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The church and secular society: reaching and discipling the secular person

Few would deny that America is facing treacherous times. There is a meltdown in the social, political, philosophical, moral, and spiritual arenas that is symptomatic of a society that has turned away from God. America as a society has declared, consciously or unconsciously, its independence from God and acts in ways that exclude God from its value system, beliefs and behavior. We have become a secular society.

The shift from spiritual to secular is a slow process as society moves from being guided and governed by biblical principles to being guided and governed by personal and self-interests. In a secular society, initial indifference toward God and religion ultimately becomes hostility toward God and religion.

How can the church reach and develop the secular person? If we reach them but fail to develop them as true disciples with kingdom values, character, and lifestyle, then the influence of the church's message and ministries is diluted and impotent.

What are the issues and changes that as leaders and churches we need to be aware of if we are going to be effective in reaching and developing people? Let's examine the effects of secularization upon evangelism and the discipling in the church.

Impact of Secularization Upon Evangelism

Secularization changes the people the church is reaching and it affects Christians as witnesses.

To understand the people we are trying to reach, we must first realize there is a declining reverence for God and Christian principles. People often don't even know Christian principles and values and if they do, they don't regard them in their lives or communities. The idea of moral absolutes is lost in our society as individual rights and choices are primary values. Right becomes what I want to do or believe to be right. Wrong becomes anything I don't agree with or that isn't in my best interest.

As the message of tolerance is proclaimed, the message of moral absolutes is lost. Consequently, God is seen as just one among many gods and Christian principles are seen as archaic and irrelevant.

As the gap widens between the values, attitudes, and lifestyles of society and those communicated in God's Word, Christianity is increasingly under attack. Christians and the church are seen as out-of-touch and irrelevant. The church is less likely to be seen as a positive element in a community. Today there are communities that have banned the building of new churches. They won't allow churches to buy property or to build larger facilities. A Brookings Institute study authored by James Reichley concluded, "A society that excludes religion totally from its public life, that seems to regard religion as something from which public life must be protected, is bound to foster the impression that religion is either irrelevant or harmful" (James Reichley, Conclusions from a Brookings Institute study, quoted in North American Scene, Christianity Today, 2-7-86, p. 59).

A second issue is that the core social institution, the family, is being destroyed. Sociologist and historian Carle Zimmerman, in his 1947 book Family and Civilization, compared the disintegration of various cultures with the parallel decline of family life in those cultures. Eight specific patterns of domestic behavior typified the downward spiral of each culture Zimmerman studied.

  • Marriage loses its sacredness; it is frequently broken by divorce.
  • Traditional meaning of the marriage ceremony is lost.
  • Feminist movements abound.
  • Public disrespect for parents and authority in general increased.
  • Juvenile delinquency, promiscuity, and rebellion accelerate.
  • People with traditional marriages refuse to accept family responsibilities.
  • Desire for and acceptance of adultery grow.
  • Interest in and spread of sexual perversions and sex-related crimes increase.

This sounds much like America's condition today. The family structure and values are being destroyed. Divorce is seen as a healthy option rather than a destructive choice. As for divorce, one expert said she sees it as a "safety valve" for families. "It makes for better family life," she said. "There's no merit in holding families together just for the sake of it. For this reason, divorce improves the quality of marriages" ( Tulsa World, August 21, 1977, AP). Twisted thinking about marriage and family abound but this is what people we are trying to reach are thinking.

Third, more emotional, psychological and social problems exist within our society. These appear to be related directly to the loss of a national Christian conscience and the destruction and warping of the nuclear family unit. "Depression (or melancholia, as it was once known) has...come so much into public attention that some are calling our era the age of melancholy, in contrast to the age of anxiety that followed World War II. Depression has been considered as by far the commonest psychiatric symptom, and one which is found both as a temporary condition in a normal person who has suffered a great persona disappointment and as the deep suicidal depression of a psychotic" (Collins, Gary, R., Christian Counseling, Word Books, 1980, pp. 84-85).

The disregard for God and His principles leads to the kind of problems that people are facing personally.

How the Church Can Reach and Develop the Secular Person

The church's efforts to reach people for Christ and to develop them into growing disciples are affected significantly as America becomes increasingly secular. First, there is a proliferation of religious groups as Americans seek a spiritual experience of some kind. Most of these groups are not biblical or they demonstrate unbiblical values, ideals, and practices. This creates an atmosphere of confusion and suspicion for the church to deal with. People don't know truth from error. To be effective, the church must start by building relationships and ministering to needs. Using felt need seminars like Sequence Evangelism's, Positive Parenting #714-406 or Managing Life's Stress #714-410 is a great way to establish meaningful relationships with the unchurched while using biblical principles as the foundation for teaching.

Second, since people increasingly view the Bible and Christianity as irrelevant in dealing with life, personal issues, and social problems, the church must demonstrate credibility before attempting to share the gospel. Christians must demonstrate credibility through their values, character, and lifestyle. The church's influence in the community is not based upon its programs and ministries but upon the character and commitment of its people. Thus, the church needs to focus on building people who have developed the habits, disciplines and character of a true disciple. Sunday school and Bible study groups must be places where people learn "how" to pray, study, and apply God's Word and not just "about" prayer and Bible study. Provide an accountability structure in your Sunday school. Help people begin to care about each other's needs and spiritual development. Encourage people to meet together for accountability and encouragement for their own spiritual growth.

Third, due to less religious training while growing up and poorer religious education, Christians and non-Christians have less knowledge of the Bible or spiritual principles. Research reveals that even regular attendees in our churches are ignorant of the basic tenets of faith. This means that the church can't take for granted that non-Christians or Christians have a basic understanding of the Bible. Christians who are being trained to be effective witnesses must be taught foundational truths and how to deal with people who have little knowledge of God's Word. We must teach basic Bible principles and doctrine. One church taught Foundations For Faith, a basic doctrines course designed for 6th graders, to their adults and they loved it.

Fourth, since individuality and independence are a cultural norm, the church must provide a strong vision and strategy to fulfill it. The lordship of Christ is difficult for people to grasp and apply. The church that provides both a purpose and strategy for reaching and developing people is more likely to get people to make a commitment. It is a myth that people won't make commitments. They commit both time and money to saving whales and owls. The issue for the church is to provide a challenging cause (mission of Christ) and a strategy for helping people develop. People ask two questions when they come to your church and Sunday school -- "What is the cost to come?" and "What is the benefit?" If the benefit doesn't outweigh the cost, they will not commit to more than they get in return. Write out specifically what your mission is as a church and a specific strategy for helping people to develop. The We Build People vision and model is designed to help your church do just that (WBP Book Brochure #714-523; WBP Product Brochure #714-905).

The cultural shift and the trends we see have significant implications for the church and the programs that we have or should develop. Today's Americans have a totally different perception of life, a totally different value system and a different lifestyle. The church that recognizes this shift and adapts to face it has a great opportunity to reach and develop people for the kingdom of God.

Understanding The Secular Person

The general characteristics of the person the church is striving to reach include:

  • Essential ignorance of basic Christianity. Most people don't know the basics of the Bible or what Christianity is about.
  • Seeking for life before death. People fear extinction more than they fear hell or seek heaven. They seek to get the most out of life now.
  • Having a greater consciousness of doubt than guilt. Guilt is viewed as a social problem but not a personal problem. People who feel guilty are more inclined to see a therapist to learn to deal with the guilt than to see a pastor or priest to find spiritual help.
  • Holding a negative image of the church. They doubt the intelligence, relevance, and credibility of the church and Christians.
  • Distrustful. Broken relationships, alienation, "getting burned" or taken advantage of and manipulated lead to distrust.
  • Having low self-esteem. Loss of identity, worth, value and dignity are epidemic. This leads to selfishness and self-deception and dysfunctional behavior and relationships.
  • Feeling the world is "out of control." Assassinations, Vietnam, and other such events were surprising and shocking. The sense that the past was out of control leads to anxiety about the future.
  • Feeling that issues in their lives are "out of control." People have issues in their own families and personalities that they can't control. Their sense of hopelessness becomes self-destructive.
  • Unable to find "the door." People are on a search for ultimate reality, life and God but cannot find the door of life.

----Adapted from George G. Hunter III, How To Reach Secular People; Nashville, Abingdon. 1992. pp.


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