Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Secular Hope: Finding a Way to Disciple in a Secular Age

Written by: on February 22, 2015

It is a well know statistic that a large majority of the congregations in North America are plateaued and many are in decline. Plateau is defined as “little or no change … relatively stable level or position … a level of attainment or achievement.”[1] I am in my second year as a staff pastor in a plateaued congregation; our attendance has hovered just below fifty for over twenty years. The programing has not changed over the years; we have three regular meetings each week; we celebrate the Christian holidays with traditional services; on Sunday mornings  we have graded classes, and each Wednesday we have Bible study and prayer meeting. We have had visitors; some visitors stay others in the congregation move away or pass on. The only sure change is the mean age ticks up a little each year. Sound dismal? No, it is not dismal; the staff is asking the congregation, in frightening but creative ways “To Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy.”[2]

Actually, there is some expanding excitement. We have added a staff member that brings multiethnicity and youth to our leadership. The staff has encouraged the congregation to reassess their purpose and to think about moving outside the close-knit fellowship and outside the physical building we occupy. There is concern and hesitancy on the part of the members; it is reminiscent of Macy and Johnstone as they note that the task before us can be monumental in our thinking and we freeze with fear and are paralyzed to respond. Following the concepts in Active Hope, as a congregation, “our intention [is] to act, so that we can best play our part, whatever that may be, in the healing of our world … to strengthen our ability to give the best gift we can: our finest response to the multifaceted crisis of sustainability.[3]

In our context, the congregation is attempting to move from being an attractional to a missional church. Simply stated, it is producing a program and inviting people to join us juxtaposed to going to the people and discovering their need. We are characterizing our movement using the popular metaphor, “The Church Has Left the Building.” One of the securities of being an attractional church is that the language we speak inside the building is “our” language; we are comfortable using our speech. The church cloaks the gospel message within the context of what has always been spoken. We often refer to our gatherings as “public worship” when in fact, about the only thing public is that those on the outside have been invited to enter in and join the worshipers. To leave the building is to truly enter “public space.”

Faith Promise Bulleten Cover ed small

Going public is a frightening experience. As I began reading A Secular Age by Charles Taylor, this reality became powerfully clear to me.[4] Taylor introduces A Secular Age with simple, unpretentious question, one I had never thought to ask, “What does it mean that we live in a secular age?”[5] Before reading on, the answer was clear: of the world or temporal; not of the spirit, nonreligious. Scriptural concepts for me would be wrapped up in concepts of flesh / spirit or worldly / eternal. At least, this encompassed my uninformed and shallow understanding of secular. In the pages of the introduction, Taylor defines secular as three successive stages or he uses “meaning” or “understanding.” He notes, “One understanding of secularity then is in terms of public spaces. These have been allegedly emptied of God, or of any reference to ultimate reality.”[6] He clarifies further, “in our ‘secular’ societies, you can engage fully in politics [public] without ever encountering God.”[7] These concepts conjure a number of questions concerning the local church moving out into neighborhood ministry. Taylors details the historical transition from pre-modern faith to the rationality of modernity. What does it mean to believe in a traditional church culture as compared to secular culture? “Belief in God is no longer axiomatic,” Taylor notes, “[t]here is a massive change in the whole background of or unbelief…”[8] There has been a shift or movement in belief and faith in God as customary and  accepted as a fundamental aspect of finding fullness and meaning in life. What language do we use? What metaphors will carry meaning in a secular society? Taylor illustrates this change:

“[a] move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace. … which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.[9]

It is possible our liminality bound modernistic entrapped congregations are totally unprepared to engage the secular community around us?

I have discovered a whole new vocabulary in A Secular Age. I discovered and excellent glossary of terms in James K. A. Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor.[10]  These concepts are momentous as we seek to connect and to relate to the shift to a secular society and it helps to understand and relate to witness and faithfulness to the gospel in a post-Christian era. Taylor’s clarity of the move from unquestioned faith to secular society seems, for me, to make post-modernism a symptom of this transition.  Taylor has provided an illumination for the bridge as we travel the chasm from modernity to a postmodern era. We can make a difference seeking to witness in the secular post-Christian community.

The many questions raised by Taylor must be addressed in the local congregation if we will be instruments of God’s grace and peace in the local neighborhood. How do we understand the secular society the local community? And how can relate to belief and faith that begins without God? God’s prevenient grace is still reaching to those lost and without hope but church language will hopelessly fail to communicate; how do we learn to speak secular tongue? Where does and in what manner does the gospel relate to secular culture? In other words, what is the contextual model that we might use to present the gospel in the secular community? Can the church be incarnate in a secular age? And How? What is the message? The theology and in what sense can Christianity be secular? As Bevans notes in Models of Contextual Theology, “Christianity, if it is to be faithful to its deepest roots and to its most basic insight, must continue God’s incarnation in Jesus by becoming contextual. … All three aspects—cultural identity, popular religiosity, and social change—have to be taken into consideration when one develops a truly contextual theology.”[11]

As a pastor, I cannot hide from these questions or fail to do my best to give actively redeeming hope to those I engage each day. First to those going outside the walls of the church as they join God as the incarnate Word and further, bring hope to those who walk in secular unbelief.

[1]  Merriam-Webster 11th Collegiate Dictionary, (Merriam-Webster, Inc.; July 30, 2003).

[2] Joanna Macy & Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy (Novaro, CA: New World Library, 2012).

[3] Ibid, 2.

[4] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age Kindle ed. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).

[5] Ibid., 30

[6] Ibid., 48 (emphasis mine).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.,249.

[9] Ibid., 60-68

[10] James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor  Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2014)

[11] Stephan B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology Kindle ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 412, 755.

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12 responses to “Secular Hope: Finding a Way to Disciple in a Secular Age”

  1. John Woodward says:

    Ron, as always, an excellent and insightful post. I especially appreciate your pastoral take on Taylor, as I truly believe that is the focus of his work. The long list of questions you conclude with are shared by me. It seems that if we are going to effectively be “his witnesses to the ends of earth” we had best know what we are facing. It is my hope, after the first half of this book where Taylor lays the foundation of how we got here, that the second half will provide a way forward: (as you ask) “how can relate to belief and faith that begins without God?” I am hopeful that Taylor will bring some wisdom and enlightenment. I will also be curious to see how you might use Taylor’s insights as you seek to reach your community. Thanks Ron for your thoughtful post!

    • rhbaker275 says:

      John, thanks…
      Yes, we do need to know what we are facing.

      I was really struck by much of what Taylor writes as it relates to what we face in terms of “postmodernism” and “post-Christian/Christendom.” I think if I had a better grasp (this is not a shallow book) of secular and secularism, I could approach better the problems we face – such as consumerism, relativism and plurality – in the social/political/religious cultures of our the present era.

      In reading your post, I feel you have a better grasp of Taylor than I have – I hope to get a better understanding and application as we move forward.

  2. Ron,

    Thanks for your helpful, encouraging post.

    It was interesting for me to read your post knowing that you work with the Church of God. As I work at a Church of God college, I hear about happenings in the churches — many of the churches are hurting, some are dying. I agree with you that we cannot continue to “do church” the way we have always done it in the past and expect to have positive results. Thus, it is refreshing to read such terms as “contextualization” and “multi ethnicity” in your post. Yes, we must take the church outside the walls of the building. I agree with you. But how does that look? What do you do in this new secular age? I look forward to reading further and talking with you in Hong Kong about your research. One thing I am sure about is this, we cannot keep doing things the way they have always been done and expect to get the results we used to. I look forward to learning from you, my friend.

    • Richard Volzke says:

      Your questions, “But how does that look? What do you do in this new secular age?” is something that churches and pastors constantly ask. Churches need to get outside of their walls and interact with the people that don’t act or look like those inside of the church walls. Too many Christians only want to be around people who are like themselves. The last church where I served was what I call a “country club church.” Several of the older parishioners did not like nor welcome individuals who did not act or dress they way they think people in church should do. My question is how can we get Christians to engage with their communities in ways that help them to understand those on the “outside” of the church walls. They can’t just venture out to do outreach, but they need ways to immerse in the culture.

      • rhbaker275 says:

        Richard, very well stated.
        You might be interested in the book I mention to Bill, “Church in the Middle: Stepping Outside the Building to Reach the World of Tomorrow” by Rolland Daniels.

        I don’t know how connected you are to the Nazarene church in Ohio, but our assistant executive secretary at the office of Ohio COG ministries at Maringo, OH is a central Ohio Nazarene pastor. Also, I just interviewed Dr. Bob Whitesel of Nazarene Seminary in Marion, IN for my field research and I have a graduate degree from NNU; add to that the most significant fact, we are BUCKEYES! and I would say we have a lot in common.

    • rhbaker275 says:

      Thanks for your response and your understanding of our somewhat shared pastoral context – However, our affinity goes beyond the “tribal connection” if I can say it that way.

      I am engaging my home church in a group study as part of my field research project this term. I am using the book, “Church in the Middle: Stepping Outside the Building to Reach the World of Tomorrow” by Rolland Daniels, pastor at Madison Park Church of God in Anderson, IN. I am excited and a little frightened. It is almost like my whole course of study (I know it doesn’t) hangs on this effort to discover how we get outside the building. Our study begins Sunday, March 1.

      Our congregation is seeking and moving. Today we celebrated “Freedom Sunday” as part of COG Ministries effort to combat human trafficking. The effort is “CHOG Trafficklight” (http://www.chogtrafficklight.org/) where we are asking 1,000 congregation to give $1,000 (one million – significant for a tribe that has an annual budget of less than eight million) to fight sex trafficking. Our congregation was able to raise almost $1,200 for this effort. The bigger challenge for us is to engage our community in deliverance from this evil and to proclaim the freedom the gospel gives to all forms, including the bondage of sin, of oppression.

  3. Telile Fikru Badecha says:

    Ron, I really admire you for the courage and creativity your church leadership used to raise your congregation’s awareness to the face the situations you are in without going crazy. It is such a huge move to go outside the church building and worship in a space where people can see you and hear the Good News. As you know our Lord’s command is “go and make disciples”, but as you can see churches invest time and money in programs to invite others to “come and see.” These two have to be balanced effectively for the health of the church.

    • rhbaker275 says:

      Thanks, Telile,
      We are all engaged in the common commitment of sharing the gospel – joining God in our communities. We also share in the struggle to lead our congregations to change their focus from church as our fellowship, our building, and get them to “really move” outside the community.

      Today, my Sunday school class went out to eat. It was our nice, little, close knit fellowship enjoying one another’s presence. Every Sunday when the class takes an offering – they put $1 in the church collection and $1 in the class collection. When we get enough in “our” collection we go out to eat! Not one invited visitor and to make matters worse, I felt they way under-tipped the waitress that had to serve the larger group. I AM SO AGAINST this! But it takes time and God’s grace; we live the gospel before and in our community and, so also, we must do the same within the fellowship.

  4. Ron, an excellent post intertwining so many of our previous readings. Appreciate the work that you do in regards to our readings and you disseminating them through out your post.

    I must say that I feel your pain regarding the size of your congregation and lack of growth over the years. This can be extremely frustrating as you seek to stem the tide within this current secular age.

    I love you analogy of the church leaving the building. So many pictures came to mind with that statement. Often times we are too quick to label the church building as the true church. Yet rather than coming to church we ought to refer to the church gathering.

    I love the tie in between public theology and public space is something that I have not considered. I plan on doing a lot in my dissertation work regarding contextual theology and cultural intelligence within the public space. Of course public space is being filled with many multiracial people as well as secular people who need the gospel contextualized into their secular environment.

    You bring up a lot of good questions. I hope that you will be providing some of the answers. I know that we need them. Great post.

    • rhbaker275 says:

      Mitch, Thanks…
      I have know from the start of our studies that, from a little different perspective, we are engaging the same area of study. I, also, read your posts and -sort of hung- on your presentation at the face-to-face last term.

      On contextual theology and contextualization, here are a couple of references (though, I am sure you have a great bibliography):

      Hesselgrave, David J. and Edward Rommen. “Contextualization: Meanings, Methods, and Models.” Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989. (I have this book checked out from GFES Library but I know there s a later edition)

      Flemming, Dean. “Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission.”Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity press, 2005.

      I am interesting in your bibliography that deals with the concept and use of models – there was a real good section on this in Bevans, “Models of Contextual Theology.”

  5. Michael Badriaki says:

    Great job on this post Ron. I really enjoyed reading Taylor’s work and I believe that scripture already points us to the need to “be prepared to give the reason for the hope we have… 1 Peter 3: 15; and with preparation, we can participate in active hope.

    I appreciate your question, “Can the church be incarnate in a secular age? And How? What is the message? The theology and in what sense can Christianity be secular?” I believe that the Church can all things through Christ who strengthens believers. His prayer to the Father was for believers not be taken out of this world, to keep follower of Christ from evil. We can trust in Jesus His guidance and follow Him in His call and command to make disciples of nation.
    Indeed you point to the way forward in quoting Bevans, “Christianity, if it is to be faithful to its deepest roots and to its most basic insight, must continue God’s incarnation in Jesus by becoming contextual. … All three aspects—cultural identity, popular religiosity, and social change—have to be taken into consideration when one develops a truly contextual theology.”

    Thank you!

    • rhbaker275 says:

      Thanks, Michael,
      I did not have time to respond to your post but I did read it. You shared some of the same good responses here to my post as you expressed in your reading of Taylor.

      The book is challenging to me and at times I struggled significantly with the historical content and the philosophy genre.

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