How to Create a Church that Connects with Secular Culture
Assistant editor to The Atlantic, Faith Hill, recently published an article titled, “They Tried to Start a Church Without God. For a While, It Worked” where she traced the demise of the secular church movement which, despite starting with a bang in 2012, has already begun to die off. However, Hill doesn’t simply explore the secular church movement from a historical perspective but also offers her own observations about the trend and its future. Her overall point is that in order for it to succeed, secular churches “need to do a better job of imitating religion.” In doing so, she hands the church the keys to connecting with secular culture on a silver platter.
A Bit of History
For those entirely unfamiliar with the secular church movement, it was essentially an attempt to give secular people an alternative to church. As Hill described, “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.”
Once again, the movement started off looking super strong. Not only did they grow rapidly in their early years but, as Hill indicates, they were “heavily covered by media outlets.” “The Hot New Atheist Church,” was one of the hit articles, published in 2013 at the Daily Beast. BBC, the Economist, Huffpost, the Insider, the Guardian, Vox, Salon and Wikipedia where among the other media outlets that reported on the phenomenon. The numerical growth was so impressive early on that “HuffPost noted that the number of [secular] assemblies had doubled in a single weekend in 2014.”
Those of us familiar with the book of Acts will see some parallels here. As the early church began to sweep into the culture of the day, Luke reports incredible numerical growth. Three-thousand in one day (Acts 2:47), another five-thousand plus overnight (Acts 4:4) and “multitudes” more (meaning large enough that Luke couldn’t be bothered guesstimating) as the apostles continued in their mission (Acts 5:14).
However, the parallels between the early church’s explosive growth and the secular church movement sort of end there. Hill takes us on a journey to the next phase of the secular church’s growth which was marked by, well, no growth. “[E]ven as the growth of ‘nones’ has revved up in the intervening years” she writes, “the growth of secular congregations hasn’t kept pace. After a promising start, attendance declined, and nearly half the chapters have fizzled out.”
To the contrary, the Christian church continued to spread. Despite being persecuted and scattered nothing was able to stop it. The impact was so strong, that the governing powers of the day described its leaders as “men who have turned the world upside down…” and freaked out that they had “come here too.” (Acts 17:6).
So why the distinction? Why did the secular church movement collapse?
1. It Didn’t Offer Enough
Hill points out some interesting perspectives. For example, she notes that this experience proved that “[b]uilding a durable community of nonbelievers… is more complicated than just excising God.” Later she adds that, “The yearning for belonging is not enough, in itself, to create a sense of home.” As her exploration continues, she references religious scholar Linda Woodgead (Lancaster University, Great Britain) who said, “Even more challenging than the logistical barriers are the psychological ones…. Meeting in a building with the same group of people every week … I don’t think there’s any natural need for that”.
Woodgead is entirely correct. There is no natural need for “meeting in a building” repeatedly week after week with the same folks. In fact, I will point out later on that one of the reasons I think this movement failed is because it attempted to copy the modern church - a system of church that is not only unbiblical but entirely unnatural and unnecessary. More on that later. (wink-wink)
Neverhteless, Woodgead does believe that community is super important but her overall point is that “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.” And herein lies another one of the movements major issues. Hill is clear that the secular church movement is plagued by a sense of fragmentation in which “different groups with different priorities” are gathering together and failing to find common ground outside of their dislike of God. In some ways, it seemed the only thing the attendees had in common was what they were against and “dislike of anything” is what Alan Cooperman, director of religion research at Pew Research Center, refers to as “the least effective social glue, the dullest possible mobilizing cry, the weakest affinity principle, that one can imagine.”
The other significant problem the young movement faced was logistical. In their attempts to copy the typical western church, the secular church organizers found that they were having to put on “a big show on a regular basis.” This created a logistical and financial nightmare. Bands had to be booked. Chairs had to be set up. Food had to be organised. “Some leaders” Hill points “told me they’re trying to make those weekly meetings so interesting, so entertaining, so powerful that people will keep showing up.” Hill later describes how “Organizers hope that other adults will see how wonderful it is to be accepted and accepting, to sing Bon Jovi badly in an abandoned church building or hear a talk about quantum physics in a local Y with other like-minded and familiar people. And that, having had these experiences, they’ll keep showing up.”
Sounds like most of our churches doesn’t it?
It was this need to put together a show each weekend that Anne Klaeysen, a secular church organiser identified by Hill, refered to as “unsustainable”. Hill then quotes another organiser - Justina Walford - who pointed out that, in putting on this weekend show “You’re competing with hundreds of other events at the same time…. Getting enough people to show up felt impossible.”
Once again, the tragedy in this entire scenario is that, in their attempt to create an alternative to the local church, secular church organisers immediately resorted to a “show”. What this demonstrates with ironic tragedy is that in the eye of the secular culture, church is a essentially a well-oiled “show”. It may have other elements, but when it boils down to the essence, that’s basically what you are trying to recreate.
What this Means for Adventist Churches
As the article nears its close we encounter a variety of elements and pillars which are purported to exist within local church congregations that gives them a sense of meaning - and thus a greater likelihood of success - not present in secular churches. Some of the key pillars secular church organisers have pointed our are the presence of costly sacrifice (you have to give up things in order to join the local church as opposed to secular churches which are basically communities “without costly rituals—one[s] that lets you do what you want”). Other elements pointed out are the need for meaningful rituals, stories, transcendence, and a sense of sacredness attached to the rituals, traditions, and ideals (completely missing in secular churches). “The irony is that to get away from religion,” says anthropologist Richard Sosis, “they may need to re-create it.” Sanderson Jones, leader of one of the more successful secular churches named “Sunday Assembly” has also “developed a framework of five core components in any congregation: ‘community life,’ ‘transformational gatherings,’ ‘personal growth,’ ‘helping others,’ and ‘changing the world’” - structural keys that one can find in just about any modern church with business driven strategic models.
However, there is one thing that the secular church movement can’t get around. It is what Cooperman referred to as the real “overwhelming number of people who were raised religious but now have left report being pretty content.” This sense of contentedness is not something the secular church has been able to break through and it’s also something our local Adventist churches have likewise been unable to overcome. And the reason is simple - our churches essentially run the same as a secular church. They revolve around a show with a few extra elements (like standards) sprinkled on top. But overall, we are not that different. Yes we talk about God, but do we really need him? If we did not have the Holy Spirit our church services would still run as normal. We have our church manual, traditional structures and financial backing to keep us ticking without God’s help for decades to come! Is it no wonder that the Growing Young research project found that “from 2007 to 2014, mainline Protestant adults slid from 41 million to 36 million, a decline of approximately 5 million” which, the authors summarise saying, “no major Christian tradition is growing in the US today. A few denominations are managing to hold steady, but that’s as good as it gets”.*
I don’t have all the answers, but in this article I feel that Hill gives us three keys to connecting effectively with secular culture - keys we would be dumb to ignore. Here they are:
In order to reach the culture, we have to move away from a spectator show. As pointed out by Woodgead, the thing we call church is simply not natural. We don’t need it. Is it no wonder that most people who attend church would not experience any major change in significance or purpose if they suddenly stopped attending? Sure, we might miss it because we are used to it but that’s not the same as undergoing an existential crisis. On the other hand, if the apostle Paul disconnected from church his entire life would have been turned upside down. This is because church was not a show for Paul. It was a way of being. A calling that transcended organised gatherings and redesigned his entire identity. Paul did not go to church. In fact, none of the early Christians did. Instead, they were the church and this impacted the way they interacted with society, politics, relationships and just about any other aspect of reality. When they did gather, the gatherings were simple revolving around eating, reading the word and celebrating communion. There was no show.
Sadly, most of our churches today revolve around a 2 hour show that is exhausting to organise week after week. And my suggestion is that if secular people can’t put on a show for secular people that secular people will want to keep going back to then we sure aren’t going to do it. It’s time to redesign our churches away from revolving around a “show” to fostering true and meaningful relationships and discipleship. In short, we need to offer more and maybe the way to do that is to offer less. Less entertainment, less spoon-feeding and less lectures. More relationships, more time in the word and more prayer.
In order to reach the culture, we should not shy away from “costly sacrifice”. Many modern churches, in their attempt to reach the culture, have assumed that we need to get rid of “standards”. However, what even secular people are starting to realise is that what doesn’t cost you something is not valuable. As a result, we should forgo any temptation to make following Jesus “easy”. Love will cost you something. Jesus will cost you everything. And we shouldn’t shy away from that in order to reach people. They might like us more yes, but that doesn’t mean they will find our faith meaningful. Meaning is found in sacrifice.
Now of course, this can be interpreted in many ways so I want to be clear. This is not a pass for ultra-conservative Adventists with their ridiculous/ unreasonable standards and judgmental attitudes to run around saying “see? we told you?” Equally true is that many of the secular people who have abandoned church have done so because church was full of ridiculous rules that caused spiritual and damage and nurtured exclusivism, narcissism and elitism. The recent experience with former fundamentalist pastor turned atheist Joshua Harris** is evidence enough of this. So the call here is for us to return to a love-ethic, a balanced and centrist view of sacrifice that actually beautifies the world while demanding radical obedience of us.
In order to reach the culture, we must emphasise our unity in Jesus. The one thing missing in this entire article is how the main glue that kept the early church alive was the union that all believers have in the resurrected Christ. In Jesus, Paul says, we are one. He has removed the walls of hostility and brought us together. The church is far from perfect, but there is a sense in which it is Jesus, in his broken body, who holds us together and keeps us moving despite our natural human tendency to mess things up. You can remove everything else, and this one thing will remain. Is it no wonder that Jesus said, “by this will all men know you are my disciples if you love one another.” (John 13:35)
Somehow, our unity in Jesus is an incredibly powerful key that keeps the church alive despite its human weaknesses. We need to pursue this unity more. In creating churches designed to connect with the secular world we must demonstrate to them something they cannot find anywhere else - a unity that celebrates the agape love of God and the Triune nature of his being. As people see this super natural union and love exhibited among us, they will be drawn to the Jesus that it all points back to.
So those are my thoughts for now! Of course, there is so much more to say about this amazing article. Please take some time to read it in its entirety and share your thoughts below! I’d love to know what amazing insights I missed and how we can embrace those elements to create local Adventist churches that truly connect with secular culture.
Original article cited in this blog: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/07/secular-churches-rethink-their-sales-pitch/594109
* Growing Young pages 5 and 7
**On Joshua Harris: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/29/author-christian-relationship-guide-joshua-harris-says-marriage-over