Witness

Becoming a Secular Church

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A (not so) Secular Culture

Despite declining numbers in church attendance, the majority of people in North America are not necessarily growing less religious or spiritual. People’s faith in something transcendent remains, and God is still a common reference point for morality, politics and even sports (e.g., Lebron James’ shout out to “the man upstairs” in his emotional speech after the Cavs won the NBA finals). In many ways, the postmodern era continues to usher in a plurality of religious and spiritual enchantments. One might find more evidence of “worship” at the Republican or Democratic National Convention or the Copa America than in some churches.

No, ours is not so much a “secular” culture in the modern sense, especially if we take the word secular to mean “worldly.” Some cultural theorists and philosophers have suggested that we are becoming post-secular — more other-worldly (Habermas, 2008).

“Escapists” and “Fixers”

While there is perhaps greater awareness in the general population today of the world’s problems, there is at the same time a longing for escape and detachment from concern about those problems. Ecological destruction, systemic racism, terrorism, economic recessions and mass shootings don’t always make people want to change the world. Sometimes they make us want to just stay safely unaffected by it. We have access to unlimited information, but there are also countless ways to numb ourselves and stick our heads in the sand.

Of course, some folks do actually want to make a difference. They talk about “transforming culture” and so forth. These people are eager to find solutions and to put their faith in conventional, “secular” thinking. By secular, in this case, I mean the wisdom of human ingenuity.

This can be very good! There are big needs right now: for fairer trade agreements, accountability on Wall Street, new gun laws, debt reduction, and greater investment in renewable energy. Reform is overdue in our criminal justice system, with immigration and in campaign finance. In addition to #AltonSterling, #PhilandoCastile, #Dallas, #BatonRouge, and #Nice, the U.S. military just this week reportedly killed 60 civilians in Syria by mistake, thinking they were ISIS fighters. Followers of Jesus don’t get a pass on understanding and caring about these issues.

Followers of Jesus don't get a pass on understanding and caring about 'secular' issues. Click To Tweet

Becoming secular in this sense does not mean becoming like the world. Nor does it mean that we simply know more about the world — though that can be helpful and is important. By saying that the church should become more secular, I am primarily talking about the way that we have a Christian public witness. I believe this starts not with trying to fix the world or even understand it perfectly (two things we’re always tempted to focus on first), but with simply taking responsibility for the sin that is hurting it (I wrote about what I mean be sin here).

It seems that neither the “escapers” nor the “fixers” mentioned above are willing to do this. Sin is not the problem for them. It’s something else: incompetence, negativity, liberalism, conservativism, etc. Even if they see the problem, these two groups want to either run from it or blame someone else for it. The escapists are paralyzed, cynical, fatalistic and anesthetized. Fixers may have decent ideas and are even willing to do something with them, but usually not unless they get the credit for it and are seen as winners instead of sinners.

Escapists may have come to terms with their own “sin” or at least powerlessness. They have knowledge, but they stop there and cannot lay claim to any power in the world beyond themselves. The illusion for the fixers, on the other hand, is that they think they are supposed to be the standard-bearers of morality for society. They believe they can do what is good on their own.

Christian public witness is not about escaping or fixing, it's about this... Click To Tweet

A Christian Public Witness of Confession and Repentance

The Christian response to sin and social conflict is an altogether different one that makes all the difference, and it should be obvious. It is the response of confession and repentance.

We take sin seriously, but we also take grace seriously, trusting in its power to heal and renew. Click To Tweet

Furthermore, confidence in confession and repentance ought not to produce triumphalism, but it does lead to new life, new creation and hope for the world.

Now, this call for confession and repentance is not addressed equally to everyone. Yes, every person must humble herself before God, but not all sins are the same in the body of Christ. I have in mind especially those white Protestants like myself who, regardless of the pluralism of our time, nonetheless benefit in countless recognized and unrecognized ways from being part of the dominant culture. Acknowledgement of guilt is definitive for the church, and when it comes to social ills, we must be the first ones to own up to our complicity.

As Jennifer McBride puts it in her book, The Church for the World,

the manner in which marginalized communities take responsibility for sin may be expressed differently than the repentance of privileged majority groups, and the way in which they define the penitential spirit may vary. (10)

She continues:

North American Protestant churches may courageously demonstrate Christ’s redemptive work and offer a nontriumphal witness the lordship of Christ when their mode of being in the world is confession of sin unto repentant action. (ibid.)

What it means to be Secular

For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, taking sin and grace seriously results in an ecclesial witness to Christ’s 1) affirmation of the world, his 2) judgment of the world, and his 3) reconciliation of the world. This is the journey of a repenting and confessing church (affirmation, judgment, reconciliation) — a secular church, in the best sense of the word.

Here is how Bonhoeffer defines “worldliness,” or what I am referring to as “becoming secular”:

living fully in the midst of life’s tasks, questions, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities — one takes seriously no longer one’s own sufferings but rather the suffering of God in the world. Then one stays awake with Christ in Gethsemene. And I think this is faith; this is metanoia [i.e., repentance]. And this is how one becomes a human being, a Christian. (Letters and Papers from Prison)

We must be different. We must be called out, in other words — not as separate or better, but as the “wholly belonging ones” to the earth, belonging to where God has placed us. We are present to and in solidarity with the suffering around us, and we are culprits in the ruin of ourselves and the world apart from God’s rescue. We do not elevate ourselves as the world’s deliverers, and neither do we stand back to observe its downfall from a safe distance. Rather, we accept both God’s judgment and mercy upon us for the sake of the world. We are followers of one whose being and story encompasses all of life, and so we seek to live into this life together as the body of Christ in the world that God loves. This is what it should mean for the church to be secular.

Questions:

  1. Can the idea of “becoming secular” as defined here — existing for the sake of the world — help us to look at society more compassionately and humbly?
  2. Most Christians fall to one side or another on this razor’s edge: taking both sin and grace equally seriously. Does the image of a repentant church taking responsibility for sin shed light on how to walk this line?
  3. How have North American churches been reluctant to “wholly belong” to the world? In what ways are we still unrepentant?
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