Friday, November 5, 2010

No Such Thing as 'Nominal' Christians

TITLE: Nominal Christianity?
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 5 November 2010

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev 3:15-16)

MAIN POINT: There is no such thing as a ‘nominal’ Christian. Christians are committed to Christ. They are committed to a community. They are committed to be Christlike.

When I meet with pastors and talk about our Churches, we sometimes ask one another: “How are your Church members?” Answers vary, but a typical response will be

“Well, some are really passionate, while others are plain and decent Sunday-going folks. You could call them nominal.”

‘Nominal’ is a common way of saying that a person wears a ‘Christian’ label but does not really believe in Christianity. In other words, the person is ‘Christian’ in name only. In Churches I know, there are people from various phases of their Christian life. Like most organizations, about 10% or less of the congregation do about more than 90% of the work in Church. From the Sunday School to the Ushering team; from the weekly running of Church administration to the weekend Sunday services, those who work the hardest remain a tiny minority. What about the rest of the people? Is there such a thing as a 'nominal' Christian in the faith?

A) Portrait of the Nominal Christian

There is another word for ‘nominal’ Christianity. It is the word ‘lukewarm.’ This word is used to describe the Church at Laodicea in the final book of the Bible. A lukewarm person is neither hot nor cold. He stays in the middle thinking it is safe. He sits on the fence thinking that he does not need to commit to either sides of the divide. He basically thinks that the best position to be in is to be in a non-decided position. That way, he can have the best of both worlds. He can enjoy the worldliness available. He can reap the harvest of religious works. In fact, for some businessmen, having a stated religion is the icing on the cake for a successful business. It plays well into the mantra of many businesses:

  • “Money is not everything.”
  • “There are more important things in life than simply making a living.”
  • “There are things that money cannot buy.”

Having a religion can be very attractive. It is a single word answer to an alternative lifestyle. The sayings are popularly captured in this popular set of sayings about money.

With money you can buy a house, but not a home.
With money you can buy a clock, but not time.
With money you can buy a bed, but not sleep.
With money you can buy a book, but not knowledge.
With money you can buy a doctor, but not good health.
With money you can buy a position, but not respect.
With money you can buy blood, but not life.
With money you can buy sex, but not love.

(Source: Anonymous)

These seem to be very common sense indeed. However, there is a problem. While it highlights the limitations of money, it does not offer us a clear alternative. It simply tells us not to focus on the money-making mindset. That unfortunately leaves a vacuum that can potentially be filled with something more inferior or sinister.

The nominal Christian is neither hot nor cold with regards to following Jesus. Likewise, he can be lukewarm about the affairs of this world. John Stott calls it a distinct possibility that one can "be a Christian in name without being a Christian in heart.”

I know of Christians who regularly go to Church. They might even give 10% of their earnings faithfully each month. Yet, their hearts remain unchanged over the years. They fail to grow further than merely saying the sinners’ prayer. They tell people they are ‘Christian’ but that is all. Their actions and behaviour seem to resemble the rest of the people in the world. These people are not committed to the cause of Christ.

Sigh. It is far easier to tell people you are ‘Christian’ than to show people your Christlikeness.

B) Portrait of the Committed Christian

Those, especially the younger believers exhibit an excitement to grow and to learn more about the faith. They ask questions. They seek out older believers to find out what it means to grow in faith. They eagerly sign up for discipleship courses. If none is available, they pester the pastors or elders to start providing one. They come in their Sunday best, and are satisfied about the Sabbath rest. Their zeal is like a little child jumping up with glee at a playground. They lap up whatever knowledge there is available about the Christian walk. They memorize Scripture. They read their Bibles daily. They pray faithfully. They will be constant learners. If they are not getting the spiritual food on Sundays, they will take up Bible lessons during the week to supplement their Sunday diet.

I think the Bible Study Fellowship (BSF) is one of the best Bible learning opportunities available right now. My wife goes there, and finds warmth and good fellowship among like-minded believers. All want to study the Word. In fact, sometimes I am intrigued that people going for BSF is much more fervent than cell-group attendance in Churches. In BSF, there is a rather strict code of attendance. Miss about 2 classes and you have to start over. The call is about commitment. John Stott describes Christianity as follows:

“If the essence of Christianity is neither a creed, nor a code, nor a cult, what is it? It is Christ! It is not primarily a system of any kind; it is a person, and a personal relationship to that person.” (John Stott, Christian Basics – An invitation to discipleship, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003, p15)

We are Christians not because we recite a creed, observe a code, or to participate in a cult-like atmosphere. We are Christians because we follow Jesus. We are Christians because we are committed to a growing relationship with Christ. Apart from this, there is no other way we can be more ‘Christian’ than to be ‘Christlike.’ We are ‘Christlike’ and ‘Christian’ when we commit to Jesus. Christianity is a relationship with Jesus.

C) Commitment is a Mark of a Christian

I think ‘commitment’ is so important in the Christian life. Without commitment, one easily sways to be either cold or lukewarm in their faith. Without commitment, how can anyone grow past the valleys of depression and darkness? Without commitment, it is so easy to fall prey to the deceit and temptations of this world. Without commitment, one is susceptible to weather changes, both physically and emotionally.

The best way to describe our commitment to Christ, is in our commitment to a community of believers. The late Professor of Psychiatry in the University of Illinois says that he remained a non-Christian because he had seen how the church had ‘failed him’ when he was a teenager. He says:

The church has never learned the secret of community.” (quoted in John Stott’s Christian Basics, p40)

That is so tragic. For the Christian disciple, the call is simple: Either you are in or you are out. There is no middle. We do not follow Christ half-way. We obey Jesus all the way. There is no such thing as a nominal Christians, no matter how you put it. You are either hot or otherwise. Cold and lukewarm people are no different. You are either a Christian, or you are not. If you are a Christian, the most Christlike thing is to be involved in a community. It is to be committed to Jesus. It is to follow Jesus. It is to share burdens with one another in a community of believers. It is to be committed to one another in the faith through thick and thin. It is commitment through moments of ups and downs. It is that honesty to speak the truth in love to one another. We are committed to love one another. Christianity is commitment to Christ; commitment to one another; and a commitment to self to grow to be more like Christ each day. There is no such thing as a ‘nominal Christian.’ There are only committed Christians or not at all.

It was character that got us out of bed, commitment that moved us into action, and discipline that enabled us to follow through.” (Zig Ziglar)

Thought: Better to be a Christian in action, than to be one in name only. May you learn to demonstrate Christlikeness so much that people can see that you are a Christian.


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