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.” 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.”
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.
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.”
Going public is a frightening experience. As I began reading A Secular Age by Charles Taylor, this reality became powerfully clear to me. 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?” 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.” He clarifies further, “in our ‘secular’ societies, you can engage fully in politics [public] without ever encountering God.” 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…” 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.
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. 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.”
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.
 Merriam-Webster 11th Collegiate Dictionary, (Merriam-Webster, Inc.; July 30, 2003).
 Joanna Macy & Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy (Novaro, CA: New World Library, 2012).
 Ibid, 2.
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age Kindle ed. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).
 Ibid., 30
 Ibid., 48 (emphasis mine).
 Ibid., 60-68
 James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2014)
 Stephan B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology Kindle ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 412, 755.