What Do People Mean When They Call Themselves Christians?

What do people mean when they identify themselves as Christians? The meaning varies, of course. Some mean that they are involved in Christian churches. In Australia, there are 10 million people who identify themselves as Christians but who rarely, if ever, attend a church. What do they mean by that identification? Do they ‘believe’, but choose ‘not to belong’? In other words, do they like Jesus, but dislike the churches? Or does their identification mean that, in some sense, they ‘belong’, even if they do not attend?

Rick Warren, the famous author and minister of Saddleback Church in the USA, is typical of many evangelists in assuming that there are many people who believe in God and are impressed with Jesus, but have not connected with a church. He refers to these people as ‘nominal Christians’: Christian in name but not associated with a church

The issue became a significant one in the United Kingdom in 2001. For the first time, the Census contained a question about religion. Many people were surprised that 72 per cent of the population in the UK identified themselves as Christian (Day 2011, p.28). On the other hand, the International Social Survey program (2010) for Great Britain found that just 17 per cent of adults claimed to attend a church monthly or more often.

Day began her research by asking people what they believed in. Her sample was small: just 68 people (Day 2011, p.30), but the range extended from school students to the elderly, and included people from professional and working-class sectors of society.

In analysing the interviews, Day identified two belief orientations which she describes as anthropocentric and theocentric (Day 2011, p.156). The majority of people she interviewed were anthropocentric. Their beliefs revolved around their relationships with specific other people, most commonly partners, family and friends. They believed in treating these people morally: as they themselves would like to be treated. There were a few people who described themselves as Christian because they thought that Christians were respectable people, and, although they were not quite living up to that standard, that was how they wanted to live.

The claim to be ‘Christian’ was not just an unthinking response, Day argues. Yet, for most of these people, it had nothing to do with either beliefs or involvement in a church. Most of those who described themselves as Christian in this way rejected even belief in God and were not interested in Jesus, contrary to the patterns described by Warren (Day 2011, p.171).

Day’s research points to the need to take seriously the identifications that people make and to see in them the functions of the demarcation of belonging. Her assertion that statements of belief are primarily about belonging, rather than indicating a propositional or doctrinal commitment, is worthy of reflection.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 24, No. 1, Pages 1-6

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