How Secularized Has American Evangelical Christianity Become?

How Secularized Has American Evangelical Christianity Become? January 3, 2013

How Secularized Has American Evangelical Christianity Become?

In a recent post here I talked about what I see as the secularization of evangelical Christianity in America. I gave some examples of its symptoms—that is, symptoms of secularization in American evangelical church life. I simply took for granted that secularization had long ago gripped and changed so-called “mainstream” Protestantism in America. Traditionally, that has been one of the primary ways of distinguishing “evangelical” from “mainstream” or “mainline” Christianity in America.

Some commenters have wondered if secularity is necessarily bad. How, for example, can evangelical Christianity engage in mission to secular people without some degree of secularity? Of course, that raises many questions, too many to discuss here. All I want to do here and now is discuss what I mean by “secularity” (and “secularization” and “secular”) and explain why I think it is something evangelical Christians should avoid. (By “avoid” I don’t mean “separate from” physically. I’ll explain further on what I mean by it.)

The word “secular” has a long and rich history and many meanings. In one sense, not the one I mean, it is simply a description of priests and nuns who do not belong to any particular order. Its alternative is “religious.” A priest or a nun is “secular” who does not belong to, for example, the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) or the Carmelite Order. A “religious” priest or nun is one who does belong to a particular order (which usually involves taking certain special vows and living a distinctive lifestyle). Just to be clear—this is not the meaning of “secular” here.

What I mean by “secular” (and its cognates) is belief that human life can be lived successfully without God or religion. “Secularity” is implicit belief in that; “secularism” is explicit and, usually, aggressive belief in that.

When I suggest that American evangelical Christianity is largely “secular,” I do not mean that it has bought into secularism. No evangelical I know espouses secularism. Evangelicals usually recoil with horror from it. It is “the enemy” (e.g., “secular humanism”).

No, what I do mean is that, to a very large extent, as I see it, American evangelical Christianity has bought into secularity—an ethos, an outlook, a way of living life “in the world and of it” that is often, usually, unintended and even denied.

Before proceeding, I want to confess that I am not immune to secularity. I think it is extremely difficult to be immune to it. It’s an ingredient, if not the main feature, of the modern, Western culture most of us live in on a day-to-day basis. It would be almost impossible to avoid being influenced by secularity without leaving culture behind in the way, for example, portrayed in the movie “The Village.” There are lesser degrees of that kind of separation in many intentional Christian communities, but it seems to me the only way to avoid being infected by secularity entirely would be to create something like the community portrayed in that movie.

Also, I confess that I think secularity, a product of modernity, has brought about some good things. I don’t believe in shunning everything secular. For example, methodological naturalism in scientific research is secular. There is a sense in which separation of church and state is secular. I happen to think it’s also biblical and practical in that it is good for both church and state. It’s good theology and good policy. So, “secular” is not always automatically bad.

What is bad, in my view, is when secularity invades the churches (or is invited in) and becomes the shaping ethos in Christian life. That usually happens without anyone noticing it or pointing it out. It is like the proverbial frog in the gradually heating water who fails to jump out and ends up boiled to death. (I have read about that and, apparently, it doesn’t really happen to frogs. Still, I think it’s a good illustration for what can happen to Christians who accommodate too much to culture whether it be secular or pagan.)

I think to avoid secularity becoming a controlling norm in Christian life, including church life, we have to be conscious of it and intentionally resist it. We American evangelicals are, by and large, very critical of Christians in other cultures who we think practice “syncretism,” that is, uncritical and unbiblical blending of non-Christian cultural and religious beliefs and practices with Christianity. We talk much about “contextualizing the gospel” while avoiding syncretism. For the most part, anyway, evangelical missionaries (and their teachers and supporters in America) have criticized such things as ancestor veneration among Christians in certain African and Asian societies. In some African countries, some Christians practice animal sacrifice in Christian worship. In Central America some Christians have combined shamanistic practices with Christianity. All these things we denounce and demand that our “converts” stop and shun.

However, when evangelical Christians from other, non-Westernized, cultures come to us they almost always see and point out (when coaxed) our own syncretisms—especially the ways in which we American Christians uncritically blend secularity with our Christianity. I don’t always agree with them. Sometimes they seem to want Western (European and North American) Christians to live pre-modern lives in a puritan manner (purified of modernity and all its products). For example, I once succeeded in getting a Christian student from Ethiopia to open up and reveal his thoughts about American Christianity. As the old saying goes, “Boy did we get an earful!” Among other things he said (very politely and respectfully) that in much of Africa (the parts he was familiar with) questioning authorities was considered unchristian and yet I encouraged my theology students to question anything. The difference in his case seemed to be that critical thinking itself revealed impermissible syncretism, accommodation to secular culture. I disagreed (about the “impermissible” part, anyway).

On the other hand, at the same college and seminary, Ugandan evangelical bishop Festo Kivengere  (1919-1988), “the Billy Graham of Africa,” gave us an earful about our secularized ways (not so much in his public talks as in his answers to our questions during a private lunch with faculty and administrators). I had to agree with his examples.

For example, many even non-evangelical African Christians speak warmly and enthusiastically about miracles as part and parcel of authentic Christianity. A few years ago I invited a Nigerian Catholic priest to speak to one of my classes. He was supposed to talk about Catholic theology (he was then the priest in residence at the Catholic student center next to the campus where I taught). Instead, he talked about miracles in African churches and among African Christians—including Catholic churches and individuals. That was his main topic. Clearly, he was attempting to evangelize American evangelicals, not with messages about Mary or the pope but about the power of God to heal the sick and raise the dead (which he claimed to have seen with his own eyes).

I think this is one of the best ways for American evangelical Christians to discover and avoid secularity among us and in us—to invite evangelical Christians from non-Western countries (especially Asia and Africa) into our churches and Christian organizations and ask them to talk to us about our own tendencies toward syncretism with secular culture.

So where do I see secularization in American evangelical Christianity? You might expect me to talk first and perhaps foremost about our general neglect of miracles and the supernatural in general. However, I prefer to begin by pointing out the ways in which our churches and Christian organizations operate along secular business lines. And I don’t mean only with money. Business language pervades our churches and organizations. Instead of talking about “calling” a pastor, we now talk about “hiring” one. A small thing? I think not. In many evangelical churches today, the pastor is treated as an “employee” and falls under the oversight of the “personnel committee” (whatever name that might have). Now don’t get me wrong, I have no objection to churches having personnel committees. My objection is to placing the pastor and pastoral staff under its supervision. Churches used to have “pulpit committees” or “pastoral relations” committees whose job it was to work with the pastor(s) as lay representatives of the congregation. We also now frequently refer to the worship space using terms such as “auditorium,” “platform,” and “lobby.” But at a deeper level, many evangelical churches in America now make budget decisions in the same way businesses make them. Appeals by congregants to “have faith” are routinely turned aside as impractical. When there’s a budget shortfall, one or more staff members get “laid off.” In many cases, funds donated to the church or organization are put into endowments instead of being used for immediate ministry needs. Often, if not usually, the endowment proceeds are used for building maintenance (or, in one case I know of, to pay non-church member choir members).

In today’s evangelical Christianity I hear very little talk about God speaking to people, guiding and leading them, healing or providing for them—or doing anything (except giving comfort). I know one evangelical man who claims he had a “conversation with God” that resulted in what he sees as a miracle of provision for someone else through him, but he’s afraid to tell about it because he thinks even other evangelicals will think he’s crazy or a fanatic. He wrote an article about it anonymously and tells only a select few friends that it happened to him. Some “good evangelicals” he’s told about it have expressed skepticism that God really speaks to people that way or provides in that manner.

This is one area where I agree with fellow evangelical Wayne Grudem (many of whose other opinions I disagree with very strongly). Wayne has written about the demise of prophecy in Christianity and how important it is to recover that gift. And by “prophecy” he doesn’t mean what most evangelicals mean by it—good preaching. Another more conservative evangelical (than I am) theologian who has advocated a renaissance of non-secular Christianity among evangelicals is J. P. Moreland, author of, among other books, Kingdom Triangle (Zondervan, 2007). I once served on a panel with him and Greg Boyd at a National Pastors Conference. They both reminded me just how secularized I have become, along with most other evangelicals. Moreland talked very openly and publicly about angels who attend him. Boyd, of course, talked about spiritual warfare. Many in the audience, made up mostly of pastors associated in some way with evangelical emergent churches, looked very skeptical. (I was sitting with Boyd and Moreland on the platform [this was not in a church!] and examined the facial expressions and body language of the audience members I could see.)

I’m not advocating seeing angels or practicing spiritual warfare or renewing prophecy so much as I am simply pointing out how far we American evangelicals have moved in terms of absorbing a secular outlook on life. Evidence, as I see it, is not so much that we don’t do those things as that we are skeptical about them in a kind of knee-jerk fashion. (I wrote in my previous post about the dwindling of church meetings for fellowship and worship and other symptoms of creeping secularization.)

So, after all that, let me confess my own guilt. I was shocked and somewhat put off when my Christian medical doctor asked to pray with me after an examination for a medical problem. Why? Not because he was doing anything less than the very best medical science has to offer. He wasn’t substituting prayer for medical care. I suspect many, if not most, American evangelical Christians would have the same reaction I had—wondering if that was appropriate professional practice even for a Christian medical doctor. (I concluded it is, but my initial reaction was revealing.) Later, I wasn’t surprised to find out that he attends a “Third Wave” church in town that believes in miracles. I would have been more surprised to learn that he attends a “normal” evangelical church! I could go on giving examples of my own secularization of mind and heart and behavior. But I’ll stop for now and just ask you, my dear readers, to examine your own Christian lives and churches and consider whether, and to what extent, they have been compromised by secularity.

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  • James Petticrew

    Ok I am going where Angels fear to tread. I am a Scot but lived in the States for a year and so here are a couple of things which shocked me as a Christian from another culture about American Christianity

    MILITARISM …. I was shocked to the extent to which support for the US military seems to be a non negotiable part of Christian faith for many American evangelicals. I am not an advocate for kicking the military but it worries me that many US Christians seem to believe that their Military can do no wrong and support for it should be unquestioning. If the Church in some sense is to be the conscience of the nation it surely means at times critically evaluating the role, actions and place in society of the military. It also worries me that this unthinking support for the military in my own country allowed them to commit some appalling atrocities in the British Empire knowing they would face little critical scrutiny at home. I also am aware of Bonhoeffer’s warning to the German Churches when the Nazis simply wanted them to play cheer leader for the German military and whatever it did. There is an appalling pseudo hymn sung mostly in England which includes the line “I vow to thee my country, the love that asks no questions” To me that line cannot be sung in good faith by any believer but comes close to the attitude I see in many american evangelicals in relation to their military.

    GUNS … OK its a current hot button but I was shocked living in the culture by how attached American evangelicals were to their guns. There seemed little critical thinking on Jesus example, his teaching about “turning the other cheek” etc but a lot of talk about constitutional rights and personal freedom. That seemed to me the secular spirit rather than the values of the Kingdom of God

    HEALTHCARE …. I am a big supporter of our national health service, its probably saved my life a few times and its never once bankrupted me or even left me with a large bill, so I am grateful for it. However, I realise our solution to the healthcare problem in my nation came out of particular historical context and our culture and is not the necessarily the model that is right for another nation with a very different culture and history. What shocked me most listening to American christians talking about healthcare was how individualistic they were. Healthcare seemed to be about all about what was best for them, how much more tax they might have to pay. I heard very few people talking about what might be the best system for the country as a whole, or the best system for those with chronic illness, or those with the least financial resources. Again it seemed to me that the individualism of wider American culture was almost indistinguishable from the perspective being adopted by the majority of evangelical Americans.

    These are my, possibly flawed and off the mark, reflections on the areas where I saw the American church / christians reflecting the idols of their culture more than the values of the Kingdom of God. They are not meant to be taken as attacks on America or American Christianity, I have a deep and abiding gratitude for so much of American Christianity. I also have no doubt that there are as many if not more areas of syncretism in my own faith and the Scottish church, but as Dr Olson says some times it takes someone from outside to identify those.

    • Jack Harper

      Hello James, thanks for sharing your observations about American ideological biases. Sometimes we don’t see how selfish we have become being in the mist of the society itself. I think your opposition to how Americans see health care forced on them by a tax or fine is a bit one sided. I for one would love to be able to afford medical insurance, but because of my economical situation I can’t. But to have the government tell me that I have too and if I don’t I will be fined is what Americans see as a intrusion in our God given right to choose what we as individuals see is best for us. The American experiment was set up so that people could govern themselves without government pressure to do so. I hope that helps a little in seeing why Christians in America may take such a stance against government dictation as an intrusion and not a blessing necessarily.

      • rogereolson

        I will let James respond for himself, but I’ll just say that I, like him, favor universal health care as a basic right on the same level with free and mandatory education (K-12). I don’t think the current “Obamacare” plan is the best one, however. I agree with you that fining people for not buying health insurance is wrong. What we should have done is expand medicaid to cover everyone using a payroll deduction method similar to social security (FICA).

        • Jack Harper

          Professor you may remember in the debate over health care reform, that allowing people to shop in other states for more affordable coverage was shot down by liberals as a non answer to people getting coverage. I agree with you that if you have a job it would be advantageous to deduct a little from our pay checks to help pay for medical coverage, the problem right now is that a lot of us don’t have regular jobs where that would be a viable option: so where do those who have little really go accept to flood the local emergency rooms?

          • rogereolson

            I would expand medicaid to cover the unemployed. Of course, it does now, but I find the conditions put on using medicaid too restrictive. Many people, for example, have to quit working to go on medicaid.

    • Charles W. Baldwin

      James, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I had the pleasure of visiting your country a while back (I stayed with a friend in Falkirk for a month) and was enchanted. I’ve wanted to go back for a return visit ever since. Much of what you term militarism is the resulting backlash of the shoddy treatment our armed forces received on their return from Viet Nam from some of our citizens. I think you’ll find, though, that while many support the military, they are very critical of the government, which directs the military. The reasons for support of gun ownership would take too long to go into here, but you can, more or less, blame John Locke for that. The roles and rules for nations and individuals are different, and I think a lot of confusion happens when we conflate the two. I do think a good question to ask is, “what is the Christian’s duty to his country?” As for health care, I do think there are just different ways of going about it. The American preference for individualism is based not just on selfishness, but on the belief that it is better for everyone, or almost everyone, to have the freedom to make the choices they would like to make, whether it has to do with health care, gun ownership, what career to go into, etc. Everyone I know (I’m sure there are dissidents, however) agree that safety nets should be in place for those who are truly disadvantaged to the point that they can not prosper by their freedom. These are just my immediate, insufficient thoughts on your points. I would like to say that your points are worthy of further consideration and contemplation.

    • vervain

      I do not mean to be contrary, but your comments strike me as simply borne of a different secularity–that particular secularity that has overrun Europe and, by extension, an increasing minority in this country. First, some perspective is in order. Of all that drips “unchristian” in the U.S., the military, guns, and private health insurance are not, I think, the ripest. Indeed these positions are the ones that seemingly animate all the great secularists and have been played with great success in the great mindwashing that began 50 years ago here and culminated most recently with a majority of the country embracing a model of government (after embracing such a culture) that will, inevitably, lead to a situation not unlike late Rome. Bread and circuses. Simply put, is your country, or Europe, heading toward the Kingdom of God on earth having adopted the positions you implicitly avow?

      It would seem that you think strength, security, and individualism are unchristian. I would argue that the sanctity of the individual is at the core of both the OT and the NT. God called Abraham, who left his father behind. Jacob, the conniver, struck out on his own. All the patriarchs were, without exception, addressed by God as individuals. In Christ, God has judged each of us as individuals. We are saved or damned as individuals. It is a decidely modern idea (and not one borne of Christian or even monotheistic thought) that we all are responsible for each other. Where you find such collectivism, you inevitably find secularism. I do not know exactly why this is, and realize that I am relying on guilt by association, but I happen to think is valid, fwiw. If my brother makes new friends and then begins to stay out all night, I am not unwise to conclude that the two are connected. The only place that Scripture ever observes collectivist arrangements is among believers, and the clearest instruction I can find regarding it are Paul’s admonitions to be careful in its administration and his repeated admonition to believers to earn their own keep and provide for their own families. Indeed, the modern welfare state was borne of the explicit purpose of negating the Biblical model because it was so limited.
      As for pacifism and a recreational interest in guns (I assume that you are not speaking to those who actually use guns to commit crimes, since your pleas would never reach their ears in this forum, and you would be well advised to avoid the places you’d be apt to find their ears), I fail to see any principle found in the Old or New Testament supporting the first or condemning the latter, even indirectly. Turn the other cheek was an instruction to individuals, not to the nation of Israel. I am told to be a peacemaker and to live at peace with everyone as much as is possible, and that my fight is not with flesh and blood, but Christ did not tell me that soldiering was evil, or even dishonorable. He did not tell Paul to stay in Damascus that night, nor does He tell you to let bandits overrun your house and pillage it. I do not agree, personally, with all of the uses to which our leaders have put the gold and blood that we send them, but I do believe that bandits would overrun our nation (and probably yours) if the threat of the sword did not dissuade them. As for guns, I dare say that of all the distractions of this world that lead me softly into secularity, owning and firing a gun is not especially effective.
      I do not hold you in contempt, friend, for your views. But I fear that you do not realize that little but contempt for Christian ideals undergirds them.

      • rogereolson

        That we are responsible for each other is a modern idea? Individualism is more biblical? Now I’ve heard everything! 🙂

        • vervain

          Now I’ve done it! : } I realize that I’ve given only the barest support for these ideas, but before you write me off as a Cretan, could you point me to Scripture? Perhaps there is hope for me yet!

          What has happened here is a common exchange. The ideas of collectivism are waved like a talisman, and everyone bows. Scorn (and not reason) slaps back at the feeblest of protest.

          • rogereolson

            I didn’t say you were wrong, just that now I’ve heard everything. I have never heard anyone claim that individualism is original and collectivism (in the way you defined it as people being responsible for each other) as modern. I thought Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan pointed in a different direction.

          • vervain

            As for which approach is “original,” I think the Patriarchs’ experience with God (to say nothing of the first brothers–Abel and Cain’s) suggests that God addresses us as individuals, not as a collective. And I don’t think that this changed in the NT. He still referred to Himself as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” though the lips of the Son.

            As for a definition of collectivism, I mean (as I think we all know) the idea that each is
            responsible to all others in the collective “we” (the extent of which I think is generally left unlimited).

            As for NT support of collectivism, I should expect that it would follow that of the OT shadow. And I think that it does. The parable of the Good Samaritan was spoken in response to an unbeliever who sough to limit the extent of the term “neighbor” and I think that it teaches what it is to be neighbor and, indirectly but necessarily, that “neighbor,” for purposes of mercy and compassion, includes those that we might actually despise. Thus far, I think you are partly correct to read it as generally “collectivist”—with the caveat that I think that whatever a collectivist is today, it is different from what might have been meant in the time of the parable you cite.

            We also have more direct instructions from Paul (as I noted) for the very practices constituting modern collectivism, and exactly the sort of “redistribution” that our latest healthcare law accomplishes. Paul quite carefully limited the Church’s distribution among the needy believers. He admonished believers to work to provide for their own families and to have a surplus to give to help the truly needy in the Church. Disagreement with these conditions was, as I pointed out, exactly why the modern, civil collectivist welfare system was created.

            In light of this, I do not think that the modern collectivism is compatible with the instruction of Scripture. I don’t find the Samaritan lobbying the civil authorities to take a collection of his fellow citizens for the waylaid man’s care.

            Finally, I am curious as to your thoughts on the link between the collectivism that is represented by “national healthcare” or, at least, the latest permutation of it, and atheism.

          • rogereolson

            I reject collectivism while embracing communitarianism. There’s a difference. And I find the latter much more biblical than individualism.

      • James Petticrew

        I am not quite sure how to respond to your claim that its a decidely “modern idea” that we are responsible for each other. I really did have to read it many times to make sure that you were really saying what you were really saying.

        Surely the very fact that God is love and we as God’s people collectively and invidually are called to embody and express His love makes us responsible for one another? for love in the Biblical sense is so much more than a feeling of general goodwill or liking, its stained by sacrifice for others.

        I believe we are responsbile to care for others because I see it on nearly every page of Scripture. I believe we are responsible for others because the God I worship does not exist as an isolated self sufficient indvidual but in a glorious connection of loving caring relationship. It was CS Lewis that pointed out that i order for love to be real there must be an object for that love. Love always carries with it the weight of responsibility for its object in some sense.
        I believe we are responsible for others because the Lord told Abram that he was creating a people who would bless others, not be apathetic towards them
        I believe we are responsible for others because of the Law Moses which embodies that value in the way it dictates that Israel should look after those who were strangers, foreigners, who had been enslaved in debt. Those in Israel who had plenty had a responsibility to those who were in need.
        I believe it because so many of the Prophets vent their anger at those who are rich but who are apathetic towards the poor or exploit them.
        I believe it because of the teaching and example of Jesus, I can see no other conclusion from Jesus teaching to “love our neighbour” and the parable he connected to that command which defines neighbour not as someone I like or admire but someone in need I have the resources to help.
        I believe it because of the example of the apostolic church in Jerusalem who gave money and possessions to meet the needs of their fellow believers and Paul’s collection for that church among his converts.I believe it because of the provision that Paul made for widows.
        I believe it because of my ecclesiology, the church is the family of God and the Body of Christ and the teaching of Scripture implies these metaphors include the concepts of interdependent relationships in which we have a responsibility for our fellow believers.
        I believe it because of the actions of the early church who took responsibility for the poor, the dying and the abandoned of Roman culture and subverted an empire in doing so.
        For me at least, responsibility for others is no modern idea but belongs to the very warp and woof of Scripture, is inherent in Christian theology and embodied in the example of God’s peole throughout church history

        None of that means that I negate personal responsibility, its not an either or, but a both and.

        • vervain

          I think that model offered in Scripture for community is far different from collectivist. I am not convinced that your general (and somewhat loose) scriptural references to compassion support the modern welfare state, and they surely do not support collectivism. Even in the OT, in which the civil government was of a design given Moses by God, there was not wholesale redistribution of wealth. There simply was not. Can you imagine the hue and cry today that would greet the practice of “gleaning”? The Book of Acts records what happened immediately after Pentecost, but there was no demands or instructions for “giving” and the requirements and instructions explicitly given by Paul were not modeled after the events in the first days after Pentecost. Neither the Old nor New Testament speaks of “community” in the way that you seem to suggest it does. And collectivism, the modern, leftist perversion of “community”– has as its end, intentionally or not, a civil state that will ruthlessly seek to erase Christianity.

          I heartily embrace the worth and the life of the Christian community. I do not see Scriptural support for the modern welfare state. I do not think that you see the modern welfare state as it truly is. Only loosely tethered to any Scriptural idea of compassion, the modern welfare state is now (and perhaps always was) a manifestation of collectivism—the idea that no one owns anything. With warm appeals to “community,” the leftist preys upon the compassion of the Christian and nonbeliever on the one hand and foments the anger of the envious and idle on the other–both to “let it burn” and to gain power over them all. Stripped of an semblance of the give and take and responsibility of true Biblical community, the modern welfare state is quickly sliding into an outright collapse, a collapse that the left sees as necessary to establish utopia, and utopia, almost by definition, will brook no God. In short, you attack a position that I do not hold and, I think, you support a position that you do not actually hold.

          • rogereolson

            IMHO, this is just black-and-white thinking and globalizing. There are so many shades between what you are calling “collectivism” and laissez faire (individualist) capitalism. I think this began with you objecting to national health care (single payer systems) as “collectivism.” Would you say the same about social security? Is that “collectivist?” How about businesses that require employees to have health insurance? How about governments that require drivers to have liability insurance? There are so many examples of our being responsible for each other that we all take for granted (and like) that I have a hard time seeing the radical difference between them and nationalized health care (paid for by payroll deductions as FICA now pays for social security). It seems simplistic to me to simply lump national health insurance into a category labeled “collectivism.” That word is usually reserved for communism such as used to exist (partially, anyway) in the Soviet Union and China and now exist (to some extent) in North Korea and Cuba. There is such a thing as “democratic socialism” and it exists (in varying manifestations and degrees) in many European countries. Those countries haven’t suppressed religion.

  • Thanks for thought provoking and honest musings. I wonder if what you describe is closely tied to our western hyper-consumerist culture where value, meaning, hope and happiness are virtually unimaginable apart from consumption. In other words, where an overwhelming tide of consumerist marketing persistently proclaims that all such deep-seated human desires can only be met in ‘this world’. Is Christian seculuarization then a symptom of a collapse of eschatological hope?

    • rogereolson

      I believe that is part of the problem. I think there is a correlation between the cars in the parking lots of evangelical churches and the demise of preaching and singing about heaven. Who needs heaven if we have a Lexus?

  • Bev Mitchell


    Thank you for this very important, honest summary of the current situation – in Canada too. Even those of us who would not have been shocked or put off, would not likely be as bold as your doctor was in praying for you. And, those of us who would not have a negative knee-jerk reaction in response to presentations like those of Boyd and Moreland, usually do not engage as these men clearly did and do. We read about it and agree, but often fail to practice. Somewhat tongue in cheek, I suggest that while agreeing with much of this, we usually attend churches where “it” is seldom, if ever, practiced (preaching to myself here).

    An anecdote somewhat like yours. Years ago, at a scientific conference, I finally met a fellow researcher who had done work very similar to mine, but we had known each other only through the literature. I had heard from mutual friends that “Martin had gotten religion”, so we weren’t long in mentioning our shared faith. This was in a busy hallway, at a coffee break between sessions – you know the scene. During our conversation, discussion of some problem came up. My new friend immediately suggested that we pray about it – right there and then. Well, actually, he didn’t just suggest, he began to pray, out loud, but not above normal conversation. It remains the only prayer meeting I have ever attended in the middle of a scientific conference. This is my confession to being shocked and a bit put off, when I should not have been.

    A more consistent putting into practice of all that we already believe (or should believe) in our respective churches would go a long way to healing much of the malaise, secular drift and fellowship deficit that you have been highlighting of late.

  • Churches that operate with business plans designed around targeting revenue producing members are as secular as they come, and many evangelicals have gone down that road. Marketing to a niche rather than realizing the place to hear good news is among the poor is another secular trend. Yes there are secularizing forces at work in our faith, if I can add to your list. The idea that our living arrangements should be determined first of all by the aesthetic of the neighborhood, the accommodations of the dwelling, or the isolation from “those people” is a powerful secular force. Refusing to worship in all-white congregations would be resistance to secularism. Without accepting “The Village” as a model, John Perkins’s practice of relocation to live among the poor, as an incarnational principle (“the Word became flesh and moved in next door”), seems to be a direct assault on secularism. Building community on a parish model rather than commuting to a church formed by demographic niche is again a way to turn aside secularism.

    • Jack Harper

      Hello Mike, I liked your analysis of the church and some possible remedies for her, however I don’t know that changing our society to be a different social setting is what we need so much as the ability to adapt in a way that reaches our culture with the gospel without compromising our convictions. I think Dr. Olson was trying to convey that we resort to secular ways to reach our communities, for instance, I was part of a church that promoted social intervention in the form of having secular classes at the church to get people in the door. Some would applaud this step and others wouldn’t, where do we draw the line in our attempts to evangelize the world?

  • Thanks Roger. I believe secularity is one of those things that have driven Christianity towards the postmodern response that I have been describing in Emergent Christianity. And as a postmodernist-in-the-making, classical dualities like “secularity” can only be described in larger terms of a quantumized whole 🙂

    Anyway, such as it is, here is my response to miracles, spiritual warfare, and modernity, couched in postmodernistic, emergent terms. Many thanks for all your past thoughts which hopefully are contributing to this newer paradigm and Christianized perspective.

    “What Emergent Christianity Can Offer a Secularized World – A Postmodern Emergent Church Response. ”


    • rogereolson

      I agree with John Caputo that authentic postmodernity is postsecular (in the “secularity” sense of secular). That’s one reason I’m attracted to it. If only Jack would follow the logic of it further–to at least being open to the supernatural.

      • As I have time I would like to read Caputo’s thots and theology. I would also like to know more about the directions of Radical Theology – what it is, where it’s going, and how it ties into postmodernism. Have you commented on any of these matters as yet? Some structure would be helpful in digesting these newer directions.

        Thirdly, its crossed my mind recently when thinking about Karl Barth that Neo-Orthodoxy is alive and well (which thing is not necessarily a negative to my mind) in Christianity’s latest discussions on the bible’s literary vs. literal interpretations; Jesus and Paul in 1st Century Judaism; Science, Evolution and the Bible; Process v. Relation thot; and a whole host of other items in terms of worship, orthopraxy, and faith. Where once I thot Neo-Orthodoxy to have died in the 1930s-40s its found a new home in progressive-conservative Evangelicalism (which term, with some modification, I prefer to dub Emergent Christianity).

        Anyway, a shout out to future articles should you lack topics to write about! 🙂

        • rogereolson

          Thanks, Russ. My new book The Journey of Modern Theology (to be published by IVP later this year) will engage with postliberalism and deconstructionist theologies (in a section on postmodern theologies). The term “radical theology” is so broad and used in so many ways, I’m not sure how to use it except for death of God theologians (e.g., Altizer) and theologians who reject “theistic realism” (e.g., Cupitt). I think there is a sense of “radical theology” that fits Caputo, but I don’t think he belongs in a category with those theologians. I’m convinced he does believe in God in much the say way, for example, that Moltmann does (or did)–as future. Only Caputo doesn’t like “power,” so he would demur from Moltmann’s language about God as the “power of the future.” Still, Moltmann is clear that by “power” (when applied to God) he means the power of love, not coercive power. I think if Caputo read Moltmann he’d like much of what he read. I agree with you that postconservative evangelicals tend to be enamored with neo-orthodoxy. Postliberalism is, in my estimation, a contemporary form of neo-orthodoxy or at least a new incarnation of “Barthianism.” Hans Frei, the real father of postliberalism, in my estimation, was very much under the influence of Barth.

          • This is very helpful. Thanks. Could I be one of the reviewers to your book? It sounds interesting.

          • rogereolson

            Ask the publisher. They send out review copies to journal and magazine editors. But the book won’t be published until (probably) fall.

      • Jack Harper

        Professor, are you accusing me of being anti- supernatural or was that a type o? ” If only Jack would follow the logic of it further–to at least being open to the supernatural.”.

        • rogereolson

          I was referring to John Caputo who is known as “Jack.”

  • Stan Lewis

    I agree with your assessment here and it does bring a level of conviction because I grew up in a Church of God Pentecostal denomination and can firmly say that I have seen true manifestations of the Spirit. Now, I attend a Southern Baptist church (which I love) but have guarded myself against much of the supernatural and talk of such. I think my reservations are much the same as many others in that with the rise of the “prosperity gospel”, “name it, claim it”, and blatant materialism within the American churches it is hard not to be overly skeptical. I do believe that miracles happen and God provides but it is hard to hear “testimonies” from people that have no idea what it means to truly struggle as our brothers and sisters in third world countries. More often than not, these “testimonies” are from people that are crying out to God to keep their comforts and stay insulated from “those people” when God might be purposefully taking these things away in order to let them truly experience Him. I guess I am torn between the balance of justified skepticism because of expectant “Christians” and hardening myself to the God that does perform miracles and talks to people.

    • Charles W. Baldwin

      Stan, great point with “prosperity gospel” and “name it, claim it.” Besides being skeptical of that, no one wants to be confused with one of “those guys.” Also at issue is that most of us like things to be neat, tidy, orderly, like a simple math equation. 2 +2 = 4, if I pray for this, I’ll get this. Obviously it doesn’t work that way. When it doesn’t work, or when we see others misuse prayer in this way, the tendency is to swing the pendulum to the other side. As you say, it is a balance, and it’s hard to stay in the groove, do what we’re supposed to do, and let God be God (and not the person we give our honey do list to).

    • Jack Harper

      Hello Stan, I whole heartily agree with your assessment of the word of faith movement. When I first received Christ my first discipleship training was Kenneth Hagins correspondence courses. I was heavily involved with that kind of teaching for eight years before the Lord slowly dissimulated me out of it. Unfortunately most of Christian teaching these days are of that persuasion. I have the same reluctance with the sigh and wonders movement, it seems to be promoting that Christians should be flowing in the miraculous at all times, which most of us know isn’t the norm. I think we have to takes the Apostle Paul’s suggestion and not shun prophecies, but test the spirits to see if they are of God. In so doing we will not shut out a possible genuine word or experience from our father to enrich our lives.

  • Steve Rogers

    Helpful blog and good discussion. I would only add that we must be very cautious to not measure secularization by yesterday’s norms. Our forbearers had to deal with the same issue in their context. Some of their responses, say, singing religious lyrics with popular pub melodies, may have been indicators. Waxing nostalgic for the old tme religion does not necessarily ward off secularism. Lots of religious forms are practiced without God. For me it raises the question, which is worse, an intentional secular (as you have defined it) approach to things or a misguided religious form that denies God in actuality?

    • rogereolson

      Both are bad. Hopefully we’re not stuck with an either-or like that. I fear some folks continue to misunderstand my meaning of “secular.” I thought I made it clear, however. When I use “secularization” or “secularity” in describing what I see happening in American evangelical Christianity I am talking about implicit belief that human life (our own) can be lived quite successfully without a living, acting God. I believe Christian Smith is the one who coined the phrase “moralistic, therapeutic deism” to describe the life and worldview of many evangelical youth. I see it as endemic among evangelicals generally, not just youth. Evangelical young people have picked it up from their elders. I consider that “secular” because it doesn’t really expect anything from God except comfort and forgiveness. Gradually, “God” becomes a cipher for our own well-being and self-actualization.

      • Steve Rogers

        Well, yes, of course. But my concern is that in the avoidance of reducing God to little more than a “cipher for our own well-being and self-actualization,” as you put it, we reduce ourselves to little more than ciphers for God’s happiness. This we must accomplish (as I was taught) by being more “holy” in lifestyle, more diligent in prayer, more devoted to church attendance and more active and clever in evangelism. Maybe such an approach makes us more god-aware in that we are ever mindful that if we don’t do these things often and well enough we’re displeasing him. But, that is a distortion of his character and an idolatrous trap. Very unsecular by your definition, but very damaging spiritually.

      • vervain

        So you don’t adhere to collective salvation. Then why color your view of the temporal with collectivist thinking? If salvation and relationship with God is established and maintained with an individual, why would the fruits of that be expected from the collective? If salvation is through the work of Christ alone, why try to make the “works” demanded by the collectivists part of the deal? Of course, works of charity should be a fruit of salvation, but to the collectivist, they constitute salvation. Those who feel genuine angst at the plight of their brethren can simply and quietly offer help–material and otherwise. There’s no need to make it part and parcel with Christianity itself. It is a mark of belief, not a substitute for it. Adopting collectivist thinking is dangerously close to substituting works for grace–and this should not be surprising, because, historically, collectivists are atheists.

        • rogereolson

          You’re throwing me off with the use of “collectivist.” I don’t know what that means. It certainly isn’t a term I would use for communitarian.

          • vervain

            I know, I’ve hijacked this comment thread somewhat, and I am sorry.
            The gist of the comment to which I originally responded found, among other things, opposition to “nationalized” health insurance as evidence of secularity. I think that nationalized health insurance is a collectivist idea and that it is itself a fellow traveler of secularity.

            I am not familar with the term communitarian as I think you use it. I do know that collectivists like to use “community” in their materials for public consumption. I do not think that you mean collectivism in saying communitarian, but I think that the Scot’s comment that began this thread meant, unknowingly or not, that reluctance toward something collectivist is evidence of secularity— which kind of boggles my mind (not a hard thing to do).

        • James Petticrew

          “collectivists historically are athiests?” …. Very sweeping generalisation, any evidence? Would you include the Early Church? How about early Methodism? Can you quote some theologians or biblical scholar to back up your view that Christianity is wholly individualistic ? Should we rename the “people of God” the “the individuals of God”? what about the “family of God” that sounds a bit collectivist and of course we would need to take the scissors to the concept of “the body of Christ” because Paul is decidedly collectivists in 1Cor talking about the interconnectedness and interdependence of the members of the Body of Christ?

          Faith may be personally appropriated but I don’t think it’s ever been understood outside of folk relogion as having entirely privatised implications. I am with Wesley I’m saying that there is “no holiness but social holiness” not in the sense of social action but in pointing out there can be no individualised and purely personalised faith.

          • James Petticrew

            Ps “the Scot’s” name is James

          • vervain

            No, the early church was not collectivist. Even in the heady days immediately after Pentecosts, even conniving Ananias was told that his property was his to do with as he pleased. It was not required that believers send part of their property for redistribution. The modern welfare state and national healthcare requires that citizens send part of their earnings to the government for redistribution (and is grossly inefficient in the mechanics of that redistribution). I think that I’ve supplied Scriptural background for the first proposition and am not inclined to look for evidence elsewhere.As for the second proposition, i.e., that the modern welfare state and the current form of semi-nationalized healthcare that is now the law have their roots in collectivism, I would waste the time of both of us to provide what is easily discoverable in minutes. As for the final proposition, that collectivist civil order is associated with atheism, I have framed it from the start as an observation. I’ll confess that I find evidence for this proposition about as easily as for the second, but I invite contrary evidence (sorry, Prof. Olsen, see below)

            I don’t think that you disagree with me, but with an argument that I am not making. I do not equate the Body of Christ with nationalized healthcare or the modern welfare state and I don’t think that you do, either.

            Prof. Olsen recognized that I am talking about civil government and actual collectivism–And yes, Prof. Olsen, I think that collectivism goes hand in hand with atheistic regimes— two examples that come to mind are Canada (where you can be prosecuted for preaching things that might offend unbelievers) and GB (same, evangelical Christianity is considered an African religion because it is mainly limited to Christians immigrants from Africa, and withholding end-of-life care is now openly practiced) Some of the other western european countries that are highly redistributive have similar (and stricter) laws — in the Netherlands , for example, theistic religion has cratered and, inter alia, involuntary euthanasia is legal.Wouldn’t you (and Prof. Olsen) deem these developments as contrary to Christian ethos? I do not know why collectivism and atheism go together, but they do. Perhaps it is because the melding of the individual with the whole is part and parcel of them both— a perversion of the Christian model. My fear is that American Christians, while understandably attracted to the compassionate-sounding (and only marginally Christian) proposals of collectivists, are handing power over to those who will, eventually, create very similar civil societies–civil societies that are very hostile to Christianity.

            The Christian model is change from within, an individual at a time, resulting in outward living that is characterizd by, among other things, love for the Body. I really don’t see it that difficult to distinguish between that and a form of civil order that begins with the idea that all property belongs to the whole, and pretends that by distributing it equally all human problems will be solved. And the modern welfare state and collectivism does the second and not the first.

          • rogereolson

            There are so many issues involved in this discussion that one hardly knows where to begin. So let me just ask you a question. Do you believe in compulsory, free (i.e., government provided) primary and secondary education? (I’m not asking about whether vouchers versus public schools. That’s a separate issue.) If so, how is that not “collectivism” according to your definition?

  • Laura

    James, thank you for your observations. I am an American evangelical who agrees with you completely on these issues. I often feel very alone in my church and other Christian settings. There is often such a disconnect between the Words and ethos of Jesus who we profess to follow and our beliefs in cultural matters such as the ones you mentioned.

    • James Petticrew

      And in my nation too, in all cultures, it’s our willingness to see our culture “blind spots” and areas of compromise with the prevailing culture which I think is important

  • Jay Blossom

    Tiny correction: There are no “secular” nuns or sisters (using the first definition of secular). All nuns are members of religious communities of some kind, and in fact, the more inclusive term is “women religious,” which includes both (mostly cloistered) nuns and those sisters who work in the world as teachers, administrators, or a hundred other occupations.

    However, a majority of priests are “secular” priests (i.e., they are under the authority of their local bishop or archbishop). A minority of priests (but many missionary priests) are “religious” priests under the authority of the superior of their religious community.

    • rogereolson

      Before posting that about priests and nuns I consulted what I thought was an authoritative Catholic web site which must have been wrong (if you are right). However, I wonder if we’re talking about the same thing. What I said was that a “religious nun” would be one who belongs to an order such as the Carmelite Order. Not all nuns belong to such orders, do they? Oh, well, I can’t be right about everything, can I? 🙂

  • Brian P.

    Secularism = “belief that human life can be lived successfully without God or religion?”
    I think you missed something elemental. I’d suggest perhaps instead…
    Secularism = “belief that human life can be lived successfully without belief in God or participation in religion?”
    I’d suggest that secularism is more something sociologically methodological and not something insomuch metaphysically ontological.
    What [methodological] naturalism is to science, I’d suggest secularism is to [methodological] sociology (and political science in particular).
    Secularism isn’t about believing life can be lived successfully without God, it’s more about believing life can be well lived as if God doesn’t exist or is otherwise conceptually irrelevant.
    Having been Christian and non, having had a secular orientation and not, I think there are elements here that you can continue to further discover and unpack for greater understanding of your fellow human.

    • rogereolson

      I think you’ve identified a distinction without a difference–at least for my purposes here.

  • John Metz

    Bravo, Roger. More please.

  • K Gray

    I’ll argue that many of the more educated, rational, ‘successful’ churches, and their members, make a practice of mocking more spirit-led believers. I’ve heard and read it; we all have.

  • Trench has a helpful though poetic definition of the world. I think it gets the point across, which you mention, that it’s very hard to resist secularization, unless there is another inward process going on- transformation.

    “All that floating mass of thoughts, opinions, maxims, speculations, hopes, impulses, aims, aspirations, at any time current in the world, which it may be impossible to seize and accurately define, but which constitute a most real and effective power, being the moral or immoral atmosphere which at every moment of our lives we inhale, again inevitably to exhale.”

    • rogereolson

      Exactly right. And the tendency, the trend, is so powerful that the only way to combat it is to have a person or committee (in a church or religious organization) whose “job” it is to keep pointing out where we are caving in to secularization. If I were appointed, the first thing I would do is insist that we stop talking about “hiring a pastor.” It’s a small but symbolic matter. Language uses us as much or more than we use language. And I would insist that we stop calling the sanctuary the “auditorium.” Again, most people consider these tiny matters whereas I see them as symptoms of creeping secularization. Other symptoms are larger and harder to correct, but you have to start somewhere.

  • I hope the pendulum is swinging back toward center. There for a while, everyone was walking around saying, “God told me this.” “God told me that.” Every recovery from colds and flues was called a miracle. You can only keep this going for so long before people tire of it.

    I’m not a cessationist, but I’d like to see a return to more clear thinking. People need to learn stop assuming that since the Holy Spirit lives in them, the thoughts that run through their head must be God’s thoughts. They’ve deified their thoughts and found this god to their liking because he is just like them! It seems God is telling people to go on cruises and buy new cars (and they have “peace” to verify that these are God’s thoughts!)

    I find this hyper-spiritualism very disturbing and if a little secularism is what it takes to swing the pendulum back toward center, I’m all for it.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, I was part of that form of Christian life for a long time, too. But since entering the “evangelical mainstream,” I would be blessed to hear someone say “God spoke to me” once in a while (so long as it wasn’t to tell me to do something :).

  • vervain

    “There are so many issues involved in this discussion that one hardly knows where to begin. So let me just ask you a question. Do you believe in compulsory, free (i.e., government provided) primary and secondary education? (I’m not asking about whether vouchers versus public schools. That’s a separate issue.) If so, how is that not “collectivism” according to your definition?”

    Let’s get the ugly stuff out of the way first. I do not think that the present version of public education is the only way that education could be done, and, I note, beyond secondary school, education is still primarily done with private funding (or could be, if the public moneys were not so freely given) But in any event, in for a dime is not in for a dollar. I do not think the modern welfare state is comparable to public education. To oversimplify, public education is more akin to teaching a man to fish while the modern welfare state is more akin to giving him a fish–day after day, throughout an entire life, and now, it cannot be denied, throughout his children’s lives as well. And the qualifications for a fish a day in the modern welfare state are not what they were in Paul’s instructions. Remember, Paul taught that only those without actual or possible familial support be put on the rolls. Putting aside this guidance (which I think was motivated by sober recognition of human nature) for whatever secular, civil rationale that may be adopted, why do you think it wise to redistribute? In other words, what experience of any civilization would advise taking a share of the fruits of citizens’ labors– without their consent–to redistribute it ? Does the relative wealth of the civil nation itself justify it? In other words–“because we are the richest nation on earth” or some such notion?
    We’ve had for many years the highest standard of living the world has ever known for our “poor” and now, we are told, it is not enough. Never mind that we are now redistributing money that we have not earned yet, and that closing the deficit without cuts in the very sort of spending you seem to advocate will require taking startling amounts from ordinary people–the “redistribution” will take placefrom lower and lower levels of income . When do we declare stasis? (Never mind that we know that redistribution means that the gross wealth will recede, creating all sorts of “new old” challenges–the price of progress is paid by the creation of wealth ).
    Of course, if the only aim is to erase the relative difference between all citizens, then all of this is of secondary importance. And this singular, myopic vision is exactly the purpose of collectivism. So no, public education, as bloated and dysfunctional as it is, is not collectivism. And yes, the modern welfare state, of which the PPACA is a vast expansion, is collectivist.

    • rogereolson

      So you think that public provision of K-12 education is not evidence of a collectivist welfare state but a national health care program is? It seems to me that’s just a matter of perspective–value placed here or there or on both (education and physical health). It seems to me that affirming free, compulsory education is just a slippery slope toward communism! Why should I, who have no kids in public schools, have to pay for other people’s kids’ education? Oh, for the common good? Gee–that sounds “collectivist” to me.

      • vervain

        I admit that presently, the system of public education—of primary and secondary education, that is,— is on a continuum with collectivism — but I hold that it doesn’t have to be. While it may be difficult to imagine, given the shape given education by “public” or “magic money” funding (magic money is that which we do not recognize actually came from another person’s paycheck, but instead appears in our world via some smiling (we think) bureaucrat) — education might have well evolved into a form that we would all find satisfactory. So I am not affirming “free” compulsory public education (I think that you may be hiding something in that triad of adjectives, but I’ll gamble that you’re not).

        But, in any event, the ground between public funding of education and the modern welfare state and the PPACA is not logically slippery or sloped. “In for a dime is not in for a dollar.” The funding mechanism is different, the purpose and the benefit is different. I don’t think that you see them all that closely related yourself. Is teaching a child to read, write, and do arithmetic the same as Section 8 housing or the cool, new EBT cards? Which would you prefer to fund out of what would otherwise go to your own needs or, perhaps, your children’s? Collectivism does not allow you to make that choice. The civil authorities, ever farther from your world, ever convinced by the endless stream of rent-seekers, ever find new ways to allocate that your “alms.” Worse, to the collectivist, the point is not really to lift any one to some level of subsistence or dignity, but to equalize. And if you do not think the present order has this in mind— did you realize that the federal government is in the process of changing the definition of “poverty” for purposes of any and all policy and law to rise commensurate with the income of everyone else? It is not about easing material deprivation but about “equality.”

        I have worked among the “low income” and because I was required to conduct means-testing and extensive home visits, I saw a lot that I think that you and most compassionate folks would find to be objectionable in the rather limited redistribution of wealth afforded by a rather small program nearly twenty years ago. Things have “progressed” a good deal since then. But a collectivist does not find this objectionable, because the point is not about lifting the poor, but about redistributing–it is not only to help the lowly but to bring down the mighty. Now, even if it was right to take from the steward who made ten more minas to give to the one who buried his, there are no longer enough of the wise stewards to go around.

        This conversation started with an expression of the view that, inter alia, opposition to universal healthcare was evidence of secularity. I have feebly attempted to make a principled argument that, on the contrary, the philosophy behind universal healthcare is collectivism, and that collectivism, at its core, is secular. But what really sparked this boorish diatribe of mine is the realization that the compassion of Christ and His Body has been torn from its moorings by the relentless guilting and goading of collectivists to be used to build a civil order that is far more secular, in the truest sense.

        • rogereolson

          Now you’re changing the subject. I have never defended every aspect of welfare as it is practiced in American or anywhere else. In fact, if you’ve come here much at all, you know that I have advocated a version of workfare (much to some liberals’ chagrin). I do not see much, if any difference, between the government providing free education to children and the government providing free health care to children. Both are just and for the common good. Both require redistribution of wealth. My money is being taken by local and state governments to fund the education of other people’s children. I would be happy if they took my money to pay for health care for children. When I was a child, we were so poor my parents could not afford medicine (sometimes), so I came down with rheumatic fever because my parents couldn’t pay for something as simple and inexpensive as penicillin (to cure my strep throat). I was fortunate that my heart was not severely damaged, but many children who suffer rheumatic fever (almost always because their parents are too poor to take them to the doctor when they have strep throat or get them medicine for it) have serious heart valve disease as a result. Many (especially in poor countries) die from it at early ages. So this gets quite personal. I have experienced for myself the results of opposition to “collectivism” as you call it (which I do not regard as that at all).

    • James Petticrew

      “We’ve had for many years the highest standard of living the world has ever known for our “poor” and now, we are told,” ….. Evidence? Are you including the poor with chronic illnesses who can’t afford healthcare?

  • GPF

    Perhaps one of the aspects of secularization came with no longer having a “stop-day.” Sounds like a Sabbeth to me.