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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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