In the opening pages of Chapter 1 in his book, “Christians in the Age of Outrage: How to Bring Our Best When the World is at It’s Worst” (2018), Ed Stetzer, PhD, author, speaker, researcher, pastor, church planter, Christian missiologist, and the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, and Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, states the following:
Baseball great Yogi Berra used to say, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
America did. So did Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. The majority of people in these nations were once vaguely Christian, but for years, those with loosely held religious beliefs have been dropping them, and as a result, the entire English-speaking Western world is becoming more secular.
Focusing on the United States for a moment may help, though similar trends are taking place across the English-speaking Western world. Most Americans, who identify loosely as Christians, are becoming less so–they are more frequently choosing “none of the above” rather then “Christian” when surveyed about their beliefs. In fact, each year about an additional one percent of Americans no longer identify as Christian.
Put another way, the nominals are becoming the nones. And as they become nones, their mind-set is more aligned with secular-minded people and they have less affinity with the avowedly religious. At the same time, the percentage of the devout has remained relatively stable.
The effect of this trend is that American culture is incrementally polarizing along religious lines. People are either becoming more secular or staying devout, though the biggest group is becoming more secular. This is where we meet the fork in the road: How do we engage with our faith in a culture now polarized along faith lines rather than being at least nominally Christian? (Quote source, “Christians in the Age of Outrage,” pp. 7-8.)
Stetzer identifies three types of Christians–“cultural, congregational, and convictional.” Cultural Christians are Christians in name only because they identify as being born in a historically Christian country but that is pretty much the extent of their beliefs; Congregational Christians, are those who may identify with a particular church and show up at Christmas or Easter, but rarely at other times (e.g., it has little impact on their daily lives); and Convictional Christians are those who attend church regularly and live values aligned with Christianity. The first two groups are growing (as in less and less identifying with Christianity), and he states that the third group is remaining relatively stable.
As Stetzer states:
The percentage of Convictional Christians in the U.S. population has remained generally stable. What has changed are the number and beliefs of Cultural and Congregational Christians. As a result, the collapse of mainline Protestantism and the growth of secularism, Convictional Christianity has incrementally moved outside the American cultural mainstream. In fact, as I explained in the Washington Post, as the numbers of Cultural and Congregational Christians decrease [ for example, read “Pew Study: More Americans Reject Religion, but Believers Firm in Faith”], the worldview and values of these Americans have shifted towards the secular stream and away from that of Convictional Christians. (Quote source, “Christians in the Age of Outrage,” pp. 9-10.)
As Stetzer wrote in his 2015 article titled, “Nominal Christians are becoming more secular, and that’s a startling change for the U.S.,” in the Washington Post (mentioned above):
America is undergoing a religious polarization.
With more adults shedding their religious affiliations, as evidenced in the latest from the Pew Research Center, the country is becoming more secular. In the past seven years, using the new Pew data, Americans who identify with a religion declined six percentage points. Overall, belief in God, praying daily and religious service attendance have all dropped since 2007.
Today’s America is losing much of the general religious ethos that dominated the U.S. for hundreds of years. (Quote source and complete article available here.)
Both cultural and congregational Christians (and even some active church goers or members) fall under the category of nominal Christians. GotQuestions.org provides a definition of what nominal Christianity looks like:
Nominal Christians are church-goers or otherwise religious people whose “faith” does not go beyond being identified with a church, Christian group, or denomination. They are Christians in name only; Christ has no bearing in their lives. Nominal Christians may attend church and Christian functions, and they self-identify as “Christians,” but it is just a label. They view religion primarily as a social construct, and they do not allow it to require much of them in terms of morality or responsibility. Nominalists take a minimalist approach to their faith.
Nominalism is of concern to many pastors, preachers, and Christian theologians, as it appears to be on the rise today. Many identify themselves as Christians, but the overall impact of Christianity in the West is not what it once was. But what causes nominalism? Why do people prefer a nominal or in-name-only type of Christianity? One possible reason is that nominal religion is easy. It does not require a changed life. A nominal Christian can point to membership in a church as evidence of his salvation. Church attendance and participation in routines, activities, and programs become the measuring stick rather than a changed life, a new heart, a love for God, and obedience to the Word (see 2 Corinthians 5:17; John 14:23).
Another cause of nominal Christianity is the habit of declaring oneself a Christian because of custom or culture. Whole countries, including Costa Rica, Norway, Denmark, and England, have a form of Christianity as the official state religion. This allows a Norwegian, for example, to culturally identify as a Christian—he is a member of the Church of Norway by default, having been registered in infancy when he was baptized. Even in countries with no state religion, such as the United States, cultural Christianity can lead to nominalism. Someone who was reared in a Christian family, attended church all his life, was baptized, lives in the Bible Belt, etc., often claims allegiance to the Christian faith, in spite of evidence in his life to the contrary.
Another cause of nominalism within the church is legalism, the attempt to transform oneself (or others) inwardly by working on the outward behavior. Some people, especially those raised in the church, conform to standards imposed upon them by parents, other Christians, or the church hierarchy without the inner transformation that can only be produced by the Spirit through the Word (Galatians 6:15). Legalists substitute good deeds for saving faith and compliance for conversion. This naturally leads to nominal Christianity, as church-goers and rule-keepers claim the label “Christian” but have no relationship with Christ.
Jesus dealt with nominal Christianity in one of His letters to the churches. The church in Sardis wore a Christian label, but Jesus saw the truth behind the label: “To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1). Or, as the KJV says, “Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.” God is not interested in the labels we tag ourselves with. Having a “name” that we belong to Christ is not enough. Nominal faith is not faith. (Quote source here.)
Christianity, at it’s core, is not about the stuff we do, but who we believe in. In a book titled, “The Comeback: It’s Not Too Late and You’re Never Too Far” (2015), by Louie Giglio, Global Pastor, Visionary Architect and Director of the Passion Movement, comprised of Passion Conferences, Passion City Church, Passion Publishing, Passion Resources, and sixstepsrecords, and the founder of Passion Global Institute, he writes the following in a chapter (12) titled, “The Ultimate Comeback”:
People often wonder: Why do Christians think their way is the best way to believe? How come Jesus is the answer? What about every other faith leader? Aren’t their religions just as good?
It’s a valid question, one that indicates a person is doing some soul-searching and wants to discover the truth. Eventually, I hope to lean them to the crux of our faith, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
This single event defines our hope and sets our faith apart from every other religious point of view. Our teacher is not dead. Our leader is not in the grave. Jesus is alive and on this our future rests.
The resurrection of Jesus is the pillar of the Christian faith. If we don’t have this truth, then we are just another religion, with leaders who head a movement and maybe teach a few good things and attract a lot of followers. But when those leaders die, they stay dead.
To get up out of your coffin and smile at the folks gathered for your funeral, that’s the ultimate comeback. Or–switching to first-century cultural patterns–to walk out of a tomb, living and breathing, smiling and holding out your hands to friends so they can check your scars to make sure it’s really you, looking not at all pale and sickly but better than the best version of yourself that there’s ever been, that’s the ultimate comeback.
Think about it. A human body is lying there dead–grave clothes wrapped around the corpse, embalming done, stone rolled across the entry and sealed–on a stone bench. Suddenly blood begins to course through the veins again. The body takes a breath, stretches, stands up, comes out, walks around for everyone to see. And this body has lost any capacity to die again.
You see, all our comebacks are swallowed up by this ultimate comeback. Because Jesus is alive again, we can come back from anything the world throws at us:
- The deepest kind of sin
- The devastation of crumbling relationships
- The rejection of job loss and failure
- The general disappointment of life
- The pain of bereavement
- The hammer of betrayal
- Whatever, you name it
Jesus’ ultimate comeback trumps all our comebacks, but it also makes it possible in a general sense for us to come back from anything, from anywhere, at any time. The secret is in how Jesus’ resurrection life infuses our ordinary lives with the same kind of power (see 1 Corinthians 15). (Quote source: “The Comeback,” pp. 203-205.)
In answer to one final question for this blog post, “Is Christianity a religion or a relationship?” GotQuestions.org answers:
Religion is “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” In that respect, Christianity can be classified as a religion. However, practically speaking, Christianity has a key difference that separates it from other belief systems that are considered religions. That difference is relationship.
Most religion, theistic or otherwise, is man-centered. Any relationship with God is based on man’s works. A theistic religion, such as Judaism or Islam, holds to the belief in a supreme God or gods; while non-theistic religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, focus on metaphysical thought patterns and spiritual “energies.” But most religions are similar in that they are built upon the concept that man can reach a higher power or state of being through his own efforts. In most religions, man is the aggressor and the deity is the beneficiary of man’s efforts, sacrifices, or good deeds. Paradise, nirvana, or some higher state of being is man’s reward for his strict adherence to whatever tenets that religion prescribes.
In that regard, Christianity is not a religion; it is a relationship that God has established with His children. In Christianity, God is the aggressor and man is the beneficiary (Romans 8:3). The Bible states clearly that there is nothing man can do to make himself right with God (Isaiah 53:6; 64:6; Romans 3:23; 6:23). According to Christianity, God did for us what we cannot do for ourselves (Colossians 2:13; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Our sin separates us from His presence, and sin must be punished (Romans 6:23; Matthew 10:28; 23:33). But, because God loves us, He took our punishment upon Himself. All we must do is accept God’s gift of salvation through faith (Ephesians 2:8–9; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Grace is God’s blessing on the undeserving.
The grace-based relationship between God and man is the foundation of Christianity and the antithesis of religion. Established religion was one of the staunchest opponents of Jesus during His earthly ministry. When God gave His Law to the Israelites, His desire was that they “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37). “Love” speaks of relationship. Obedience to all the other commands had to stem from a love for God. We are able to love Him “because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). However, by Jesus’ time, the Jewish leaders had made a religion out of God’s desire to live in a love relationship with them (1 Timothy 1:8; Romans 7:12). Over the years, they had perverted God’s Law into a works-based religion that alienated people from Him (Matthew 23:13–15; Luke 11:42). Then they added many of their own rules to make it even more cumbersome (Isaiah 29:13; Matthew 15:9). They prided themselves on their ability to keep the Law—at least outwardly—and lorded their authority over the common people who could never keep such strenuous rules. The Pharisees, as adept as they were at rule-keeping, failed to recognize God Himself when He was standing right in front of them (John 8:19). They had chosen religion over relationship.
Just as the Jewish leaders made a religion out of a relationship with God, many people do the same with Christianity. Entire denominations have followed the way of the Pharisees in creating rules not found in Scripture. Some who profess to follow Christ are actually following man-made religion in the name of Jesus. While claiming to believe Scripture, they are often plagued with fear and doubt that they may not be good enough to earn salvation or that God will not accept them if they don’t perform to a certain standard. This is religion masquerading as Christianity, and it is one of Satan’s favorite tricks. Jesus addressed this in Matthew 23:1–7 when He rebuked the Pharisees. Instead of pointing people to heaven, these religious leaders were keeping people out of the kingdom of God.
Holiness and obedience to Scripture are important, but they are evidences of a transformed heart, not a means to attain it. God desires that we be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1:16). He wants us to grow in grace and knowledge of Him (2 Peter 3:18). But we do these things because we are His children and want to be like Him, not in order to earn His love.
Christianity is not about signing up for a religion. Christianity is about being born into the family of God (John 3:3). It is a relationship. Just as an adopted child has no power to create an adoption, we have no power to join the family of God by our own efforts. We can only accept His invitation to know Him as Father through adoption (Ephesians 1:5; Romans 8:15). When we join His family through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes to live inside our hearts (1 Corinthians 6:19; Luke 11:13; 2 Corinthians 1:21–22). He then empowers us to live like children of the King. He does not ask us to try to attain holiness by our own strength, as religion does. He asks that our old self be crucified with Him so that His power can live through us (Galatians 2:20; Romans 6:6). God wants us to know Him, to draw near to Him, to pray to Him, and love Him above everything. That is not religion; that is a relationship. (Quote source here.)
That whoever believes in him . . .
Should not perish . . .
But have eternal life . . . .
YouTube Video: “Greatness of Our God” by Newsboys: