Formation for Ministry in a Secular Age (1): The Situation We Find Ourselves In

Gordon Smith

The social and cultural context of the church in North America is aptly described as post Christian or post-Christendom. It is rightly observed that the church, which a generation ago had a voice, some authority, even perhaps a privileged voice in society, is now a church at the margins. The church, as some have put it, is in exile. In some ways this may appear to be a relatively new development, but the major cultural shift began in the 19th century. Increasingly, over the past century and a half, atheism has become the default ideology of the societies of which we are a part. Even if the intellectuals of the West acknowledge an historic and cultural debt to Christianity, the sensibility of our age is no longer merely dismissive of Christianity but as often as not rather ignorant of it. We live in a culture where we see traces of the influence of the Christian faith, yet we can presume that the Christian voice is even at the table.

The church in North America may be surprised at such a statement. Many assume that if we live in a “secular age”— to use the language of Charles Taylor— this is a relatively recent development. They assume that just a generation ago, Christian sensibilities still had an authoritative influence in the public square. It may actually be more accurate to say, at most, it seemed as such. Although it has taken a while, the secularizing seeds planted in the 19th century have grown and matured. Today, we live in a world where we face the hegemony of secularism.

New or old, this is our context. The Christian faith and community is now a distinct minority and very definitely not the privileged voice.

We tend to bemoan this development—wringing our hands and wondering what went wrong, but we should instead view this as an opportunity, perhaps even one providentially offered to the church. Rather than viewing this as a tragedy, perhaps we should rather invest our emotional and intellectual energies in the work of asking what it means to be called to be the church in this context. Rather than fighting the loss of “voice” or authority in the culture, might it be better to ponder what it might mean to have a different kind of influence within the societies of which we are a part?

With respect to theological education in this secular age, how do we prepare leaders to serve the church in this society? Rather than bemoan this development, we must invest our intellectual and emotional energy in intentionally forming women and men for ministry in this social, cultural, and political context.

When we ask this question—What does theological education look like for such a time as this?—we have to first ask what it is we hope to be and do, and how Christian witness and the mission of the church will find expression in this context. How will it be live out? What does Christian witness look like in this time and in this age?

Christian Responses to the Rise of Secularism

Typically, there have been three responses to this question. As of late, a fourth response has been proposed.

  1. Some, of course, choose to go along and get along. Many suggest—if not explicitly, then in their behavior—that we should not poke the bear. We should live out our lives quietly without making too big a deal of secular values. The problem with this approach is that the lives of suburban Christian remarkably resemble the lives of their non-Christian neighbors. And the values proclaimed by larger suburban churches are in many respects the values of the age. The church is little more than a false comfort, and women and men are not equipped to challenge the culture around them nor be a source of prophetic (Christian!) witness. We have, in effect, become secularized. Our religious sensibilities are merely surface sentiments.
  2. Some take the route of the ghetto. Although not new, the church has resorted to this approach in almost every generation and in diverse social contexts: to flee the society and build a protective wall—either literally, or at least sociologically. Whether the desert fathers, the Benedictine monastic movement, the more contemporary Amish communities, or the Bible school movement, many institutions and communities intentionally choose to live “apart”—literally away from the city—in spaces or venues that protect young people by shielding them from the city. We have, in effect, sought to retreat and protect ourselves from becoming secularized.
  3. Still others, take a “culture wars” approach to engaging the society. According to this argument, we were once a Christian country, one that reflected the purposes of God in the formation of these western nations. The church and the Christian faith should rightly be a privileged voice, and we need to defend this right in the public square, in the legislative bodies, and in the courts. We should, in effect, seek to fight and restore our country to its original design and intent.
  4. And most recently, there is a fourth alternative. This approach is perhaps best described by James Davidson Hunter (and others) as “faithful presence”—in, but not of the world, one might say, echoing the language of John 17 (See To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World [Oxford University Press, 2010]). In other words, we are called to be full members of the society. Rather than waging war with secularism, we should accept this new dynamic and fashion a way of being present that reflects deep, Christian conviction. We should, in effect, be faithful to the gospel and be present to the society in a way that is not adversarial but actually peaceful. In the language of Jeremiah 29, we should “seek the peace of the city.”

Is There “One” Approach?

While, without doubt, I am inclined to think that the fourth approach—faithful presence—is what should inform our thinking and practice, there may actually be some truth, even some value, in all four approaches.

  • We need to discern where God is merely calling us to be. Instead of viewing this reality through the lens of war, we need to learn how to get along in a pluralist society. We need to acknowledge where “that battle is lost” and let the issue be—be it Sunday closing laws or the use of the Lord’s Prayer in legislative assemblies.
  • We are indeed called, at times, to retreat and withdraw—either literally to the desert or to safe places of renewal. Yet such withdraw need not be at the expense of full engagement with the world.
  • We are called to confront our social context and political systems, but we need to choose our our battles wisely.
  • We are called to be a faithful presence, but we will need to embrace the fact that this will come at a cost. It will require us to bear a cross.

If this is the challenge for the church in North America, we need to consider the implications for ministerial formation. In order to navigate our world faithfully, we must learn what it means to be the church and what it means to do ministry in this context—the way it is, rather than the way we wish it to be. In the next essay, we will explore where we can find the wisdom and guidance to respond to this challenge and opportunity.

[This essay is an adapted and revised version of an original essay written by Gordon T. Smith, “Formation for Ministry in a Secular Age: Equipping Clergy and Laity for the Church in Exile,” Didache: Faithful Teaching 16:2 (2016). ISSN: 15360156 (web version)– Used by permission. Copyright (c) 2016 by Gordon T. Smith.]

Posted Apr 09, 2018