In Name Only: Tackling the Problem of Nominal Christianity

By Eddie Gibbs
Wheaton, IL : Victor (1994). 347 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. James Rosscup
6.1 (Spring 1995) : 99-101

This is a serious, heavily-researched book that defines kinds of nominality among church people. It also traces trends in nominality, characteristics of it, and a proposed method to reach the nominal.

Gibbs is Associate Rector for Discipleship at All Saints' Parish in Beverly Hills, California. He formerly was Robert Boyd Munger Professor of Evangelism and Church Renewal at Fuller Theological Seminary. He received his formal training at London University and Fuller.

Chapter 1 discusses the wide extent and complexity of nominality geographically and also in various religious traditions. Gibbs realizes the need to qualify remarks, but defines nominality in five different groups. He uses the 1980 definition of the Lausanne Congress in Thailand (cf. 23): a person who attends church regularly, but has no personal relationship with Christ; one who attends regularly for cultural reasons only; one who attends on occasions such as Christmas, weddings, etc.; one who seldom attends, but maintains a church relation for security, emotional or family ties, etc.; one who has no relation with any church and never attends, but thinks he is a Christian. Gibbs sees a variety of motivations influencing church affiliation (spiritual, social, material).

Chapter 2 is an overview of cases in the OT and NT that in some sense may relate to nominality. The third chapter describes chief characteristics and causes of the problem. Characteristics include such matters as wanting to be known as Christians, professing ideals based on the teachings of Jesus, selectivity in beliefs as well as religious practices and moral conduct, and continuing to demand occasional ministries of the church. The causes are many: never hearing the gospel in the Spirit's power, undermining biblical authority through rationalism and empiricism, preaching the Word in a cold, abrasive, or judgmental way, insensitive and over-aggressive evangelism, unhappy church experiences, culturally irrelevant church services (they bore, offend or use outmoded words), infrequent ministerial contacts, failure to make people feel at home, unresolved personal conflicts, and institutional degeneration.

Chapter 4 tells how the church can set its house in order and renew the nominal. For example, suggestions are leadership improved in quality, authenticity and commitment; improved intercessory prayer; a life-enhancing worship experience; increased effort to increase the congregation's commitment; and aggressive but winsome evangelism.

Gibbs in chap. 5 sees need for heightened perception of highly diversified urban factors that foster nominality. Chapter 6 recognizes the influence of secularization on social structures and religious thinking and the urgency of providing answers to questions and giving people purpose and self-identity.

The final chapter moves from diagnosis to prescription. It proposes strategies to restore the lapsed, reactivate the faith for the nominal, bring some to true faith for the first time, and reach those who do not identify with any group of Christians.

The most practical section comes near the end and contains nine points. Some of these are creating opportunities to become a discipling community, providing support systems to enhance witness, developing relevant witness in a variety of spheres, utilizing full ministry potential, and growing leaders to enhance the success.

The book has much to provoke thought, although readers will have different reactions to some of Gibbs' categories. Some people he apparently regards as once having real faith may have had only an invalid professing faith, not a genuine saving one. However one views this, the solution in the final analysis is to help these know reality in Christ. Gibbs wisely concludes that believers can succeed not in human strength, but only by the Holy Spirit in an intimate walk with the Lord. "There will be no significant restoration of `nominal Christians' apart from the reproduction of `normative Christians,' . . . who are themselves growing . . . in Christ (Eph. 4:13)" (270).