Talking with Nominals about the Gospel

The homemade cannoli and Napoletani rivaled the artistry of the Sistine Chapel. And the coffee—mama mia! Since Rosa’s café, located in downtown Bologna, was merely a bocce ball roll from my residence, I visited often. Her congenial personality made it easy to broach the subject of God, which I did after the third visit.

In between sips of espresso, I asked Rosa how Italians experience their relationship with Jesus. Her answer was fascinating: “My spiritual beliefs are private.” “The Bible I no believe because it was written by men.” Finally, and for most of her answer, she described a local procession (religious parade) dedicated to the patron saint of fishing. With enough rapport to ask follow-up questions, I proceeded:

Chris: “Now that’s a fish parade I want to see! Is the cross of Jesus depicted in any particular way?”

Rosa: “Yes, Monsignor Giuseppe carries the crucifix, elevated for everyone to behold.”

Chris: “And what is the significance of the crucifix?”

Rosa: “It shows Jesus wearing the crown of thorns with drops of blood marking his face.”

At this point, I asked Rosa a few simple questions intended to elucidate the love of God and the personal significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection for Rosa in particular. It was brief, but meaningful. My goal was to connect the dots between Rosa’s limited understanding of the Christian story and the promises of salvation. I concluded by assuring Rosa that she and her family would be in my prayers.

Reflecting upon my conversation with Rosa brings to mind three basic principles for witness among “nominal” Christians (i.e., self-identifying Christians whose lives are devoid of biblically grounded faith).

Ask your friend how he or she expresses devotion to God. Because a nominal Christian seldom reflects upon the God of Scripture, one’s answer will likely be off the cuff. This, however, will probably not stop your conversation partner from asserting her ideas. There is no telling what she’ll say (it could be the fish parade). Your job is to simply listen. After she concludes, offer a kind response such as, “Thanks, I have never heard it put that way before.” You have just offered this person the gift of hearing herself talk about God. Chances are, when she rests her head upon her pillow that evening, she will replay the tape, remembering the ideas that she expressed. The Spirit’s illuminating grace can do much with that.

Assure you friend of your prayers. Folks who are disconnected from a local church are rarely told that they are being prayed for. Such an offer can be personally touching and has potential to generate valuable reflection.

Mention how Jesus saves you every day. Deliverance from worry, sorrow, and pain are some of the divine graces that we enjoy in Christ. A brief testimony of how such activity has shaped your life will serve to illustrate the ongoing reality of salvation.

May these principles serve your ministry among nominal Christians.

3 Comments

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  • Hello Chris,

    A happy and blessed Easter to you. I had the pleasure of reading this article and have a few observations to make, followed by my response.

    My first observation is this unintended, yet often pervasive quality of “Evangelical arrogance” when it comes to judgment of the faith of others. This sense of I know the Gospel better than you, so let me tell you about it. Again, my hope is that it always comes from a good place, and we are indeed called to evangelize in a Matthew 28 way (…make disciples of all nations….), but the Evangelical culture is the only one I’ve experienced that puts this distinction between believers and non-believers, but it is entirely up to the individual to determine what outward qualities determine the “realness” of someone’s faith, and it often appears inconsistent. As it pertains to the tone of this article, there’s a poor Rosa, she is so blind, but I will help her see vibe that smacks of condescension, whether it’s intended or not.

    Second, this could be a coincidence, but the target is so often a Catholic. You could have defined the “Nominal” in this case as the suburban soccer mom who attends the local mega church every now and again, posts out of context Bible quotes on her Instagram, and has her main source of theological development as the 5 songs that circulate endlessly on KLOVE in her Volkswagen Tiguan, but instead you chose a direct slight at Catholic culture. I have no more authority to judge the faith and intimacy with Christ of said soccer mom than you do of Rosa, and that’s kind of my point, but in my experience Evangelical culture draws a very firm line in the sand between we, the believers and them, the non-believers which so often includes non-practicing members of the Apostolic Churches or mainline Protestant denominations.

    Third, there is often a distinction made with The God of the Bible and biblically grounded faith, as though the God of the Bible is distinct from the God of the Church, and the faith of the Church is distinct from the faith of the Bible. If anything, Biblical witness is that the Church preceded the Bible, and was the instrument the Holy Spirit used to bring the Bible into the world and confirm the authority of its canon. And, as it follows, possesses the authority given by Christ to govern the people of God. Chris, our God is simply that. God. The Great Who Am. That than which nothing greater can be thought. The Alpha and the Omega.

    Based on the objective pieces of information you’ve provided, I think it’s safe to say that our dear friend Rosa could certainly use some discipleship. Perhaps Monsignor Guiseppi could gently share with her what her own Church believes about Sacred Scripture, that it was indeed written by men, but men who were carried away by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet 1: 21). Thanks to the witness of the Apostles to Jesus’ Resurrection and the Divine promise for that truth to be carried until the consummation of the world, and the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church, she can rest assured with the same authority that she grants the office of the priesthood that Monsignor Giuseppi fills, she can have confidence in the God-breathed nature of Scriptures. And, thanks be to God, she has access to that same Jesus Christ’s sanctifying Grace in the Sacrament of Confession, and can have the deepest, most intimate relationship with Him through the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. This is the discussion that needs to be had with her at some point to encourage her on her journey, but I’m not sure that’s the path you would necessarily take. Please correct me if I’m wrong. With all that being said, you raise a great point that all of this must be bolstered by a life of frequent prayer, opening of the Scriptures (within the context of the understanding of the Church) and a genuine striving to persevere in living the Christian life, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    For my last point, I’d like to ensure that you have a chance to check out the mirror as it pertains to your interaction with Rosa. Perhaps there is something to be learned from your end from Rosa’s simple (if somewhat misguided) faith. First, consider her answer about the Crucifix. Maybe that crown of thorns and the blood dripping on His face actually is a better, more complete depiction of the suffering needed to obtain our salvation than the austere, utilitarian setting that is many modern Evangelical Churches – and the sensory focus of that by Monsignor Giuseppi for “everyone to behold” is perhaps a better direction of our attention than the choir or the pulpit.
    Next, before you have the chance to launch into another tongue-in-cheek slight on the “fish parade”, perhaps you could take the time to recognize that the man being honored there is one that you and your biblically grounded faith are well acquainted with – the patron Saint of fishing is St. Andrew the Apostle, older brother of St. Peter. And what better way to adore and worship the Artist than to give honor to one of His best works of art? That is, to recognize souls that were infused with the Grace of Jesus Christ and transformed to live a life that more closely modeled His for the advancement of His kingdom.
    Or, perhaps, your interaction with Rosa is there to remind you that the one Body of Christ that St. Paul talks about exists in heaven just as it does on earth, and the two are not separated. And that this very same St. Andrew who was called from his fisherman’s post by our Lord now sits eternally in His Presence in heaven, ready and willing to pray for you and with you, should you ask him, and help you into deeper relationship with Him in a way you didn’t have previously. I think the Spirit’s illuminating Grace can do much with that.

    In closing, my comments may seem a bit harsh above, but I know that you share these articles in good faith and with good intention, Chris. But wondering to myself prior to clicking whether this article would include diminishing the faith and practice of a Catholic, then finding that, indeed, the underlying crux of the article was here is Rosa, Catholic, nominal Christian. Allow me to make an example of poor Rosa in my article was disappointing to me. I think you have much to share with Rosa about the basics of our Christian faith, from the integral importance of a relationship with Jesus Christ to an ever-deepening understanding of Sacred Scripture. But perhaps she and her fish parading comrades have something to share with you, too, should you be open to the Spirit’s illuminating Grace that can come from opening your eyes to that interaction.

    Peace to you,

    Dan

  • Thanks, Dan. Nominal Protestants are not nearly as interesting as Sicilians who have fish parades. Yes, we certainly have a great deal to learn from one another’s traditions. Thanks to your prompting, I’m going to write a post on positive lessons that Protestants should learn from Catholicism. I appreciate you writing.

    • Many thanks, Chris. I keep up on your blog because I’m certain you’re one of the good guys, looking to lead all you encounter into a deeper, more fruitful relationship with our God. Looking forward to that article and all others, even if I often play devil’s (angel’s?) advocate in favor of the Catholic Church. 🙂 Keep fighting the good fight.

      As an aside – you’re right, Italian cultural norms certainly can provide for interesting stories. My mother was born in a tiny mountain town a few hours outside of Naples and lived there until she was 13, in the early 1970s. The town is about 13 miles from Pietrelcina, Italy, which if you’re familiar, was home to a certain bi-locating, stigmata-bearing 19th century Saint, Padre Pio. Needless to say, in the homes of some of my relatives, Padre Pio relics outnumber Crucifixes and I have to battle a similar type of nominalism with relation to the faith within my own Italian family.

      Peace,

      Dan

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