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Nominal vs. Convictional Christians

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I’m not sure if these two categories came from the Barna group or from Christianity Today. Recent articles have started to use the nominal but Barna’s research into America’s religious landscape used the term notional. But now they are often used interchangeably. What do they mean?

“Born again Christians” are defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”

“Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria (described above) plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

Non-evangelical born again Christians meet the born again criteria described above, but not the evangelical criteria.

Notional Christians are those who consider themselves to be Christian but do not meet the not born again criteria.

This categorization would indicate that I am a notional or nominal Christian. That is, I say I’m a Christian but I don’t believe by saying certain words about Jesus I can go to heaven, I don’t believe that I had a come to Jesus moment. I grew up in the church all my life. I was confirmed, baptized. Our tradition did not have kids make a “personal decision.”  And I certainly don’t fit the evangelical label. The Bible is not always accurate, God is not all powerful, I don’t believe in Satan. The one category I share is that I share my faith and doubts with folks. But it’s not for the purpose of conversion.

Convictional Christians for Christianity Today seem to overlap with evangelical. In fact, they are interchangeable. These are folks who are “made up of people who are actually living according to their faith.” Do you get a sense of how these terms are loaded? Some of the criteria used including church attendance, personal spiritual practices, involvement and volunteering seem like neutral barometers. But when I noticed how the liberal conservative divide was described in the United Methodist General Conference. It was a divide between nominal and convictional Christians.

Now if you are a liberal who attended the United Methodist General Conference, you cannot be said to be someone who does not attend church. You cannot be someone for whom faith is not important. You are likely very active. But you may not fit the beliefs that Barna and Christianity Today describe as convictional. You may instead be classified as notional or nominal, like myself. And I say that as a pastor who serves a congregation.

What I think happens is these categories define belief and practice. And they slip between the two when being analyzed. As Christianity Today writes

“One thing about nominal “Christians” is that their faith doesn’t cost them anything. Their faith or belief is like a trinket or badge they wear. It doesn’t prompt them to give up guilty pleasures, to give generously of their time, talents, or treasures to the Lord or His church, or to vulnerably share their faith with someone else.

So my question is, did the 111 Methodist clergy who came out as LGBT, seek to have an easy faith that costs them nothing? And I answer no. They put their careers and livelihoods on the line, for their faith. Were conservatives in the Methodist church asked to do so? No. Do conservatives face church trials and defrockings? No. Do liberals? Yes. But under these definitions, the conservatives are “convictional”. The liberals are “nominals.” Only one group is considered to take their “faith seriously.”

So what does it mean to take one’s faith seriously then for Christianity Today? What does it mean to live in the margins? Apparently it does not include LGBT Christians and those working for equality in the church. It instead is this?

As Christians find themselves more and more on the margins in American society, people are beginning to count the cost. While it used to serve Americans well to carry the label “Christian” in most circumstances, it can actually be polarizing or considered intolerant now. So for those who really don’t have any skin in the game, shedding the label makes sense.

As the trend continues, we will see the “Nones” continue to grow and the church lose more of its traditional cultural influence. Christians will likely lose the culture wars.

To be “convictional” as a Christians means the wider liberal society will question you if you are opposed to LGBT equality, to take one example. So we see a juxtaposition. What we mean by culture is liberals, often secular. And they are pitted against conservatives who identify as Christian. And the marginal is the latter. Not those facing discrimination.

The lines are nice and clear cut which makes Christianity Today happy. A MCC evangelical who is gay? They don’t fit this polarization at all. A liberal who is a committed church member? They don’t fit it either. So they simply lump all such folks into “nominal” or “notional.”

And never is the question asked: has evangelicalism, especially in its culture war form, shaped public perceptions of Christianity so well that it’s not even a live option for many liberals today? Instead of some inherent dichotomy between culture and church, maybe what we’re experiencing is the doors closing to the tradition by those invested in the culture war. Robert Putnam has argued as much. And given that I’ve spent the last three decades on the left, that rings true in my personal interactions.

Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma

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