Nominal Christianity and Church Planting

Disclaimer: Personally, I am more excited about new believers coming to Christ through my church plant than I am about anything else. When this is not happening, I develop a burden and if I am not careful go into a sort of depression, wherein I begin to struggle with feelings of futility. Do not mistake my last blog or this one for a lack of burden for the lost. I regularly shed tears over those who need Jesus. Having said that, I believe a false rubric is being reinforced in church planting circles, one which dictates that success has not been achieved unless large numbers of radical, first-generation converts have been reached through the plant. Guess what, folks… sometimes that is just not what God is doing. Sometimes that is not even who lives in the place where we are planting. And now to the topic at hand.

A lot is  being written about so-called “nominal” or “cultural” Christians. We are told they are exiting the church in droves, because Christianity is less popular. Some seem almost giddy about their departure, and I get it. Even as these hypocrites (aren’t we all) finally jump off the fence and declare themselves, honestly, a “none,” the rest of us find solace in the hope that our identity (label) will be less maligned in the future. (Whether or not the loss of nominal/cultural Christianity is a net gain or net loss for our cause could be the subject of another blog.)

I have a question, though. Do these nominal Christians matter at all to God? Are they not maybe even more like “lost sheep” or “prodigal children” than is someone who has never heard the Gospel? Is the nominal Christian who is becoming a “none” (no longer self-identifying as Christian) really less important? Don’t they also need someone to care enough to try to make them into disciples? Because let’s face it, they are not living as disciples of Jesus, right? By definition, a nominal Christian is not living as a disciple (follower) of Jesus. And I simply do not know whether any of them are actually headed to heaven or not. (Neither does John MacArthur, by the way.) Their eternal destination at any point in the history of their lives is outside the scope of this blog. The point I am making is that as nominal Christians, although they may or may not be saved, they are NOT currently DISCIPLES of Jesus. Can we agree that a nominal/cultural so-called Christian is, by definition, not following Jesus, i.e. not a disciple? [Right now all some of you can think about is whether or not a person can be saved and not a disciple. Will you please just drop that debate for a second and hear my point?]

Now, if church planting is all about making disciples, and it is, then what if we were able to make disciples out of some nominal/cultural Christians? Would that not be just as much a win for the Kingdom? Is that somehow not “mission accomplished” for the church plant? And if some of them realize they never were actually saved before, and therefore we baptize them, is that somehow less important than the out-and-out pagan who gets baptized? And what if they recognize themselves as having been saved previously and therefore don’t need to be baptized again, but yet… they were not living as a disciple and now they ARE living as a disciple? Is that somehow outside the scope of what matters in the field of church planting? I think not.

I’ve seen a LOT of this in my years as a planter. In fact, I would say probably eighty percent of the disciples we’ve made considered themselves to be already a Christian when they showed up at church. Some wound up actually getting saved. Others saw what happened in their lives as more of a rededication. Does it really matter? I mean, does it matter in terms of our worth as a church plant? Listen, if we are about MAKING DISCIPLES and there are now people actually living as disciples who were not living as disciples before, have we not succeeded in making disciples, regardless of their previous status? What if over time this happens for say two hundred people? That kind of describes my first church plant, that I left back in Missouri. Happy to see RiverOaks is still going strong. They even have a new sign. 😉

So how does this idea of making disciples out of nominal Christians apply to a church plant differently than, say, the two mega churches that we have nearby my current church plant? Well, I’ll tell you. Listen carefully: NOMINAL CHRISTIANS WHO SHOW UP AT A CHURCH PLANT FACE A CRISIS OF BELIEF.

Let me explain. When the nominal Christian comes into a church plant, they find no place to hide. Nothing exposes a person like the front lines. Nominal Christians go one of two ways after attending a church plant more than a couple of times. They either leave the nominal behind or they leave the church plant behind. They either start to become fully devoted followers ready to WORK or they go back where they came from. Do you see what this means? It means that church plants have a special ability to separate wheat from chaff.

Actually, it’s better than that. Church plants can help some of the chaff become wheat (through God’s amazing grace). In other words, through coming into contact with a church plant, a certain percentage of nominal/cultural Christians are going to either a.) get saved, or b.) get revived. Either way they leave the nominal behind and start following Jesus, i.e. living as His disciple. Either way, our church plant has MADE a disciple. You simply won’t stay in a church plant as a nominal believer. I WATCH THEM LEAVE all the time. Where do they go? Typically, they go back to the big church down the road where they can ATTEND a service and hide in the back.

Why am I writing this? I am writing this to encourage other planters who maybe aren’t seeing tons of new believers leave abject paganism behind as they cry out in faith to Jesus, but who are nonetheless seeing people with some church background become ACTUAL disciples of Jesus Christ. Guess what, that’s mission accomplishment, friend. Well done, good and faithful servant. Be encouraged! God is after the lost sheep of Israel, just as much as he is after those pagan Gentiles, if you understand the comparison. God is not concerned with the background of people or whether or not they were more lost (as if) than someone else. Jesus called us to make disciples. If you are seeing people who were not really following Jesus, start following Him, then you are a WINNER of a church planter, my friend. Keep up the good work!

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Pastor Mark

I have planted churches in Missouri and Washington state and am the founder of the Go Church Family Network of churches.