Among the many problems plaguing the reconstruction project in Nehemiah’s day, one of the most critical is described in Nehemiah 4:10: “Thus in Judah it was said, ‘The strength of the burden bearers is failing, yet there is much rubbish; and we ourselves are unable to rebuild the wall.'”
Razed by the Babylonians, Jerusalem’s wall had been left in ruins. Nehemiah’s efforts to rebuild were hindered because of the seventy-year-old piles of rubbish that were in the way. Though not explicitly stated, it seems that the original foundations were buried underneath the rubble. Work on the wall was suspended as the laborers undertook the monumental task of removing the debris. Consumed in this tedious and strenuous diversion, the workers became weary and discouraged.
It appears that the church faces a similar situation today. Many of the problems we struggle with in ministry are not really problems as much as they are symptoms of a deeper problem. Most of these symptomatic illnesses have their roots in the pervasive and potent influence of secularism. The relentless encroachment of secularism upon the church has buried us under a suffocating pile of societal clutter that has all but obscured the biblical basis for ministry.
Perhaps more than we know much of the weariness and discouragement among Christian workers can be traced to this source. Many ministers who were once devoted to building the wall are now smothered in the rubble and “the strength of the burden bearers is failing.” Exhausted and disheartened laborers are unable to build because the original foundation is lost.
To combat the threat of secularism we must have a clear understanding of its meaning, its nature, and its effect. We must come to grips with the tension between the need for relevance and conformity to the world. And we must recognize the impact of secularism upon the church generally before we can address the specific problems it creates in the ministry. In this chapter we will begin to examine the “kingdom-culture clash” and consider its implications.
It is not our purpose to attempt an in-depth analysis of the complexities and implications surrounding the secularization of the church. Rather, this section seeks to provide a brief overview, highlighting the most significant and relevant issues. Our ultimate purpose is to examine the “fallout” of secularism and the manner in which it influences our philosophy and practice of ministry.
Hopefully, this chapter, and those that follow, will raise as many questions as they answer and stimulate both careful thought and meaningful dialogue concerning a matter of extreme relevance and importance to the church.
Secularism may be defined as, “the process in which society at large and large sectors of societal life are being divorced from the impact of the Christian gospel, without adopting another religion.” It involves both a condition and a process. The condition is secularism; the process (which is decades old) is secularization. Owen Chadwick defines the process simply as “the growing tendency in mankind to do without religion . . .”
Secularism, however, is more than the “eclipse of God” in modern society. It is also the acceptance of those ideas and values that naturally arise out of a spiritual vacuum. Herbert Schlossberg observes:
Western culture, in turning away from the Christian faith, has turned to other things. This process is commonly called secularization, but that conveys only the negative aspect. The word connotes the turning away from the worship of God while ignoring the fact that something is being turned to in its place (author’s emphasis).3
His words are strangely reminiscent of the word spoken to Israel by God through Jeremiah the prophet: “My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13; emphasis mine). Invariably, secularism will result, not only in the rejection of God, but also in the “hewing of cisterns” to try to fill the void left by His absence.
The fact that something is being turned to in place of the worship of God cannot be ignored. Wherever God is absent, something will attempt to fill the void. This, perhaps more than anything else, explains our penchant for “leaky vessels” instead of the fountain of living water.
The fountain is none other than God Himself – “they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living water.” With the loss of spiritual intimacy comes a plethora of substitutes to fill the emptiness. But man-made substitutes do not “hold water” and eventually end up on the rubbish pile. Could it be that much of the secular clutter that is obscuring the foundation are, in fact, the broken cisterns we have made as substitutes for intimacy with God?
In his article, The Christian Faith in a Post-Christian Society, Brian Carrell identifies four distinct paradigm shifts that occur as a result of secularism.
Second, there are pluralized beliefs. Secularism regards all belief systems are valid. Tolerance is king. What is intolerable (and offensive) is to prefer one belief system over another. In a secular society, the church is no longer regarded as “the pillar and ground of the truth,” but simply one more belief system in the marketplace of competing ideas.
Third, there is a marginalized religion. The exclusion of religion from public life will eventually result in a diminished respect for religion in a general sense. From the secularist’s viewpoint, “Christianity appears to be a minority opinion (among many others) held by individual members of a socially marginal institution whose widespread influence in the West is a thing of the past.”
Finally, there are relativized values. If God is removed from society, there is little need for religion. Remove religion and there is little need for absolute truths. In a world of relativized values there is no authority outside our own consensus to which we are accountable.
Secularism, and the ideologies associated with it, stand in stark contrast to the tenets of the faith and present both a challenge and a threat to the survival of Christianity. To understand the nature of that threat, we need to examine those specific issues that have a direct bearing upon the life and function of the church.
As was previously noted, secularism seeks to remove the influence of authentic Christianity from the public arena and confine it to the private sector. Christianity is permitted as long as it remains in the closet. In a secular society Christianity is not banished, simply quarantined. Secularism is not antireligious:
Of all the misleading interpretations of this complex age, few are more so than the common one that secularism means the replacement of a worldview that is religious with one that is not.
The threat posed by secularism’s religious nature is not eradication, but assimilation. Generally speaking, the church’s usual response to secularism is not apostasy, but accommodation, resulting in the amalgamation of the secular culture into Christian belief and practice.
Bruce J. Nicholls points out that “secularization leads to the loss of power of the institutionalized form of religion, but not of religion itself. It takes a new form.” In its “new form,” distinctive Christian positions are submerged under the weight of the dominant culture, resulting in the co-opting of the church by a pluralistic society. It is worldliness parading in religious garb, making it all the more dangerous.
At this point, the church functions less like an ecclesiastical organization and more like a social institution, perpetuating the social order of the day. As Schlossberg observes, “In sociological terms, the church functions as just another means used by the political and social establishment to integrate society’s values into the next generation.”
This integration of Christianity and culture is a form of religious syncretism. It is not the abandonment of the faith but the dilution of the faith from the attempt to harmonize contrary beliefs by blending them together. So we see that the secularized religious worldview is one that has been sullied by syncretic mixture and is allowed its place of influence only because it serves the ideals of society rather than the purposes of the kingdom.
When the church becomes absorbed in its “new form,” and cultural ideology replaces kingdom principles, we forfeit our distinctiveness as the people of God. With this forfeiture, we lose both our identity and function. In the previous section we saw that the “amalgamated gospel” is a distorted caricature that ceases to function as an agency of the kingdom, becoming a pawn of society instead.
Schlossberg points out that the departure from the faith by ecclesiastical structures takes place by the loss of distinctiveness through the gradual conformation of their thought and life to that of the larger community. He goes on to say:
It is a paradox that the attempt to be contemporaneous, which is to say relevant, ensures the irrelevance of theologies and churches. Taking their values and their epistemologies – indeed their gods – from whatever it is that history has brought to center stage, churches completely lose their function.
The loss of identity leads to a loss of function, which contributes to its irrelevance. The church maintains its influence and credibility only as it retains its uniqueness and authentic purpose. Otherwise it is like salt without savor, good for nothing except to be thrown out and trampled under by men (Mt. 5:13).
Indeed, the church speaks most authentically to the world not when it makes its shameful little prudential compromises, but when it refuses to do so; not when it has become indistinguishable from the world, but when its distinctive light shines most brightly.
Simply stated, pragmatism is “a practical approach to problems and affairs.” This simple definition has been developed into a complex philosophy by C. S. Pierce and William James. According to them:
Pragmatism is marked by the doctrines that the meaning of conceptions is to be sought in their practical bearings, that the function of thought is to guide action, and that truth is preeminently to be tested by the practical consequences of belief. [Emphasis mine.]
Basically, pragmatism embraces whatever works, with little concern for moral or ethical considerations. A pluralistic society that accepts all belief systems as valid and denies absolute truth has no fixed standard upon which morality and ethics are based. It will find no problem in adjusting its provisional morality or in sacrificing its ethics on the altar of convenience. The last line of the above quote is particularly enlightening. Pragmatism preaches that the preeminent test of truth is the outcome of one’s practice. Simply stated, “If it works, it is right.”
Pragmatism’s creed is: “The end justifies the means.” This utilitarian ethic lies at the very heart of secularism, for “in practice, the hallmark of humanistic ethic is pragmatism.” When pragmatism dictates our thinking, truth limps on wobbly legs. “For if theologically based values are to give way to pragmatic concerns, no ethical or theological principle can remain inviolate.”
It has been said “the substance of secularity is its tendency to push God to the outer fringes . . .” This is a case of classic understatement. In fact, pushing God to the outer fringes is more than a tendency – it is the very essence of secularism.
But it is important to understand that secularism is not atheism. Secularists do not necessarily deny the existence of God; they simply live as though He did not exist. To them, if God does exist, He is irrelevant and abstract. Man is autonomous and God is excluded from the center and assigned a remote place on the periphery.
As Michael Horton has observed:
This is the very essence of secularism – the process of eliminating the acknowledgment of the supernatural. Reason refuses any place to revelation; nature cancels grace; morality replaces salvation.
When God is marginalized, our attention and affection is diverted away from Him and toward our idols and ourselves. At that point we become so preoccupied with our cisterns that we fail to notice how far we have moved from the fountain.
Secularism oozes from every pore of American society. In the words of James Hitchcock, “Secularism has quietly woven itself into the fabric of our lives.” With the help of its willing accomplices from the world of politics, education, and the media, it has become so deeply entrenched in the mainstream of American life there is hardly any area where its presence is not felt.
While secularism seeks to prohibit the intrusion of Christianity into the broader culture, it has been virtually unchecked in spreading its influence into the church. As the society at large contracted “secular sickness,” the church became infected with the same deadly disease – the very disease she has sought to resist.
In the early 1900s, the President of the Methodist Church in England, in his presidential address warned, “You are in the world, brethren, steeped in its affairs, conversant with its ideas, and affected by its fashions and maxims to a degree that would shock your fathers.” We can only wonder how stunned he might be could he witness the effects of secularism after nine more decades of slow but steady infiltration into the church.
We must acknowledge that secularism is a “genie” that will not be put back in its bottle, and the church is not invulnerable to its effects. The culture war is being fought on two fronts – in the world and in the church, and the church is a prime target.
In spite of its pervasive influence, secularism has the uncanny ability to remain camouflaged and nearly undetected. With stealth-like tactics, it has crept into the church virtually unnoticed. As an angel of light, it swaggers down the aisle, perches on the pew, sings in the choir, and preaches from the pulpit. It may even give in the offering.
Its infiltration is usually so gradual and subtle that its advance is imperceptible. Masquerading in religious garb as it does makes it even more difficult to detect. Add its religious acceptability to the disguise and secularism can thrive under our very noses without even being contested, much less extracted.
Michael Horton says:
For the most part, Christians have surrendered unwittingly to the influences of secularism. Often it’s in the name of “relevance” and what one might call “contextualization,” whereas in other cases it is simply a matter of slowly accommodating to the spirit of the age with very little thought to making intentional concessions.
The irony is that these imperceptible concessions are being made at a time when the evangelical church is the loudest in its denunciation of secularism. “Many evangelicals attack ‘secular humanism’ while the movement swallows nearly hook, line, and sinker the dogmas of modern secular culture.” The secular way of life has become so familiar and natural that most Christians were not even aware that their lives were becoming highly secularized.
Herbert Schlossberg accuses the church of passively accepting domination by the outside culture, unaware that dominant trends may be evil, and ready to embrace anything that confers contemporaneity on itself.
Idols are hard to identify after they have been part of the society for a long time. It became “normal” for the people of Jerusalem to worship Molech in the temple, and it seemed odd that people calling themselves prophets should denounce the practice.
We could expect that any similar prophetic call today would be met with the same contempt by those who have become cozy (and perhaps unwitting) allies of secularism.
This is one of the most dangerous aspects of secularism’s encroachment upon the church. Alan D. Gilbert believes that “secularization is a much deadlier foe than any previous counter-religious force in human experience.” Persecution, he says, was an enemy easily recognized, but in secularism we face an enemy who is disguised in numerous ways.
Added to this is the incredible irony that secularism not only has willing accomplices in the media, in politics, and in education, but it has also found allies within the church itself. Indeed, some of its staunchest defenders wear robes and clerical collars; some teach in seminaries.
The church’s secularization has brought about multiple consequences, some of which are beyond our purpose. Of particular relevance to us is the issue of accommodation, or “inner secularism.” Inner secularism refers to the manner in which kingdom principles have been subjugated by cultural ideology. It alludes to the assimilation of cultural values, priorities, morality, practices, beliefs, and methods into the life and function of the church.
That such accommodation has occurred cannot be seriously questioned. According to Wade Clark Roof, a University of California-Santa Barbara sociologist:
Materialism, competition, achievement, and success – to cite the dominant culture, individualistic values of America – create the context in which evangelicals, like all others, form their beliefs, attitudes, and definitions of reality.
He goes on to say that conservative Christians have leaned heavily on sociology and political science, as well as psychology and secular philosophy for setting the course of the church. His chilling conclusion is that, “the self-centered, self-deifying impulse in American history is now a part of evangelical as well as New Age spirituality. God has become another source of self-fulfillment.”
American sociologist Peter Berger asserts that accommodation has occurred to such a degree that “we hold the same values as everybody else, but with more emphatic solemnity.” And this accommodation is found in the pulpit as often as it is in the pew. “Clergymen are likely to be whatever cultural or intellectual fad has gained the ascendency.”
The impact of inner secularism is almost immeasurable. It has the potential of altering just about every aspect of church life, especially the work of ministry. It is my contention that the biblical basis of ministry has been distorted, and even corrupted, by our accommodation to cultural ideology. The siren song of secularism has seduced us into the acceptance of cultural presuppositions that are at odds with kingdom principles, as it relates to Christian ministry.
Further, it is my contention that the acceptance of cultural ideology (broken cisterns) has put God (the fountain) on the periphery of Christian ministry and placed man at the center. The abandonment of kingdom principles in favor of cultural presuppositions, with its ultimate consequence of marginalizing God, is the fatal flaw in the foundation and at the very heart of the problems that are currently plaguing the ministry.
Lecture II – The Blight of Secularism
1. Klaas Ruina, “The Challenge of the Modern World to the Church,” Evangelical Review of Theology, vol. 18, no. 4, (1994): 304.
2. Owen Chadwick, “The Secularization of the European Mind in the 19th Century,” in Evangelical Review of Theology, vol. 18, no. 4, (1994): 304.
3. Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990), 6.
4. Brian Carrell, “The Christian Faith in a Post-Christian Society,” Evangelical Review of Theology, vol. 18, no. 4, (1994): 354-55.
5. David Lyons, The Steeple’s Shadow, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 1)
6. Ibid., 114.
7. Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990), 273.
8. Bruce J. Nicholls, introduction to Evangelical Review of Theology, vol. 18, no. 4, (1994).
9. Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990), 237.
10. Ibid., 235.
11. Ibid., 255.
12. John Stott, The Contemporary Christian, (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 27.
13. Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed., with Merriam Webster Collegiate Thesaurus [CD-ROM] (Zane Publishing, Inc., 1997, 1996).
15. Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990), 49.
16. Ibid., 239.
17. Michael S. Horton, Beyond Culture Wars, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 62.
19. James Hitchcock, What is Secular Humanism?, (Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1982), backcover.
20. Quoted by Klaas Ruina, “The Challenge of the Modern World to the Church,” Evangelical Review of Theology, vol. 18, no. 4, (1994): 310.
21. Michael S. Horton, Beyond Culture Wars, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 132.
22. Ibid., 61.
23. Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990), 237.
24. Ibid., 254.
25. Alan D. Gilbert, in “The Challenge of the Modern World to the Church,” Evangelical Review of Theology, vol. 18, no. 4, (1994): 308.
26. Wade Clark Roof, in Beyond Culture Wars, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 63.
29. Peter Berger, in “The Challenge of the Modern World to the Church,” Evangelical Review of Theology, vol. 18, no. 4, (1994): 309.
30. Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990), 236.