The Secularisation of the Church

The modern evangelical church seems to have a penchant for playing fast and loose with the secular culture around it, uncritically absorbing its quintessential qualities and imbibing its ethos.

Many decades ago, scholars predicted that the unstoppable march of secularism especially in Western societies would render religion obsolete, with some even predicting the latter’s total demise. This ‘secularisation theory’, as it is often called, has, however, been proven to be quite false.

Religion continues to thrive in many parts of the world despite the advance of secularism. Even in deeply secular societies in the West, the lamp of religion remains lit, however dimly it may shine.

But the impact of secularism on religion is somewhat subtler – some would say, more insidious – than the originators of the ‘secularisation theory’ had envisaged. While secularism may not have totally eradicated a religion like Christianity, it has introduced serious distortions that would eventually rob it of its significance and force.

We see this miscegenation of secular culture and Christianity played out in theological liberalism in its various expressions. The authority of Scripture and the primacy of special revelation are undermined in favour of an expansive but nebulous natural theology. The great doctrines of the Christian faith – Trinity, Incarnation and salvation – are subjected to radical revisions even as Christianity is reduced to a moral religion and the kingdom of God is seen as nothing more than a utopian future that can be realised through social and political action.

Evangelicalism, however, has always prided itself with the tenacity to resist the cultural pressures to which liberal Christianity has succumbed. It claims to have stood steadfastly on the authority of the Bible and considers itself the theological heir of the sixteenth century Reformation.

But evangelicalism is by no means immune from secularism’s corrosive effects, and in recent decades, scholars and theologians have noted with alarm how it has so mindlessly yielded to the seductions of the prevailing culture.

When I speak of the secularisation of the evangelical church, I am not suggesting that its members now no longer believe in God or that they have suddenly become card-carrying atheists. Rather, I am suggesting that they have allowed an alien ethos or outlook to govern the way they think and conduct their lives.

Put differently, to speak of the secularisation of the church is not to suggest that the church has bought into secularism as such, but rather that she has bought into secularity. The secularised church has allowed the ‘things of this world’ to shape it in various ways, some of which are so significant as to be dangerously erosive to its identity and witness.

An instance of this is seen in the way in which doctrine and theology have morphed in some churches. For example, in some expressions of evangelical Christianity concepts like sin, faith and salvation have been emptied of their theological content and psychologised.

Sin is no longer seen as rebellion against God, but a human weakness to be understood and even accommodated, if it could not be defeated. Faith is reduced to a form of emotionalism where feeling and subjective religious experiences have become its normative expression and gauge.

This ‘move’ is appealing to many Christians as it fits cosily into the pervasive therapeutic culture that we’ve come to inhabit. David Wells saw this clearly when he writes in his book, Losing Our Virtue that ‘This psychologizing of sin and salvation has an immediacy about it that is appealing in this troubled age, this age of broken beliefs and broken lives’. But Wells is quick to warn that ‘The cost, however, is that it so subverts the process of moral understanding that sin loses its sinfulness, at least before God’.

Another evidence that the church has in some profound ways acquiesced to the secular culture is its commercialisation. Authors such as George Barna have long maintained that the church is in fact at war, competing with very aggressive marketeers who are determined to create a niche for themselves and peddle their wares.

If the church is not to lose out in the war and banished to oblivion, so the arguments goes, it has to be nimble and quick to adapt its products to existing circumstances and to the needs of the sovereign consumer. This perspective and approach, however, has serious ramifications to the witness of the church. As Jaco Beyers of the University of Pretoria points out: ‘This diverts the attention away from the content the church is supposed to covey and the emphasis is placed on the form of the presentation. The medium has indeed become the message’.

The tyranny of the business model has disfigured the shape of the church’s mission and ministry. Beyers adds: ‘Leadership is reduced to management; faith in providence is replaced with strategic planning; the gifts (charismata) are reduced to advanced skills; spontaneous kiononia is reduced to organised interaction’.

The office of the pastor is now transformed to that of a manager, a CEO, or an entrepreneur. Barna, for instance, thinks that the portfolio of spiritual gifts (this language too has been replaced with the more secular ‘skills-set’) of the modern pastor is profoundly different from what Paul had highlighted. They now include things like the ability to delegate, confidence, visibility, practicality and decision-making. The competence and effectiveness of pastors are subjected to modern secular assessments like the Key Performance Indicator (KPI).

Even seemingly innocuous shifts in terminologies may be indicative of secularism’s corrosive influence. Just as sacred buildings like churches can be deconsecrated for secular use, so Christian activities can be severed from biblical or theological references. For example, in many churches in Singapore ‘short-term mission trips’ has been re-casted as ‘holidays with a difference’.

Another area of the life of the church that is affected by the invasion of the secular is worship. As many commentators have noted, the corporate worship in some evangelical churches has been driven by the culture of entertainment, characterised by superficial sentimentality and narcissism. In concert with the erosion of theological substance and the absence of the liturgy, worship in some modern evangelical churches is often reduced to religious kitsch.

All this means that a kind of rootless consumerism is allowed to flourish in our modern churches. In ignoring or by pushing to the periphery the rich spiritual heritage that it has inherited, the modern church finds itself becoming subservient to a different god – the god of personal choices.

Driven by the invisible hand of consumerism, the church constantly worries if the ‘products’ she presents in the religious market are able to meet the ‘felt needs’ of her members. It is, after all, a buyers’ market! And knowing how to keep the customers satisfied has become indispensable in this world of competitive religious marketing.

In similar vein, worshippers no longer assess the church by its theological orthodoxy and commitment to the Gospel. Rather they judge the church on the basis of its ability to meet their needs. As Wells describes it: ‘People keep entering, lured by the church’s attractions or just to check out the wares, but then they move on because they feel their needs, real or otherwise, are not being met’.

This has created the phenomenon of ‘floating Christians’, modern religious nomads who move from one church to another in search of the church that would be able to meet their most immediate needs. And in accommodating this religious consumerism, churches have effectively installed revolving doors. Churches may be full each Sunday, but not with the same people. Membership – and the commitment it entails – has become superfluous.

The only way the modern church can arrest this trend or rescue itself from this Babylonian captivity is for it to be steeped in Scripture and the great traditions that it has inherited. The church has to develop a ‘Scriptural mind’ – to use the arresting expression of the orthodox theologian, Georges Florovsky – if she is to remain true to who she is in Christ, and if she is to be his effective witness in this turbulent world.

For as A.N. Williams has rightly pointed out, ‘Like a row of lamps posted along a winding lane’, the great tradition of the church ‘continues to illuminate the way of Christian faithfulness for all future pilgrims’. It is only when the church is grounded in Scripture and tradition that it is ‘sensitized to the sensus catholicus, the sense of what is truly Christian. From this the Christian will greatly benefit in distinguishing what is necessary from what is peripheral or merely trendy’.

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