Over two and a half billion people around the world would identify themselves as ‘Christians’—nearly one-third of the world’s population. But does this imply that they have understood or embraced the biblical gospel? Not necessarily.
The story may be apocryphal, but it has been told many times by preachers in various forms. A young soldier, so it is said, was brought before Alexander the Great, accused of desertion and hiding in a cave. The renowned general asked his name, and the young man replied, ‘Alexander.’ Visibly disturbed, the general asked again, ‘What is your name?’ Timidly the soldier responded again, ‘Alexander.’ Furious, the general shouted, ‘Soldier! Change your conduct or change your name!’ The application? Those who call themselves ‘Christian’ must be worthy of the name.
The term ‘nominal’ is defined as ‘in name or form only, as distinct from real or actual’ in the paper ‘Christian Witness to Nominal Christians among Protestants’ (LOP 23). For many of the two and a half billion who call themselves Christians, that label is a matter of being born into a given family or belonging to a certain cultural or religious context, or having gone through some kind of Christian initiation process that has little, if any, impact on their daily lives. They are followers of Christ only in name, not in reality or practice. Neither their beliefs nor their behaviors are a faithful reflection of the teachings or practices of Jesus and the apostles. They have never repented of their sins or welcomed Jesus as Savior and Lord. They are not growing in faith, knowledge, or obedience. They are experiencing no life transformation. They give no evidence of the fruit of the Spirit.
Nominal Christians are found in every congregation, every denominational tradition, every theological stream, and every cultural context. Nominalism may take different shapes in Protestant/Evangelical, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox contexts, and in places where Christians as a whole are a minority. But the task of bearing witness to Jesus Christ and all his teaching, in every nation, in every sphere of society, and in the realm of ideas, is no less urgent in nominal Christian contexts. The first point of the Lausanne fourfold vision—’the gospel for every person’—applies equally to those who carry the name ‘Christian’ but have never truly understood or welcomed ‘the gospel of God’s grace’ (Acts 20:24).
This is the challenge being addressed 15-19 March in Rome, Italy, at the Lausanne Global Consultation on Nominalism. Building on earlier Lausanne gatherings and resources, this consultation will analyze the changes in our world over the last 40 years, and will examine current trends and promising strategies for evangelizing and discipling nominal Christians. The 45 invited participants include sociologists, theologians, and missiologists/practitioners from Asia, Africa, Latin America, North America, South Pacific and all regions of Europe. Ideas and strategies from the consultation will be published for wider distribution and discussion. I invite you to be praying with me as the participants convene this week.
Pray with Us
Jesus Christ, Lord of the Church, we ask you to empower the upcoming consultation with your renewing, creative Holy Spirit. Enable the participants to understand our times, and to know how to awaken and equip the churches and their leaders, so that nominal Christians may understand and embrace the good news of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, so that they and their communities may be transformed.
As Global Associate Director for Collaboration and Content, David Bennett coordinates the work of the Lausanne Catalysts, serves as Managing Editor for the Lausanne Global Analysis, and leads the Content Team. He holds a BS from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and MDiv, DMin, and PhD degrees from Fuller Theological Seminary. David has engaged in teaching, preaching, and research on several continents, with particular focus on India.