Volume 38 - Issue 3

Secularisation: Myth or Menace? An Assessment of Modern ‘Worldliness’

By Melvin Tinker


In 1983 the Christian social critic Os Guinness commented, ‘Christians are always more culturally shortsighted than they realise. They are often unable to tell, for instance, where their Christian principles leave off and their cultural perspectives begin. What many of them fail to ask themselves is, “where are we coming from and what is our own ‘context’?” . . .

In 1983 the Christian social critic Os Guinness commented, ‘Christians are always more culturally shortsighted than they realise. They are often unable to tell, for instance, where their Christian principles leave off and their cultural perspectives begin. What many of them fail to ask themselves is, “where are we coming from and what is our own ‘context’?”1

This observation is particularly pertinent when it comes to the matter of ‘secularisation’. Many Christians bemoan that we live in what is often referred to as a ‘secular society’ and that this somehow constitutes a threat to the church as well as endangering the spiritual and moral health of society as a whole. But apart from having some vague notion that this is not a ‘good thing’, personal experience would seem to suggest that the level of ignorance concerning the impact of secular thinking and the secularisation process seems relatively high among pastors and those engaged in theological studies. This is not surprising. Working pastors have so many people to meet, sermons to prepare, and meetings to attend, that trying to keep abreast with major theological developments, let alone cultural shaping factors, is a major challenge (and headache!). Similarly, theological students not only have endless books to read and assignment deadlines to meet, but with increasing specialisation in academia, it is so easy to find oneself ‘running in order to keep standing still’! And yet, if pastors are going to enable those in their care to ‘be in the world but not of the world’, and if evangelical theological students are going to effectively ‘contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints’, then it is vital that there is an adequate grasp of the context in which they operate. Integral to that context is secularisation.

This article seeks to act as a ‘primer’ by unpacking some of the major concepts and identifying some key players in the world of secularisation theory as well as assessing its alleged impact upon Christianity in the West. The hope is that by making some of the material which is ‘out there’ more accessible to busy pastors and students, God’s people will be better equipped to serve their Master in the places and times he has sovereignly put them.

1. Definitions and Distinctions

Dr Denis Alexander issues this warning: ‘The secularisation debate is a minefield and those who enter it should tread gingerly. This is not to say that some reasonably well based conclusions cannot be drawn once the topic has been thoroughly discussed, but it’s a subject on which sociologists and historians frequently disagree, so some caution is called for.’2 With that warning in mind, we carefully take our first few delicate steps into the minefield!

Our starting point is to note the distinction between secularism and secularisation. The former is a philosophy while the latter is a process. Etymologically both derive from the Latin word saeculum—meaning the present age.3 Eric Mascall defines the secular as ‘that whole body of thought and activity which is concerned with man’s life in what is sometimes called “this world”. . . . Thus there is excluded from the sphere of “the secular” any concern which man may have with a possible future life after death and any concern which he may have, even during “this life”, with an order of reality (if such there be) which transcends the experience of the senses.’ He adds, ‘Of course, a man may believe in the reality and importance of the secular without being a secularist.’4 This means that many of our contemporaries are functional secularists, however much they may pay lip service to having some form of “spirituality”. The same could be said of some Christians. However, the full-blown secularist philosophy as represented by, say, the Secularist Society of Great Britain tends to be openly aggressive and therefore easily recognisable by Christians and so unlikely to deceive. This cannot be said of secularisation.

This all-pervading process may be defined as ‘the process through which, starting from the centre and moving outwards, successive sectors of society and culture have been freed from the decisive influence of religious ideas and institutions.’5 Similarly, Peter Berger defines it as ‘the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols.’6 In other words, this is a movement of change which takes place through the structures of society, especially the spheres of science, technology, bureaucracy, and the media which results in religious ideas becoming less meaningful and religious institutions more marginal.7 Of course, there is a subjective/intellectual side to secularisation, what is sometimes called the ‘modern mentality’. This has been described as ‘man turning his attention away from worlds beyond and towards this world and this time (the saeculum).’8 Since secularisation is a gradual process, its influence is often subtle and therefore tends to catch Christians unawares.9 Christians and churches are not immune from this process, as we shall see, and the upshot is that the net effect of secularisation upon the church is instilling a form of worldliness.

The prophets of secularisation which saw themselves as ushering in the enlightened secular age have been around a long time. In France, Auguste Comte (1798–1857) declared that as a result of modernisation, human society was outgrowing the ‘theological stage’ of social evolution, which he called ‘the fictitious age’, into a truly scientific one.10 In 1968 Peter Berger announced that by ‘the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture.’11 This presupposes what has come to be known as ‘The Secularisation Thesis’, the view that with the rise of modernity (which embraces industrialisation, urbanization, and rationalisation) there will be an inevitable corresponding decline in religion, resulting not only in the institutional separation of church and state and the reduction of the church’s social power on society as a whole, but the decline of personal piety itself, i.e., religious belief will wither on the vine.12

The process (secularisation) relates to the philosophy (secularism) by providing the ideal environment in which the philosophy can flourish almost unchallenged. Os Guinness illustrates this point: ‘Imagine’, he says, ‘a sports shop in a ski resort that wanted to improve its sales of ski wear. What would help it most would be not only to have attractive designs but good snow conditions. Even the best designs would sell poorly in the Sahara. Similarly, secularisation provides the perfect conditions for secularism. It’s the new context which enhances the old concept, making the latter seem natural, even necessary.’13 The resulting effect is that secularisation compounds secularism and restricts religion. Guinness warns, ‘Secularisation is the acid rain of the spirit, the atmospheric cancer of the mind and the imagination. Vented into the air not only by industrial chimneys but by computer terminals, marketing technique and management insights, it is washed down in the rain, shower by shower, the deadliest destroyer of religious life the world has ever seen.’14

One is reminded of the question once asked by Malcolm Muggeridge: ‘How do you boil a frog?’ The answer is that you don’t boil a frog by dropping it into a pan of hot water, for it immediately jumps out. Rather, the way to boil a frog is to place it in a pan of cool water and gradually raise the temperature on an incremental basis, that way the frog will die without even having been aware of what was happening. The secularisation effect is like that. Indeed, David Wells drawing upon this illustration goes so far as to claim, ‘In the same way, the Church often seems to be blithely unaware of the peril that now surrounds it.’15

2. Two Underlying Dynamics of the Secularisation Process: The Acid Rain Effect

2.1. Rationalisation

The first dynamic is what Max Weber calls rationalisation. This refers to religious ideas becoming less and less meaningful and religious traditions becoming more and more marginal as other modes of thinking and traditions replace them. With the advance of modernity, God is increasingly squeezed out of the picture. So if you are ill, you call a physician not a priest; if you want good crops, you get a better fertiliser, you don’t offer sacrifices to appease an angry deity. This is the hallmark of modernity, a ‘bottom up’ causation of human designs and products to replace the ‘top down’ causation of God and the supernatural.16

Nothing is left to chance. By the same token, nothing is left to human spontaneity or divine intervention. This is typical of the acid rain effect of the second trend: the modern movement toward extensive rationalization. Far from being an incidental consequence of modernisation, this is one of its essential characteristics. . . . As modernisation drives forward, more and more of what was formerly left to God or human initiative or the processes of nature is classified, calculated and controlled for the use of reason. This is not a matter of philosophical rationalism but functional rationality.17

This in turn results in what Weber calls disenchantment (Entzauberung), where the ‘magic’ or ‘mystery’ of life is not just removed but unwanted; we simply apply reason and technology with the consequence that matters of faith are deemed irrelevant. The social scientist Philip Rieff sums up this modernist outlook: ‘What characterises modernity, I think, is just this idea that men need not submit to any power-higher or lower—other than their own.’18

Think for a moment of the effect this has in terms of the church’s task of commending the Christian faith. We are dealing with what Peter Berger calls ‘plausibility structures’, those background assumptions, beliefs, and ways of thinking and acting which are taken as ‘given’ by any society. If the rationalisation process has made inroads, then the assumptions and beliefs of the church will simply not be ‘seen’ by many people; they are rendered more or less invisible, off the conceptual radar. It is not that Christianity is considered to be untrue, but rather it is considered to be meaningless. When the church is strong in terms of its influence, then it will at least seem to be true and thus relevant, and conversely, when it is weak, it will appear to be untrue and irrelevant.

Barry Barnes helpfully sets out the role of background beliefs in society:

For most people, whatever their way of life, the beliefs they accept and utilize are held unselfconsciously, and are rarely reflected upon. Moreover, when reflection does occur, it tends to depict these beliefs as natural representations of ‘how things are’. Critical analytical examination of beliefs, their origin, functions, and claims to validity, is the province of specialised, academic roles in modern societies, and is a phenomenon of little general significance. The ‘western layman’ lives in a taken-for-granted world: solid, objective intelligible; on the whole he thinks with his beliefs, but not about them.19

Of course, it follows that if those beliefs are secular, then the Christian faith will seem implausible. It is not simply a matter of arguing for the cogency of the Christian faith; many think that there is nothing to argue about. In a postmodern setting, people are not particularly interested in the credibility of Christianity but its plausibility; and to be frank, in the current social milieu it doesn’t seem all that plausible. Such are the effects of rationalisation.

2.2. Differentiation

The second dynamic is differentiation. Here the dominance or hegemony of religion collapses, and there is a differentiation in society into secular spheres (state, economy, media, and education), with the whole being greater than the sum of its individual parts. A popular view is that the medieval church had an ideological monopoly and influenced significant institutional control over the state, economy, and education. Pluralism has now replaced ideological uniformity, and institutional cohesion has given way to differentiation. As José Casanova describes it, the modern era has witnessed ‘the transformation of the church from a state-orientated to a society-orientated institution. Churches cease being or aspiring to be state compulsory institutions and become free religious institutions of civil society.’20 This is evidenced by glancing at the architecture dominating many Western cities:

Have you ever seen the silhouette of the London skyline in the eighteenth century? Compare it with the same skyline today. . . . What is dramatic about the earlier skylines is the dominance of Church architecture. Abbeys and cathedrals tower above the other buildings, representing the social power of the church, while spires and steeples, symbolising the human spirit, thrust upward to a world beyond. Today, by contrast, the churches are dwarfed by skyscraping office blocks and crouch down somewhere between the banks and the insurance buildings, cramped and overshadowed by a host of competing institutions. Here is a vivid picture of the effect of the first trend: the movement in modernisation towards explosive diversification. . . . Specialised, separate areas are thrown up, each with its own premises, its own priorities and procedures—in a word, its own autonomy.21

It is often claimed that one by-product of the secularisation process is privatisation—the restriction of religion to the realm of the private. To ascertain whether or not this is the case, we need some clarity about what is to be understood by the ‘private sphere’. As we have seen in the matter of differentiation, it is true that in the West religious institutions no longer have the social clout they used to have, but having acknowledged that, in England there is still an established church with Bishops sitting in the House of Lords. To be sure, some Christians react to secular pressure by withdrawal, adopting a siege mentality or a new pietism devoid of cultural engagement. What is more, as D. A. Carson argues, the result of secularisation is that ‘the religious side does not matter very much anymore in the public square and therefore in the direction of the nation, in its public pulse.’22 However, if it is being claimed that Christianity has relinquished the public square altogether and has become something which is purely personal, then the situation on the ground would suggest otherwise. One only has to consider organisations like CARE or the Christian Institute, and the effect of local churches up and down Britain as rehearsed by Sir Fred Catherwood to see how Christian social engagement is occurring and shows no sign of abating.23

3. Secularisation, Secularism and the Church

It has been argued that by virtue of being a process, secularisation can have a far more insidious influence on society than secularism as a philosophy. This is particularly important when it comes to assessing the secularisation of the church. If secularisation is a means of making people more ‘worldly’, how do Christians respond?

3.1. Resistance

One stance which can be taken is what Peter Berger designates as ‘cognitive and cultural resistance’. This tends to be associated with the more conservative elements of the church, for example, fundamentalism. On the face of it there appears to be a retreat from the world and the formation of a subculture. Sometimes whole ‘alternative’ communities are formed (e.g., the Amish community in the USA or the Jesus Army in the UK). The success of this approach is open to question, for there are signs that the conservative church has engaged in cognitive and cultural surrender; that is, there is worldliness barely concealed in Christian guise. This is because the effects of secularisation are so pervasive.

Take the case of the church-growth movement. Some argue that certain expressions of this movement exhibit a new form of worldliness which results from secularisation squeezing it into a practical secular mould. Here we have an ecclesiastical manifestation of the ‘bottom up’ causation of human designs and products that Guinness describes.24 The emphasis on the quantifiable and the ‘doable’ (what can be achieved) is, of course, a key feature of secularisation. In this movement we have both in bucket loads, especially in the United States. Having encountered this, a visiting Japanese businessman commented to an Australian, ‘Whenever I meet a Buddhist leader, I meet a holy man. Whenever I meet a Christian leader, I meet a manager.’25 Bearing in mind Rieff’s chief characteristic of modernity (‘men not wanting to submit to any power—higher or lower—than their own’), the following citation from a church-growth manual voices the modern mentality only too clearly:

The church is a business. Marketing is essential for a business to operate successfully. The Bible is one of the world’s great marketing texts. However, the point is indisputable: the Bible does not warn against the evils of marketing. So it behooves us not to spend time bickering about techniques and processes. Think of your church not as a religious meeting place, but as a service agency—an entity that exists to satisfy people’s needs. The marketing plan is the Bible of the marketing game; everything that happens in the life of the product occurs because the plan wills it. It is critical that we keep in mind the fundamental principle of Christian communication: the audience, not the message, is sovereign.26

One is reminded of the story concerning Harry Cohn’s funeral. Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia pictures, died in 1958, and a huge crowd showed up at his funeral service. This was rather mystifying to many because although a genius, Cohn was hugely unpopular because he was something of a tyrant. When a reporter spoke to the comedian, Red Skelton, about how surprised he was that such a large number of people turned up for Cohn’s funeral, Skelton retorted, ‘It just goes to show you, if you give people what they want, they’ll show up.’27

The result, as David Wells argues, is that truth shrinks and the church eventually disappears:

There is a yearning in the evangelical world today. We encounter it everywhere. It is a yearning for what is real. Sales pitches, marketed faith, the gospel as commodity, people as customers, God as just a prop to my inner life, the glitz and sizzle. Disneyland on the loose in our churches—all of it skin deep and often downright wrong. It is not making serious disciples. It cannot make serious disciples. It brims with success, but it is empty, shallow, and indeed unpardonable.28

The irony is that the soul-destroying effect which secularisation has on society in general is being introduced into the church in particular.

3.2. Adaptation

The second way the church has reacted to secularisation is ‘cognitive and cultural adaptation’, which when pushed to the extreme results in Christian thought assimilating the world’s assumptions.29 While such an orientation may begin with laudable motives, ‘being all things to all men in order to win some’, the trajectory can result in simply becoming ‘all things to all men’. Here flexibility for the sake of Christ becomes faithlessness to Christ by denying defining Christian beliefs. The celebrated statement of Rudolph Bultmann captures how some are abandoning traditional Christian faith like this under the weight of modernisation: ‘It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless [radio] and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of demons and spirits.’30

The secularisation of religion began to gather momentum in the 1960s with Bishop John Robinson’s Honest to God (1963), Paul van Buren’s Secular Meaning of the Gospel (1963), Harvey Cox’s The Secular City (1965), and Ronald Gregor Smith’s Secular Christianity (1966) paralleling the ‘Death of God’ movement. It is here with liberalism that the corrosive effect of secularisation is most potent, for, as Gresham Machen argued in the 1920s, liberalism is another religion entirely. It is not merely (using a phrase of Karl Barth to describe biblical interpretation) ‘saying the same thing in other words’; it is saying something different with the same words. Here, the secularising of the church is almost complete as theology is reduced to anthropology: ‘talking about man in a loud voice’ (Karl Barth).

Stark and Finke have drawn attention to the self-destructive nature of theological liberalism in relation to the work of Don Cupitt: ‘Why should religion without God have a future? Cupitt’s prescription strikes us as rather like expecting people who continue to buy soccer tickets and gather in the stands to watch players who, for lack of a ball, just stand around. If there are no supernatural beings, then there are no miracles, there is no salvation, prayer is pointless, the commandments are but ancient wisdom, and death is the end. In which case, the rational person would have nothing to do with church. Or, more accurately, a rational person would have nothing to do with a church like that.31

4. The Secularisation Thesis Revisited

In recent years sociologists have subjected the secularisation thesis to a sustained critique, especially the axiom that modernisation invariably leads to religious decline in belief as well as in the influence of religious institutions. In Europe the picture is somewhat mixed. In 1990 10% of the French attended church compared to 40% of the Italians and 81% of the Irish. The USA, the most modernised country in the world, still has an attendance of 40% on a regular basis, which provides the greatest stumbling block to the thesis.32

The secularisation thesis has largely exercised an appeal because it assumes that there was once a golden religious age from which decline has taken place with the rise of industrialisation. Such a view has, however, been challenged.

Stark and Finke use the year 1800 as a benchmark when church membership was higher in Britain than it is now. In 1800, 12% of the population belonged to a specific congregation. This rose to 17% in 1850 and then stabilized; the same percentage is found in 1900.33 Guinness captures the misleading and damaging effects of having a false ‘base line’ from which to view religious declines:

A real present (which is highly secular) can be falsely contrasted with an imaginary past (which is highly religious). Quite ludicrous and unhistorical, but the stuff of which invaluable myths are made. Take a period like the 17th century in England, ‘the golden age of Puritanism’. Granted, the Puritan revolution reached its zenith then. But at the same time the sales of almanacs exceeded those of the Bible, and for all the intense spiritual devotion and theological discussion of the period, superstition, astrology and witchcraft were rife. It was hardly a consistent spiritual age, let alone a golden one. Yet like earlier periods (such as the 12th or 15th centuries), it is convenient to use in suggesting that prior to secularisation all was well in the world of faith. . . . Dramatise secularisation through distorting history, and you achieve two things at once. You confirm the scepticism of the disbeliever and reinforce the discouragement of the believer.34

Alexander Murray asks, ‘Where did the notion of an Age of Faith come from?’ Having shown from original sources the near unanimous irreligion in medieval times, he concludes, ‘The scientific enlightenment was tempted to conceive faith not as a virtue but as an original sin, from which the Messiah of knowledge came to rescue it. It follows from that view that, in the olden days, men must have believed all the Church told them.’35

The second reason this thesis is questionable is that subjective religious (but not necessarily Christian) belief remains high. If the thesis were correct, these rates should be low. Thus Grace Davie concludes, ‘What is clear is that most surveys of religious belief in northern Europe demonstrate continuing high levels of belief in God and some of the more general tenets of the Christian faith but rather low levels of church attendance.’36

Furthermore, if the secularisation thesis hold true, then of all the sectors of society where one would expect the effects of secularisation to show up the most, it would be among scientists. Professors Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris can only wish it were so! In 1914 the American psychologist James Leuba, sent questionnaires to a random sample of people listed in American Men of Science. He hoped to show that scientific thinking people would not be very religious and that in due course society as a whole would grow out of such superstitious beliefs. Each was asked to select one of the following statements:

  1. I believe in a God to whom one may pray in the expectation of receiving an answer.
  2. I do not believe in God as defined above.
  3. I have no definite belief regarding this question.

This is so stringent it would exclude some modern clergy! To his dismay Leuba found that 41.8% of these prominent scientists selected option one; 41.5% (many whom Leuba acknowledged did believe in a supreme being) opted for two; 16.7% took the third vague alternative. Larson and Witham repeated the exact same study in 1996, and the results were unchanged. This means that over an 82-year period which has seen an accelerated modernisation of society, there has been no decline even amongst the most liberal of beliefs. Put simply, there does not appear to be a simple cause-and-effect relationship between modernisation and secularisation or a reciprocal relationship between secularisation and religious belief.37

The proponents of the inevitability of the secularisation process are now more muted, and some have recanted altogether. Harvey Cox writes,

The world of declining religion to which my earlier book was addressed has begun to change in ways that few people anticipated. A new age that some call the ‘post-modern’ has begun to appear. No one is quite sure what the postmodern era will be like, but one thing seems quite clear. Rather than an age of rampant secularisation and religious decline, it appears to be more of an era of religious revival and the return to the sacral. No one talks much today about the long night of religion.38

In an interview in 1997, Peter Berger admitted,

I think what most other sociologists of religion wrote in the 1960’s about secularisation was a mistake. Our underlying argument was that secularisation and modernity go hand in hand. With more modernisation comes more secularisation. It wasn’t a crazy theory. There was some evidence for it. But I think it’s basically wrong. Most of the world today is certainly not secular. It’s very religious.39

The situation is a little more complex. It would be unfortunate to give the impression that because the more robust version of the secularisation thesis is tottering (even though there are still some advocates like Steve Bruce) that this means that there has not been significant secularisation in both the USA and Europe. More recently Berger announced,

I would say that America is less religious than it seems because it has a cultural elite which is heavily secularised, which, if you will is Europeanised. The cultural elite is the minority of the population but it has great influence through the media, the educational system, and even the law to some extent. Europe is less secular than it seems because of the kind of thing Davie has been writing about, believing without belonging. . . . In central and western Europe, no question, the churches are in bad shape by any indicator of either behaviour or expressed belief and also institutionally in terms of recruitment of clergy, the financial situation, and public influence, certainly very much compared to the United States, but a lot takes place outside the churches and that has to be taken into account.40

5. Not Giving Credit Where Credit Is Not Due

While the secularisation thesis in its more original, strident form no longer holds sway as it once did, there is no denying its effects on Western society at large and the Western church in particular. However, it is important not to give too much credit to secularism because other factors have been at work which have contributed to lower church attendance, and some of this may be a result of the success of evangelicalism! For example, falling baptism rates in the Church of England may not represent merely fewer parents becoming Christians but ministers being much more rigorous in the standards being applied for eligibility for baptism.41

Hugh MacLeod has argued that it is Christendom that has been in decline for at least two centuries and that it was in the early 1960s that the crumbling became more marked.42 According to McLeod, it may not be putting it too strongly to suggest that the period may eventually be regarded as seeing a ‘rupture as profound as that brought about by the Reformation.’43 He argues that there was not so much an intellectual defeat of Christianity, as the Secularists would have liked to be the case, but with coercion being used less, people could simply choose the faith (think for example of the nineteenth-century farm workers in Britain having to attend church as demanded by many landowners).44 The decline of Christendom meant that a lot of people who used to be nominal Christians through legal or social pressures broke away from the church and its teachings. As Tim Keller has commented, we now have less of the ‘mushy middle.’45 Instead, people are more polarised towards choosing a religious or secular way of life rather than drifting by default into a nominal Christian ‘blah’ zone.

Macleod argues that in the 1960s affluence increased, and rather than actively rejecting religion people simply began to neglect it. Affluence also meant that free-time options became much more diverse and diverting. Church attendance gradually lost out to more entertaining pursuits. Different attitudes to parenting also had an effect. Generations of parents had insisted that their children were going to Sunday school whether they wanted to or not, but the 1960s broke that cycle. By and large, these youths did not stop going because they had formulated new views on the question of God: they simply wanted to stay out late on Saturday night and then sleep in on Sunday morning! Linked to this was the increased number of women entering the workforce. Prior to the 1960s, men tended to leave the spiritual formation of the children to the women. With less time available, something had to give; one such thing was teaching children to pray. Macleod argues that Christendom declined in part because the young were not being socialised into Christianity. This is illustrated by the incident when a journalist asked the English footballer David Beckham if he was planning to have his son christened, and he replied that he liked the idea but ‘didn’t know into what religion.’

Another important point Macleod makes is that we need to keep control groups in view lest we wrongly infer from declining church attendance an informed critique of religion. Marxist and socialist organisations lost a greater percentage of their members than the churches did, despite Marxism being intellectually fashionable in both the universities and the liberation movements which were energizing young people. That is to say, what has been in decline are organisational commitments generally. Relative to this, Macleod maintains that churches have done fairly well, ‘Yet, in the pluralist and relatively secular societies of the later twentieth century, the Christian churches continued to have an important role. At a time when many other voluntary organisations had also suffered serious decline, they remained the largest in numbers of active members, and the widest-ranging in social influence.’46 The point being made is that secularism is not the only force at work. Nonetheless, when the result of whatever factors are in operation and church attendance declines, it does help create the impression, especially when aided and abetted by the chattering classes, that secularism is a viable option and is the main, if not sole, explanation for reduced religious commitment.47

6. Conclusion

If secularisation is another example of the world trying to squeeze the Christian mind into its ‘mould’ (Rom 12:1–2), how might this be overcome and, in some measure, reversed?

There is the employment of what has been described as ‘resistance thinking’, a term adopted from an essay by C. S. Lewis.48 This is

a way of thinking that balances the pursuit of relevance on the one hand with a tenacious awareness of those elements of the Christian message that don’t fit in with any contemporary age on the other. Emphasize only the natural fit between the gospel and the spirit of the age and we will have an easy, comfortable gospel that is closer to our age than to the gospel—all answers to human aspirations, for example, and no mention of self-denial and sacrifice. But emphasize the difficult, the obscure, and even the repellent themes of the gospel, certain that they too are relevant even though we don’t know how, and we will remain true to the full gospel. And, surprisingly, we will be relevant not only to our own generation but also the next, and the next and the next. . . . Resistance thinking, then, is the way of relevance with faithfulness.49

Similarly Harry Blamires writes, ‘Christians have always accepted that their spiritual and moral position vis-à-vis the unbelieving world does not in essentials change. Our reliance upon the Bible as the Word of God presupposes that advice given in one age is valid for another. The pattern of Christian preaching established over the centuries is based on the assumption that the Christian message is unalterable in its essentials.’50 Both the feasibility and desirability from a biblical viewpoint of ‘going against the flow’ is borne out by various studies. In 1972, Dean Kelley showed that by and large conservative churches grow and liberal churches decline because liberal churches offer commodities such as ‘fellowship, entertainment and knowledge’ which are also provided by secular institutions, while conservative churches offer ‘the one incentive which is unique to churches’: salvation, ‘the promise of supernatural life after death.’51 This doesn’t mean that simply by remaining ‘sound’ in terms of theological orthodoxy without being culturally engaging, growth will follow; patently that is not the case, but it does underscore the importance of maintaining Christian distinctives in belief and behaviour as God’s chosen people living as strangers in the world (1 Pet 1:1).

The challenge then for theological students and theologians is to engage with and critique contemporary secularist writings and theories, even in theological guise, from a biblical standpoint.52 There are signs, in the UK at least, of a withdrawal in conservative evangelical circles from apologetics. However, if our survey is at all correct, what is required is a more vigorous approach in providing a thoroughly rounded biblical apologetic.53 The plausibility of the Christian faith alone requires this be so.

The challenge to pastors is to ‘know the times’, which, in part at least, means knowing the life-situations of their flock and relating the Bible pertinently to them.54 This will not only give Christians increased confidence that the Bible is God’s book for today (and every day), but will hopefully enable them to counteract secularist influences in their own lives as well as witness more effectively and more knowledgeably to their neighbours. What is more, this will enable the pastor himself to become increasingly self-aware of any secularising shaping which might be going on in the way he is approaching gospel ministry and especially when it comes to matters of techniques which claim to promote church growth. This is not to say that we can learn nothing from the world of management, for example, but it should make us more cautious and critical in adopting any method wholesale.

Some see the dismantling of ‘Christendom’ as a fresh opportunity to be the church, calling Christians to embrace the challenge. Stanley Hauerwas urges Christians to just get on with living the gospel and let the chips fall where they may.55 From an earlier century, Søren Kierkegaard, railing against the moribund Danish State Church, saw the distinguishing features of a church’s obtaining Christ’s favour as being one of ‘cross and agony and suffering, crucifying the flesh, suffering for the doctrine, being salt, being sacrificed.’56 The call for the church in the secularised West to be prepared to suffer rounds off D. A. Carson’s treatment of the corrosive effect of secularisation in producing a more intolerant society, together with the challenge, ‘Delight in God, and trust in him. God remains sovereign, wise and good. Our ultimate confidence is not in any government or party, still less in our ability to mould the culture in which we live.’57

Our calling is really the same as the calling of any Christian living in this saeculum with its idolatries and various expressions of rebellion against its Creator: remain faithful and true. The promise of the risen and ascended Lord Jesus is unequivocal and firm: ‘To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations’ (Rev 2:26).

[1] Os Guinness, The Gravedigger File (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1983), 42, 45.

[2] Denis Alexander, Rebuilding the Matrix: Science and Faith in the 21st Century (Tring: Lion, 2001), 47.

[3] Craig Calhoun, ‘Rethinking Secularism’, The Hedgehog Review 12:3 (2010). Cited 1 November 2013. Online: ‘The root notion of the secular is a contrast not to religion but to eternity. It is derived from saeculum, a unit of time reckoning important to Etruscans and adapted by Romans after them. For example, the lives of children born in the first year of a city’s existence were held to constitute its first saeculum. The succession of saecula was marked with ritual. While some ancient texts held this should be celebrated every 30 years, making the saeculum roughly equivalent to the notion of generation, more said every 100 or 110 years, reflecting the longest normal duration for a human life. The latter usage dominated as calendars were standardized, and the saeculum became roughly a century. It is worth noting that already in this ancient usage there is reference both to the natural conditions of life and to the civil institution of ritual and a calendar. Each of these dimensions informed the contrast drawn by early Christian thinkers between earthly existence and eternal life with God. For many, this was something that would come not simply after death but with the return of Christ after a thousand years, a millennium, ten saecula. The succession of saecula counted the time until Christ’s return and the end of history. In a very important sense, this was not what later came to be called secular time. It was temporary, a time of waiting, not simply years stretching infinitely into the future.’ See also, William H Swatos and Kevin J. Christiano, ‘Secularisation Theory: The Course of a Concept’, Sociology of Religion 60 (1999): 209–28. Cited 1 November 2013. Online:

[4] Eric Mascall, The Secularisation of Christianity: An Analysis and Critique (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1965), 190–91.

[5] Guinness, Gravedigger File, 51.

[6] Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City: Doubleday, 1967), 107. Similarly Bryan Wilson defines secularisation as ‘the process whereby religious thinking, practice and institutions lose their social significance’ (quoted in Bryan Wilson, Religion in Secular Society: A Sociological Comment [London: Watts, 1966], xiv).

[7] Similarly, D. A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 116: ‘In more popular parlance, however, all three words—“secular,” “secularisation,” and “secularism”—have to do with the squeezing of the religious to the periphery of life. More precisely, secularisation is the process that progressively removes religion from the public arena and reduces it to the private realm; secularism is the stance that endorses and promotes such a process.’

[8] Harvey Cox, The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective (London: SCM, 1965), 2.

[9] The term ‘secularisation’ was given to sociologists as a concept by Max Weber in 1930 and picked up and developed by his one-time associate Ernst Troeltsch in 1958.

[10] Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 58.

[11] Peter Berger, ‘A Bleak Outlook Is Seen for Religion’, New York Times (April 25, 1968).

[12] Stark and Finke, Acts of Faith, 59.

[13] Guinness, Gravedigger File, 53.

[14] Ibid., 61.

[15] David F Wells, No Place for Truth: or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 91.

[16] Os Guinness, Dining with the Devil: The Mega Church Movement Flirts with Modernity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 41.

[17] Os Guinness, The Last Christian on Earth (Ventura: Regal, 2010), 67.

[18] Guinness, Dining with the Devil, 49.

[19] Barry Barnes, Scientific Knowledge a Sociological Theory (London: Routledge, 1974).

[20] José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 220.

[21] Guinness, The Last Christian on Earth, 65.

[22] D. A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Nottingham: IVP, 2012), 71.

[23] Fred Catherwood, It Can be Done: The Real Heroes of the Inner City (Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2000).

[24] Guinness, Dining with the Devil, 41.

[25] Ibid., 49.

[26] George Barna, Marketing the Church (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1988), 33.

[27] Cited by Dale Ralph Davies, The Way of the Righteous in the Much of Life (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2011), 107.

[28] David F. Wells, The Courage to be Protestant: Truth-Lovers, Marketers and Emergents in the Postmodern World (Nottingham: IVP, 2008), 57–58.

[29] Os Guinness, Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 61–62: ‘It is assimilated without any decisive remainder. The result is worldliness, or Christian capitulation to some aspect of the culture of the day. No longer missionary, the church “goes native” in some foreign culture or among foreign ideas.’

[30] Rudolph Bultmann ‘New Testament and Mythology’, in Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate (ed. H. W. Bartsch; trans. R. H. Fuller; New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 5.

[31] Stark and Finke, Acts of Faith, 146.

[32] Grace Davie, ‘Europe: The Exception to the Rule?’ in The Desecularization of the World: The Resurgence of Religion in World Politics (ed. Peter Berger; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 65–84.

[33] Davie, ‘Europe’, 67.

[34] Guinness, Gravedigger File, 119–20. Similarly Michael Watts writes, ‘Both the early Victorians and many later historians assumed that there was a mythical golden age in the past when everyone went to church of his or her own free will. But there is little evidence that this golden age ever existed’ (Why Did the English Stop Going to Church? Friends of Dr. Williams’s Library 49th Lecture [London: Williams’s Trust, 1995], 4–5).

[35] Alexander Murray, ‘Piety and Impiety in 13th century Italy’, Studies in Church History 8 (1972): 83–106.

[36] Cited in Stark and Finke, Acts of Faith, 72. Wells (No Place for Truth, 114) draws attention to the downside of this for the church: ‘In a study that was done in Britain in 2000 . . . it was discovered that during approximately the final decade of the twentieth century, regular attendance at church dropped from being a practice of 28% of the population down to 8%. During this time, however, those who described themselves as spiritual, or who had spiritual experiences, rose from 48% to 76%. . . . It is not clear from this study itself whether the sharp rise in spiritual experience reflects the fact that people are being more spiritual or that they have become more willing to talk about it, but either way there is a belief that there needs to be a spiritual component to life, one that the Church is not the place to find it.’

[37] Stark and Fink, Acts of Faith, 73.

[38] Harvey Cox, Religion in the Secular City: Toward a Postmodern Theology (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985), 20.

[39] Peter Berger, ‘Epistemological Modesty: An Interview with Peter Berger’, Christian Century 114 (1997): 972–78. Berger underscored the same view in his article, ‘Protestantism and the Quest for Certainty’, Christian Century 115 (1998): 782–96. He argues that societies are influenced by pluralism, which, while undermining religious certainty does not necessarily lead to secularisation, but just produces different ways of being religious.

[40] Charles T. Mathewes, ‘An Interview with Peter Berger’, The Hedgehog Review 12:3 (2010). Cf. David Wells, The Courage to be Protestant, 186: ‘In the 1970’s secular humanism seemed poised for triumph. Certainly its advocates thought it was. . . . It must have seemed a foregone conclusion to them that it was only a matter of time before their views would triumph. The map would be wiped clean of all religions and all spiritualities. The world would soon become wholly “rational” and all “superstition” would disappear. This was not to be. Even while the US was modernising, a considerable amount of Christian believing was also going on in the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s. America, at one and the same time, is both highly modernised and full of believing. This fact prodded theorists to ask whether their understanding of how secularisation works had not been a little too wooden. They had assumed that the process of modernisation would push all things religious to the periphery of life, marginalising them, and make God irrelevant to everything important. However, something a little different from this has been happening in America. So it was that in the 1970’s, a more subtle understanding of secularisation began to emerge. The way it works, it came to be seen, is not necessarily by eliminating all religions and all spiritualities but rather by forcing a sharp divide between what is public and what is private.’

[41] See also Tim Larsen, ‘Dechristendomization as an alternative to Secularization: Theology, History, and Sociology in Conversation’, Pro Ecclesia 15 (2006): 328–29: ‘In nineteenth-century England, the functions of the religious establishment were reduced in large measure because evangelical Nonconformists campaigned for this to happen—a campaign that was informed by a free-church ecclesiology. This ecclesiology called for the church to be a gathered company of disciplined followers of Jesus Christ that renounced any use of the power of the state to attempt to advance the gospel on the grounds that “the weapons of our warfare are not carnal” (2 Corinthians 10:4 AV). In other words, one could argue that one of the processes that is labelled “secularization” happened because people of faith tenaciously demanded it for theological reasons’.

[42] Hugh McLeod, The Religious Crisis of the 1960’s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). He takes Arthur Marwick’s ‘long’ 1960s (i.e., 1958–74) as the outermost frame. Callum Brown (The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation 1800–2000 [London: Routledge, 2001], 9, viii) makes a similar claim: he draws attention to a renewed religious vitality in the 1850s and ‘rebrands Britain of 1800 to 1963 as a highly religious nation, and the period as the nation’s last puritan age.’ He further pronounces, ‘Secularisation is happening, yet secularisation theory is wrong’.

[43] McLeod, The Religious Crisis, 1.

[44] The Act of 1559 imposed a fine of 12 pence for every absence from church, and the Act of Retaining the Queen’s Subjects in Their Due Obedience of 1593 imposed a prison sentence for failing to attend church for a month and exile or death for failing to conform within three months (Watts, Why Did the English Stop Going to Church? 5).

[45] Tim Keller, “The Death of the Mushy Middle,” Resurgence, video [cited 5 May 20011]. Online:

[46] A parallel can be drawn with political commitment: ‘People are arguably just as “political” or “politically conscious” as they ever were, yet they are less likely to join a political party. I lived in the Midlands market town of Loughborough during the late 1990’s and it was hard to find a more run down, fading institution than the Labour Club. It finally closed, even though the country was being run by a Labour MP at the time. People are free to create new political parties as well, but when they do so they do not seem to be able to gather a significant membership. Nevertheless, this does not add up to a depoliticized population’ (Timothy Larsen, ‘Dechristendomization as an alternative’).

[47] In order to find a less ideologically loaded term to describe the diminishing social significance of Christianity, with contributory processes such as differentiation and outcomes such as reduction in church attendance, Larsen suggests the rather cumbersome term ‘Dechristendomization’ (ibid., 330).

[48] Os Guinness, Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance (Baker, 2003). Cf. C. S. Lewis, ‘Christian Apologetics’, in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (ed. Walter Hooper; Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1994), 89–103. This stance is the ‘third way’ the church might relate to culture, ‘cognitive and cultural negotiation’. The former student of Lewis, Harry Blamires, argues that Christian believers have much going for them in exposing the inadequacies of secularist philosophy provided they don’t try to play the liberal game of having it both ways, ‘‘If it is the prime Christian duty to shake people from their reliance upon secular criteria (as we should say today) from setting their hearts on things beneath (as our forefathers would have put it), then we should take note that the intellectual environment is not wholly unfavourable to our case. . . . Distrust of current secular criteria is prevalent over fields of thought little touched by Christian thinking. If one were to represent by diagram the relationship of two bodies of people in our Western world—firstly, Christians; secondly, people who distrust secular criteria—we should find ourselves with two rectangles only partially overlapping. The grey area of overlap alone represents healthy thinking, for it represents Christians who reject dominant secularist philosophies. Of the two “white” areas, the one represents critics of the modern world who have no faith to give a positive meaning to their distrust and can therefore only resort to cynicism and despair. The other “white” area represents Christians who are trying to have it both ways, to worship God and Mammon together, to serve the kingdom of God and to acquiesce in the values of a hedonistic and materialistic society’ (Harry Blamires, Where Do We Stand? An Examination of the Christian’s Position in the Modern World [London: SPCK, 1980], 10).

[49] Guinness, Prophetic Untimeliness, 20.

[50] Blamires, ‘Where Do We Stand?’ 139.

[51] D. M. Kelley, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion (New York; London: Harper & Row, 1972), 92.

[52] Examples of this include, D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Nottingham: IVP, 1996); David F. Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World (Nottingham: IVP, 2005); Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity against the Challenges of Postmodernism (Nottingham: IVP, 2000).

[53] See Melvin Tinker, ‘Reasonable Belief? Providing Some of the Groundwork for an Effective Christian Apologetic’, Churchman 124 (2011): 343–58.

[54] See Melvin Tinker, ‘Bridge Building in Preaching’, n.p. [cited 1 November 2013]. Online:

[55] Stanley Hauerwas, John Berkman, and Michael Cartwright, eds., The Hauerwas Reader (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000).

[56] Søren Kierkegaard, Attack upon “Christendom,” 1854–1855 (trans. Walter Lowrie; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), 34–35.

[57] Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance, 176.

Melvin Tinker

The Reverend Melvin Tinker is senior minister of St John, Newland, Hull, UK. He has contributed a number of articles to Themelios over the years and is the author of several books, his latest being Intended for Good: The Providence of God (IVP, 2012).

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