The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
Joanne Appleton talks about nominalism with three attendees at the Lausanne Rome consultation: Tim Grass, Jaume Llenas and Olof Edsinger.
The history and identity of Europe has been shaped by three very different expressions of the Christian faith, all of which experience the challenges of nominalism.
This article brings together contributions on the topic from three attendees at the Lausanne Rome consultation, each with experience within a different context: Tim Grass (Orthodox); Jaume Llenas (Catholic) and Olof Edsinger (Protestant).
Defining nominalism in each context
All three contributors would define Christian Nominalism as ‘non-practising’, although this definition has changed with increasing secularism.
Thirty years ago, people may have attended church services as initiated nominals who at least understand the basis of the faith, even if they did not believe. Today however, they may identify in name only, with only a ‘vague understanding of the Christian faith’.
In highly secularised Sweden, says Edsing, the picture is more complicated: "most Swedes do not profess any religion at all (often still being members of the Church of Sweden)".
"Moreover, many of those who still belong would say that they have chosen their membership specifically because of its somewhat cooler relationship with the Bible in general and the Christian fellowship in particular. They do not want to be as challenged or involved as one would expect in a more Evangelical or Pentecostal congregation".
Causes of nominalism
When considering the causes of nominalism, the relationship between Church and the power of the State is a common theme. ‘A major factor has to be the inculturation of Christianity in a way that results in its identification with social and governmental structures, and even with ethnic identity (although Orthodox themselves have sometimes condemned this as heresy)’, explains Grass.
For Llenas, Catholicism in Spain has been closely related to power. ‘Their way of expansion and expression has been controlling the public and private spaces, and rites of passage in society. This has not left much space to persuade or communicate a message of hope in Christ.’
In Sweden, ‘between the years 1546 and 2000 the Church of Sweden served as the state church with the vast majority of Swedes as its members’ explains Edsinger. The implication is that people belonged whether or not they believed, building a degree of nominalism into the very fabric of Swedish society.
However Edsinger also describes a spiritual dynamic to nominalism, where ‘the church itself encourages secularisation by losing its own focus on Christ and its overall saltiness’ and accommodating a sacred/secular divide where ‘Sunday business’ is not relevant to ‘Monday to Saturday business’.
‘You simply don’t want to see, or fail to see, the links between the Gospel and what you are doing Monday to Saturday. This is often communicated indirectly to the next generation, as the children see that their parent’s faith has little or no consequence for their everyday life’.
And where ‘folk religion’ has played a large part in the expression of faith, for example in the Catholic processions or cult of Mary in Spain, once these ‘decay’, there is not much true spirituality left.
‘I remember in the 1970s and 1980s people would tell us they were Catholics because “this is what our fathers taught us, this is what the church taught us”. But they refused to transmit it to the next generation’ says Llenas.
But could it be considered that a nominal faith is better than no faith at all, and a good thing that people identify as ‘Christian’?
Maybe not explains Llenas: ‘when a person calls himself a Christian and has not gone through an experience of being born again of the Spirit, the distance of what is expected of a son of God and the reality becomes a big gap.
When society looks at the visible reality of the Church where people only have the name of believers, what they see is disturbing’.
Edsinger agrees: ‘When the values and spirituality that are conveyed tend not to present the true Biblical way of discipleship, it could be as a vaccine against Christianity’.
So how can those who have been “vaccinated” be reached? One challenge from our contributors is that renewal movements have often previously arisen within the denomination, rather from outside.
Some of the 20 Century renewal movements within the Orthodox Church owe much to Protestant/Evangelical influence and methodology, but have been adapted to work within a different context.
ISTM said that the best people to reach non-practising Orthodox are Orthodox, although a number in the West have been blessed through participation in evangelical student ministry, or people such as Billy Graham.’
Alpha has also had an effect, particularly within the Protestant and Catholic Churches. This is another example of being reached ‘from within’, in that courses are held within the Catholic or Protestant church.
Llenas also mentions IFES in Spain who are reaching nominal students through gospel based Bible study groups called ‘Uncover’, as well as the Swedish Evangelical Alliance who are prioritising this issue.
Not just ‘over there’
A word of warning however. It is easy to look ‘over there’ at nominalism, but not engage with similar issues within our own (evangelical) context.
An example may be where we want our young people to come back to ‘the church’ and attend services. We may consider their drifting from Church as a pastoral, rather than evangelistic issue where they are invited into a living faith.
And are we truly aware of the extent of secularisation within our own churches, where we are caught in a web of humanism, consumerism and spiritual narcissism, and ‘have let the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful’ (Mark 4:19).
Research by Norwegian theologian Erling Birkedal identifies three dimensions that are required for people to be firmly rooted in faith: the cognitive (wrestling intellectually with Biblical truths), social (our experiences of Christian fellowship) and emotional (our personal experiences of God and his presence).
These relate to Jesus’ command to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind’ (Matt 22:37), and all three are required, rather than a focus on one or two.
As Edsinger encourages us, the challenge of nominalism –in whatever expression of Christian faith –is met by ‘true spiritual role models, Christian leaders and lay people who live genuinely attractive lives, integrating all three dimensions in their faith and practising a bold faith in their everyday life’.
Joanne Appleton, with contributions from Olof Edsinger (General Secretary of the Swedish Evangelical Alliance), Jaume Llenas (General Secretary of the Spanish Evangelical Alliance), and Dr Tim Grass (Facilitator of the Lausanne-Orthodox Initiative).
Jo Appleton researches and writes about mission in Europe for the online journal Vist . This article first appeared in the October 2018 edition of Vista Magazine.