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

How (not) to be a secular missionary

Written by: on January 13, 2019

When I reflect on my experience in Seminary, I realize that studying Christian history and theology did not give me any answers; but rather, made me comfortable with my questions. Instead of becoming one who was sure of what she believes, I became one who was not unravelled by how much she doubts. Perhaps this is why I was captivated by what James K. A. Smith wrote the introduction to his book, How (not) to be secular: reading Charles Taylor. “While stark fundamentalists—either religious or secular—get all the press, what should interest us are these fugitive expressions of doubt and longing, faith and questioning. These lived expressions of ‘cross-pressure’ are at the heart of the secular.”[1]

Indeed, we are in the secular age, and as Taylor explains, both believers and unbelievers occupy this same space, which he calls the “imminent frame.” The imminent frame “constitutes a ‘natural’ order to be contrasted to a ‘supernatural’ one, an ‘imminent’ world over against a possible ‘transcendent’ one.”[2] This imminent frame is so ubiquitous to us that it runs in the background of our consciousness, and acts as the starting point for our way of understanding the world. Smith explains, “the question isn’t whether or not we in habit the imminent frame, but how.”[3]

The challenge for us as believers in general, or for me as a missionary specifically, is to accept this reality of the secular age rather than base our engagement with the world on a wish that it simply wasn’t so. Unfortunately, this is not what we tend to do. Thus, Smith astutely poses this question/challenge:

A lot of contemporary apologetics, bent on “defending the faith” against the charges of the new atheists, seem to offer a transcendent “spin” as the alternative to immanent “spin.”  What might a Christian apologetic look like that offers a transcendent “take” on our experience, even at point recognizing the force and persuasive power of an immanent “take”?[4],[5]

I think that this is one of the key issues that missionaries and missionary sending organizations need to address in order to create a process of evangelisation that is relevant in the secular age. As Smith observes, we as Christians can fail to acknowledge and validate the “difficulty of belief.”[6] When inhabit the immanent frame with a “transcendent spin,” we can belittle or ignore the reality of those who have an “immanent spin.” Add in the reality of the “rise of the nones,” (the fact that many from Christian backgrounds are moving away from a place of faith), and we confront the possibility that our own “immanent spin” provides too rigid a framework for the unavoidable presence of doubt within the immanent framework of our secular world.

As I sought to consider my response to the challenge that Smith presents here, I was reminded of something I read in Velvet Elvis, by Rob Bell.[7] Bell describes theology as our communal attempt to understand God, and he explains that we can either have “brick wall” theology or “trampoline spring” theology. Brick wall theology could be compared to having a “transcendent spin” in the lexicon of Smith. If one has “brick wall” theology, and one of the bricks gets called into question then the whole thing crumbles. For example, imagine that seven-day creationism is part of one’s theology—and imagine that that person was confronted with undeniable proof that the earth was 14 billion years old. If the “young-earth brick” gets pulled from that wall, then that person believes all else—the truth of the scriptures, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the afterlife—becomes suspect. Contrast this with “trampoline spring” theology, which allows for changes in our understanding of God to emerge as we have changes in our understanding of the world—or in the parlance of Smith, we recognize the “cross-pressure” that defines our culture. [8] A person with “trampoline spring” theology has more of a “transcendent take,” (as opposed to a “transcendent spin”) allowing for one spring (for example, young earth theology) to come off without compromise the entire structure or basis of their theology.

Of course, this idea, as with many of Bell’s ideas, gets dicey if taken to its extremes. A trampoline with only a handful of springs would cease to be a trampoline—it would simply be a tarp. So I would propose that there are some immoveable springs that—like load-bearing walls—cannot be touched. But I do think that having a more flexible theology enables me to better witness to an unbeliever—and to sympathize with the “difficulty of belief.” Even more so, I know that such a theology enables me to stay in difficult conversations with adult children who are teetering on the edges of becoming “nones” themselves. And finally, “trampoline spring” theology allows me to have fellowship and community with believers who differ from me on non-essential (non load-bearing) issues of faith.

So perhaps this is the starting point for my response to Smith’s challenge.

[1] James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014). 14.

[2] Smith. 92.

[3] Smith, 93.

[4] Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular. 96.

[5] If I have understood correctly, Smith uses the word “spin” to describe an over-confident way of inhabiting the immanent frame (the assurance that one’s way of thinking is correct) and the word “take” as simply an unchallenged way of inhabiting the immanent frame (not having considered one’s way of thinking as right or wrong, but blindly accepting it.)

[6] Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular, 5.

[7] Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012).

[8] Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular, 104.

About the Author

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Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

13 responses to “How (not) to be a secular missionary”

  1. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Jenn,

    That is the most solid first paragraph I have read from our Cohort, ever. Well written! Seems like you have started out the new year with a bang.

    I connect your first paragraph to our prior reading of Dr. Dominic in “The Soul of Doubt” and am more convinced we are worshipful in times of doubt and difficulty.

    It is going to take me forever to better understand Taylor, but you have already helped me. Yes, I snooped your writing before I even began my own…

    • It is interesting, your assertion that doubt can be worshipful. I can worship from a place of doubt, and often find faith rekindled there. But I was thinking more of a secular atheist coming to a place of doubt…that could really be the starting point of worship.

  2. mm M Webb says:

    Jennifer,
    Welcome back from the semester break! Good introduction and focus on the cross-pressured 3rd-way approach to life. You must have a keen insight into the philosophical. Taylor says the “secularist spin” can be understood by his “closed world structures” that he neither argues for or against. (Taylor, 551). I am not a philosopher but believe in a “spin” towards Christ and trust the Holy Spirit to give the necessary wisdom and discernment to navigate around these types of secular linguistics.
    Recently I watched children jumping on a trampoline that had a big 6 ft hole in the center. All the springs were there, but it had a gaping hole where the momentum of their bouncing would naturally move them into the danger zone. Nevertheless, they figured out a way to compensate and just kept jumping, and found a way to still have fun, while in constant danger of bodily injury. (not my family and consenting adults gave permission to their children).
    I wonder, is it seculars or transcendents jumping around the edges your trampoline theology. One avoiding the temptation of faith, and one avoiding the temptation of sin.
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

    • Ha! What an interesting image. As I said, I do believe some springs are essential, but the tarp…that is the ideas we must hold in holy tension to jump–both immanence and transcendance. The now and the not yet. Free will AND sovereignty of God. A hole in the middle would compromise that tension for sure.

  3. mm Dan Kreiss says:

    Jenn,

    As another who has significant experience in a culture further along in its post-Christian assumptions than that found in the US I believe you have a comfort level with the secular age frequently not evident in American Evangelicalism. I too connected this text to Rob Bell’s musings and believe he provides some help in navigation despite the criticism aimed at him by much of the conservative wing of American christianity. I think your openness to embracing your doubts leaves you in a perfect position to engage with the people of France as you will approach them without feeling combative or defensive. Glad you’re there to invite people to join you as you bounce.

    • Thanks, Dan. Yes, France is undeniably secular, and this reality is acknowledged in and outside of the church. And it does change how we share the gospel, that’s for sure. But it doesn’t change the gospel. So I do struggle with the North American Church’s resistance to the change, because the essentials are unchanging.

  4. Great post, Jenn!

    You mention, “The challenge for us as believers in general, or for me as a missionary specifically, is to accept this reality of the secular age rather than base our engagement with the world on a wish that it simply wasn’t so.” This is imperative. Too many Christian leaders are held to a standard of expectation that isn’t realistic or influential. I’ve witnessed countless colleagues in ministry frustrated by the demands of their superiors because there is a gap in understanding the secular. Smith suggests, “The secular is not simply a remainder; it is a sum, created by addition, a product of intellectual multiplication” (Smith, 26). For most, the term secular is considered an antithesis or threat to Christianity – a separation that divides the sacred from profane. This misinterpretation leads to micromanaging employees and generalizing one’s audience.

    Have you faced similar frustration in your mission organization? How have you been able to create a ministry that interacts in dialogue rather than blanket belief?

    • Hey Colleen, I really like your question, but I feel like I don’t fully understand it. What is the link between those who deny secularism and micro-managing?

      Our ministry is focused on relationship–which is built through both dialogue and action. Living in community, loving one another, is attractive and a living testimony of the body of Christ.

  5. Greg says:

    Nice Jenn!!
    Love how you added to the trampoline analogy. The idea that a trampoline need to have supporting pillars in order to jump and converse in a powerful image. The struggle is not making everything a pillar. Appreciate you helping us understand Taylor a little better.

    • I also read this great quote that, in reference to the end of Jonah, says ,”you discover what your idols are when you get angry when they ar eaten by worms.” God is using secular thinking to bring down some idols. And that’s not a bad thing.

  6. mm Jean Ollis says:

    Hi Jenn!
    Such a great blog! I love how you applied this challenging book to your own personal and missional focus. Here’s my question for you…so what are your “immoveable springs that—like load-bearing walls—cannot be touched”? And how did you land on the immoveable springs?

  7. Jennifer,

    Your post was brilliantly stated. Thank you! I especially loved your trampoline analogy as our theology and practice adapts and flexes in our secular landscape. Writing from Montreal, au coeur de la francophonie américaine, I’m compelled to share this with you: https://www.cirquedusoleil.com/

    Cultures like Quebec produce luminaries like Charles Taylor who breaks ground with A Secular Age, and Guy Laliberté, founder of Cirque du Soleil. Both were trampoline artists. 😉

  8. mm Trisha Welstad says:

    Jenn, thanks for applying this to missions and thinking through the trampoline theology as well. I appreciate the taking it to far and becoming a tarp. Ha! That is a good image. And it is important to have some anchor points to keep things immovable. When thinking of the atheist who has their theology, do you think that generally they have to throw the whole trampoline out and start again or have you seen some springs remain that were helpful to them and others after conversion?

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