DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Dancing in the Secular Age

Written by: on January 16, 2019

Not a bad way to begin reading for the semester. An erudite distillation of the challenging tome and seminal work of Charles Taylor. James K.A. Smith expertly provides both explanation and points of application relevant to all seeking to comprehend Taylor’s text and the wider culture. Smith provides an invaluable summation of the bulk of Taylor’s work making it available to those needing it but lacking the time or wherewithal to discern its nuances.

It is simply inexcusable in the 21stcentury for the Church to keep its proverbial head in the sand and continue to convey the message of the Gospel disconnected from the culture at large. While the Baby Boomers (1946-1964) and to a lesser extent the Baby Busters (1964-1983) are generally conversant in and comfortable with Church culture and language, at least in the United States, that is simply not the case for emerging generations. While many will point to movements like ‘Passion’ and Christian ‘rock stars’ like Louie Giglio, Francis Chan, Christine Kane, David Crowder etc. as remaining attractive to young people, these student movements represent a small minority of the generation and are potentially nothing more than a coalescing of young people from various backgrounds and denominations into a semi-unified Christian young adult event.

The church’s efforts in evangelism (for those that haven’t completely given up) would make sense if there was a universally applicable world view and everyone sought meaning in the same manner. But, this is neither realistic nor accurate. Even before Smith begins to unpack Taylor’s work he lays the groundwork for understanding the perspective shift that has occurred in the secular culture. He states, “…your ‘secular’ neighbors aren’t looking for answers – for some bit of information that is missing from their mental maps. To the contrary, they have completely different maps.” Further, “…they have constructed webs of meaning that provide almost all the significance they need in their lives.” And finally, “…it seems that many have managed to construct a world of significance that isn’t at all bothered by questions of the divine.”[1] While these secular constructs may be the antithesis of what constitutes Christian orthodoxy it must be acknowledged that they function adequately enough to eliminate almost all lingering doubts or longing for something more transcendent.

In the early 1990s I was driving Tony Campolo (at the time one of the bigger personalities on the evangelical speaking circuit) around parts of New Zealand on a speaking tour. He was there at the invitation of Youth for Christ to present the Gospel at large town hall meetings and an outdoor

Christian music festival. He questioned me relentlessly about New Zealand culture and the transcendent desires of young people of that nation. After several long discussions he pointedly asked me, “Why would a New Zealand young person want to know Jesus?” Realizing that he was not asking for patented ‘Sunday School’ answers, I reflected for some minutes before I got up the nerve to respond, “They wouldn’t.”[2] In living and working in Christian ministry with New Zealand young people for several years I realized that the vast majority had constructed completely different purposes for existence and felt no great need or desire to fill their ‘God shaped hole’. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to New Zealand or the post-Christian era. That mentality has unequivocally penetrated the culture of the United States, and if Taylor/Smith are to be believed its impact is felt both within as much as outside Christian culture.

What has changed? Certainly, skeptics and naysayers are not a new threat to Christianity. These have existed from the inception of the faith. What has changed is the freedom people sense in being able to express these doubts and “the default assumptions about what is believable.”[3] What Taylor calls a ‘self-sufficient humanism’ has become a strong default position and has enough satisfactory intellectual integrity to be sustainable in the secular age.[4]

However, this ‘self-sufficient humanism’ is no monolithic construct either, as much as secular humanists would like it to be so. Where once meaning was found in a limited array of options, largely centered around transcendence and divinity, there are now myriad options for meaning. Taylor designates this the ‘Nova Affect’.[5] Meaning is now determined by the individual for themselves and not dictated by some external institution. The options are almost limitless.

It is also erroneous to suggest that this shift in thought toward secular humanism has left the Christian faith unscathed. “Taylor’s account of the secular is often an illuminating lens through which to see changes within religious communities, not just the expansion of the areligious.”[6] Whether it be the consumer age that envelops us, the search for authenticity or the ardent individualism in Western culture, the Church is fully immersed in secularism and it continues to transform faith and practice. (Case in point – my ‘Roomie’, Jay Forseth is studying the impact of Dave Ramsey’s teaching on the Church and giving. Someone producing ‘Christian’ teaching from this economic perspective could not have existed in the era prior to the establishment of secular thought or the acceptance of consumerism by the wider church. Ramsey is part of the ‘Nova Effect’ evident in Christian thinking.)

While this may leave many either running for the exits or building up an arsenal in preparation for the war to come, a reminder is in order. “The secular age is a level playing field. We’re all trying to make sense of where we are, even why we are, and it’s not easy for any of us.”[7] There is no need to be defensive or to remain entrenched in modernist and oft antiquated modes of apologetics. The Christian faith is not a hill that needs to be defended against an evil onslaught. As Rob Bell points out in ‘Velvet Elvis’, The Christian faith should be more like a trampoline than a wall. Walls require defense and protection but, “you rarely defend a trampoline. You invite people to jump on it with you…..You rarely defend the things you love. You enjoy them and tell others about them and invite others to enjoy them with you.”[8] Charles Taylor, (thankfully explained and clarified by James K.A. Smith) provides an understanding of the processes that have led to this point and gives opportunity to acknowledge their ramifications, opening up opportunities for civil discourse and inviting others to join us on the ‘trampoline’.

Perhaps we would do well to relearn the communication style of Jesus who, “was short on sermons, long on conversations; short on answers, long on questions; short on abstractions and propositions, long on stories and parables; short on telling others what to think, long on challenging people to think for themselves; short on condemning the irreligious, long on confronting the religious.”[9] That is as good a place to begin evangelism and this semester as any.

 

[1]Smith, James K. A. How (not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015. P. VII

[2]“Conversations with Tony Campolo.” Interview by author. February 1991.

[3]Smith, James K. A. How (not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015. P. 19

[4]Ibid. P. 23

[5]Ibid. P. 62

[6]Ibid. P. 88 – emphasis in the original

[7]Ibid. P. 120

[8]Bell, Rob. Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. P. 027

[9]McLaren, Brian D. More Ready than You Realize: Evangelism as Dance in the Postmodern Matrix. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006. P. 15

 

About the Author

mm

Dan Kreiss

Former director of the Youth Ministry program at King University in Bristol, TN and Dean of the School of Missions. I have worked in youth ministry my entire life most of that time in New Zealand before becoming faculty at King. I love helping people recognize themselves as children of God and helping them engage with the world in all its diversity. I am particularly passionate about encouraging the church to reflect the diversity found in their surrounding community in regard to age, gender, ethnicity, education, economic status, etc. I am a husband, father of 4, graduate of Emmanuel Christian Seminary, an avid cyclist and fly-fisherman still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

10 responses to “Dancing in the Secular Age”

  1. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Dan!

    Bam, you started out with a bang this semester. Well done! And you brought Dave Ramsey into it with the “nova effect”…

    Have you heard of a guy named Larry Burkett? When I was talking with Dave Ramsey’s team last week, I was interested to hear how Larry had a huge impact on Dave starting out. Dave even credited Larry for setting the foundation for his ministry and to this day he considers Larry a dear friend (he has since passed to heaven).

    Would you count Larry Burkett in the same mold as Dave Ramsey as far as the nova effect?

    Love hearing about Tony Campolo. He rocked my world in high school when he spoke at our chapel service. So glad you were able to spend that time with him. I bet you rocked his world (grin).

  2. mm M Webb says:

    Dan,
    Welcome back and great introduction! You have a very good “way” with your written “words”. I am not too worried about the ‘secular constructs” or how they perform their living because I know it is the role of the Holy Spirit to prepare, convict, and draw the heart of the lost. Some will come to a saving faith, many will not. The self-sufficient humanistic approach is a sad assessment and poor eternal position for much of humankind. To me, coming from the spiritual warfare context, it is just a more advanced scheme of the devil to control the lost souls and destroy the witness of the saved souls.
    Sorry, I do not support Taylor-Smith’s philosophical assertion that the secular age and Christianity are on a level playing field. They have been drinking too much of their own Kool-Aid on this apologetic argument. I guess I would ask them to prove that point with Christ’s work on the cross in view.
    How can a cosmic field of conflict between good and evil be level with a triune God with all power, presence, and knowledge playing on the Christ-in-us side?
    Good job engaging the authors and their secular slant this week!
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

  3. Chris Pritchett says:

    Thanks for this Dan. Pretty cool to get a question like that from Campolo himself and what a great Taylorian answer! It seems to me that if we are in an era where faith in God is one viable option among many others, then it really is time to lean into the power of God to do the work only God can do. It sort of relieves us in a sense, to where we have to take a less salesy approach and say, “Well fine then, let’s let the Truth stand on its own and see if it holds up.” That then means that we as the Church cannot be about the business of falsities. We really do have to lean into the truth of Jesus’ compassion because it’s the only thing convincing today.

  4. Greg says:

    Dan,
    I loved the journey you took us on! I also appreciated the snapshot of New Zealand youth. That trampoline analogy of Bell’s was fantastic. Everyone loves a trampoline and wants to be invited to jump. What a challenge to see those around us as people willing to jump even when it stretches our own understanding of Christ. Good words and the McLaren quote at the end is going to stay with me for a while. Powerful.

  5. Interesting that we both referenced Bell’s trampoline analogy! And I also appreciate the quote that you ended with. In our community, we try to simply do life together in love, and find that people are attracted to our community–they notice the difference and want to be a part of it. Jesus resonates with people when we simply let Jesus be Jesus. I for one, am glad to see the shifts in how evnagelism is being done.

  6. mm Jean Ollis says:

    Dan,
    Such an interesting, informative post. I really appreciate your New Zealand context as well as your conclusions in the end (especially your analogy back to Jesus’ communication style). I am fascinated to learn more about New Zealand’s journey through Christianity. Is the humanistic factor (aka mission field) what drew you there many years ago?

    • mm Dan Kreiss says:

      Jean,

      Not sure I was drawn to New Zealand for any cogent reasons. I was given the opportunity to go immediately after graduating from college and what 22 year old wouldn’t jump on that!! That 17 year experience did completely alter the trajectory of my life and my perspective on culture and U.S. Christianity. I am forever grateful for that experience and its ongoing influence.

  7. Great insight, Dan!

    I found it interesting and poignant that these two books were chosen for the genesis of the new semester. They lay the groundwork perfectly for our upcoming discussions on gender, LGBTQ and ministry segmentation/inclusion and create an open-minded platform to discuss these topics objectively.

    You assert, “It is simply inexcusable in the 21stcentury for the Church to keep its proverbial head in the sand and continue to convey the message of the Gospel disconnected from the culture at large. While the Baby Boomers (1946-1964) and to a lesser extent the Baby Busters (1964-1983) are generally conversant in and comfortable with Church culture and language, at least in the United States, that is simply not the case for emerging generations. While many will point to movements like ‘Passion’ and Christian ‘rock stars’ like Louie Giglio, Francis Chan, Christine Kane, David Crowder etc. as remaining attractive to young people, these student movements represent a small minority of the generation and are potentially nothing more than a coalescing of young people from various backgrounds and denominations into a semi-unified Christian young adult event.”

    YES!!!! I know I copied a large piece of your writing into my reply; however, your statement is completely right! The problem with a lot of these events is that it’s the same old ideas with different clothing. For instance, many churches have changed their clothing, branded their social media platforms and worked to improve society’s perception, but they’re still driven by binary belief. They produce a mentality that suggests, you either are one of us or against us. Many churches and ministries are built on the foundation of conformity and numerical attendance. However, according to Smith and Taylor, because society is secular, they react better to more participatory gatherings that allow them to voice their unbelief alongside their belief.

    How do we change the presentations and structural outlines of our churches to react to this need? How do we create constructs that meet the needs of a secular society?

  8. mm Kyle Chalko says:

    good job Dan. It was really unsettling to hear about the neighbors which are not searching for answers. They are searching for happiness, but they are basically kind of happy already and are not as sharply aware of this “god-shaped hole” that we preach about. In this senese it has become much harder to witness.

  9. I enjoy looking through a post that can make people think.
    Also, thank you for allowing mme to comment!

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