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How do secularists see your Church?

church steeple
Unsplash/Akira Hojo

Are seminarians receiving necessary training for communicating the Gospel in post-Christian America? Should a young couple moving from Birmingham to Boston receive similar cross-cultural training as do international missionaries moving from Missoula to Mumbai?

Our greatest missionary, Jesus, could read individuals like a book. The Psalmist declares that God can “discern my thoughts from afar.” Even more, Jesus knew how people viewed certain money-grabbing priests in the Court of the Gentiles, along with the spirit-stifling burden of the legalists.

Aaron M. Renn’s helpful analysis of American evangelicalism in his First Things article shares a framework of “Three Worlds” having existed in American culture: “Positive World,” “Neutral World,” with the “Negative World,” presently showing the slide and side-effects of secularism among our evangelical leadership class, and various congregations and congregants. As evangelicals talk within our circles, we are shocked that our tribe is no longer speaking the same language. If cultural incoherence is bringing about angst and animosity within evangelicalism, then is there hope for us fishing in the pagan pool?

Christian academics should be sensitive to emerging cultural realities to effectively train our pastors as cross-cultural missionaries within the scope of our secular and sensate culture.

Deconstructionists have ripped up the sacred tracks the American church once traversed and travailed. Our European model of theological education is missing the mark as we see growing numbers of America’s sacred buildings converted into antique shops, museums, and mosques — just like across the European Union.

Renn posits that around 2014 America made the transition to the “Negative World,” where Christianity is viewed adversely. He says that we “will have to grapple with the ‘rise of the nones,’ people with no professed religion who may be unfamiliar with Christianity and find it quite odd or even offensive. One-third or more of Americans in the younger age cohorts fall into this category, portending a radically different cultural landscape in America.”

Born in 1953, I was pulled from the pagan pool at the age of 23. By the age of 19, I became the youngest man acquiring an alcohol license in Tennessee as part-owner and manager of a large nightclub in my hometown. With that background, I have always been interested in “how” we can effectively communicate the Gospel with agnostics, skeptics, and honest questioners in ways they will want to listen, understand, and respond.

A young 23-year-old irreligious person walking into church today is far different than myself when I became a follower of Jesus in 1976. From my Southern culture, I had already gained a profound respect for God, the Bible, and the church. Starting the day, my public-school elementary teachers read a passage from the Bible and closed her morning prayer by saying, “In Jesus Name.” We proudly stood to pledge allegiance to the Stars and Stripes because many of our fathers were battle-scarred WWII or Korean veterans.

Growing up in the “Positive World” referenced by Renn, it was a time when American culture gave respect to the Church and Christianity. To be clear, there was plenty of sin, hypocrisy, and syncretism in our cultural mini-sphere called the “Bible Belt.” Even so, the “fear of God” still hovered like the blueish haze over the Smokey Mountains! No city or county baseball league manager dare schedule a practice on Wednesday church night or a game on Sunday. That era is “Gone with the Wind.”  

The encroachment of secularism has been invasive — like the fire ants in my backyard and the armadillos digging in our flower beds. With their exalted Enlightenment reason intermixed with Critical Theory and emerging woke leftist orthodoxy, our new secular social engineers have rewired and rigged a radical redirection and the dethroning of Christian morality and symbols from our public square.     

Secular eyes look through a pluralistic prism. Their worldview is the melding of many religious and socio-political views with the cultural overhang of Christianity giving marginal input into their worldview. Directing evangelism and church planting for a convention of one-thousand Baptist congregations in Illinois several years back, I shared the following ways that secular people can view our churches:   

Nonentity — The church really doesn’t exist in the world they live. They seldom realize it is there. It goes unseen, unheard, and they are untouched by it.

A Novelty — The church is nice to look at or even think about, but let’s keep it on the shelf for display. They feel the influence of the Church should stay inside the building and never seek to convince & convert people on the outside.

A Nuisance — Of the Church, they are saying, “We don’t want their rules, regulations, and restrictions superimposed on or over our lifestyle. Or we don’t want Christians constructing large facilities in our neighborhoods impeding our Sunday morning traffic flow.”

A Neanderthal — The Church represents some ancient past whose purpose is extinct and irrelevant in a postmodern world.

A Narcotic — The intellectual avant-garde still see religion (the Church) as the opiate of the people or a crutch for weak people while somehow soothing their unenlightened souls.

Read’em and weep … because we need to be shocked out of our complacency in understanding those our Lord wants us to reach with the Gospel.

Ron F. Hale is a retired SBC pastor and former North American Missionary (HMB/NAMB). He has authored articles for The Stream, The Christian Post, The Christian Index, American Thinker, and various Baptist State Convention newspapers.

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