How to Make Disciples in a Secular Age

We are in a context where the belief in God is an option and a more difficult option at that. In other words, more people today find it easier to doubt the existence of God rather than to believe.

Charles Taylor in A Secular Age differentiates between Secularism and Secularity. The former is the notion of a non-religious neutrality, the latter relates to the move from a culture where belief in God is the norm to a context where it is one view among many others and moreover, not a very popular view.

Taylor would say that our society in the West sits in the latter definition of secular.

Interestingly, what that means is that because belief in God is one option, it means that Christians might doubt their faith and secularists might doubt their unbelief. One problem that Taylor discerns is that our society is that we practice secularism. This is why we get militancy on both sides.

Christians often try to assert their power to regain sacred ground and those who want to keep things secular or neutral militantly protect their space seeing any Christian encroachments as suspicious. I would say even though I agree with Taylor and we are in a context of secularity, secularism still exists. Christians might doubt their faith and secularists might doubt their unbelief. Click To Tweet

Missional Challenges in a Secular Age

I. Living in “Disenchanted” times

Turning to Charles Taylor again, in his book A Secular Age he writes about the “buffered self” of modern times in comparison to the “porous self” of medieval times. As medieval times were more “enchanted”, that is people were more open to the spiritual world, there was easy movement between the earthly and spiritual. People allowed themselves to be impacted by spiritual things.

In modern “disenchanted” times, this movement and impact is more difficult as people do not live with a worldview that belief in God or spiritual things is the norm or indeed even desirable. This has broader impact because not only are people buffered against spiritual belief, but they to some extent are also buffered against each other. There is a resistance and a hesitancy, to connect with the Other and also the other.

It is harder to connect meaningfully with the people around us who we might interact with everyday yet we have built up an armor around ourselves so that true connection is less likely. This is the world that we live in now and it is the atmosphere that we breathe. No matter how hard we try to proclaim the gospel, people are buffered in this way, so it makes it difficult to hear and absorb the message. I have found this living in the inner- city.

When I try to talk with people about meaning of life issues there is a resistance. Barriers go up immediately. People are very careful about engaging on those kinds of topics. Because of this context of secularity people are more comfortable in a space where they don’t discuss meaning of life issues. I think people carry layers of rationalism, centuries of living in the shadow of the Enlightenment, post modernity and so will not naturally or instinctively converse around spiritual matters.

II. Resistance to Christianity

In a context of secularism, there is less space made for or given to Christians in strategic places like public forums or schools for example. Because of secularism, there is a militant atmosphere that exists between secular people and Christians. Each group sees that the other is trying to encroach on their space.

Many Christians would still like to hold onto Christendom but many secular people have let go of Christendom and see the church as trying to hold onto or reintroduce this paradigm and they resist that.

Opportunities for discipling secular people

What are some of the opportunities then that exist as we join with God in his mission to help the kingdom of God flourish in a secular context in the West? I don’t think secularism is something to worry about, fight against or try to eliminate. Instead I think there are other strategies that we can employ to work with the existing mission field in the West. There are strategies that we can employ to work in the West. Click To Tweet

I. Careful cultural exegesis

We always do careful cultural exegesis when we enter a new geographic space as missionaries however, I think we make assumptions about the places that are closest to us. We think we understand, but perhaps we have not spent enough time listening, observing and analyzing a culture that we think we are familiar with. Often we are so contained in our Christian huddles that we have stopped being able to relate to and understand our culture. Instead, we need to see our backyards as a mission field and act like missionaries who are studying a foreign culture.

II. Theological reflection and action around “pre-evangelism”

No matter how hard we try to proclaim the gospel, people are “buffered” as Taylor says, so it makes it difficult to hear and absorb the message.

However, what I have observed as have many others, is that this armor and buffering dissolves to some extent in community and relationship. As people enter into a safe space where authenticity is valued they become more “porous” in the way they relate to each other and also to spiritual matters.

This is usually a very slow process.

This is where “pre-evangelism” activities can contribute in that they can be safe spaces for people to build trusting relationships with one another, to relate spiritually to each other, and possibly even the Other. This is essentially a non-judgmental process and what it means to disciple secular people.

Having said this, the main agenda in these kinds of activities needs to be clearly about building genuine friendships because people will see through any agenda or “product placement” as a friend of mine likes to say. It seems to me that many Christians prioritize evangelism, that is the straightforward proclamation of the gospel, over pre-evangelism. We have this view that if we are not proclaiming the gospel, then what is the point?

Why do we waste time on matters that we see as secondary, if what counts is telling people about Jesus? We believe that what matters is “getting people across the line”, whatever that means. I think we have had an explosion of Alpha, Christianity Explained, Exploring God type courses over the years and this to me, shows our priority of evangelism over pre-evangelism. I don’t see a lot of theological reflection around pre-evangelism to give it the legitimacy that it deserves.  I don’t see a lot of theological reflection around pre-evangelism. Click To Tweet

III. Affirming our culture

Our instinct as Christians is to critique culture. However, mission work is an opportunity to collaborate with others even though we might not agree with everything they believe. So instead of moving to quick judgment of our culture we should ask what can we affirm about people’s longings.

Often there will be room for critique but where is it in our culture that we can find value? Perhaps “pre-evangelism” often looks to many people as though there is a capitulation to the culture occurring. When we connect more and more with secular people we might give the impression that we approve of everything they do. But this is not the case of course. We are however listening, learning, loving and friending those whom God loves.

IV. Focus on embodied practices

Charles Taylor argues that one of the other results of the Reformation was a kind of disenchantment of Christian worship. This disenchantment involved a rejection of sacramentality—the conviction that the Spirit meets us in the stuff of life. As a result, Christianity becomes a kind of intellectualized set of concepts rather than a liturgical way of life. This leads to excarnation or a disembodied way of interacting with our world.

However, as I have said, secularists still have spiritual longings and desire connection. How can we help people to embody some of the values relating to the gospel? How can we  focus on connecting with people’s imaginations and the stories they believe about the world rather than simply an analysis of concepts? This also means we must embody our faith. So we look for ways to serve and volunteer in the neighborhood for example.

James KA Smith asks in a recent video for Qideas: “If we live in a secular age then why does it still seem haunted?” He cites author Julian Barnes who says, “I don’t believe in God but I miss him” as evidence that enchantment is still alive in people’s hearts and minds. Those spiritual desires and longings need to be identified and then carefully allowed to come to the light in order to let people explore whether they are worth embodying. To me this is actually the process of discipling secular people.

Smith suggests what our posture should be in a secular age. He says we should listen for cracks in the secular and then plant gardens in those cracks. I agree.


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