An Observation on Secularization Theory

At least as fat back as August Comte, secularization theory has claimed that the rise of reason would compel the decline of religion. The more society progressed in knowledge, understanding and technology, the more secularized society would become.

We take progress for granted. Technology proves it to us. Considering my first major computer upgrade was paying $175 for a used 44 mb hard drive to add to my first computer, and the ad I saw today for a 500 gb drive for only $59, I know that progress. Secularization theorists received confirmation of their theories for some time by looking at Western Europe. The empty churches, decline of Christian influence, and de-Christianized population looked just like what the theory predicted.

But then we noticed an exception: the USA. In the US we had all the progress, but it looked like religion was more popular than ever. Even in Europe, especially with the increase of Muslim immigration, there has been a resurgence of religion. Some of us who saw secularization theory more as a strategy than a descriptive scientific program were cheered by the critiques scholars have offered of the theory. I think of works like Christian Smith, The Secular Revolution and Charles Taylor’s, A Secular Age, as leading exemplars. Whatever the outcome, reality is much more complicated than simply positing an indirect relationship between the place of reason and its fruits in society and the status and role of religion.

I had a good visit with pastor friend Jeff Olive yesterday. Jeff pastors what is probably the fastest growing United Methodist Church in the northern part of the Texas Annual Conference. As Jeff told me about the kinds of people his church was primarily reaching – and not reaching – I got to thinking about how this relates to secularization theory, Christian apologetics, church growth and evangelism. Jeff told me their strong point for growth is young families – adults in their 30s and up. Given Wuthnow’s studies on how even this demographic is harder to reach now, this IS a good thing. But what about the 18-30 group? Jeff says – and this fits with my experience – that this group is very hard to reach, even for his young, growing, energetic church plant.

Nicky Gumbel’s Alpha Course, designed for Holy Trinity Church, Brompton, in London, begins with a talk entitled, “Boring, Untrue, and Irrelevant?” Gumbel talks about how these are the adjectives many in our culture think of when they think of the Christian faith. His argument is that it is anything but these things.

My thought is that most of recent apologetic effort has addressed the “untrue” argument. Apologists thought about the challenges offered by atheists, the same challenges assumed by secularization theory. If unbelievers don’t have reasons to believe, well, we’ll give them some reasons. Josh McDowell is the popular exemplar of this strategy. Once upon a time this approach seemed effective. I don’t think it is anymore, because the main complaint I see people having against the faith is not intellectual (“it’s untrue”) but more affective (“it’s boring and irrelevant”).  If this is so, our efforts to give reasons to believe will continually miss the point.

Some churches have recognized the “boring” complaint and have sought to become centers of excitement and entertainment. Taking this route is difficult – certainly inaccessible to most churches. Just think of the competition: how many churches have the budget and personnel to compete with Disney, MTV, the NFL and the like. That route looks like a losing game to me, at attempt to play by the wrong rules.

Instead, the church needs to consider ways intrinsic to its own story that will challenge the prevailing cultural notions of “boredom” and “irrelevance.” (James K.A. Smith’s current project is working in this direction.) Addressing boredom will require us to deal with the reality of living in a consumerist culture of excess that deadens us to real joy. Addressing irrelevance will require us to offer a better narrative of the good life. We have plenty of work ahead of us.

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