursued by religious people with a sense of the transcendent presence of God, or the divine. Secondly, following the Reformation (‘The Reformation is central to the story I want to tell’, A Secular Age, p.77), and fuelled by the European Enlightenment, ‘secular’ became a way of describing the non-religious.

You were either religious or secular, being both was no longer possible. People could now choose to live their lives without the approval of a transcendent being. Instead, they could live mostly self-validating lives with reference only to immanent realities such as human reason, the nation-state, science, etc., and in some cases developed extreme hostilities to religion.

Taylor argues that European Christians have largely accepted this second understanding. As a result, we have typically tried to live out our Christian witness by picking a fight with human reason and science. The problem with this, if Taylor is correct, is that our arguments then rest on the same assumptions that reason and science rest upon. Simply put, we often resort to logic, historicity, and empirical defences of our faith. These are arguments based in the appeal to immanence.

Taylor argues for a third way of understanding ‘secular’: that religious and non-religious people alike are secular because we inhabit an era in which faith, atheism, and humanism are all available as options. More than this, they are options that do not have to be watertight categories. Taylor notes that there have always been people who, ‘want to respect as much as they can the ‘scientific’ shape of the immanent order… but who cannot help believing that there is something more than the merely immanent…’ (p.548).

For Taylor, the loss of transcendence in a secular age is disastrous for human beings. Elsewhere, his work on ‘social imaginaries’ is his personal effort to re-engage human beings with story, mystery, the poetic, the numinous, and the imagination. European Christians who refuse to deal with the miraculous, the presence of angels, the inspirational lives of saints (they don’t have to be Roman Catholic saints!), the real presence of God in the everyday, the possibility of sacred spaces, the necessity of resurrection, the reality of evil with personality and intelligence, and the life everlasting, among many others, have simply lost sight of the missional power of these elements of our Christian story.

Taylor would encourage us to refer to all these, often, and to tell stories that inspire and stimulate imaginative leaps (slowly shuffling forward might also be OK) that enlarge the possibility of faith for those willing to listen. He talks of ‘the power and genuineness of the experience of wonder’ (p.607), for example. A growing number of evangelicals see that Taylor’s insights encourage an approach whereby apologetics that rely on story and narrative are more persuasive, and convincing, than apologetics that rely on argumentation and empirical data alone.

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is not an easy read. It’s big, for one. However, he writes in such a rich and compelling way that it’s easy to miss the fact that he’s actually telling us a very sophisticated story. He also quotes poetry at length (see pp.761-765, for example). That’s all deliberate, because he’s trying to persuade and inspire the imagination of his readers in a way that he argues is necessary in our secular age.

Reading Taylor is also an immensely hope-filled and optimistic exercise. Reviewing him for The New York Sun, Michael Burleigh captures this well: ‘A salutary and sophisticated defence of how life was lived before the daring views of a tiny secular elite inspired mass indifference…’ Taylor offers the intriguing prospect that we may yet see a return to an “Age of the Spirit.”

Taylor frequently talks of the shared human ‘aspiration to wholeness and transcendence’ (pp.262-627). As a Roman Catholic, Taylor would not be embarrassed by Christians engaged in thoughtful and genuine efforts to re-enchant Europe by planting many and varied seeds of transcendence. Such language might seem a long way from what many of us understand when we use phrases such as ‘proclaiming the gospel’. Taylor wouldn’t distance himself from this, but his work does challenge us to reconsider whether our understanding and proclaiming of the gospel has lost all sense of enchantment and transcendence, and is instead too much reminiscent of a verbal ‘fist-fight’.

If we were, instead, to re-learn the art of narrating the gospel in a way that captures its weird, miraculous, other-worldly, subversive, and transformative intent, it is still possible that Christ’s followers in Europe will live to feel that they have contributed, in some way, to a future ‘Age of the Spirit’.

Darrell Jackson is Associate Professor of Missiology, Morling College.

Debunking Secular Europe?

Posted January 29, 2019 by europeanmission
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secularThis issue of Vista returns to the recurring themes of secularisation, secularity and secularism. Taking different approaches and starting points, our authors ask what it means to be secular in Europe today, how societies can be both secular and religious, and whether there are signs that secularisation is slowing or even reversing.
In our lead article, Evert Van de Poll strongly challenges the conventional secularisation thesis and introduces his own neologism: the SMR Society – which is secularised (or secularising) yet simultaneously multi-religious.

Recent years have seen some ground-breaking works exploring religion and secularity in Europe. Darrell Jackson looks back at Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, 12 years after its publication, and assesses its impact and relevance today. And in our book review section, Jim Memory reviews two books that have tried, with partial success, to make Taylor’s work more widely accessible.
Jo Appleton looks at secularism and religiosity from a different perspective, asking how Europe’s growing Muslim population affects the debate. In a similar vein, Jim Memory offers a demographic perspective on European secularisation, using population and migration statistics to identify future trends, outlining key missiological implications.

This issue is completed by Jeff  Fountain’s article introducing some recent popular books that  suggest religion and spirituality  continue to resonate with  Europeans today.

Chris Ducker, Jim Memory, Darrell Jackson, Evert van de Poll, Jo Appleton

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Mission on the margins: reaching the LGBT community

Posted December 27, 2018 by europeanmission
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The June 2018 issue of Vista focused on a number of areas where mission takes place on the edges of society.  Examples included the Roma, girls in the sex industry, the LGBT community, asylum seekers  and a reflection on mission from the margins in Kosovo.

As editors we recognised that some of the margins explored by the writers in this issue of Vista may step beyond what our readers are comfortable with, both missiologically and theologically.

Following publication,   Matt George, Director of ECM NZ and Australia contacted us regarding the article ‘Lets talk about LGBT inclusion’ by Danielle Wilson and the editors invited a response from him. Both articles are linked below for your consideration and reflection.

Vista 30 – lets talk about LGBT inclusion

Vista 30 – a response

Read the full issue here

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

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.

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.