Will He find faith?

Five years ago our church began a study of secularism: how to reach secularists and how to deal with its impact on the church. MINISTRY'S editor reports on the work of the committee, drawing some conclusions from that study.

J. Robert Spangler, editor of MINISTRY and associate secretary of the Ministerial Association of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, is a member of the committee on secularism.

In his 1980 General Conference keynote address Neal C. Wilson requested the launching of' (an ongoing study designed to achieve a desperately needed breakthrough in how to reach the secular-minded and non-Christian peoples of the world with the gospel." One year later a fourteen-member committee was appointed and given a twofold assignment. First, it was "to research and understand the existing problem of widespread secularism and the dilemma of carrying the gospel to that large segment of society which has no concept of God or respect for Scripture." And second, it was "to coordinate and guide the church's witness to this largely overlooked class."

Lowell Bock, General Conference vice president, and Humberto Rasi, vice president for international editorial development, Pacific Press Publishing Association, served the committee as chairman and secretary, respectively. They called the committee together on nine occasions spread over four years. Members and invited guests presented twenty-five formal papers. These documents and the transcripts of the commit tee's proceedings total approximately five hundred pages. I strongly urge our ministers to purchase these materials and get the benefit of the untold hours of research invested in them. I can person ally testify to the insights I have gained by being a member of this think tank. (A complete set of the papers and supporting material can be obtained for $30. Send your payment to Humberto Rasi, in care of the Pacific Press, Box 7000, Boise, Idaho 83703.)

In Rasi's recent report to the General Conference officers, he defined the scope of the committee's task by asking several questions: What is secularism? How does secularization occur! What are the char acteristics of a secular person? How formidable is the challenge that secular ism poses? In what way is our church being affected by the process of secular ization? How can secular people be reached with the gospel?

I have selected and condensed a few salient concepts from the report that highlight what we as ministers are encountering in today's society. At the outset it is important to understand that secularization as a phenomenon is not necessarily opposed to Christianity. But as a philosophy, secularism is the antithesis of the Christian faith.

The process of secularization

"Secularization is a multifaceted cultural phenomenon through which religious thinking, institutions, and practices lose their relevance in society and in the daily life of individuals. This trend has been operating for centuries, as sectors of the world population have moved from tribe to town to city." In this sense, secularization is as old as sin. Cain, the murderer and city builder, was infected with secularism, "But in the last century the process of secularization has accelerated and reached almost global dimensions as a result of dramatic advances in education, science, technology, and communications."

To some it comes as a surprise to learn that the Christian faith has been an agent in the secularization of primitive societies. Wherever the true gospel goes, it unshackles minds from the chains of superstition and spiritualism. Christianity prepares the way for education, research, and modernization.

"On the other hand, beginning with the Protestant Reformation, Christianity has been an object of this process. By emphasizing the role of individual choice, faith has ceased to be a communal or national concern and has become a private matter. Large areas of human endeavor--such as commerce, government, education, and social welfare--have been gradually separated from the control of the church. Ethical values are no longer established by religious norms but by social and cultural practices. The development of a rational, empirical, and pragmatic attitude toward man and the natural world has led to a desacralization of life and to a drastic reduction of the role of religion in the arts and sciences."

According to World Christian Encyclopedia (Oxford University Press, 1982) secularization appears to be an inevitable and perhaps irreversible process. More than one half of the world's nearly 5 billion people are either secular (36.1 percent) or atheistic (17.7 percent).

Secularized people are not necessarily actively opposed to the idea of God or to the existence of His church, but they consider them irrelevant to real life. Christ asked, " 'When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?' " (Luke 18:8, N.I.V.). That question has never been more appropriate than it is now.

Reflecting on the effects of this trend wrote in his Story of Philosophy (quoted in Christianity Today, Jan. 2, 1981, p. 16): "God, who was once the consolation of our brief life, and our refuge in bereavement and suffering, has apparently vanished from the scene; no telescope, no microscope, discovers Him. Life has become, in that total perspective which is philosophy, a fitful pullulation of human insects on the earth; nothing is certain in it except defeat and death a sleep from which, it seems, there is no awakening. . . . Faith and hope disappear; doubt and despair are the order of the day. ... It seems impossible any longer to believe in the permanent greatness of man, or to give life a meaning that cannot be annulled by death. . . . The greatest question of our time... is whether man can bear to live without God."

Secularization and the Seventh-day Adventlst Church

Undoubtedly secularization, as already suggested, has made its mark on Christianity, "not only by curtailing its influence in important areas of human endeavor, but also by inserting secular values and practices in Christian organizations." As Adventists we need to face squarely the question What impact has secularization had on us? Our movement has dramatically evolved from a sect to a church. Our church stems from rural areas. Now, 140 years later, we are carrying forth our mission in an increasingly urbanized and secularized society, with a multiethnic and plurilingual membership that spans the globe.

To assess secularism's impact, we need to ask which of the following character ize our church:

  • Success orientation or a servant attitude.
  • Preoccupation with self or self-sacrifice.
  • A passive spectator attitude or the involvement of each member.
  • Elitism or a sense of Christian community.
  • Competition or cooperation.
  • A dictatorial managerial style or the contribution of the whole body.
  • A striving for affluence or Biblical stewardship.
  • Ethnocentrism or oneness in Christ.
  • "The end justifies the means" or a seeking for means consistent with Biblical goals. *

Consider these points

We are all born secularists. We begin as "aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world" (Eph. 2:12). We face a greater quantitative problem of secularism today, but the quality of the hardness of people's hearts is little or no different from that the early church faced in the Roman Empire.

We need to understand and emphasize the role of the medium who communicates the message to the secular minded. Men believe more readily what we are than what we say. Reaching the highly sophisticated, educated, intellectual secularist mind can be done most effectively by peers. Of course, those peers must have a vital connection with the Lord Jesus Christ.

There is no shortcut in leading a secular-minded individual to Christ. There can be no repentance without conviction of sin. There can be no conversion without a total capitulation to Jesus as Lord.

And finally, we need to realize that in any outreach to any class of people, "conformity to worldly customs converts the church to the world; it never converts the world to Christ." Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1950), p. 509.

* These contrasts are adapted from the Christian
Witness to Secularized People, No. 8 of the Lausanne
Occasional Papers (Wheaton, 111..- Lausanne
Committee for World Evangelization, 1980), pp. 19,
20.

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J. Robert Spangler, editor of MINISTRY and associate secretary of the Ministerial Association of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, is a member of the committee on secularism.

September 1985

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