Recently we were told that the Christian Church in America “hemorrhaging members” and that the church is shrinking. It is true that the number of Americans who claim to be Christian is shrinking. But as usual, Ed Stetzer provides some real clarity in his interpretation of statistics. Turns out that people are not so much “leaving church” as they are “leaving the mainline” and rejecting Christian nominalism.
Nominalism is a word used to describe people who are “nominally” associated with Christianity. Its not necessarily a slam on people, it is a descriptive word. But it means that millions of Americans profess faith in Jesus Christ, but either don’t have a church home, or don’t understand or accept much of the whole Christian faith. But this group of millions is slowly shrinking, as nominal Christians become nones who claim no particular faith at all.
But while the actual number of Church going Christians is not actually shrinking (except in mainline churches), we still have to face the reality that millions of Americans remain nominally Christian. And we have to ask what part we as the church, have played in creating this reality…and what we can do about it.
Most of the talk and articles about nominalism have started by blaming the nominal Christians. We are called, instead, to look at the plank in our own eyes.
And there are two large planks: Individualist Theology and Individualist Bible Interpretation.
We evangelicals spent many years telling people that to become a Christian, one must ask Jesus into his or her heart, as his or her personal savior. Then we gave away Bibles and told people to read them. Some of us tacked on a bit about the Church at the end. “You should find a good church, that will support your in your faith.” But even then, we pictured the Church as a supplement, a service to the individual.
However, for many Americans it is uncomfortable to join a community. It seemed easier just to study my favorite Bible verses and have daily devotions. It was smoother to have a home Bible study than to have to hang out with those weirdos at church on Sunday. Yet rather than showing a better way, we ourselves created a non-biblical theological rational that supports nominal Christianity and individualism. We meant well, and understandably were attempting to counter legalism or impersonal faith. But we unintentionally created an America with millions of people who believe in Jesus, but not in his Church. Many of them are now realizing that they don’t even need to exclusively identify with Jesus any more. Hence, less Christians in the recent surveys.
As a corollary to the above, we’ve not done a good job with explaining how to use the Bible. We taught people to read the Bible like mathematicians solving a complex equation. We pictured the Bible as an encyclopedia of numbered verses that, when properly added up, equal a “proof” of some doctrine. We encouraged people to go off alone, using a concordance, and to find all the numbered verses that correspond to a theme. Then arrange and synthesize those verses into a “position.”
We can step back a minute and think about this.
We held giant crusades in which we reached most of America with a message that Jesus lived, died, and rose again to make it possible for them to have a personal relationship with him. Then, if they prayed a prayer that same night, we told them they were now a Christian. We handed them a Bible and encouraged them to find a Church if they wanted to grow spiritually. We didn’t ask them to think and pray about it. We didn’t ask them to take further classes to study the Faith. And we steered very clear of any implication that one has to join the visible Church or be baptized to be a Christian.
And when they did read the Bible, rather than encouraging them to read the Bible in accordance with the Creeds, and the Faith of the Church, we taught them to dissect it (out of context) and determine a personal position on…everything. We rarely talked about how to understand my personal reading alongside the Church’s. We rarely discussed interpretive humility. We assumed that, of course, the majority of Christians would naturally find the creedal doctrine there. We thought that it was obvious what the Bible says about sexuality, marriage, etc. Things have turned out differently.
None of this calls into question the sincerity or personal faith of those followers of Jesus who aren’t part of a church. But it does cause us to wonder if they are just doing exactly what we told them to do when they see their faith as merely individual and the Bible as a book of proof texts for personal viewpoints.
Bible and Baptism
Despite all of this, according to the New Testament, baptism is the way someone becomes a Christian. Not a sinner’s prayer (as great as those can be). Baptism was visible, it was a confession, it was familial. Our Lord Jesus said it very clearly, “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…” The word “church” in the New Testament actually means “called out ones.” It meant that an adult, or parents on behalf of young children, had learned and fully confessed the Faith. Our Faith was never individual, even though it has always been personal. We are inviting people to become a Christian by being baptized and taking their places as visible members of Christ’s Church. Anything else will perpetuate nominal Christianity.
In terms of the Bible, we need to return to the Christian way of reading. The Christian way is to see the Bible through the Creeds. To help people understand the Bible within the Church, not apart from it. Of course, anyone can read the Bible and we shouldn’t withhold it. Christians should study it and know it. But we need to return to the ancient understanding that the Bible can only be rightly understood as revealing Christ himself. It is not a boring collection of random verses. It is the revelation of Jesus Christ. In the early Church, individualistic readings of the Bible were called heresy. We don’t need to return to hunting heretics and outlawing heresy. But we do need to help people in our churches understand that we read the Bible together, not just together with our local church, but with the whole church, both on earth and in heaven.
Imagine if every time we taught or talked about anything we started from the Creation and went all the way through the Story. What if we were always catechizing, and never, ever detached our beliefs about marriage (or anything else) from our Faith and the Church? What if we stopped using proof texts to prove positions on issues, and instead always told the story of our salvation in Christ, and then showed how our beliefs on an issue flowed from that story? What if we started every answer to every question from our culture with “Well, God created the world and he loves the world…”?
It becomes clear that in concert with the sacraments, the Bible, and worship, we need to catechize. Fr. Lee Nelson and Winfield Bevins have done a better job examining that than I could here. David Roseberry has described his own experience with a recent catechism. We need to help people really understand our Faith, in catechesis experiences and all the time. Not to “indoctrinate” them, but quite the opposite. Catechesis is doing “full disclosure.” It is the Church baring its own soul and inviting its members to fully join the community without us perpetuating any false understandings of the Gospel.
The Church Visible
The Church is the Ark. Nothing we have to give the world can be separated from the Church. We rescue people by bringing them into the Ark, not by throwing them an instruction book on how to swim. We are the Body of Christ on earth. We are a living community, the Temple of the Holy Spirit. At the same time each of us his temple and a priest unto God among the priesthood of all believers. We are both personal and communal, and we can’t have one without the other.
We are already doing so many things that are a blessing to our world. Our church buildings are a witness. Our communities, though flawed, are mostly places of healing for people. We are preaching the gospel, receiving the sacraments, and serving our communities. Let’s strengthen those things first. And we have to strengthen our identity as the Church, and put aside our false identity as a collection of spiritual individuals. Return to catechism, return to baptism, return to the creedal understanding of Holy Scripture, and return to visible membership in the Body of Christ on earth.
People may not flock back to church. But we will strengthen our visible identity. People will know where to find us, because our light will no longer be hidden. And most importantly, we will be doing what Jesus told us to do.
Photo: Public Domain