Can you share a little bit of how we got here, or why our nation is now considered secular or post-Christian?
Usually when we’ve thought of “secular” we’ve tended to think of the absence of religion. But in reality, a secular age means a surplus of meaning-making options. To be a late modern person is to recognize that you could easily live your life in a completely different way. You can at least imagine, for instance, what it would be like not be a Christian, not to go to church, maybe even to believe something else—like in Buddhist nirvana, or Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene—actually, you might find yourself believing some of these things even while you attend mid-week bible studies and drop your kids off at a Christian school. To live in a secular age doesn’t mean our avenues to Christian belief are closed, but it does mean a whole bunch of new options are open to us, making us wonder if the Christian way of life is really best for us, or the world.
How we got here is a long story, because there isn’t one clear answer. There is no subtraction story, as Charles Taylor says. No loss of one or two things (like prayer in school or a lack of Christian politicians) which produced this kind of a world. Rather, there are a whole lot of changes, some of them even good changes, which opened up this surplus of options. For instance, capitalism provides some real goods (no pun intended), but in turn it also produces consumerism that has the effect of teaching us to follow our own individual expressive wants.
I think the real take-away point, however, is that to live in this secular age isn’t necessarily a crisis of fewer and fewer people going to church (this is what Taylor calls secular 2). The real crisis is that even people in our churches have a harder and harder time being able to understand how a living God encounters them and moves in the world (this he calls secular 3). This is what it ultimately means to be living in a secular age—a sense of transcendence or encounter with a living God becomes more and more unbelievable to people (even church-going people!). This is a deeper challenge and one that make fewer people going to church only the symptom to a larger issue. I fear we focus on treating the symptom and not the heart of the issue.
Is the postmodern idea true (that we all create our own stories), or is there a larger story to which our faith belongs?
In Faith Formation in a Secular Age I try to tell the story of how we got to what Charles Taylor calls the “age of authenticity.” Taylor’s point is that this new age (which arrives some time after 1969) comes on the wave of a new ethic. It asserts that the highest good is no longer obligation or duty to follow the paths of your people or tradition, but instead to find your own unique way of being you. You can hear this in our cultural slang today when people say, “you do you.” In the last few decades we’ve added weight to all this, claiming that what’s most important is discovering you own unique identity, and that you and you alone get to answer the question “Who am I?” Beyond the more technical philosophical questions of post-structuralism and postmodernism, I think what we mean by post-modern is this cultural belief that each individual is tasked—is compelled—to find his or her own way to be human, and no outside authority should impose on this journey. That does seems to relativize all stories, claiming that the only story that matters for you is the unique/individual story that you consent to, that you claim about yourself (that’s why we say, “if it works for you!” which actually is a deep moral statement). So, yes, in a sense the culture is claiming that there is no one story greater than another story. We do tend to live this way, or at least we tend to assume it.
But what social media has taught us is that this isn’t ever a non-contested space. Those cultural idioms I used above assume that all choosing of identity and “you doing you” is a free space, with little conflict and nothing but openness. But this is never true. Twitter and Instagram (and all the rest) are platforms for broadcasting (or narrowcasting, depending on your followers) your stories. There is something fundamental about being a human being that we both have to live out of stories and we have to share those stories with others. But social media reminds us there is actually no space when humans are in discourse where stories aren’t challenged. There is no utopia where “my story is cool, your story is cool.” Rather, unlike the “postmodern” conception (I put this in quotes because I don’t think it represents philosophical post-structuralism) there is never space where presenting our stories isn’t evaluated (where there isn’t the echo of a metanarrative, we all need big stories to live in and out of). Our stories hold our identity, and our identity, who we are, always connects to some sense we have of the good. So it isn’t true that we human don’t evaluate and give weight to one story over another. Never are all stories equal. We have to judge some as better (truer) than others. This alone should tell us it is very possible that a story might be truest or fullest—like of a dead Nazarene who is resurrected to free humanity from the chains of death. But the truth of this story—especially in a secular age—will be shown in the lives of those who have built their lives around this story. The surplus of stories doesn’t upend faith formation, but it does make it clearer that it is only through story (not just institutional vitality or rational consent to propositions) that we’ll pass on faith.
How can a church provide a space for the younger generation to experience a faith that moves them towards action?
The action I think we need to focus on is God’s action. I think faith is experiencing and participating in God’s action. It is to encounter the living Christ. This encounter happens—building on what I said above—through stories. Stories disclose reality, stories are fundamental to all identities, stories are how we make sense of encounters. So I think what young people need from the church is for the church to be the house of stories. Church should be the place where people re-tell, rehearse, and review their stories (next to the biblical story) of God’s coming to us in Jesus Christ. So more important than youth groups are spaces where young people can hear (and tell) stories about encounters with the living God.
Is youth group about expecting a greater commitment from young men and women, or is it more than that?
This could be a trap of the secular 2 perspective I named above. Usually when we think of commitment we think of showing up and being as committed to youth group as basketball or soccer or band. But I don’t think that’s necessarily what should be driving us. I think we’d be better off thinking about how committed our young people are to seeking and discerning the action of God in their lives. In a secular age it becomes unbelievable to contend that a living God speaks to you. But the biblical witness (as well as the heart of the Reformers) was intent on stating that God speaks—God’s Word comes to us. So what our ministry with young people is all about is helping them discern God’s word in fear and hope, in doubt and faith. (I discuss this challenge of a speaking God in a secular age quite a bit in the forthcoming volume two, The Pastor in a Secular Age).
How does loss, brokenness, and death provide ways for faith to be made new?
Because God is a speaking God, a God who shows up (we call this revelation in theology), it means we’re always thrust into discernment. We have to test the spirits; we have to discern if this is the speaking of God or our conscience, if this is Jesus calling or the calling of my ego. We actually can never reach some place where we can feel absolutely assured that we are right. It is faith that saves us, because faith trusts and follows the call of Jesus. Faith follows the words of the living Jesus but never without questions. Faith in our secular age is always like the father in Mark 9 who believes next to his doubt. (That’s why Bonhoeffer in 1938 tells a group of confirmands that this father is the true model of faith, because faith is always confessed in encounter with the living Jesus in the world, where chaos and temptation are near). But this Mark 9 text then gives us a pattern for discernment. This God of Jesus Christ comes to us in the cross, bringing new life out of death. So we can discern that it is Jesus who calls us when we find him ministering to us in love and compassion inside some kind of death experiences (some kind of loss, failure, yearning). To be formed in faith is to have the very life story of Jesus pressed into our own life story, which means to seek this Jesus coming to us in a death experience, bringing new life and new possibility out of it, transforming us from within our experiences of the cross. I try to show in Faith Formation in a Secular Age that this is exactly what Paul thinks faith is; it is to always seek the living Christ at the cross (to know only “Christ and him crucified.” 1 Cor 2:2). For Paul this isn’t just knowledge or religious information, but is the shape of God’s very working in the world.
Does faith take on a more important role than a shallow reciting of the sinner’s prayer?
Yes, faith is the opening up of our death experience to the living Christ. It sees our own life story as the movement from death into new life. To have faith is to have a deep transformation, wherein we no longer live but Christ lives in us. My big point in Faith Formation in a Secular Age is that our secular age tends to undercut this kind of deep transformation. It doesn’t allow for the possibility that something from outside of us could change us. I’m trying to show in part two of the book how we can make this deep transformational reality of faith comprehensible to people in our secular age.
How can those seeking Christ move away from merely associating with a church and really embracing a faith that changes them?
As you can tell from above, I’m pretty committed to the fact that the Holy Spirit uses story to change people. Made in God’s image, we are creatures dependent on narrative; story has the capacity to bring forth transformation. So church is a place that shares in a sacramental reality—where the divine enters the human—when persons share in each other’s lives. When we take on actions of ministry for one another, and narrate those experiences next to the life story of Jesus, we share in each other’s lives by sharing in each others stories. In the similar but more profound way we share in the very being of Jesus (we are “in Christ”) when our life story—when the stories we build our identity around—bear the arc of cross to resurrection, and the call to participate in the life of God by going and sharing the experience of each other’s crosses for the sake of participating in the new life of resurrection.
Why is it important for pastors to understand the secular mindset that has invaded the halls of the church? Or is it?
I think the core take-away is that our issue is not actually the loss of institutionalized religion; our issue isn’t that people no longer want to go to church. Our issue is deeper. People want to know how they can believe in a living God and how they can experience this God. And they’re hungry to see how the events of their lives are connected to the love and action of this God.
How does the idea of testimony fit into a church’s understanding of ministry?
I personally think that testimony is something we need to reclaim. But testimony needs to be more than just the culmination of the story, the happy ending part. Rather all people need to hear stories (testimonies) that are unfinished, that leave the community to wonder and to bear and share in our impossibilities. To receive the gift of faith people need to hear testimonies with solid conclusions, sure. But we also need to hear some that are left open, where people say, “And so that’s the diagnosis… I’ve got to tell you I feel like God is far, far away. I’m not sure what to do, or how to deal with this loneliness, but here it is. I’m still coming, and I came today to tell you this story, but you should know that right now I’m doubting more than believing.” These are necessary and important stories that we need in order to form faith, because they are the summons into impossibility to together as a community seek for God’s speaking and acting. These stories put us before God in communal expectation for God to meet us, to act, to speak. Instead of wrapping things up with a bow, presenting a way of thinking or believing that brings things to a happy conclusion, these honest, unfinished stories open us to encounter God as we hold the unknown, and as we minister to each other.
How should the person and work of Jesus ground the outworking of ministry in the church today?
This sounds like a pietistic final response, but the whole point of ministry has to be only seeking the person and work of Jesus Christ. And I think we can’t divide these two things. We’ve too often divided the person of Christ from the work of Christ. When we make this separation we’re tempted to assume that all that matters is Jesus’ spilled blood (his work) and his simple example. But his person comes to us in love, and his person brings salvation. His person bears our death experiences, giving us his own self to share in, making the story of his personhood open to be the story of our own personhood. So ministry is all about listening for the call of Jesus, seeking the arrival of Jesus. But we have ears to hear when we’re sharing in each other’s personhood, ministering to one another in compassion and love—because this is the form that God takes, arriving to us in the person of Jesus Christ. When we do this, we are conforming ourselves to the person of Jesus through the work of Jesus, and in faith we encounter Jesus, here, taking what is dead in each of us and making us alive.