Last week I spent several days with church planters in San Francisco, California. At the same time, I was reading Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s landmark work, A Secular Age1.
I found this to be a serendipitous experience.
A Secular Age is an award-winning, exhaustive (896 pages) work which gives a fresh perspective on the secularization of the West. While many philosophers, sociologists, and theologians have written about the decline of religion in contemporary society, Charles Taylor offers a depth that examines the complexities surrounding the issue of secularization.
First of all, Taylor helps us understand the term “secular.” There was a time in Western Europe that the word “secular” did not mean opposition to religion. For example, prayer was seen as a sacred task, and shipbuilding was seen as something secular. Taylor used the term “Christendom” to identify a society where ethics, politics, economics, morality, art, and culture are all intertwined with religion. Five hundred years ago, most everyone in the West was religious. Belief in God was a given.
The second view of secularism arose after the enlightenment. A government, for example, would be considered “secular” if it had not religious bias. Individuals began to stray from the norm of Christian belief. Some abandoned religion altogether.
Taylor’s final use of “secular” describes our current state. We live in a society where Christianity (or even a belief in God) is seen as one of many options. For many, Christianity is not even the most attractive option for someone who wants to be religious. This “age of authenticity” in which we live is one where individuals are encouraged to discover their own religious belief system if any. In an age of radical pluralism, individuals can keep elements of Christianity that they find meaningful, and disregard others—or even blend in non-Christian philosophies and religious beliefs.
Back to San Francisco.
In May of 2017, the Barna Group named San Francisco as the most unchurched city in America (sorry Portland, you are lagging behind at number 17). In that same study, Barna ranked the top 5 de-churched cities (cities that has seen the most significant drop in church attendance). San Francisco is also number one in that category.2
The experience of reading A Secular Age while visiting a city where church buildings have been converted into trendy office buildings3 or rock concert venues4 was a bit like reading a philosophical version of a “city guide.”
I live and engage in ministry in Fort Worth, Texas. The Dallas / Fort Worth area is one of the most religious regions in America. Church attendance is high and churches of all sizes (house church to megachurch) are plentiful. Because of our context, our church intentionally partners with under-resourced churches in San Francisco. We send financial resources, short-term volunteers, and spiritual support to several men and women who are seeking to plant and grow churches in San Francisco and Oakland.
Last week I spent a considerable time talking with two church planters who are making preparations to plant a church in the Bayview / Hunter’s Point area of San Francisco. This is an area where multi-million-dollar condominiums are being built next two older section eight housing (aka “the projects”). They have the vision to plant a multi-ethnic church that reaches people from both socioeconomic groups. Planting a church in San Francisco is a challenge, but planting one which pulls from such a wide variety of cultures, educational levels, and standards of living will take a miracle (fortunately, God is in the miracle business).
I asked one of the church planters if he knew about Taylor’s A Secular Age, he replied that he had already read it and found it extremely helpful.
As I left San Francisco, still reading Taylor’s book, I was struck by a thought. San Francisco (with its disdain of organized religion, rejection of traditional Christian sexual ethics, and an affinity for non-Christian spirituality) might be a vision of the future of the rest of America.
America does not need another Christendom. But it needs the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ. I wonder if, in a few years from now, churches across the Southern U.S. will be seeking advice and insights from pastors in the San Francisco Bay Area?
1Taylor, Charles. A secular age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.