I began my chapter on preaching and postmodernism in We Cannot Be Silent with these words, “A common concern seems to emerge now wherever Christians gather: The task of truth-telling is stranger than it used to be. In this age, telling the truth is tough business and not for the fainthearted. The times are increasingly strange.”
As preachers we recognize how strange the times have become. Almost anyone seeking to carry out a faithful pulpit ministry recognizes that preachers must now ask questions and engage issues we have not had to consider in the past. We recognize that preaching has been displaced from its once prominent position in the culture. Many of us are wondering: why is preaching even more challenging in our cultural moment than it has been in other times?
The answer to that question ultimately rests in this reality: we now live, move and have our being in a secular age. In this article, I hope to survey the trends of secularization and advance that the only authentic Christian response to the challenge of secularization is faithful, clear and informed expository preaching.
Secularization and Its Theorists
Secularization, as representative of an ideological and cultural change, was not possible until very recent times. Secularization rests on the shoulders of a number of other ideological shifts that have preceded it. Without the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and even certain technological advances, secularization never would have been possible.
Once these intellectual and societal trends were charted, secularization theory began emerging. Most of the contributors to this theory argued that secularization was the handmaiden to modernity. As these theorists explained, the modern age would necessarily and inevitably produce a secular society because modernity made God irrelevant. Modernism provided alternative answers to the most fundamental questions of life thereby rendering theism no longer necessary.
One of the most important theorists was professor Harvey Cox, who in 1965 published an enormously important work, The Secular City. The book was revolutionary for many in the church because many Christians had not yet fully recognized that society was fundamentally changing and growing more secular. Of course, many of the cultural signs pointing toward secularization were not as apparent then as they would be just a few decades later.
Indeed, one need only consider that just 10 years prior to the publication of Cox’s book, Dwight Eisenhower was baptized, making a public profession of faith in Christ, while holding the office of president of the United States. This episode alone is enough to demonstrate just how significantly the culture and the political landscape has shifted between Eisenhower’s presidency and our own day. Despite this seeming evidence to the contrary, Cox perceived a tectonic shift within Western society.
With great foresight in 1965, Harvey Cox made the point that the future of the Western world, particularly its cities, was predominantly secular. As Cox made clear, this secularism was characterized, at least in one way, by an eclipse of theism. Cox further argued that this coming secular city would provide a larger range of worldviews as alternatives to what had been offered before. This multiplicity of worldviews would be one of the hallmarks of the secular city. As a result, Christianity, the once ubiquitous worldview of western society, would be displaced—giving way to a seemingly infinite number of worldview options.
Another important theorist, German sociologist and philosopher Max Weber, argued that most people throughout human existence lived in an “enchanted” world. Weber meant that in the pre-modern era, humanity looked for the answers to all of the most basic questions of life by appealing to an “enchanted” or transcendent source.
Weber was speaking, of course, about more than Western Christianity. Any religious answer, even one based in something as theologically undefined as totemism, appeals to “enchantment” and transcendence for the answers to life’s biggest questions. But, Weber argued, modernity brought about disenchantment—a jettisoning of transcendence for a purely naturalistic worldview.
Secularization theorists in the last decades of the 19th century and in the early decades of the 20th century were confident that secularization would spread to the entire Western world. They were absolutely convinced that organized religion and its authority would disappear. And they were absolutely confident that they would live to see it happen. So did these things happen? In some sense yes, but also no.
The renowned sociologist Peter Berger, still producing academic works in the 10th decade of life, has considered why secularization achieved dominance in some parts of Western society, but has yet to do so in others. As he notes, secularization happened just as the theorists predicted with respect to Europe—a continent that now registers almost imperceptible levels of Christian belief.
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