The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
An interview with Lars Dahle, member of the steering group of the Lausanne Movement 2018 Global Consultation on Nominal Christianity.
Missiologists, theologians and other experts met in March 2018 in Rome to analyse the worldwide trends of Nominal Christianity.
Evangelical Focus asked Lars Dahle, a theology and journalism professor in Norway, about the outcome of the five day gathering and the issues that were discussed.
Dahle is member of the Steering Committee for the Lausanne Movement global consultation on Nominal Christianity.
Q. How did the discussions in Rome go?
A. It was an intensive 5 days. The Lausanne Movement convenes what is called a Global Consultation once a year, or maybe once every second year.
That is around significant topics, identified by the Lausanne leadership, by one of the Lausanne mission networks, or by someone who asks Lausanne to convene such a consultation.
This time it was the Lausanne Global leadership who had asked us to focus on Nominal Christianity as a key topic, which had not been specifically addressed in the 2010 Cape Town Congress.
Lausanne is a worldwide global umbrella, a network of networks that has been centered around three key Congresses: Lausanne 1974, Manila 1989 and Cape Town 2010.
The last key document published was the “Cape Town Commitment”, but Nominal Christianity was not among the issues actually identified in that document. That is why more work was needed in this area.
Lausanne has a unique role in being able to convene people. So, what happened during those days in March is that we were convened to center around this topic. Almost all participants presented papers, either major paper or responses and brief reflections. So it was a wealth of material from 40-45 participants.
In addition to that, we worked towards producing a consultation statement which was refined afterwards.
So, there were intensive days of listening to one another, as we came there representing different contexts, different church traditions within the evangelical context, and also different mission ministries.
Q. How does the final statement define what a Nominal Christian is?
A. To define that was actually not as easy as it might sound. There was a growing understanding among all of us that this is a very complex reality, and we wanted to be fair in how we represent other people.
We also wanted to be realistic, knowing that this is not just about everyone else, but also about our own church traditions within the evangelical contexts. And even, if I may add, something about the personal challenging dimension: to what extend do I and each one of us have an authentic life, living out the gospel, being close to Christ?
With all those kind of reflections, the statement offers a definition of Nominal Christians as “people who identify with a Christian church, or the Christian faith, but are in contradiction with basic Christian principles, with respect to becoming a Christian, Christian faith, Christian beliefs, church involvement and daily life”.
Q. The concept of “missing Christians” appeared in these discussions. People who left the church, people who are not living out their faith. Where have these missing Christians gone?
A. That is a very good question and I am not sure we know the full comprehensive answer to that, but I think that what we are experiencing, not the least in Western Europe, is the fact of privatization.
Faith becomes a private matter, there is a less public identification with the local church, or with a statement of faith. People lose their connection to the vibrant life in a church, for example. Many people have gone private in their faith.
The other side is that all of us have a personal challenge of knowing if we are moving towards Christ or away from Christ - in our personal lives.
There is quite a strong sense of the need to live close to Christ in our daily walk, and not just talk about others, but also be aware of the dangers for each one of us.
Q. In the consultation document you said that the fact of privatizing our faith has led to a “negative reputation of the Christian church, including such demanding realities as secularization, moral confusion, racism, colonialism and prosperity theology”. Could you give some examples of this in Europe, in the present, or from history?
A. Thinking about colonialism, Christianity has been closely attached to the Western colonial powers, conquering the world in the name of Christianity.
We know that through that historical phase mission societies were able to work, very often with an ambivalent relationship with the authorities in their own country, and with a variant degree of moral integrity among the rulers.
We have really tough stories from Africa, for example, about how colonial powers, in the name of the ‘Christian West’ actually destroyed much more than they contributed.
Another aspect would be the moral confusion of today. We wanted to be realistic about the fact that there is a lot of moral confusion going on in the name of the Christian church.
One area would obviously be sexual morality: the move away from a truly biblical holistic understanding of sexuality is very obviuos in many churches. And of course that has legitimized - in many people's eyes - a new view of sexuality, because the church seems to be behind it, at least some parts of the church.
We also mentioned prosperity theology, which is really one of the most challenging aspects in the global South at the moment for the evangelical church. There are so many local, regional churches booming, flourishing, promising heaven on earth, with a real lack of humility and integrity.
Q. There is a recent report that points to the massive fall in the last 10 years of nominal Christianity in Europe. Are we walking towards a moment when there will no longer be such a thing as nominal Christians?
A. From the perspective of the Global Consultation, we would not presume that this will be the case. It seems to us that Nominal Christianity takes different shapes, in different contexts.
That is a very telling report about Europe, the one you mention, the Pew Report. It may be that in some parts of Europe we are seeing a decrease of the nominal membership of Christian churches. And this may be actually a very honest move of such people.
But in other parts of the world, things are different. I think of a country I have been visiting regularly in the last three years, Uganda. It has 40 million people and a vibrant evangelical Anglican church with 10 million members.
If we speak with the leaders of that church, they will definitively say Nominal Christianity is a challenge for them. In so many ways, whether in terms of personal faith, or in terms of speaking out, witnessing about this faith.
Another country could be Ethiopia. I recently was invited there, to share with the youth and children department of the fastest growing Lutheran church in the world. They is now a church of maybe 8.5 or 9 million members, and they have grown almost half a million a year, which is an enormous growth.
But of course among all those being added to the church, we need to be realistic and ask how much do they know about the Christian faith? And if they are not nurtured, where will they go? How will they develop?
Leadership training, raising up a new generation of preachers and youth ministers, and children workers, is absolutely crucial in such a context.
I think Nominal Christianity seems to be following the church like a shadow, and that shadow could be large or small, depending on where the sun stands in relationship to the church, if we may use that illustration.
Q. Would we find different trends if we compared different regions of the world?
A. Yes, that’s something all of us there in Rome realised. One of the privileges of being part of the Lausanne Movement is being exposed to the global realities of the church the whole time. We had a good representation from all over the world in our consultation. That was intentional, and we also listened to stories of people who could not be present.
Listening carefully to one another leads to a more genuine understanding of the differences in different contexts.
Q. Sometimes, for evangelical Christians it is more difficult to admit that there is also a problem of Nominalism in Protestant or evangelical contexts. Can you give us some examples of this in European countries?
A. You can think of North-West of Europe, which is my region (I’m living in Norway and coming from Sweden). The Reformation touched the whole of society and influenced the whole culture in so many ways, and I think that was what created a majority context of ‘Evangelical’ faith.
Only God knows the heart of each one of us, but realistically speaking, maybe there was never a majority of people who were actual believers in their hearts. We can’t know, but one might presume that that might have been the case.
That reality of an evangelical church's belief touching the whole of society at some point can be seen in the Scandinavian countries, Germany, the Netherlands, and in the United Kingdom, especially.
In other parts of Europe it’s a different story. We can think of the Catholic South or the Orthodox East. There are different elements that add to the complexity of the analysis, like the differences resulting from the Eastern Communist heritage. And, of course, we have examples of countries in which the Orthodox Church has been a majority church which identified with the authorities, in some cases in a very unhealthy way.
In any place where the evangelical church is growing on a local, regional, national or even on a continental level, these challenges of Nominal Christianity quickly become part of the reality.
Let me quote a couple of sentences from the statement. It says: “From a missiological standpoint, a fundamental observation is that nominal Christianity is more of a problem when Christianity finds itself in a dominant or a majority situation, especially when Christian faith so shapes culture that there is a confusion about the nature of one’s identity”.
I think we have found that in North-Western Europe. Definitely, being a Scandinavian, if someone should tick off a worldview, people have always ticked off Christianity, whether they have any active relationship to this faith or not.
Until very recently the attendance figures have been very high. Thinking of Norway, where I know the statistics best, the Lutheran Church of Norway still has a membership of more than 70% of the population. This is a Nominal reality. The number of infant baptisms are dropping, this is an interesting and challenging aspect. Meanwhile, the number of funerals have kept fairly constant, which illustrates that people who are later in life, may identify more strongly with the Christian faith than those who are younger. We also see the difference between the capital, Oslo, which is a globalised city in many ways with a large Muslim minority, and with much secularisation happening over the past years.
So, Norway is an interesting case study in Western Europe, where Nominal Christianity is being reduced. But at the same time, still a significant number of the population identify themselves, at least formally, with the Christian faith, church, and worldview.
Q. In this context you’re describing, the Lausanne Movement statement calls churches to turn engagement with Nominal Christians into an “urgent priority”. How should churches start to act in this context?
A. The format of the consultation statement gives a partial answer to that. The second part is a “call to action”. It includes a call to confession and prayer, and I think there was a realization among all of us who participated that we need to start by personally coming before the Lord and admitting that this has not been a priority for us. We have to confess that we have failed in this task of witnessing to Nominal Christians, and pray for all those who are Christians in name only and ask God for a spiritual awakening.
And then we touched on the whole history of revival movements, where things have looked very bleak in many instances, but through a deep renewal things have changed. I think it was G.K Chesterton who said that, “to all appearances, five times the church has gone to the dogs, but in each case it was the dog that died”!.
Then the statement calls us to discipleship and witness, and the question of holistic discipleship, which includes all of life, all of reality, coming to maturity in Christ. And then, there is the question of how to be bold in one’s witness to Christ but also how to do that with wisdom and kindness.
Finally, there is a call to reflection and action, which invites all part of the evangelical church and beyond, to reflect further on why these kind of tendencies are happening; and even calling us to a research initiative on the renewal movements and the discipleship-making movements, whether in history or nowadays. We also need to review the theological training to focus on discipleship. And we need to think about what it does mean to be creative in our evangelism.
I think there is a lot here, it is like a menu of key issues that is outlined, inviting people to (from the point of view of where they are) relate to this with real intentional and missional action and reflection. This is one of the things that characterizes the Lausanne Movement, this balance between reflection and action. It’s both about reflecting on the issues, but not stopping there, but letting that shape - and be incarnated into - transformative action.
Q. With this analysis and all the ideas for the practice in mind, what are your hopes for the next five years when it comes to change the churches’ mentalities?
A. I think that what we are hoping for, is that the issue of Nominal Christianity phenomenon is put on the agenda of the global church and its leaders. This means that we will continue to work on this.
The first fruit of the consultation was this statement. In addition to that, we did video recordings while we were meeting in Rome, so, there will be a “Lausanne Global Classroom” of video teaching made available.
And then, there will be written what is called a “Lausanne Occasional Paper”, which will be a forty to seventy pages document of further reflection on this. We have also started to work with the papers that were presented, to gather them in a compendium . We are in a process.
We hope that all of us who participated will continue to contribute to make this known in our context. We will have translations of the consultation statement later this year.
The word “missing” captures the essence of this consultation. It basically has to do with the question: are we living out the Christian faith, or are we keeping it to ourselves? Are we authentically seeking to live under the grace of God with the Gospel as a true living reality in our lives?
I think that is where we are left with a real vibrant challenge that we need to reflect on and pray about. For each one of us to live out the faith in our own personal contexts.
LISTEN TO THE AUDIO VERSION OF THIS INTERVIEW:
The “Lausanne Rome 2018 Statement on Nominal Christianity” can be found on the Lausanne Movement website.