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Lay leaders discuss challenge of reaching out to nominal Christians

SHOULD lay leadership be concerned about nominalism in the church? That was a question that Bishop Dr Robert Solomon raised at a gathering of lay leaders and Local Church Executive Chairmen (LCEC) chairmen and their associates.

More than 80 local church leaders came to Sophia Blackmore Hall at Methodist Centre on Sept 30 for the twice-yearly fellowship lunch hosted by the Bishop’s Office. Following lunch, the group was led in worship by Dr Lim Swee Hong, a Trinity Theological College lecturer, Ms Mary Gan, Principal of the Methodist School of Music (MSM), and Mrs Judith Mosomos, an MSM lecturer.

What is nominalism and why is it important for church members to know about it? The Bishop referred to the Oxford English Dictionary definition – “existing in name only, not real or actual”.

However, he assured the audience that he was not giving a philosophy lecture, but that it was a matter of practical concern for church leaders. In fact, several church leaders posed alternate definitions, such as “pew warmer” and “born Christian”, referring to those who were simply born into a Christian family, but have not made any decision for themselves.

The world’s population, according to the Lausanne Congresses on World Evangelisation, can be categorised four ways: committed Christians, uncommitted or nominal Christians, the unevangelised and the unreached (those who have never even heard of Christ). The Bishop quoted the Lausanne definition of nominalism as “one who would call himself a Christian, or be so regarded by others, but who has no authentic commitment to Christ based on personal faith”.

There are about 1.2 billion (60 per cent of the Christian community) nominal or non-practising Christians in the world, according to an estimate by Operation World 2000.

Nominal Christians may help to fill the pews, and may even be official, though inactive, members of the church, but they pose a significant challenge to the task of evangelism because they have not fully responded to the Gospel. They need to be evangelised, too,” said the Bishop.

According to him, while there are many factors in the growth of nominalism, including philosophical, sociological and ecclesiastical, it ultimately “starts with a person’s heart”.

It may arise due to inadequate teaching in the local church, lax discipline or failure of churches to meet peoples’ most pressing needs. Hence, people fail to commit to the Gospel which the church proclaims.

He noted that nominal Christians are often church-goers in transition, people who stopped attending and then started again later, with no intention of becoming members. They may be people who go from church to church, or  who transfer membership but never become active again. They may be those who cancel membership in one church and then drift into another, and those who drop out of church and intend to resume later in life.

Of striking interest is the fact that, while 70 per cent of church-goers find faith in their teens, two in five stop going to church in their late teens and early 20s, and may not resume until their late 20s or 30s.

The leaders divided into groups and responded to three questions: How important is this discussion on nominalism for your local church? How do you reach out to nominal Christians in your context? What steps can the local church take to deal with nominalism?

All who responded indicated that the topic was relevant. “About 30 to 40 per cent of our members are inactive,” said Mr Asir Jeraraj, Associate Lay Leader of Ang Mo Kio Tamil Methodist Church.

Mr William Goh, LCEC Vice- Chairman of Trinity Methodist Church, said: “My concern is when people attend but they are not in cell groups. We need to be proactive and not just reactive.”

Mrs Irene Tan, Lay Leader of Barker Road Methodist Church, commented that people tend to view nominal Christians negatively, “but if we have them in church that’s good. They may be seeking and searching. We just need to find a way to engage them”.

Dr Stephen Yeo, LCEC Chairman of Bukit Panjang Methodist Church, said: “Nominalism is quite prevalent in our churches, and we need to deal with it in appropriate ways.”

One way, he said, was to make new church members attending baptism and confirmation classes sign a pledge to be committed Christians. “This pledge, a certificate, is a covenant with God.”

Dr Tan Chew Lim, Lay Leader of Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, felt that house visits by pastors and church leaders could “touch members’ hearts and draw them to become more committed Christians”.

He said the small groups ministry had an important role to play. “When cell groups visit church members and pay attention to their needs, the members will feel they belong to the church and will be more committed to their faith.”

“I am a born Christian,” said Mr Mark Wee, Associate Lay Leader of Barker Road Methodist Church, “but I’m also born again.” He added: “Churches, especially Christian education departments, need to think of transformation and not just teaching information.”

Several people suggested more evangelistic efforts. “But we also need to show more care and concern,” said Mr Asir Jeraraj. “We need to visit people in need and have activities that show genuine care.”

Others expressed the need for enhanced youth activities. “We need to encourage youth ministries in our churches,” said Mr V. Johnson., LCEC Chairman of Seletar Tamil Methodist Church.

Mr Goh Say Pin, Lay Leader of Geylang Chinese Methodist Church, said there were church members who felt that there was no need to go to church as they reasoned that “God is everywhere and so they can pray anywhere”. “The church should educate its members not to fall for this sort of reasoning.”

Others recommended emphasis on the discipling process and cell groups. Mr John Lim, LCEC Chairman of Paya Lebar Methodist Church, spoke of the importance of cell groups for that congregation.

Mr Wee spoke of the need for age level groupings for children and youth, “not just to add programmes”, he said, “but to support them on their journey of faith.”

Mr Richard Seow, Associate Lay Leader of Aldersgate Methodist Church, spoke of the importance of “mentoring through small groups. We even have some closed groups committed to a three-year plan of accountability.”

Sunday morning services remain all-important for dealing with nominalism. “Because not everyone will join cell groups, the Sunday service is of paramount importance,” he said. “The pastors need to preach on discipleship.”

George Martzen is the Minister Attached to the Bishop’s Office.