‘Secular Church’: Three Lessons for True Churches

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The Atlantic recently published an article on the sudden rise and the even more sudden fall of so-called “secular churches.” The article chronicled the difficulty of starting and maintaining gatherings for people who do not believe in God but want the benefits of congregational life.

As I read the article I felt both saddened for people looking for a substitute for God and the church, as well as alerted to a kind of cautionary tale. After all, some of the people in the article had been consistent churchgoers who left the faith. Like Justina, described in the article as someone whose “faith had long since unraveled, a casualty of overseas travel that made her question how any one religious community could have a monopoly on truth.” If you have been a Christian for any number of years, you’ve met at least one Justina, who could have been a close friend or a member of a church you know. A couple of days after reading this article, I read Josh Harris’s announcement of his leaving the faith. These things hit close to home.

Make God Central and Unavoidable

“Secular church” services attract people by minimizing God and amplifying social relationships. The article reports: “Members gather on Sundays, sing together, listen to speakers, and converse over coffee and donuts. Meetings are meant to be just like church services—but without God. ‘That’s it,’ [Justina] thought. ‘That’s what I want.’”

That description comes alarmingly close to the ministry philosophy of seeker-friendly and emergent churches, movements that have also seen their decline.

But are we really being the church or genuinely worshiping if Sunday becomes a performance where God gets pushed into a role as an extra? I think not. In fact, according to 1 Corinthians 14:24-25, when “an unbeliever or outsider enters” our gatherings, they should be “convicted by all . . . called to account by all,” have “the secrets of his heart disclosed, and so falling on his face . . . worship God and declare that God is really among you.” For that to happen, our gatherings must be relentless and intentional in making a really big deal of God. It’s part of what makes us distinctively Christian, and it’s the only thing that helps the Justinas of the world survive their encounter with rival religious claims.

Pastors and Christians, do not downplay God in order to “win people.” What you win people with is what you win people to. Let that be God in all his majesty and splendor.

Celebrate Christian Tradition and History

The folks attempting to organize these “secular churches” found recruiting and keeping members difficult. They longed for community but didn’t have the necessary “glue”—vision, values, history—to build a lasting congregation of people. The article points out: “Sustaining any kind of new congregation—indeed, any new group activity at all—is hard work. But religious groups have more tradition, history, and institutional support behind them, and these factors can stand as a kind of safety net behind religious start-ups.”

So, caution #2 for me while reading the article was: Do not downplay tradition, history, or even institution; rather, emphasize and celebrate them. No new convert to the faith has a clear sense of the 2,000 years of Christian history and heritage that’s come before them. Their understanding of the church as an institution can range from deep reticence about being involved because of past hurts or stereotypes to blissful ignorance about the warts and weaknesses of organized Christianity. Church leaders often face the temptation to shy away from these areas. We can give the impression that these things are at least boring if not unnecessary.

But any church that takes an ahistorical approach to the faith robs their members of a sense of historical identity and rootedness necessary for shaping Christian faith. We also rob them of apologetic resources helpful for strengthening and defending their faith. After all, this generation of Christians is not the first to think about the claims of atheists, Muslims, Hindus, scientists, and so on. We have a global family that crosses time and geography, and our family has left us immense riches to mine and apply in our own age.

Pastor and fellow Christians, celebrate Christian heritage and tradition. Teach it as a resource for faith and identity. Teach the good, the bad, and the ugly so that people aren’t surprised and unsettled when they hear the worst version of the Church from the unbelieving world. Use an old statement of faith that connects your church with the longer stream of Christian history. From time to time, use a creed from the early church in your services. This history is, after all, the story of God’s mighty works in keeping his promise to build his church. That’s far from boring; that’s promises fulfilled!

Sacrifice and Commitment

One reason the “secular churches” may be dwindling seems counter-intuitive: They don’t (and can’t) require commitment and sacrifice. People who choose these gatherings do so for a variety of reasons—some are anti-religion, some are pro-atheism, some just want to hang out. But few of them wish to be called to sacrifice and commitment. They’d rather come and go as they please. In other words, they don’t want the commitments of membership, just the benefits, and yet it’s those sacral commitments that hold a group together.

As one expert put it in the article: “Meeting in a building with the same group of people every week . . . I don’t think there’s any natural need for that.” Exactly. There’s only a supernatural need for that. The author continued, “you can’t just meet for the sake of community itself. You need a very powerful motivating element to keep people coming, something that attendees have in common.” For the Christian, that powerful motivating element is the lordship of Jesus Christ, sometimes the only thing diverse members of a congregation have in common.

Nevertheless, we’ve seen a significant number of Christian churches choose the low-commitment, limited-sacrifice route to church involvement. Some membership practices hardly require anything at all, simply showing up on Sunday or coming down front after the sermon. Such approaches set people up for frustration, rejection or resignation when the demands of church life—commitment, giving, accountability, and so on—come into view. There’s simply no way to have community without these graces. And even if you could, would it really be safe for the soul to want it?

Pastors and Christians, embrace commitment and sacrifice. Call people to it. Raise the bar to biblical levels. Use a church covenant as part of your membership process, at the Lord’s Supper, during your members’ meeting, and in counseling where appropriate. No church exists long without the sacrificial service of its members. For those who have received Christ’s sacrifice for their salvation, the Christian life now follows that same pattern of self-giving for the glory of God, the blessing of the saints, and the mission of the church.

Churches that Tend to Last

It’s vogue to blame the church for everything that goes wrong. I don’t think that’s a fair or effective thing to do. However, I do wonder to what extent the path to “secular churches” has been smoothed by high “community”/low commitment churches that minimize God and Christian tradition. Apostasy and false religion has always been around and will be until Jesus returns.

But how many Justinas might we actually see converted and kept in the fold were we to magnify God, celebrate tradition, and emphasize commitment and sacrifice? Those are the churches that really are churches, so we shouldn’t be surprised that those are also the churches that tend to last.

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