A photo of a person in casual attire holding a bible, surrounded by modern gadgets and distractions, symbolizing a superficial or nominal commitment to Christianity.

What Is Nominal Christianity?

Nominal Christianity has become increasingly common in modern society. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Nominal Christians identify as Christian but do not actively practice or strictly follow the teachings of Christianity.

In this comprehensive guide, we will explore what nominal Christianity is, its characteristics, causes, and prevalence in society today. We will also examine the differences between nominal, cultural, and devout Christians and the relationship between nominal Christianity and church attendance.

Defining Nominal Christianity

Literal Definition

Nominal Christianity refers to individuals or groups who identify as Christian but do not actively practice or live out the teachings of Christianity. The word “nominal” means “in name only.” So nominal Christians are those who bear the name “Christian” but do not wholeheartedly devote themselves to the Christian faith.

Some key characteristics of nominal Christianity include:

  • Self-identification as a Christian due to family background, cultural affiliation, or other reasons
  • Limited knowledge about the core beliefs and practices of Christianity
  • Infrequent or no participation in worship services and church activities
  • Lack of engagement with spiritual disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, and fellowship
  • Minimal impact on one’s worldview, behavior, entertainment choices, or relationships

Main Characteristics

There are several key characteristics that distinguish nominal Christians from devoted, practicing Christians:

  • Cultural affiliation: Many nominal Christians identify with Christianity because of family background or cultural tradition rather than personal conviction.
  • Limited knowledge: Nominal Christians generally have limited biblical literacy and little understanding of core Christian doctrines.
  • Low commitment: They rarely attend church or participate in church functions. Personal spiritual disciplines like prayer and Bible reading are often absent.
  • Unchanged lives: There is little evidence of the fruits of the spirit (love, joy, peace, etc) or positive transformation in behavior and relationships.
  • Pick-and-choose beliefs: Nominal Christians tend to selectively embrace Christian beliefs that align with prevailing cultural values but reject beliefs that contradict secular ethics.
  • Worldly priorities: Pursuit of wealth, status, pleasure, and materialism take priority over spiritual growth and biblical values.

In contrast, devoted Christians exhibit disciplined spiritual practices, active church involvement, obedience to biblical commands, and life transformation across all areas as the Holy Spirit works within them.

The term “nominal Christian” offers an important distinction between those who merely identify with the Christian faith for cultural reasons and those who actively live out biblical faith with their whole hearts.

What Causes Nominal Christianity?

Upbringing and Culture

Many people adopt Christianity in name only because they grew up in a culturally Christian environment. Children raised in Christian households, attending church services, may continue these habits into adulthood without deeply believing or practicing the tenets of Christianity (source).

Over time, the Christian label sticks even if genuine faith does not take root.

Lack of Religious Education

Insufficient religious education leads some to a shallow Christian identity. With little doctrinal grounding or understanding of what it means to follow Jesus, they lack the foundation to mature beyond nominal Christianity.

Increased biblical literacy and catechesis can address this issue and cultivate authentic faith.

Rejection of Organized Religion

Disenchantment with institutional Christianity also fuels nominalism. Some label themselves “spiritual but not religious” or “believers without belonging” – maintaining a cultural connection to Christianity while distrusting the church (source).

Without community support, however, vibrant practice rarely lasts. Ecclesial structures, while imperfect, shape and sustain commitment in ways isolation cannot.

Christianity Seen as Default

Since Christianity has long infused Western civilization, some adopt a Christian identity by default without deep reflection. By one estimate, over 60% of U.S. adults raised as Christians abandon the faith as adults, yet still consider themselves Christian in some vague sense (source).

With Christianity positioned culturally as a societal norm, causal assent persists. Addressing motivations and assumptions behind the “default” label could strengthen genuineness for many.

Comparing Nominal, Cultural, and Devout Christians

Devout Christians

Devout Christians have a strong, active faith that influences their daily lives. They regularly attend church, pray daily, read the Bible, and actively serve in their church community. Their faith shapes their worldview and decision making.

Devout Christians strive to live out the teachings of Jesus Christ and see their relationship with God as the most important thing in life.

Cultural Christians

Cultural Christians identify with Christianity for family tradition, cultural identity or social reasons. They may attend church occasionally, mainly during holidays or special events. While they appreciate Christian values and principles, their faith does not significantly impact their day-to-day lifestyle.

Cultural Christians see their Christian identity as more social than spiritual.

Key Differences

Devout Christians Cultural Christians
Active faith shapes worldview and lifestyle choices Christian identity mainly for social/cultural reasons
Regular church attendance and service Occasional church attendance on holidays/special events
Daily spiritual practices like prayer and Bible reading Appreciates Christian values but faith does not impact daily life
Strong relationship with God is top priority Christian identity is more social than spiritual

Nominal Christianity and Church Attendance

Low Church Attendance

Church attendance has been on a steady decline in many Christian denominations. Recent surveys show that only about 30% of people who identify as Christian attend church regularly (at least once a month).

This means a large portion of Christians are only nominal believers – they identify with Christianity but do not actively participate in a faith community.

There are many complex reasons behind declining church participation. An increasing number of people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Others cite busier lives, alternative weekend activities, disillusionment with religious institutions, or lack of compelling preaching.

However, low attendance points to a wider problem – many Christians are missing out on spiritual teaching, community, accountability, and opportunities to serve.

Church Hopping

Another trend is that even regular churchgoers tend to “church hop” instead of committing long-term to one congregation. Surveys indicate the average church attender stays at a particular church for just 2-3 years before moving on. Why the lack of loyalty?

On one hand, church shopping allows people to find a theological fit, worship style, or community they resonate with. However, continually moving between churches can prevent individuals from putting down spiritual roots and getting involved.

It often reflects a consumer mindset rather than a commitment to give of one’s time, talents and treasures. Short-term participation equals shallow discipleship.

Holiday Attendance

Christmas and Easter draw bigger crowds than normal Sundays – in fact, Easter services often hit yearly attendance peaks (after dipping the rest of the year). Sociologists suggest holiday attendance meets an occasional spiritual need but allows people to avoid deeper commitment the rest of the year.

It offers the upside of inspiration without responsibility.

In the end, many self-professed Christians practice a watered-down cultural faith rather than wholehearted discipleship. Truly following Jesus goes beyond Sunday morning worship or yearly celebrations.

As scripture says, “Let us not give up meeting together…but let us encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:25). Faith is a lifestyle, not a label. Nominal participation means we don’t experience the fullness of God’s kingdom.

Prevalence of Nominal Christianity

In the United States

Nominal Christianity is widespread in the United States, with studies indicating that anywhere from one-third to one-half of Americans identify as Christian but do not actively practice the faith or attend church regularly (1).

Many were raised Christian or belong to Christian families, but faith does not play an integral role in their day-to-day lives.

Several factors have contributed to the rise of nominal Christianity in America. For one, an increasingly secular and materialistic culture has watered down religious devotion over time. Additionally, some reject parts of Christian dogma but still value the religious identity.

And youth especially tend to become less religiously active as they leave home and gain independence. So while America remains solidly Christian on paper, active commitment is lacking for millions.

In Europe

Europe has seen a more dramatic rise in nominal Christianity, with attendance and devotion declining steeply across the continent over the past century (2). For example, while 71% of adults in the UK still identify as Christian, only 12% attend church outside of special holidays.

Similar patterns exist across Western and Northern Europe.

Scholars cite the region’s growing secularism, dwindling religiosity among youth, and scandals within major churches as factors driving this trend. Yet many Europeans still value the cultural and family traditions associated with Christianity, so they identify with the label even if faith is not a living practice for them.

For better or worse, passive or “cultural” Christianity has become the norm for most Europeans.

In Developing Nations

Meanwhile, parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America are seeing an explosion of enthusiastic yet nominal Christianity (3). In these regions, accepts Christ in droves and mega-churches are ubiquitous. However, high levels of poverty, lack of education, and syncretism with folk religions means faith often manifests as a superficial veneer over enduring magical beliefs and practices considered unbiblical by orthodox standards.

So while Christianity is surging demographically, properly catechizing and discipling these new converts remains an ongoing challenge. For many, Christ coexists with spirits, rituals serve material needs over spiritual, and faith more resembles a vehicle for health and wealth than carrying a cross.

Accurately quantifying this tendency toward nominalism is quite difficult. But qualitative data clearly points to a superficial understanding of the Gospel taking root in many parts of the Global South.


In conclusion, nominal Christianity is a broad term for those who identify as Christian but do not actively practice the faith. The causes are complex, but often include family background and culture. While devout Christians adhere closely to Christian teachings and attend church regularly, nominal Christians are much less observant.

Understanding nominal Christianity provides insight into how religious identity and practice are changing in the modern world.

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