Eddie Gibbs' book, In Name Only: Tackling the Problem of Nominal Christianity was originally published in 1994. In other words, it is a bit dated. However, there is somewhat of a void in more recent publications on this issue in the church, one that seems to be for various reasons. Even in the first sentence of the introduction to this weighty work Gibbs notes that any discussion of nominality comes with "hesitancy, recognizing at the outset that it is a subject fraught with problems" (13). He defines nominality as those people who "identify themselves with a cause, but without becoming actively involved" (13). They are associated in name only. One problem I foresee with this as it relates to both the definition and the date of publication is that it assumes a cultural standpoint that no longer exists. Many individuals who may have experienced a connection with God or the church at one point or another in their lives may return to church as a member at a later date out of obligation, in search of a moral authority, or for another reasons like their children, since attending church is a cultural practice. On the contrary, this does not seem to be the case anymore (unless you live in the Southern United States). Many people, many of my friends actually, have decided that regardless of their parents' involvement and/or their own childhood involvement with a local parish, regular church attendance is no longer relevant or necessary for them to live out any sort of faith expression authentically. Now, the power of choice and whether or not an individual wants to go to church trumps cultural obligations which state that a spiritual person should attend church. Having stated that, for the sake of conversation with the text, I will assume that nominality is a relevant concern. (In fact, it is still an issue; I am just in search of new language to talk about it...one of the reasons I signed up for this class.)
The Lausanne definition of nominality that is offered presents a fascinating study from an evangelical perspective, like Gibbs notes (22). I especially appreciate his insight that it addresses the nominal individual's continued familiarity with orthodox language, while at the same time addressing the inward reality that he/she may not be able to define that orthodoxy (23). Moreover, without this knowledge then, the individual struggles to practically embrace their orthodoxy in any sort of daily living. I would go on to argue that this may account for the large disconnect that exists in the lives of many evangelical Christians between what they pray, sing, and preach on Sunday mornings verses how they live during the week, careless of the environment, dysfunctional in their relationships, and insecure about their inward commitments to God. As the diagrams and charts display the growing and waning of religiosity in a congregant's life, they are focused on whether or not that person attends services. However, is not the act of growing as a disciple more than just Sunday morning worship? (Again, this is a factor that could be addressed in a revised addition of this book, I think. I want there to be other criteria for assessing nominality outside of regular attendance to services. Then again, maybe this is more about me. I skip church frequently but do not consider myself nominal.)
This portion of the book offered me hope and insight. Identifying the insecurity that the second generation of desert-dwelling Israelites must have possessed as they awaited entry into the Promise Land (47) enabled me to locate my own insecurities on 1) a macro-level as a pastor called to serve people in the midst of our own cultural shift from one generation to the next, and on 2) a micro-level as I am called to leave the suburbs and head back to the city for ministry. Transition is risky business, and like Gibbs notes with the Israelites, unfamiliar circumstances lead to feelings of exceptional vulnerability and even isolation (47-48). The breadth of this chapter is amazing. It is enlightening to consider the myriad of ways that the biblical characters dealt with their own culturally relevant issues of nominality. For the same reason that I love my church history classes, this chapter normalized for me all the troubles of the church and the fits that come with syncretism--serving another master besides God. What is more, when Gibbs writes, "Inconsistency and hypocrisy in the life of the professing Christian do not immediately relegate that person to the state of nominality," I sighed in relief. Keeping your worship singular in focus and your vitality for service always ignited is tricky business, and one we are not prone to do successfully all the time. I like the idea that even in times of our own bifurcated existences, we can still be dedicated to the things of life that are worthy.
As if Gibbs was reading my mind and understanding the the queries that the previous chapter held for me, he writes:
When the church exists in isolation from society, there is a tendency for broader social issues not to be addressed, with the result that the church member is not adequately equipped to bear witness in the world. Furthermore, the layperson is often left to struggle in isolation, bereft of a supportive fellowship which understands the pressures he or she has to face. It is little wonder that so many people live 'schizophrenic' lives, operating by one set of presuppositions and principles in the church and home and by a different set of standards in the workplace (73).
For so long the church has taught her people that "the world" is a sinful and evil place, unworthy of our attention. It is diluted with angry people and fraught with cynicism. If we want to stay true to our Christian principles, be wary of the world. Unfortunately, this makes for a terribly bifurcated world, a place where the sacred and secular do not mingle. I believe in the opposite. I want to see God at work everywhere, and I believe that there is no place that God cannot and will not go. In this vain, should not the church be univocally promoting a message of love--love for your friends in the work place just as you love your neighbors at church? Perhaps then we would not feel such a strong us-vs.-the world mentality, and we would better be able to embrace not only those who do not share our religious convictions, but also those who at one time did, but have decided to release those once common beliefs. Gibbs accurately relies on rather caustic words when describing the rejection of church by nominal Christians: They say that churches are "cold, abrasive, and judgmental" (81), "insensitive and overaggressive" (82), along with "culturally irrelevant" (84). What would happen if instead, there was an offering of love? If I ever stop asking that question, then I will probably be done with the church myself!