One of the outcomes of my research on church and society has been to help church people see how something is different now in terms of the church and its place and engagement with society. I have used the concept of Christendom/post-Christendom as one way to illustrate this. Another concept that can be useful in showing this difference is secularisation. In this post I hope to provide an introduction to secularisation and why it’s not bad for the church.
The word ‘secular’ simply means not connected with religious or spiritual matters, so a secular society is a society not concerned with religious or spiritual matters. Secularisation refers to the historical process in which religion loses social and cultural significance.
From a church and Christian perspective, being in a secular society gives me a sense of ease and neutrality: I am free to be Christian, and others are free to be Christian too if they see value in it, rather than being born into it or being socialised into it without a process leading to lasting conviction.
Christianity is marginal
In his 1980 discussion on the secularisation of modern society, an academic called Gilbert 1 used the term “post-Christian” to describe Britain at the latter part of the twentieth century. By “post-Christian” he did not mean there is no Christian existence or expression, but rather that Christianity has become marginal.
Gilbert described post-Christian Britain as a place where it is normal to be irreligious, and it is conventional to think and act in secular ways. There is also no status or respectability dependant on practice or profession of religious faith, so for example in wider society, a title such as “Reverend” has no significance.
Christianity is a sub-culture
In this post-Christian Britain Gilbert talks of there are still people within society that find Christianity a profound and vital influence in their lives, but these people are situated outside the mainstream of social life and culture. Gilbert described these Christians in post-Christian Britain as:
Like the early Christians in a pre-Christian, classical world, they became a ‘peculiar people’, anomalous in their primary beliefs, assumptions, values and norms, distinctive in important aspects of outlook and behaviour. They become a sub-culture. 2
Christianity is not the dominant framework
More than two decades later, another academic named Brown 3, when commenting on what he calls the “death of Christian Britain”, describes Gilbert’s “post-Christian Britain” not just as a story of church decline, but as an end of the framework of Christianity that gives people a means to create their identities.
Rather than a long-term religious decline, Brown subscribes to a “short and sharp cultural revolution of the late twentieth century” 4, which started in the 1960s. Brown does not use the paradigm concept of Christendom/post-Christendom, but rather this revolution he talks of in the 1960s was part of secularisation.
Christianity and identity
It was not the presence of churches or Christians that made Britain Christian, but rather the way Christianity infused public culture that was adopted by people in the forming of identity, regardless of whether they were churchgoers or not 5, and this loss is part of the process of secularisation. Brown locates secularisation:
“in the changing conditions which allowed previously regarded Christian and social ‘sins’ to be regarded as acceptable and moral” 6.
Something is different now
The phenomenon of secularisation explains why society is different now, compared to say 30, or 50, or 100 years ago. Another academic, Taylor 7, describes the result of secularisation as being in a society where people can engage fully in politics without ever encountering God, and in this description illustrates the point of change:
This [lack of encounter with God] would have been inescapable in earlier centuries in Christendom 8.
Taylor illustrates this “encountering God” by describing a time when the functioning mode of local government was the parish, in the days when the parish was primarily a community of prayer, which formed a context impossible to be free from the concept of God 9.
Christianity is one among many
Taylor describes a change in society from where it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to where Christian faith is now one human possibility among others, he says:
Belief in God is no longer axiomatic [self-evident or unquestionable]. There are alternatives… Secularity in this sense is a matter of the whole context of understanding in which our moral, spiritual or religious experience and search takes place 10.
As a person with Christian spirituality, I really warm to this description of secularity. It implies that people who want to live out a Christian spirituality can do so, and those who do not live by such a framework, are free to live by other frameworks. This is the reality in many so-called western parts of the world, and I believe this is a significant game-changer in the way churches are to do mission and evangelism. We can’t view mission and evangelism through a lens that sees society having a Christian framework – or wishing it did.
The historical shaping of society screams out evidence of the Christian framework, much of this can be easily identified in New Zealand in things like Easter holidays, Anzac Day services, and some urban town planning such as Christchurch city which used to have a Cathedral in the centre. The judicial system also shows strong links to a Christian framework. Society is now being shaped differently and is often not connected with religious or spiritual matters like it once was.
Christianity in denial
Being at peace with this seems difficult for some Christians, and I believe this lack of peace to be a handbrake in terms of church and society engagement. Some Christians want Christendom back, or are living as if Christendom still exists – they want control over society, and this is often well intentioned, but in my opinion negatively effects the communication of the church.
My list of 9 perceptions of how people outside the church see the church is the result of Christendom influencing society over a very long time. These perceptions indicate why it’s probably a good thing that Christendom is over. Today the church is often not viewed favourably by those not part of it.
Being at peace with secularisation allows me to encourage those with whom I share Christian faith, as we together be the body of Christ in this secular society we live in. This allows us to demonstrate what being Christian is about in ways not defined by the tradition of Christendom, which for various reasons has contributed to society’s dislike of the church.
The key point here being my expression of Christian spirituality is to be a demonstration rather than instruction or dictation.
Christendom is over
The time when the church was able to instruct and dictate society into the Christian framework is over. Therefore the church’s engagement with society must not include instruction about how society should be.
Can you think of examples where the church is seen as trying to instruct how society should be, rather than perhaps radically demonstrating how it could be? (please share in the comments below).
I embrace secularisation and see opportunities for the church everywhere. Secularisation is not evil. Resisting secularisation and striving to turn back the clock, or even pretending Christendom still exists, is a sure way for the church to remain disconnected from society.
The church needs to be at peace with secularisation – once we’re free from anxiety and distress about it, we’ll be more relaxed and able to focus on being Christian in our current context – to figure out what mission and evangelism means in our current context.
I’m not saying everything about secularisation is good, I’m saying we need to have a healthy appreciation of it in order to be an engaging Christian-faith-community amid it.
I’m not saying Christianity should be removed from the public sphere, I’m saying we need to reinvent our presence in the public sphere so there is no sense of historical authority or entitlement being presented.
Secularisation is good for the church because it allows the church to be the church, rather than trying to manage and control society.
Image: “busy Buchanan Street” Glasgow 27 January 2013 by byronv2 from flickr.com CC.
- Gilbert, A. D. (1980). The making of post-Christian Britain: a history of the secularization of modern society. Harlow, England: Longman Group. ↩
- Gilbert, page ix. ↩
- Brown, C. G. (2001). The death of Christian Britain: understanding secularisation 1800-2000. London, England: Routledge. ↩
- Page 2. ↩
- Brown, page 8 ↩
- Brown, page 8. ↩
- Taylor, C. (2007). A secular age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap. ↩
- Taylor, page 1. ↩
- Taylor, page 2. ↩
- Taylor, page 3. ↩