Why secularisation is good for the church

5 March, 2015 — 7 Comments

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.

busy-Buchanan-Street-Glasgow-by-byronv2-flickr-CC-570

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).

Embrace secularisation

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.

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Notes:

  1. Gilbert, A. D. (1980). The making of post-Christian Britain: a history of the secularization of modern society. Harlow, England: Longman Group.
  2. Gilbert, page ix.
  3. Brown, C. G. (2001). The death of Christian Britain: understanding secularisation 1800-2000. London, England: Routledge.
  4. Page 2.
  5. Brown, page 8
  6. Brown, page 8.
  7. Taylor, C. (2007). A secular age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.
  8. Taylor, page 1.
  9. Taylor, page 2.
  10. Taylor, page 3.
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  • Ken Keyte

    Very stimulating post Mike and I think you are presenting a very helpful way for the church to view our position in society so we can better communicate/demonstrate God’s kingdom as an alternatively better way of living. But what about when society endorses ways of living that we see from our Christian perspective as harmful and damaging to life and oppressive of the powerless eg. abortion. We can demonstrate the alternative to this by how we respect life but isn’t there still a place for the church to speak up for the powerless and point to a better way? How do we do that well and be heard from our marginal position in society? We seem to have lost our voice and confidence in speaking out on issues like this.

    • Hi Ken
      Thanks for commenting! I’m not sure the church has lost its voice in speaking out, the problem is often which particular “Christian” or “church” voice is being heard. Taking your example of abortion, what you or I might communicate about it from a Christian/church perspective, is probably very different to what so called “Christian terrorists” would communicate (do) about it, but what the general public take notice of are the bombings of medical facilities that administer abortions, kidnappings, assaults, and murders of medical staff, in Western countries, done in the name of God in the interest of protecting the life of the fetus… I realise these are extreme examples, but these are who you and I share the stage with.

      Yes, we are to be advocates for the powerless. I think the time is past for the church to be initiating referendums and trying to change national political policy – I even think these things have often been the easy way out for Christians: it’s a lot easier to tick a box on a referendum voting form or to pay for a PR campaign, than to activity get involved in the lives of the least of these… If those things are what you mean by finding our voice, then, in my opinion, the time is past.

      However, the time is now to continue being involved in the lives of people in our neighbourhoods, working toward transformation in all areas of life. Continuing with the example of abortion, this is a complex issue, and every potential abortion has a story leading up to it. Just focusing on the termination is a bit “ambulance at the bottom of the cliff”. Gaining an understanding and appreciation of these stories in our neighbourhoods and as faith communities making long-term commitments to get involved with the issues we discover around these stories, in my opinion would be a very strong “voice” (over a long time) – and there are Christian-faith-communities already doing great stuff like this – they’re showing an alternatively better way of living. Churches aren’t yet known for this…

  • Mal Green

    Love this analysis and your thesis from it, Mike. Makes me think a stronger focus on Matt 25:31ff could be a guide for expressing a Jesus-focused spirituality in a secular environment.

    • Hi Mal. In my comment response below to Ken Keyte, when I said in the middle paragraph “…to actively get involved in the lives of the least of these…” I had that exact Scripture text in mind. :)

  • Samuel Anderson

    Hi Mike. I agree with your thesis broadly and completely, though I think academically there’s still enough confusion about what secularisation actually is (and what it will be) to be really confident in saying that we should feel fine about it. Your discussion on religious plurality, for instance, is normally one of the main counterarguments to secularisation theory, and it does threaten the picture of an “irreligious society” that Christians should adapt to.

    • Hi Samuel. You articulate well a really interesting point around the process of secularisation and it’s definition – that the process may not be over. It gets even more interesting when you add “post-secular” into the mix (I just looked up postsecular on wikipedia and liked this bit “The “post-” may refer to after the end of secularism or after the beginning of secularism.”)

      One of my motivations to write this post is to challenge the idea that Christians should be fearful of the “secular” – I’ve heard this sentiment in sermons. Fear creates a defensiveness, which makes sensible engagement difficult.