On the eve of the 2011 Australian national census, we religious types are interested in the proper recognition of our communities. Some Muslims are talking about about the under-representation of their communities. However, Christians like me are concerned about being over-represented.
According to the previous census figures, 68% of Australians identify themselves as Christian. Yet other stats indicate that the number of Australians attending church is very low, closer to 20% — and that figure includes non-Christian religious activities!
In other words, we’ve got a colossal number of people paying lip service to Christianity without any real involvement in a Christian community.
And that’s nominal Christianity: people who are Christian in name only. They might subscribe to “Christian values”. They might even rock up to church every now and again. Yet they don’t, in any sustained sense, relate intentionally to other Christians.
Of course, there are also heaps of nominal Christians who don’t even believe Christian stuff. This is what the Atheist Foundation of Australia has been hitting out against with their census campaign. They have some very helpful things to say on that count: “Only those who accept the basic tenets of the faith should consider themselves Christian. These are outlined by the Nicene Creed.”
But I’m not talking about affirmation of beliefs. I’m talking about practice.
In a real sense, Christianity isn’t a belief but a practice. Again and again, the New Testament writers are adamant that Christianity is a communal thing. Church is a spiritual family, the place where Christian life is formed, shaped and lived out. As “the body of Christ”, church is nothing less than the point of connection to Jesus.
Our so-called Australian Christians need to recover the ancient maxim that there is no Christianity outside the church. It’s not just that it makes sense for Christians to belong to a Christian community. It’s this: unless a person’s life is being shaped by Christian community, it is questionable whether they are Christian in the first place.
And that’s the problem with nominal Christianity: is it even Christianity? Never mind the liberals and the fundamentalists — nominalism is way more irritating!
At this year’s census, I’m echoing the atheists with a plea for nominal Christians: “Not part of a Christian church? Mark the census NO RELIGION.”
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.