When Christianity Becomes An Idea

Nominalism has pushed more and more “essential” doctrines and practices into the “non-essential” category in order to maintain some sort of unity

By the second half of the twentieth century, the cultural momentum of Christendom has waned, and the ever-increasing atomization caused by nominalism has pushed more and more “essential” doctrines and practices into the “non-essential” category in order to maintain some sort of unity.

Faith is no longer the supernatural gift in which we assent to the whole truth as revealed by God through his Church. Rather, it is a reflexive faith, a change in the disposition of the mind—Christ’s salvific work is done for me. Conversionism reduces faith to a kind of gnosis and salvation to an interior personal relationship.

A personal relationship with God is certainly a good thing. It would be tragic if a Christian didn’t enjoy intimate friendship with God. But we can have a personal relationship with many people—parents, co-workers, next-door neighbors, even people we have met only online. As close as these relationships may be, they are not equal. Your flesh-and-blood relationship with your parents and the one-flesh union with your spouse are categorically different. The same is true for our union with Christ: we become his body and bride through faith and the sacraments, especially baptism and the Eucharist. This is why Catholics in the past rarely used “personal relationship” language. Instead, they spoke of being a devoted son or daughter.

Lowest Common Denominationalism
All churches, in this view, are the same

When a conversion experience becomes the lowest common denominator that unites all Christians, the church community can, itself, be viewed as an impediment to unity. As David Anders notes:

In its most extreme form, this evangelical ecclesiology devolves into popular rants against any Church. This is not new. We find essentially the same thing in the well-known revivalist Billy Sunday (1862-1935): “Jesus said: ‘Come to me,’ not to the Church; to me, not to a creed; to me, not to a preacher; to me, not to an evangelist; to me, not to a priest; to me, not to a pope; ‘Come to me and I will give you rest.’ Faith in Jesus Christ saves you, not faith in the Church.”  

Where the magisterial Protestants see church membership and rightly ordered worship as essential to the Christian life, conversionism places all those things in competition with Christ. All churches, in this view, are the same. For the believer, they all are either inconsequential or impediments and distractions that insinuate themselves between the believer and Christ.

What is Non-Denominationalism?
By denying any denominational identity, they try to appeal to the broadest possible Protestant audience and attract disaffected Catholic

As conversionism spreads, denominations and denominational labels soon become unpopular. Thus is born a new phenomenon: non-denominationalism.

What is non-denominationalism? It is a Protestant denomination that doesn’t want to be called a denomination. Non-denominationalists’ beliefs generally mirror that of the Baptist faith; they are low-church, Bible-alone, and conversionistic. By denying any denominational identity, they try to appeal to the broadest possible Protestant audience and attract disaffected Catholics.

The remarkable growth of non-denominational groups shows that their strategy worked. Christianity Today computed that “using a baseline average from 1972-1976, over the last four decades, there has been more than a 400 percent growth in Protestants who identify as nondenominational.”

The mega-church movement takes the non-denominational model one step farther. These groups remove anything that would impede people from sitting in their pews—and then they remove the pews, too. If traditional church music turns you off, the organ and choir are replaced with a contemporary rock band. Don’t like sermons? The preacher and sermons are replaced with theater and high-level entertainment. The messages vary. Many preach a utilitarian ethic, where happiness becomes the goal for the here and now, mixed with a call to make a “decision for Christ.”

Although mega-churches are geared toward supplying the lowest common Christian-like beliefs for popular consumption, they do propound one unalterable, infallible dogma: all churches are the same. No church is more true or more beneficial than any other. This militant egalitarian approach to ecclesiology has a fatal flaw: if it doesn’t matter where I go to church, why attend a mega-church? Why not satisfy my spiritual needs by myself and on my own terms? The mega-church cannot answer this question without forsaking its one infallible egalitarian dogma.

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