One of the easiest things for those in ministry to do is to pass judgement on the believers who gather for worship each week. I say this as one who has done so myself – annoyed at their seemingly half-hearted participation, silently questioning their motives, wondering if anything in the liturgy or the sermon is sinking in, and so on. When these kinds of thoughts are entertained, the label 'nominal' gets tossed around far too easily. Books on pastoral ministry and conversations with others assure me that I am not alone in this.
In some ways, this kind of attitude is a reaction against the type of ministry that never inquires into the spiritual well-being of the members of a church, operating either on the belief that because they are there, their faith is alive, or on the assumption that the leaders of a congregation have no business meddling in the lives of those in the pews. But it is a reaction that swings to the opposite end of the spectrum, and in addition to being sinful in its judgement and condemnation of others (and let me be clear that this is something I am repenting of), it will not enable a minister to love their parishioners and to offer the spiritual care they need if they are to grow and flourish in faith. As someone remarked to me earlier, pinning the label 'nominal' on other believers comes off as elitist slander, and simply cannot be legitimised.
Leander Harding, the rector of an Episcopal church in New York, makes this point in a very convicting way in a lovely piece written on Ash Wednesday several years ago. Harding challenges us to look at the gathered believers entirely differently:
I have become more and more suspicious of the concept of the nominal Christian. Our parish churches are supposed to be full of nominal Christians who are just going through the motions, of half-believers who are relying on their good works and who have not really surrendered to Christ and accepted the Gospel. In any parish church there are a few real apostates, and a few real scoffers and perhaps a few who genuinely hate God. Their numbers are routinely exaggerated. Most of the people who come to the church Sunday by Sunday know they are dying and are placing their hope in Christ. It may be an inarticulate hope, it may be a confused hope. Often there are huge brambles of misunderstanding that must be cleared away before the whole power of the good news can come in upon them. Often there is real darkness into which the light of Christ has not yet come and which cries out for a light-bearer. Yet, they come. When Jesus saw such as these gathered in their multitudes on the hill side, the sight provoked in him not contempt for the nominal but compassion, 'for they were like sheep without a shepherd.'
Harding beautifully articulates the balance between the two extremes I noted above. Ministers are called to treat their parishioners with love and compassion no matter where they are on the road of faith. To be sure, some will be near the starting line of that journey, seemingly unwilling to move. But applying the 'nominal' label in cases like this is not only about wrongfully passing judgement on them (in part because we can never really know what is going on in their hearts), it is also effectively making the statement that they are beyond the transforming work of the Spirit (even if you don't articulate it as such).
Assuming the worst about others makes for bad and unfruitful ministry. What is needed instead is a ministry characterised by love, compassion, and charity. And that is because it is only as we genuinely love and care for each person and seek their flourishing in faith, regardless of where they currently stand, that we will be able to walk with them in such a way that ‘the whole power of the good news can come in upon them’.