Ted Smith describes Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age book as preeminently a reference book for the academy with prodigious references that can be understood only by people whose range of engaging philosophy, theology, sociology, and literature can match Taylor’s range and scope. Fortunately, James K.A. Smith has helped us all to engage Taylor’s work by writing his companion book, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Smith, a philosophy professor at Calvin College, has enabled us to engage with Taylor’s (who is a philosophy professor at McGill University) volume by concisely laying out Taylor’s vocabulary and key concepts. His mapping strategy enables us to access and grasp the corresponding passages in Taylor’s work, if not quickly, at least in a manner to guide our digestion and consideration of Taylor’s arguments. Smith has provided his readers a “field guide” to Taylor’s work rather than reframing or summarizing Taylor’s work.
Smith’s review explains why our lead mentor assigned both of these sources for this week’s reading. I appreciate the intent and invaluable assistance of Smith’s “field guide” but honestly found myself hopelessly lost in the eddies and wade pools of Taylor’s ponderous intellect; that is, I don’t believe I ever found the mainstream of his intended life-giving waters to the academic masses. For 2020, I am striving to be grateful for the continual stretching of my brain and understanding under the tutelage of our illustrious lead mentor. However, I think I can safely say without fear of contradiction that I will not be utilizing Taylor’s source except as an attractive color variation to the book spines on my office shelves.
Having confessed my limited connections with philosophy, theology, sociology, and literature, I recall having breakfast with Harry and Minerva Edwards this past weekend. Glo and I flew to California to attend Vineyard USA’s annual church planning conference (called the Multiply Vineyard (MV) Summit), which was held this year at San Luis Obispo. Glo and I flew in a few days early so we could say hello to our old friends Mickey and Minnie Mouse at Disneyland. We were able to connect with Harry and Minerva before driving up to the central California coast. While we were thrilled to connect with wonderful friends we have made through our cohort experience, I knew Harry would be up and way ahead on his reading. Harry was so thrilled with Taylor that he was positively radiating his excitement about our source this week and its prominent location within his research. The contrast of Harry’s experience compared to mine reminds me again of how much we need each other in life and the church. Harry’s skill set and passion for resolving the deficit he has identified through his research, humbles me because I can sense how capable he is to provide excellent utilization of the arguments put forth by Taylor.
As I reflect upon my attempted engaging and digesting of Taylor’s work, as I am prone to do, I ask myself what I should do with these new materials that have been poured into my life. That is, how do I move forward with the challenges of what I have learned? While I read these volumes on flights to and returning from California, I also attended and engaged with Vineyard’s church planting conference. Vineyard USA is a small church planting association of churches that have ranged from some 550 to 600 churches in the US. On Monday, the leadership team reviewed what had been accomplished over the last seven years, during the term of our current director, Michael Gatlin. We released some 151 new church plants (but probably closed about that many also over the reviewed period). We probably had about 170 attendees who were made up of those who are discerning if they should plant a church, those who are working to plant a church, and those who want to assist those who are wanting to plant a church. My role as coordinator of coaching sits within the latter group who volunteer their time to train, affirm, encourage, and walk with those in the process of planting churches.
We had inspiring general sessions of worship, teaching, and prayer ministry. We had workshops on skillsets ranging from finances to the pragmatic steps of putting feet on one’s vision and dreams. We also focused again on learning to humbly connect people with Jesus and try to help them grow in their relationship with God and others (we call this discipleship). In settings like these, I often feel a swirl of many mixed emotions and thoughts. I often feel too old and not nearly smart enough to hang with the bright, funny, charming “up-and-comers.” But then I look around at all kinds of people (ages, family situations, and skillsets) who are risking everything to plant new churches, and then I am filled with compassion and admiration and perseverance to serve them well.
This past week, I was most struck by the simple testimony of our director, who described his life, his pastoral ministry, and why he continues to believe in planting new churches. He grew up as a musician and artist in a home where he never heard the good news. But when he did as a high school lad agreeing to go to church with a girl he liked (who would only go on a date with him to church), what he heard for the first time, was the catalyst that changed his life. It all comes down to one thing, people need Jesus, and it will take all kinds of churches in all kinds of locations to introduce them to the only person who can transform their life.
I appreciate Smith and Taylor utilizing their considerable skills of scholarship to help us see where we have come from and how we arrived here on the currents of philosophy and sociology. I am willing to be stretched and challenged and determine that I will be more verbally pleasant towards my cohort community during the stretching exercises (reminds me of my stretching class on Fridays!) I leave us all with three take-away questions I have gathered from our church planting summit (which tie nicely into a coaching framework): (1) What is God saying to you about what you have read or experienced?, (2) What do you want to do about it, this year?, and (3) How can I help you achieve your goals?
 Smith, Ted A. “How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor.” The Christian Century 132, no. 13 (2015): 42-43.