An ever-increasing topic of conversation in the church is “How do we lead the church into an age that is increasingly secular?” Historically, it seemed a given that Christianity had a place at the table in society. But now, Christians find themselves in a minority, no longer at the front of the line.
On March 19–20, Steinbach Bible College held its annual Leadership Conference where speaker Dr. Gordon T. Smith addressed the topic: “The Soul Care of Christian Leaders in the Secular Age.” Throughout the conference he wisely challenged us to see this secular age in a different light.In the first session Dr. Smith addressed the question, “A secular age: problem or opportunity?” He explained that many historians and sociologists point to the 1960s as the crucial turning point for our culture in terms of secularity. Smith defines secularity in his book Wisdom from Babylon as “not so much the decline of religion as that religious faith no longer has a privileged voice within a society.”
According to Smith, we need not fear this rise in secularity; rather, we need to consider how we as leaders are to respond in this time and in this place. Smith stated the rise of secularity may be providential; asking, could it be that secularity is part of God’s plan?
One approach to secularity is to seek a “faithful presence.” We can learn what this looks like by looking back at the exilic and post-exilic prophets, the early and pre-Christendom church, historic minority churches, and the witness of central and western Europe.
The prophet Jeremiah calls the exiles in chapter 29 to this “faithful presence” while they were living in Babylon. They were called to “build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage” (Jeremiah 29:5–6). They were called to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city” and “pray to the Lord for it” (v. 7). In the same way, as we live in a secular society, we must seek to be faithful in this time and in this place.
In Smith’s second session, the opening question was, “In what way am I being called to participate in what God is doing in the world?” Our work in the world is in participation with the work of God. This is clear in Acts 13 where it says that the early church of Antioch laid hands on Paul and Barnabas and sent them on their way. The same passage also says that the Holy Spirit sent them on their way. We observe the Spirit’s work while also participating in it.
One of the ways we participate in God’s work is by embracing the ordinary and mundane of life. So much of how God has called us to work in the world is not about doing heroic grandiose things, but being faithful in the everyday. We partner with God when we volunteer in church or when we listen to someone’s broken heart. It doesn’t have to be heroic, but it does need to be done.
In his third session Smith talked about “Care of Soul is Care of Mind.” Christians care for their souls when they care for their minds. Heart and mind work in tandem with one another; they are integrated. To neglect mind care is to neglect an aspect of our soul care.
Smith named sentimentalism as a threat against thoughtful Christian leadership. We come up against the idea that if it feels good, it must be right. Unfortunately, this is where many of us have turned to affirm our actions. But sentimentalism does not engage the mind, only the feelings of the heart.
To combat the threat against mind care we need to seek thoughtful and engaging voices outside our own group, and in humility seek to understand the wisdom they carry from their time and their place. We need to read widely, not just from Christian writers but gleaning truth from authors in different historical, socio-economic and cultural contexts. It means we seek to understand the world and God from a position unlike our own, helping us to cultivate empathy, wisdom and care for others.
The last session focused on “Cultivating Resilient Hopefulness.” Smith presented some considerations as to what it looks like to be people of hope in the midst of a secular age. One of the most crucial, in my understanding, was that hope is always offered against the backdrop of lament. The only way we can truly understand biblical hope is by realizing that our hope came from the other side of death.
There was a darkness, a lament and a discontentment; but when Jesus rose on the third day, we were given reason to continue throughout our Christian lives to live as a hopeful people, even through the ups and downs of life. We cannot truly know how to hope if we have not known how to lament.
We continue to live in this age as a religious minority but let us not be discouraged by this. Let us instead be hopeful and encouraged that God is always present no matter the age, and that we have an opportunity to become leaders who make the most of the time and the place we are in today.
Emily Dyck graduated in April from Steinbach Bible College with a BA Ministry Leadership. Emily lives in Gretna, Man., and attends Altona EMM Church.