Faith-Formation in a Secular Age

Andrew Root

In the shifting landscape of ministry, one question has seemed to garner the most attention: How can we keep (young) people in our church? Pushing deeper, we wonder: How can we form a faith that keeps them sticking around? There is a sense that we need new models, practices, and overall conceptions of faith-formation. Many of the initiatives arising to meet this challenge state their goals by adding adjectives in front of faith, asserting that we need new ways of creating “sticky,” “robust,” “consequential,” or “vital” faith.

This adjective-adding raises theological questions about what faith actually is and how it is formed. More importantly for this short article, this need for adjective-adding reveals a deep philosophical misunderstanding of our secular age. The word secular is multivalent, and I believe that many of these initiatives have a sense of the secular that adds to the problem they seek to solve. This article contends, following Charles Taylor, that our biggest issue isn’t the retention of people (that’s a wrong interpretation of secular), but the ways the plausibility of belief itself has been undercut. It is this kind of secular that challenges us. Therefore, this article will explore the three ways that Taylor describes secular, showing that if we are not clear about our challenge then all our best efforts will be misguided.

Three Kinds of Secular

Secular1, or Secular Original: Sacred vs. Secular Plans

To explore the multivalent sense of secular, Taylor asks us to imagine going back 500 years, right before the Reformation. In this time, the secular was defined as that which existed on a different temporal plane than the sacred. The being of all people sought the sacred. The point of life was to commune, even be possessed by, a transcendent force. But not all people could spend their time seeking and entering this transcendent reality. While the being of all people sought the sacred, not all people could act to take on the practices of constant prayer, fasting, and confession. Cows needed to be milked, children needed to be fed, fields needed to be plowed, and more. So it became the job of some to attend to the eternal, escaping the temporal, to pray and fast on behalf of all those who lived for the sacred but whose action was bound in the secular.

There, then, was a divide between the sacred and secular, but this divide was more in act than being. The farmer’s being sought the sacred; he wished in life and death to enter the transcendent plane. But his day-to-day action was ordinary, and therefore secular, because it attended to the earthly plane of domestic life. Transcendence remained an ever-present reality as the farmer lived with a sense that the eternal and temporal planes of existence met, and often interpenetrated each other.

For the farmer, even things were divided into transcendent and temporal planes. The essence of some things was ordinary, but the essence of others was holy or demonic. The relics at the time of the Reformation were seen as a great danger by the reformers because medieval people believed that things in themselves possessed ontological power that bound them in the plane of the transcendent or temporal. The cathedrals of Europe became a particularly powerful holy thing. These building of stone and glass became, literally, a place where the eternal plane broke into the temporal.

For the most part, we no longer believe that things in themselves possess the transcendent. Rather, natural science and technology convince us to see things as the sum of their parts. A cathedral might still be holy, but not because it possesses this quality as a thing in itself. Cathedrals are just bricks and glass, and glass is just heated sand. A cathedral is just the addition into a new sum of many ordinary things. And if this thing can no longer be paid for, then it can be sold and made into expensive loft apartments or a hip new nightclub. The thing can be sold, exchanged, and repurposed because its power doesn’t rest in the thing itself.

Today as you drive east down I-94 toward Minneapolis, you’ll see on the hill the St. Paul Cathedral. You may still believe that beautiful building is holy, but probably not in its “thingness.” You think it remains a holy place because the will of people have given the ordinary material this value. It is holy not because in itself its essence its bound to the eternal, but because human minds have given it meaning, willing to name it sacred. Independent from the will of human beings it is only ordinary. Seeing it, you don’t say, “Look kids, see that building? That is a place where the eternal plane of existence breaks into our temporal reality! Go in there, and you step out of this world into God’s world. Evil can’t reach you when you are there, because the very essence of that place is different than the apartment building below it or here in our car.” Rather, you say something like, “Hey kids, look at that beautiful building! That is a special building because it’s been there a very long time looking over our city. So many people have gotten married there and had funerals there over time, even famous people!”

In other words, the Cathedral is special because human minds find it aesthetically pleasing, and to such an existent that they have done some of their most important meaning-making inside it. Taylor’s point is that 500 years ago the zone where people could encounter transcendence was a massively open door that would dwarf you with its enormity.

Secular2: Religious vs. Areligious Spaces

With the additions that led us into a modern world, the secular versus the sacred was drastically redefined. Five hundred years ago, there was a perceived difference between temporal realms; in secular2 this distinct divide disappeared, as the human will became the manifesting power of reality. Defining the sacred as the eternal plane that breaks into the temporal became impossible, because the independent reality of eternity became more and more unbelievable. There were still sacred realities, but they were located almost completely in the institutions made by the minds of human willing. Now, to say secular is to mean a particular space that is areligious. It is a space were the willing of human minds promises to be absent religion. In turn, the sacred is now a unique space where human willing is allowed to seek the interest of the religious. It is a distinct and special location where religious belief and practice is allowed its freedom.

In secular original, the sacred and secular were planes of reality with porous boundaries and extensive reach. People were always on watch for when and where the sacred might penetrate the secular, and no part of life was protected from the possibility of the sacred upending the secular. Yet, in secular2 the sacred and secular are no longer exponential and fluid, and in many ways they can no longer mix. In a sense, of course they can – the will of individuals living in secular realms of school can do sacred things, like pray at flagpoles (e.g., the American youth ministry practice called See You at Pole, in which one day of the first week of school Christian young people pray around their flag pole). But this is not necessarily a move to find the transcendence breaking through the secular realm; rather, it is an act of the human religious will pushing into the boundary of secular space. It is (no pun intended) to plant a flag for the sacred in the secular arena, “bringing God back to school” as the adult leaders will say – which really means to bring the religious to intrude on the space of the secular.

The secular and the sacred, then, are no longer planes where the eternal and temporal collide, but distinct locations bound within institutions and ideologies, located almost exclusively in our cultural and social realms. Because both the secular and sacred are bound in these spaces and represent two opposed (or dissimilar) ways of willing, they find themselves in a battle for turf. The struggle is no longer between the planes of eternity and time, but for cultural and societal space. The anxiety that seems to keep church people up at night is not, “Will our children ever have experiences of the eternal in time?” but, “Will we lose our children to the secular space, and therefore find our religious institutions losing ground?”

The reason faith-formation is so difficult is that we have failed to see how our imagination is caught in the rut of secular2. In this rut, we’ve erroneously interpreted our issues through secular2, believing that the real issue of faith-formation is the loss, or revealed impotence, of the (institutional) church. Caught in secular2, we believe we must confront decline with new programs and ways to keep people, because if we don’t the secular will grab more space from the church. For instance, “nones” and the loss of emergent adults is such a deep issue to many because we have bought into secular2 as our major (even sole) problematic. To lose 18-to-35-year-olds is to lose the space for the religious against the secular. In secular2, faith becomes about affiliation (in belief and participation) to the cultural/societal institutions of religion.

Most of the popular faith-formation approaches are stuck in a secular2 mindset. We add adjectives to “faith” because in the end faith isn’t about divine action but about maintaining religious space. We need faith that is robust, vital, and sticky so young people continue to believe, and participate, in such a way that the space of the religious is maintained.

When we are stuck in the rut of secular2 our visionaries are sociologists. The sociologist becomes more powerful (and educative) than the theologian, because the sociologist provides the scorecard of institutional space, using her instruments to point to the material, ideological, and cultural shifts in religious market share. Because faith is bound in this spatial conception, there is little need for the theologian, for there is little interest in speaking of distinct ontological realities and radical transformations by a wholly other Spirit.

Faith is hard to define when we are bound in a secular2 imaginary, because it seems unnecessary. Because of the overwhelming pull to see everything as immanent – material, ideological, and cultural – faith seems to be an obvious category. Faith through the lens of secular2 is willful affiliation with religious institutions; it is choosing to locate yourself in the cultural space of the institutional religion. Faith is bound, then, in a closed material space, because it is that which is chosen over against the secular, areligious space.

Faith need not be defined any further than this willingness to affiliate through participation and claimed belief. Faith isn’t defined because it is obvious – in secular2 it can be little more than the cultural willfulness to affiliate to religious space over the areligious. There is little else to say in the sense of definition, but there’s a lot to say in regard to how you pragmatically win such spatial commitment. We want people to have faith, which means we want them to define themselves inside religious over areligious spaces. To not have faith is to not go to church or at least to not directly affiliate with an institutional collective.

Divine action is much harder to encounter in secular2; transcendence must penetrate the buffered force field of the self and change the will of an individual. Because these spaces have become defined mostly as material, cultural, and societal, the doorway into the transcendent becomes segregated. To encounter the transcendent, we willfully enter the religious space to open up our minds – feeling mindfully engaged in worship, preaching, and the study of Scripture. We encounter divine action when we really believe something, when we willfully commit to God by committing to religious space over secular – and transcendence is only possible in the religious space itself.

Secular3: The Negating of Transcendence

The changes that lead us from secular original to secular2 create the conditions for secular3. Where secular1, or secular original, sees transcendence in different planes of existence, and secular2 concedes transcendence to a spatial division between the religious and areligious, secular3 ultimately finds transcendence and divine action unbelievable. Secular2’s obsession with the definition of culture and societal locales, and its fight over turf through the willing of human minds, allows for the creation of a new frame to our social imaginary. And this frame crops out, almost completely, the doorway into the transcendent. This new encasing, Taylor calls, the immanent frame. The immanent frame is “a constructed social space that frames our lives entirely within a natural (rather than supernatural) order. It is the circumscribed space of the modern social imaginary that precludes transcendence” (James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor [Eerdmans, 2014], 141).

Secular1 was continuously open to the supernatural, to encountering that which transcends human minds, cultures, and natural realms. This openness could turn corrosive, as in Salem, where witches were assumed to be around every corner. In contrast, Secular3 has swung the pendulum to the other end, granting the natural and material complete reign, even claiming that nothing exists outside of it.

Secular3, then, looks skeptically at any definition or articulation of human experience that draws on anything other than the immanent. People, of course, may still speak of angels, demons, and more, but such talk is judged and sanctioned under the force of the immanent frame. To talk too much about such realities (outside some online chat rooms) makes you sound or even be assumed to be crazy – literally, out of your mind. And now, because reality is mostly constituted in human minds, to be out of your mind is to be untrustworthy, deranged, and mad.

Popular faith-formation programs tend to spend little time even defining faith, because it is squeezed flat by the realities of secular3 and the anxieties of secular2. It’s assumed that faith need not be defined because it is the observable material operations of institutional affiliation. Because we assume we know what faith is (namely, keeping people in church and really believing something) we can move on quickly to pragmatic tools that win us this institutional loyalty. Faith need not be defined because faith has been stripped of transcendence, and has little to nothing to do with mystery, transformation, and ontological encounter.

If faith were truly an encounter with a transcendent force, then defining its shape and possibility would be necessary over and again. If, for instance, baptism was really believed to be a death and resurrection – where the person dies in the water to come out of the water no longer living, but Christ living in her, finding such a deep union within her being that she is ontologically changed – we would need to explain over and again what it means and how it works, and more importantly, who it is that encounters us. But because faith has been locked within the concerns of secular2 and flattened by the invisible gravitational pull of secular3, faith has little to no transcendent quality.


Many of our most popular faith-formation programs, seeking to keep people from drifting from church, have trapped themselves in a vicious cycle. They feel pushed to fight disaffiliation, but most often their reasons for the battle are caught in the rut of secular2. They assert that people must have a robust or consequential or super meaningful faith or they’ll leave the religious for the areligious space. So they provide pragmatic acts, not recognizing that the gravitational pull of secular3 has already upended their best efforts. Secular3 has already led people (if not us ourselves) to a place where transcendence is difficult to believe.

Taylor’s perspective gives us both a window into the challenges we face and an explanation of why faith-formation initiatives have missed the mark. Seeing secular3 as the construct of an immanent frame allows us to see why a deeper theological construct is necessary, for the believability of divine action itself has come under question. To discuss faith in ministry, we are compelled to do so theologically, exploring how transcendence might be testified to in a secular age of unbelief.

[This essay represents a significant adaption of ch. 7 of Faith Formation in a Secular Age (Baker Academic, 2017).]

Posted Mar 06, 2019