1. What is a ‘nominal Christian’?
I hear this phrase frequently, and occasionally use it myself; it is a staple of evangelical jargon (we’re famous for making up words). Synonyms for ‘nominal’ – words like minimal and trifling helps us understand the term. The nominal Christian is a person who claims an allegiance to Christ, but seldom displays this allegiance. They are infrequent in worship, reluctant in giving, and hesitant to speak of their faith. They believe in Jesus and the essential doctrines of the church, but fail to transfer those convictions into their daily living. In every way nominal Christians are like the world and unlike Jesus—except, they really do like Jesus.
2. Is the ‘nominal Christian’ truly a Christian?
It is certainly possible that they are saved, but it isn’t probable. More often than not, their faith is something other than the real thing.
Oftentimes the nominal person received their religious affiliation through birth. Their family tradition includes a Christian heritage that is willingly embraced. Little thought is given to the implications of this faith inheritance and it is never personally realized.
Others arrive at their nominal position through a religious experience. At some point in the past these men and women have approached the altar after a service, or recited a prayer at an event and thereby entered the ‘ranks’ of Christianity. But their enthusiasms quickly wane and old habits return. They have known conviction but there is no evidence of conversion.
I’m sure that there are some nominal Christians who have a genuine, albeit neglected, faith but I think these are few. I am persuaded that the vast majority of nominal Christians are not truly saved. As the apostle John explains, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” (1 John 2:19, ESV)
3. How should we respond to those who display a nominal faith?
These encounters are opportunities for evangelism. But this is complicated by the person’s assumed faith—they believe themselves to already be saved and see no need for further saving. Knowing this, it’s unwise to scrutinize their salvation experience. Debates over the value of their experience are unhelpful. Focus rather on the content of their life. If they were born again by the Spirit of God then their life would be full of His fruit. An absence of Christian character requires an explanation.
The task is to lead them to trusting in Jesus. They must not leave thinking that they must simply do better at being a Christian. They need a work of God, not a renewed determination. Invite them to surrender to Jesus and plead for forgiveness and new life. The only salvation from a nominal Christianity is encountering the living Christ himself.