Surfing Secularism: Why Fighting the Rest of the World Is a Losing Strategy for Churches

A pastor in Boston calls on his fellow church leaders to ride the wave of the times.

The interview took a hostile turn.

The radio host of this How to Argue for Christianity show called me an “appeaser.” I wasn’t entirely sure what he meant by that, but it didn’t sound positive. He was interviewing me because I’d written a book that recounted people experiencing faith in a very secular city — Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard and MIT and a reputed 2 percent churchgoing rate. But when he found out that whatever encouraging things had happened there had not involved anyone “courageously confronting secular culture,” the knives came out.

Christians have been negotiating the relationship between churches and the wider, secular culture ever since there was a discernible “secular culture” — in America at least since the late 19th century. What’s new now is who is doing the negotiating. Back then, Harry Emerson Fosdick and what we know as the liberal, mainline church emphasized Jesus-the-good-citizen and downplayed Jesus-the-miracle-working-savior-of-individual-souls. But, today, many young evangelical church leaders are learning to surf, rather than draw lines against, secular culture.

Evangelicals are left with three choices.

Kristina Kaiser, who pastors The River Church in Quincy, Massachusetts, runs film forums, Zumba classes, and tutoring programs like a good, liberal Christian. But she’s also an evangelical who prays for miracles and hopes for people to follow Jesus. Rather than drawing lines, she says she focuses on the promise of joy and on storytelling as a way of coaching people to steer themselves toward an interactive God. She told me, “I know what we have heard in our church is: ‘If this church didn’t exist, I would be done with church.’”

She, like most pastors I know and work with, is quite familiar with the latest Pew Forum numbers that suggest what Robert Putnam and David Campbell have dubbed “the rise of the ‘nones,’” the expanding number of Americans who identify with no religion — now a fifth of all Americans and a third of those under 30. This is a 5 percent rise in the last 5 years of surveying, which got these researchers’ attention and gave this group a name. The “nones” constitute the only “religious” group that’s rising in all 50 states, and it’s now the second biggest U.S. “religion.”

The reasons for their growth, we’re told, are complex, but all surveys agree that a major factor has been the branding of churches with us-versus-them, right-wing politics and, for younger Americans, religion being perceived as anti-gay.

This trend should favor mainline churches, but their decline continues, as does the decline of Protestantism as a whole — which, in the last 40 years, has fallen from two-thirds of all Americans to less than half. Evangelicalism bucked this trend throughout the 1980s. Megachurches and “seeker” churches that focused on a felt-needs, easily digestible message were the hot trends. But that, too, had a shelf life as their “Boomer” target audience aged. Putnam and Campbell tell us evangelicalism has declined every year since 1992.

Today, evangelicals are left with three choices. Two are familiar. They can circle the wagons by “courageously” drawing lines against the evils both of secular people and “compromising” church people. New Calvinists like John Piper and Mark Driscoll embody this perspective. Or they can emphasize that they’re “not your parents’ church” by their ever-hip, ever-savvy professionalism. This is the megachurch strategy all over again.

The third option: they can focus on the message they preach (and try to live out) as being good news for all people, not just for church people.

Three Key Ideas for Surfing Secularism

The churches I see living out this option all work from three presuppositions:

1. It’s not about “them.” It’s about “us.” (In fact, maybe there is no “them.”)

Ken Wilson, who pastors a thriving church in Ann Arbor and writes books with contributions from people like New York Times-favorite T.M. Luhrmann, told me:

Many of those who identify as secular are broken-hearted Christians. I think of my friend, Carl Safina, a world-renowned conservationist. He experienced a form of otherworldly Catholicism growing up, which offered no place for his growing love for nature, birds, fish, the ocean. To hear him speak or read his books is to hear something of the Spirit. But he could only give voice to it “outside the camp” of the church as an institution. Whatever the church becomes in the new millennium, it must become a place with room for the vision of a Carl Safina.

St. Paul, in Ephesians, argues that Jesus came to “break dividing walls,” as if people will irresistibly drift towards tribalism and us/them to the point that breaking down this division will prove Jesus’ divinity and power to the demonic world (2:14-16; 3:8-11). Maybe the line-drawers are fighting on the wrong team and there is no “them” at all, but only “fellow human beings” whom we can grow alongside.

2. It’s not about the trappings. It’s about the offer.

Marlin Watling, pastor of Mosaik Church in Heidelberg, Germany, told me he stays away from hipness. “Trying to be cool is not cool. There needs to be a real love for the city and for the people in it; for the mentality and the lifestyle.” The update to evangelicalism is not in savvy trappings, but in the potency of the offer being made.

And about that offer: A great many evangelical preachers have really smart things to say about things like “a biblical worldview.” But those insights are inferences rather than direct explorations of the life Jesus came to offer, and their goal is to draw lines against people who hold the “wrong” opinions as if holding “right” opinions will give us what we’re looking for. St. Paul takes a hard stance against focusing on rules and lines, saying instead that what matters is a continually changed life (Galatians 6:15). Is such an allegedly supernaturally-empowered thing possible? If so, how does it, in point of fact, play itself out in the preacher’s own life each day? Is it only in changed opinions about charged political and social issues? Or is there a need for observant Christians to coach interested listeners through a life of continued spiritual transformation — and then learn what they can from them as well?

Watling, Wilson and Kaiser each mention that secular people, like all people, want the richness of the “good news” Jesus talks about. But first, that richness has to exist.

3. Our culture doesn’t equal God’s culture.

A common discovery in these circles is how much we all import our culture into our theology. A trip to Lebanon with the cross-cultural trailblazer Carl Medearis introduced me to a small circle of “Muslims who follow Jesus.” My Western, it’s-either-this-or-that-but-not-both mind kept trying to call these people “Christians.” But I was persistently rebuked as they explained to me that “Christian” in Lebanon was largely a term of ethnic and cultural identity. Actual churchgoing rates were quite low.

“So,” I said to Carl, “on those terms, you — a product of many generations of church leaders — would be a ‘Christian who follows Jesus’ and I, a convert from atheism, would be a ‘secular person who follows Jesus.’”

“Yes!” he said to me. “Now you’re getting it!”

When our church in Cambridge first started, one of the first insights secular visitors offered me was how parochial our worship music was. I was stunned. It was cutting-edge, contemporary Christian worship.  “Exactly,” I was told. “It’s earnest, white-person’s music.” Could we integrate at least two other cultures into our repertoire?

This move, I was told, would not only welcome visitors from those cultures, but would communicate to visitors from any culture that we understood there were different people in the world and that those people had value. So we did it, and it not only diversified our congregation, but also gave us a lasting major insight into the wider culture around us.

In a Western world in which secular culture appears to be rising like a tide, we can “courageously” engage in a doomed battle against it. Or maybe, in a win for all sides, we can surf it — we can double down on how the goodness of the life in God we’re hoping to experience is a gift we can continue to discover with the help of all people.


Image via Flickr.

Dave Schmelzer
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  • Michael Dunn

    Many Thanks. I love the Carl Medearis quote.

  • Erik Merksamer

    Very interesting Dave, and well said! I always cringe when I hear the word “secular”. Does God ever describe His creation that way? There certainly is a distinction among those transformed by the supernatural, but what supernatural distinctions do we emphasize? To me, that is the heart of the issue.

  • John Lieb

    Dave, thanks for your insightful perspective. I always find myself inspired and challenged to love others in fresh ways in Jesus’ name by you. However, I as I read this article I found what seems to me a blind spot in your perspective. I know the purpose of this article is to encourage followers of Jesus to engage culture, yet isn’t it a legitimate part of engaging culture to challenge the darker aspects of the particular culture in which we live? You seem to give short shrift the idea of there being a time and a place to be a prophetic stakeholder in one’s particular culture. One could have surfed the genteel civility of southern culture in the 1950’s and blindly engaged in shameful racism. How would you advise the “Muslims who follow Jesus” to surf a culture that is toxically misogynistic? Should “Muslims who follow Jesus” only be concerned about how the men in their communities fare? I only ask these questions because, while your point that we should “surf culture” is well taken, it should include, IMO, at least some nod to the fact that “surfing” culture requires we take seriously the moral obscenities we inevitably discover in each culture. As a life long surfer I learned the hard way (by suffering sea urchin injuries while surfing a reef break in southern Mexico) to have a healthy respect for the unseen seabed on which the wave I am surfing breaks.

    • Dave Schmelzer

      Hey John. We may be agreeing or we may not–maybe you can help me figure that out. My focus in the article is that evangelicals have been eager to draw lines with the evils of secular culture from a vantage point of unquestioned superiority and wisdom–the equivalent of how, to use one of your case studies, many evangelicals in the civil rights era aggressively did battle with “secular culture” by fighting for Jim Crow laws. (As late as the mid-1980s, I was having pitched conversations with some evangelicals about whether Genesis “clearly” prohibited racial intermarriage.) Should evangelicals band together as “prophetic stakeholders” against evil outsiders in a similar way today, as I argue is in fact happening and which, I argue, is driving a good portion of the next generation away from churches? Clearly my essay says this is a bad idea. I get lots of pushback from some evangelical circles along these lines. On the other hand, last night my wife and I were in a gripping meaning-of-life “salon” comprised of about half churchgoers and half nonchurchgoers. One of the latter gave an impassioned pitch for meaning coming from ensuring the well-being of the next generation by making a quick move towards solar energy and, in Southern California where there’s tremendous drought, employing things like rain cisterns. It was inspiring–Grace and I may well get moving on both of those fronts with our house. Was this man a “prophetic stakeholder” about a blind spot in American culture? To me, absolutely. And walls, rather than being re-erected, were breaking down. So…are we agreeing or disagreeing?

  • Don Bromley

    Dave, very thoughtful article. The mainline churches don’t do any of the things you argue has led to Protestantism’s decline. They’re not affiliated with right-wing politics, they’re not anti-gay, they’re not in a culture war, they are very much about social justice, etc. You say, “This trend should favor mainline churches, but their decline continues,” but you don’t really offer any perspective on why this is. And your three ideas for surfing secularism seem like things that mainline churches have already done for decades, so I’m wondering why you think these would contribute to growth now?