Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces:
Secularism — Why Don’t People Go To Church Anymore?
Today I am beginning a new sermon series titled, Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces. During the next two months, we will examine the seven cultural challenges that I believe we must face in order to present the Gospel in new and fresh ways to our world. These challenges are not new, but they are all converging at a time in our history in which our institutions and societal structures are under increasing pressure.
Institutions and systems that we thought were rock solid, such as our financial and economic sytems and organizations, are proving to be inadequate to the roiling changes of the 21st century. Who would have thought that two of the “big three” car companies — Chrysler and General Motors — would collapse so quickly and so completely? Who would have imagined that three dozen banks would fail in the past year; that major retailers such as Circuit City headquartered in Richmond, and other big box retailers would go out of business? And who would have imagined that the very institutions that guarantee our mortgages and finance the American dream for countless families in the US, would have to be taken over by the federal government?
But, financial institutions and systems are not the only ones under great stress today. Educational systems, governmental agencies, and last but not least, religious institutions and organizations are also quaking under the seismic shocks of a 21st century that is changing faster than any of us could have imagined.
Change is coming so fast, and in such unpredictable ways, that social scientists now tell us the only thing that we can be certain will not change is change. That sounds rather like a non-sensical statement, but upon reflection we have to admit that in our lifetimes there have never been the number, scope, or magnitude of changes that we have witnessed since the end of World War II.
Churches also face the daunting challenges confronting our culture. These challenges include secularism, which we will talk about today. But other challenges accompany secularism, and they are pluralism, nominalism, materialism, post-modernism, criticism, and atheism. These are by no means the only challenges we face, but the seven challenges I have identified here are coalescing in a new and unique pattern that we have not seen before, at least in our lifetime.
To help us limit and clarify our discussion, I have also added a question that both explains and probes the meaning of each of these challenges. Here’s what we’re going to talk about for the next few weeks:
1. Secularism: Why Don’t People Go To Church Anymore?
2. Pluralism: Why Doesn’t Everyone Believe What We Do?
3. Nominalism: Why Don’t We Walk Like We Talk?
4. Materialism: Why Do We Have So Much Stuff?
5. Post-Modernism: Why Is Truth No Longer True?
6. Criticism: Why Don’t They Like Us Anymore?
7. Atheism: Why Don’t They Believe in God?
And finally we’ll wrap up with a concluding message titled, The Future of Our Faith.
We do not have time in 20 minutes each week to deal exhaustively with each of these topics. But, the questions I have posed after each of these -isms will help us focus on one particular aspect of that specific cultural challenge. I hope this series will be both enlightening and thought-provoking as we think about what each of these challenges means to us here at Chatham Baptist Church. These are the cultural challenges that are rapidly shaping who we are, how we feel, what we believe, and how we live our lives. Let’s look at the first one today — Secularism: Why Don’t People Go To Church Anymore?
The Canary in the Coal Mine
As the Industrial Age dawned in England in the 18th century, the demand for coal to fuel huge manufacturing plants increased. As miners burrowed deeper and deeper into the ground in search of seams of coal, safety procedures failed to catch up with the rising demand for coal and the increasingly dangerous practices of underground mining.
One of the few safety procedures available to miners was the use of canaries in the underground tunnels. Canaries were very sensitive to the build up of toxic gases like methane and carbon monoxide. One writer commented that a canary’s life in the mines was “short, but meaningful.” Short because mines were not vented, and toxic gases built up regularly in the mines; meaningful because canaries were the first and only warning system for the miners.
Miners working a vein of coal would carry a caged canary with them, and check the canary periodically. The canary was either upright on its perch, or dead on the bottom of the cage. If the canary died, miners would leave the mine as quickly as possible until the gas abated — which required the services of another canary to determine if that had happened!
Canaries were the early warning sign of coal mining 100 years ago.
Today, our canary in the coal mine for churches is church attendance. During the post-WWII baby boom generation, churches all over America flourished. Churches in small communities like Chatham were filled each Sunday morning. New churches were also being built, along with new schools, in new suburban neighborhoods that were springing up like daisies throughout America.
Automobile sales were booming, and American automakers commanded 100% of the American market. “See the USA in a Chevrolet” was the theme-song of our society, unless of course, you drove a Ford or Chrysler or an American Motors Nash Rambler or a Studebaker. But, whatever brand you drove, American society was quickly adapting to the automobile. We wanted to drive everywhere, even to church, so churches had to plan for parking as well as sanctuary seats.
This boom brought the golden age of most US denominations, Southern Baptists included. In the mid-1950s, Southern Baptists launched an ambitious campaign called “A Million More in ’54.” The idea was to reach 1,000,000 people for Christ through Southern Baptist churches. While the campaign fell short of its goal of 1,000,000, it did bring several hundred thousand new people into Southern Baptist churches.
Church nurseries were full, children’s programs were conducted several times a week. My own life mirrors these changes both in society and in Baptist churches. I was listed on the Cradle Roll before I was born. When I was born, I was in the Nursery, then moved on to the Beginner, then, Primary, and ultimately Junior departments. I attended children’s choir on Wednesdays, Sunbeams and then Royal Ambassadors on Wednesday nights, and Training Union on Sunday nights in addition to Sunday School on Sunday mornings.
By the time I got to junior high school, every Baptist church had a youth group and youth ministry was the big thing. We went on retreats, to church camp, did mission projects, attended Ridgecrest together, and generally our lives revolved around church and school.
Southern Baptists were at their peak by the late 1960s, as were most other denominations. The canary was happy and well.
The Canary Dies
But then something happened in the 1960s, another era of political and social turmoil. The kids who grew up in the “Placid 50s,” as the Eisenhower years were called, saw a president named John Kennedy elected in 1960. Kennedy’s youth — he was 43 when elected — his charm and good looks captivated a nation and its young people. By the scores, young people volunteered for the Peace Corps, eager to make the world a better place. They were responding to President Kennedy’s challenge to “ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.”
That shining moment of American optimism was shattered by the assassin’s bullet. Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. Oswald was himself gunned down on the Sunday after the president’s assassination by Jack Ruby. An idealistic generation saw their President killed, and then saw the nation descend into the social turmoil of the civil rights struggle, the war in Viet Nam, and the shifting of moral values.
When I was in elementary school, no businesses were open on Sunday except restaurants. Local and state laws, called Blue Laws, actually prevented businesses from opening, and when a few began to open on Sundays, those same blue laws restricted the items that could be sold, and the hours in which they could be sold.
By the time I graduated from high school, the local mall was open on Sunday, along with grocery stores, gas stations, movie theaters, entertainment parks, and clothing stores. In other words, everything changed. Sundays were no longer reserved for church, and even Wednesday nights were taken over by school and social activities. The canary had died, but most of us in churches didn’t notice him lying at the bottom of the cage.
The changing Sunday retail scene would seem mild compared to the summer of love in 1968. The hippie culture, with its protest in music, clothes, lifestyle and personal morality, hit America right in the stomach. The phrase “long-haired hippies” was uttered millions of times, if it was spoken once. All of a sudden, everything that we thought America stood for — God, country, morality, hard work, decency, and religion — was being challenged publicly and often.
The proclamation that “God is dead” rattled American religious institutions to the core. No longer did you have to go to church to be a respectable, upstanding citizen. Intellectual doubt dominated the conversation, and increasingly Americans stopped going to church.
Church Attendance Today and Into The Future
We don’t have time for an exhaustive review of what all this means, or a look at each decade and the cultural changes they brought. But close on the heels of the Viet Nam war came Watergate. America was losing confidence in her institutions, which included the church. The sex abuse scandal which surfaced first in the Roman Catholic church, but we now know was present in almost every denomination, further eroded confidence in “organized religion.”
In his groundbreaking book, The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularization 1800-2000, Callum Brown writes “At the start of the third millenium, we in Britain are in the midst of secularisation.”
He goes on to say, “…what is taking place is not merely the continuing decline of organised Christianity, but the death of the culture which formerly conferred Christian identity upon the British people as a whole.”
In other words, England which had formerly seen itself as a Christian nation, now no longer considered itself as such. Corresponding to that self-perception, church attendance in England runs about 7%, and is still declining.
Here in the United States, we are on a similar path. Church attendance that had once been generously estimated at 40% of the population each week, now hovers at about 17% and that is declining as well.
David T. Olson, in his book, The American Church in Crisis, cites current church attendance for all churches in the US at about 17%. But this figure is on a steady decline that will result in church attendance of a little more than 14% by 2020. Church attendance is falling at a rate of about 1% every 5 years, but seems to be accelerating as population growth outpaces the growth in number of churches. At the present rate, it is safe to say that by the year 2050, church attendance in the US will be no better than that in England — less than 7% of the population.
What Exactly is Secularism?
So, what is secularism? Simply put, secularism is replacing God as the center of all things with man. Let me give you a Biblical example.
In Genesis 11:1-9, we read this story:
3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. 6 The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel —because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
This story takes place after the great flood. After Noah and the ark. These are the descendants of Noah, who all speak one language. Apparently, their numbers increased rapidly, and they moved east — some scholars believe to what would become Babylon. With one language, human progress was uninterrupted. They began to build a city, and in that city they proposed building a tower — a zigurat probably — that would reach to the heavens. That in itself is a theological statement. Because if you can reach heaven, you can then control your own eternal destiny. You become lord of the universe, you become the center of creation. Man replaces God. Of course, God was having none of this at the time. He had just destroyed the earth with water, and had promised never to do that, again. So, God instead confounded communication — creating multiple languages. Again, this is as much a theological statement as anything because the people who had been so eloquently talking to each other about creating this zigurat, now could not speak to each other with any understanding. They were “babbling on” as it were, which is exactly where we get that saying. God would not be displaced, even with man’s best effort.
The word “secular” itself has its origins in the Latin word “saeculum” which means generation or age. Secular, then is of this age or generation. As opposed to that which is “sacred” meaning devoted or holy.
How Did We Get Here?
The seeds of secularism were actually planted long before the 1950s. According to Paul Hiebert in this book, Transforming Worldviews, secularism that would affect Christianity began innocently enough during the Enlightenment of the 18th century, and the emergence of science as the epitome of reason.
Let me give you an example that illustrates the shift that took place in the world during the Enlightenment period. If you had looked at a map of the world in the 15th century — the 1400s — you would have seen three ovals arranged like the petals on a flower. One represented Europe, another Asia, and another Africa. At the center of the map was Jerusalem — the center of the world.
Of course, we know today that the continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia are not shaped like ovals, nor are they arranged like petals on a flower with Jerusalem at the center. But the map of the 15th century was as more of a theological statement than a precise depiction of continents. Jerusalem was at the center of the world because Jerusalem was home to the three great religions — Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
It would also be 100 years before Copernicus would publish his theory that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the solar system. Copernicus was persecuted by the Catholic Church, not because he was a bad scientist, but because his science challenged the theology of the day.
In the 17th century, more scientific development, and the writings of thinkers like Rene Descarte’ who said, “I think, therefore I am” prepared the way for the Enlightenment, which dawned in the 18th century. The 1700s also brought the French Revolution, and the American revolution, both fought for liberty and individual freedom.
But the real significance of the Enlightenment was that it separated the sacred from the secular. By the end of the 18th century, maps no longer reflected the theological position of their creators, but looked very much like maps we have today. Of course, that’s a good thing if you’re planning a trip and need a map to guide you to your destination. A map with Jerusalem as the center of the world might be interesting from a theological point of view, but it was of little practical use. A real map, showing the real position of the continents was much better for navigating the real world.
And that is precisely how the Enlightenment came to view religion and all things sacred. If science could help us discover the “facts,” then religion was only about “faith” and could not be proven. So, Enlightenment thinkers separated the secular — that which human beings could discover and know — from the sacred — that which could not be proven, and therefore was less reliable.
At first, this was not a problem because even the Enlightenment scientists embraced the idea that behind all the stuff we can know — the science — was a God who started it all. But it wasn’t long before someone said, “Oh really? Well, if we can’t prove God exists, then we certainly can’t prove God has anything to do with the real world.”
Scientists began to deal in only the “real” world, leaving the world of faith, miracles, and divine intervention to the church.
What really happened in the Enlightenment was a shift in how we as human beings viewed the universe. Prior to the Enlightenment, God was thought to be at the center of Creation. God created everything, and God gave life to everything, and God controlled and sustained everything. God was at the center of the picture.
But, the Enlightenment replaced God with man. Man is the one who discovers scientific principles that govern the universe. Man is the one who has power over nature. Man is the one whose intellect will solve the great mysteries of life. And, man is the one who will create the world that he wants, rather than settle for the world as it is. Man replaced God at the center of existence. That is secularism.
Not only did man replace God at the center of existence, but religion itself was relegated to the personal and private arena. While we could talk about science publicly and without embarassment, religion was too uncertain to discuss in the public square. After all, each person could believe as he or she wished now. Freedom of religion became a hallmark of the many freedoms sought in the pursuit of liberty in the 18th century.
And even though our US Constitution includes in its Bill of Rights the freedom of religion, that freedom was also a freedom from religious belief, if one so chose. Of course, that is not a bad thing, but it did mark a dramatic shift from the days of the state church and the connection of citizenship and church membership. If you were born in England, you were also baptized into the Anglican church. If, after the Reformation, you were born in a province under the control of princes sympathetic to Martin Luther, you were baptized into the Lutheran Church. The Enlightenment eventually changed all of that, at least in America, so that persons were free to believe or not believe as they chose.
Back To Our Original Question — Why Don’t People Go To Church?
Which brings us back to our original question — Why don’t people go to church, at least in the numbers they used to?
Simply put, our society no longer sees church attendance as necessary to live a good life, or be a good citizen. Add to that fact, the increasing pluralism of our nation — which we’ll deal with next week — and you have recipe for “choose your own spirituality.”
In this new world in which we live, churches face the following challenges:
- Churches can no longer count on newcomers to a community seeking out a church to join because that is what is expected.
- Churches can no longer expect special treatment, protected days on the community calendar, or special status in the community.
- Churches are increasing viewed as bastions of prejudice, narrow-mindedness, and racism in an increasingly pluralistic society.
The secular has replaced the sacred at the center of our lives. It has been noted that Christians are right back where they started — as a minority in a culture hostile to what we believe and the way in which we live.
What’s the Answer to the Challenge of Secularism?
What is the answer to secularism? First, let’s consider what the answer is not.
- The answer to secularism is not to wail and complain that we live in a secular world. We actually have always lived in a secular world — a world where men put themselves at the center and displaced God from his rightful place. This isn’t right, but it isn’t new either.
- More church programs are not the answer either. Neither are more church pastors, missionaries, bigger budgets, and all the other stuff we have tried for at least the past 250 years with little to no success.
The answer to the challenge of secularism is a living community that acts, believes, and practices the presence of God at its center. Rather than serving ourselves in church, we must serve others. Rather than endless debates among ourselves about arcane theological points, the church must turn its attention to the vast world of people outside our doors who do not believe God can or will do anything for them, and who have never seen a community of faith live out its commitment to love God and love others.
More importantly, churches will need to rethink their entire mission and reason for being. We cannot continue to serve ourselves, build buildings exclusively for our own use, and keep most of our resources to ourselves.
God’s answer to secularism was to send Jesus. If man sought to displace God from the center of society, the center of God’s creation, then God would step into that creation as a man to demonstrate how mankind was intended to live; to give his life in love for mankind; to defeat mankind’s greatest enemies — sin, death, and the grave; and, to rise victorious proving that God both can and will save us physically and spiritually.
Secularism is nothing new. It has been with us since Adam and Eve decided to replace God with their own judgment. But, Jesus’ life puts the lie to this “I am the center of the universe” thinking. Only as we live Jesus’ life before others will they see any reason to join our churches, sing our songs, or follow our Savior. The challenge of secularism is met by the body of Christ, resolved to live with Christ as its head, with the Spirit giving it life, laying down its own life for the sake of the world.