Being Christian in a Secular Society: Moving beyond culture wars and toward love

by Gordon T. Smith

When you take the CTrain from downtown Calgary to Ambrose University, the last building you see before the train heads to its underground stop is a mosque. When I was an undergraduate student in the 1970s, I knew there was a mosque somewhere in Canada, but I had no idea where. Now, many of us have a mosque in our neighbourhood.

Sometimes it’s not only a mosque. There’s a road in Richmond, B.C.—religion road, as the locals call it—with a Muslim mosque, Buddhist temple, Hindu temple, Sikh temple, Jewish day school and a string of Christian churches. Richmond’s No. 5 Road is the future of Canada. No one can deny we live in a religiously pluralistic Canada.

But there’s another factor at play—in some ways more powerful than pluralism. A post-Christian secularity has become the default mode in our society, causing religious perspectives to be increasingly marginalized and discounted.

Secularism has been growing in Canada since the 1960s, catching on first in Quebec and eventually altering the social and religious landscape of all but a few pockets of Canada. It follows that we wonder: What does this mean for the church? What does it mean to be salt and light in this time and place? What does it mean to be fully present to our world, our culture in a way that is a faithful witness to the reign of Christ?

Retreat and Resistance

Some choose to retreat. They give up on society and choose the Benedictine option—the formation of somewhat monastic communities that isolate and shield the Christian community from the world. Others choose to resist and, in the words of a popular song in evangelical churches, do what they can “to win our country back.” Typically this response is spoken of as the culture wars—we’re in a battle to win back the society that has been lost to secular influences, fighting for it in the courts, the legislatures and the school system.

There’s a problem when this is the default mode for the church—when the church is viewed as fundamentally adversarial toward society, culture and other religious communities.

Yes, of course we must identify points of both continuity and discontinuity between the values prominent in our culture and the virtues and values of the Christian faith. And yes, we must be politically astute. But much is lost when we are constantly at war—especially if we overly identify with one political party and agenda.

Is there another posture that affirms our Christian identity but opens possibilities for redemptive engagement? If so, it may well begin with considering the possibility that religious diversity and the emergence of secularity might actually be providential.

A Third Approach

Consider the remarkable words of Jeremiah to the people of Judah in exile—he exhorts them “to seek the peace…of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7). Not only are they to seek the civic well-being of Babylon—the city of their enemy—but the prophet twice says that this is the city where God had sent them (Jeremiah 29:4, 7).

In other words, if it is providential that they are exiles in Babylon, their posture is not one that is fundamentally adversarial, but constructive and redemptive. They are to seek the well-being of the city.

The prophet is insistent that they not be compromised in their religious identity and convictions. But their disposition toward the civic square is to be marked by a generosity complemented by prayer (Jeremiah 29:7).

What would it mean for the church if we view religious pluralism and the secular city as providential—as representing not a problem, but an opportunity?

Could it be providential that Canada has a growing religious diversity?

Through the 20th century Canadian churches went to great lengths to cultivate a missionary call to other lands. I grew up in Ecuador, the child of Canadian parents who were very much part of this movement. But now thanks to increased global migration the peoples we travelled so far to reach are also here in Canada, and we must ask, What does all this mean for the church in Canada? What does it mean when our neighbours are Muslim, Hindu and Sikh?

Then also, what about secularity? Might we also speak of this phenomenon as providential?

When we listen to the perspectives of the giants of Christian faith and witness in Europe, who were on this trajectory toward secularity long before Canada, there is reason to think this may well be the case. Whether it is Søren Kierkegaard in the 19th century or Jacques Ellul, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Lesslie Newbigin in the 20th century, for all of them it is potentially a good thing the church is a minority presence.

Being a minority presence most assuredly is not an inherent threat to the church. But more, the secular landscape opens new ways of embracing the call of the church to witness to the Kingdom of God in the world.

There is no such thing as cultural Christianity. The church is the community of those engaged together in what it means to be the people of God in this time and place.

If this is indeed the case, that these developments are providential—that this is the world into which God has placed us—what implications might this have for what it means to be a church community? What are the implications for our Christian colleges, universities and seminaries? What does all this mean for our Christian social and mission agencies?

Where do we find wisdom for navigating these waters? At the very least we can speak of four sources:
The experience of the exile—for the people of Judah and the witness of the Old Testament prophets.

The experience of the Early Church, which thrived as a minority presence in the first centuries after the death of the apostles.
The witness of historic minority churches—from Japan to China to India to Egypt—that have for centuries flourished even as a minority religious presence.

The insights from leaders of the church in Central and Western Europe—such as those already mentioned—for whom this is nothing new.

Are there other potential sources of wisdom? Of course, but if we start here, we have encouraging guidance for what it means to be the church as a minority voice and some ideas for navigating a secular landscape.

Implications of This Third Approach

Even if Christian believers in Canada do not always agree on what it means to be Christian in a secular society marked by religious pluralism, there are some potential implications for us to consider.
For example, we can and must speak of what it means for missions. Many are still in the mindset that reaching the world for Jesus means sending pioneer evangelists and church planters to distant regions. While this can continue, the landscape has changed, and we no longer make a one-to-one association of missions and distant witness.

Now Canadian congregations are actively present to those of other religious faiths without ever leaving their own city limits. As such the church in Canada heartily encourages and supports immigration. Our posture is one of hospitality. We recognize and affirm Canada is a nation of immigrants, and we take particular delight in the new Canadians who have more recently arrived and become our neighbours.

We can also speak to a positive engagement with secularity. Rather than insist the nativity crèche still be placed at city hall or that the Lord’s Prayer be offered before civic gatherings, we affirm we are now living in a country where secularity is the platform for civic life.
And yet, we affirm this with the insistence that the religious voice and presence is essential and legitimate—a vital contribution to our shared life as Canadians. But—and this is the caveat—we insist on this not merely for Christians, but also for our Muslim and Sikh neighbours. This means we meet our Muslim and Sikh neighbours not from a position of a “Christian nation,” but as peers within a secular society where—ideally and on this we insist—our religious identities and voices have their legitimate place.

If we have a positive orientation toward secularity, this does not mean we do not advocate and develop political savvy to engage the civic square. We are political without politicizing the church. By this I mean to say that we learn what it means to advocate for the good for all citizens, not just Christians. We leverage whatever voice we have to speak truth to power and defend the marginalized who are disadvantaged because of race, ethnicity or gender.

This orientation has at least two major implications for our weekend worship. First, our approach to worship and liturgy is about being open to the ways the Spirit is forming for himself a people with a distinctive identity and vision of the triune God. And second, through our prayers we feel and lament the pain of our world while also equipping God’s people to sustain a distinctive identity in the world.

We preach for Monday morning. The true test of congregational life is not the size of the church on Sunday morning, but whether God’s people are equipped to be the people of God in the world from Monday through Saturday.

Hospitality, Gentle Speech, No Fear

There are surely many ways to seek the peace of our “city.” The three big ones I see are these.

First, we are called to a profound and radical hospitality—toward one another and toward our neighbours. Few things need to mark the life of the church as powerfully as this disposition and capacity to welcome the other.

Second, we must be ready to speak. As the Apostle Peter puts it, to be always ready to give an answer for the hope that is within us. But then he adds this—“with gentleness and reverence.” Yes, we speak, but not as those who are angry or come across as critics of one and all, in an adversarial posture toward the other. With gentleness and reverence for all, we speak what the Book of Proverbs says is an “apt word in season” (15:23).

Gordon T. Smith

Finally, we must speak of the greatest threat to the church in society marked by growing religious pluralism and an emerging secularity. It is not something that is external to us, but internal—it is fear. If we are going to be all we are called to be in this time and place, it will be as we grow in wisdom and courage, such that we speak, act and live with a deep confidence in the purposes and timing of the risen and ascended Lord.

Gordon T. Smith is president of Ambrose University in Calgary and author of the recent publication Wisdom From Babylon: Leadership for the Church in a Secular Age (IVPress, 2020). He is the speaker for the upcoming SBC Leadership Conference To be held March 19–20, 2021.

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