Secularism: Then and now

How the gospel spoke to secular people in the first century and may do so now.

Mark A. Finley is a vice president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, MD, United States.

The Western secular world presents a formidable challenge to evangelism. Today traditional approaches generally produce meager results. It is becoming increasingly difficult to draw sizeable crowds to hear the message of the gospel. Methods that once worked are no longer effective.

This situation confronts us with serious questions, one of the most important being, How do we reach secular minds with our message?

Ancient secularism

The challenge of secularism is not as unique to our time and culture as we may think. The first century reveals characteristics strikingly in common with today's humanistic, secular culture. It is reassuring to see that many contemporary societies are strikingly similar to the one in which the early church had great success as it proclaimed the gospel.

In his book Caesar And Christ, Will Durant claims that in the first century prostitution flourished, abortion was commonplace, and homosexuality was rampant. That society was saturated with the desire for physical pleasure. Seneca, the Roman philosopher, commented, "They vomit to eat and eat to vomit." Packed Roman theaters deified the crowd's favorite actors and actresses. The stars of the stage became the idols of society. Singers and dancers by the thousands entertained multitudes. Horse races and sporting events mesmerized the masses. The Roman population in general regarded human life with astonishing indifference. When Titus dedicated the temple, as part of the ceremony he reenacted a major battle. As part of the drama thousands were actually killed simply to entertain crowds. Roman prize fighters, with their three and one-half-inch thick metal knuckles, not only fought to unconsciousness but on occasion to the death. Possessions became the gods of many.

Nevertheless, even in this hedonistic, humanistic, materialistic, and secular world, the gospel of Christ made massive inroads, but only through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Acts of the Spirit

The book of Acts is a vivid chronicle of the Spirit's power penetrating this secular society. In Acts 1:8 Jesus gave this promise, "Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth."

In Acts 2, Scripture describes the effects of Spirit-filled preaching meeting the needs of secular hearts. Three thousand were baptized in a day. Acts 2:41 says, "Then they that gladly received his word were baptized and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls." In Acts 4:4 Scripture records that "many of them which heard the word believed; and the number... was about five thousand." Acts 6 discusses the rapid growth of the church and a reorganization to facilitate the growth. Even "a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith" (Acts 6:7)

Acts 8 reveals cross-cultural growth. Philip, imbued by the Spirit, touches the heart of an Ethiopian eunuch, and God opens the door to the continent of Africa. In Acts 10 and I1 cross-cultural growth continues when Peter reaches out to Cornelius. At almost the same time another door is opened for the gospel in Rome. Acts 20 points out that the disciples were so compelled by the Spirit that (verse 20) they "taught publicly, and from house to house." The barriers inhibiting the gospel came tumbling down. The gospel was taken from city to city, from country to country, from continent to continent.

Keys to success

A brief look at the factors contributing to the spread of the gospel gives the reasons for this incredible success. The disciples themselves were led to genuine repentance, a spiritual revival and a corresponding reformation. They had a unified purpose and a single-minded objective to win souls. They were constantly aware of the necessity of intercessory prayer. The Holy Spirit enlarged the thinking of the disciples enabling them to be open to cross-cultural possibilities for evangelism. They preached the Word in both private and public settings, and their ministry was accompanied by supernatural signs, wonders, and miracles. They believed that God had called them to proclaim His message everywhere, and no power on earth or hell could stop it. Such was the power of the Spirit in their ministry.

Today's secular mind

Without the aid of the Holy Spirit our attempts to win souls will be fruitless. At the same time, we can pray, we can witness, and we minister under His guidance, but we need to understand the mind-frame of those souls we seek to win. Ministers need to understand some of the underlying assumptions that permeate the secular world before they attempt to change it. There is no question that Darwinian evolution and its successors have permeated all aspects of life today. These theories have played a powerful part in forming many of the contours of the modern secular mind.

Of course, these views totally dis miss the thought that we are created by an infinite, personal, caring God. A fuzzy understanding of origins leads into murky waters when it comes to the meaning of life. Such views tell us that if we are no more than advanced animals, we are not worth much. Thus, in a society saturated with evolutionary thought patterns, is it any wonder that self-esteem is low? How can existence have any meaning if I am here simply by accident?

Does Adventism have any message for the thousands who have imbibed these kinds of worldviews? Of course.

Seventh-day Adventists believe that our world was created by God. We understand that order and design in the universe indicate a Maker. We believe that randomness is incapable of explaining the complex phenomena of the universe. Beyond this, we affirm that the intelligent personal life on planet Earth as it manifests itself could not have been produced by the unintelligent and impersonal. Therefore, we believe that this world was made by a God who is Himself the ideal of intelligence, the essence of love, and the grand Designer a God who is infinite, yet personal.

What does this in turn say to men and women filled with despair and hopelessness? It says we are worth something because we have been made by this God. Adventists say to the secular person, "You are created uniquely in the image of God. You are a person of value valuable because you are you and no one is more you than you. You are irreplaceable." Adventists say, "God thought you were so valuable that when human beings fell away from Him, He gave His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for them."

The Christian faith is simply not a system of ethical values and moral philosophy. It is a message of a loving Creator who immensely values the creatures He made. He values them so much that when they sinned, He could not bear the thought of losing them. He redeemed them Himself, revealing His love on a cross. This is a message universal in time and location, and it speaks to the contemporary needs of men and women with increasing relevance.

With our awe-inspiring, hopeful doctrine of the Second Advent added to this, we confidently shout to a hopeless world hope is on the way! Christ is coming again soon to put an end to sorrow, suffering, sickness, and sin. Death will soon surrender to a glorious new tomorrow. The message of Adventism is not merely relevant to an agrarian society living in America in the nineteenth century. It speaks to the needs of society today. It ministers to men and women who ask the basic questions of life Where did I come from? Why am I here? and Where am I going? Adventism answers, "You were created by God. You were redeemed by Christ. And your ultimate destiny is to be at home with God in heaven forever."

Approaches to the contemporary mind

What, then, are some possible approaches to the secular mind?

To begin, it takes people to win people. Secular people are not won by programs but by loving people who graciously develop interpersonal relationships with them. Usually, human beings respond to kindness. Genuine friendship breaks down prejudice. One thing is certain, we will not win anyone to Christ by trying to outargue them. Every human being has felt needs. These needs cause the individual to search for a source of help. The need for better health, stress reduction, a happier marriage, a more satisfying job, friendship, forgiveness, and freedom from guilt are a few of the common felt needs rampant among us today.

According to A Summary Of Qualitative Research Of The Unchurched published by Religion In American Life Incorporated, secular people have four basic negative attitudes toward the church. First, they say the church is too materialistic. It's become big business. Money is more important than love. Churches are too much like corporations. Second, they feel the church has become too powerful. It tries to control thought, there is no freedom of expression, there is mind manipulation and people are told how to live. Third, the church is hypocritical. The distance between what the church teaches and how it lives that teaching is simply too great. There is a discrepancy between words and actions. The church is more like a social club and secular people say they don't want to be a part of it. Finally, many contemporary unchurched people believe the church is not relevant. It has not kept up with the changing world. Secular people have a feeling of boredom and detachment during religious services.

It is interesting to note, however, that this same research indicates that many would consider attending church if they could discuss their religious doubts openly, if they could find a church that was seriously concerned about working for the betterment of society, or where there was the kind of spiritual proclamation which spoke to their inner needs and which offered a solid religious education program that would implant moral values in their youth and children.

Jesus' methods

When Jesus spoke to people, He reached out to where they were. He always began by lovingly ministering to people's actual needs. The gospel of John is in fact a case study in how Jesus met these inner spiritual needs. In John 1:38, Jesus noticed two men following Him and asked them this question, "What seek ye?" Jesus is always asking that question What are you seeking? What's deep within you? What are you looking for?

Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus answers the "What seek ye?" question. He attempts to discover what people need and then attempts to meet that need. At the wedding feast of Cana (John 2), the host of the wedding was socially embarrassed. Jesus met those social needs by turning water to wine. In John 3, Nicodemus had spiritual needs. Formal religion was not satisfying his heart, and Jesus met this need by sharing the necessity of inner spiritual rebirth. The woman at the well (John 4) had specific emotional and spiritual needs. The man by the Pool of Bethesda and the hungry multitude in John 5 and 6 had physical needs for healing and food. Jesus met those needs. By caring for those concerns, Jesus broke down fear and prejudice. As barriers of opposition crumble, hearts and minds open to the gospel.

The church is God's people equipped to serve and to lovingly meet needs everywhere in Jesus' name. As church members look out of themselves and reach out to men and women in secular society who are their Mends, neighbors, and working associates, hearts will indeed melt. Sensitivity to the heartaches, longings, and concerns of others will produce positive results. Demonstrating a genuine interest in others is a God-given method of winning hearts that is not often recognized for what it can do. And as church members with the unique gifts that God has given them reach out there will be an explosion of interest in Bible truth.

Look for opportunities. When we look for open doors of opportunity to share what Jesus personally means to us, hearts and minds will be touched with the gospel. Since secular people desire the "real" as opposed to the "artificial," they are attracted to a Christianity that is authenticated in the lives of believers. No one can argue with what Christ has done for you personally. If Christ has made a difference in your life, the genuineness of your experience with Him will touch secular hearts. I have found it particularly helpful to simply share the plan of salvation in the context of my own experience. Sharing Christ's gospel of healing love is disarming. It wins hearts. It changes lives. The Cross is the strongest argument in favor of Christianity.

I have seen the Holy Spirit break hardened humanistic hearts through a simple presentation of the plan of salvation. A debating spirit evokes the spirit of debate. Arguments from the mind meet resistance from skeptical minds. A message of God's grace from a loving heart will touch hearts.

Different strokes, different folks

No one approach is singularly designed to reach every individual. Some secular people respond better to a different approach. They feel that the Bible lacks intellectual substance. They lack confidence in its integrity. Sharing some of the great Bible prophecies of the evidence of the truthfulness of the Bible will at times touch hearts. The prophecies of Daniel are especially designed by God to build confidence in the reliability of Scripture. Old Testament prophecies regarding Jesus as the Messiah are especially appealing. His birthplace in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), the virgin birth (Isa. 7:14), His family lineage (Gen. 49:19), as well as events surrounding the Crucifixion outlined in Zechariah 13, Psalm 22, and others, brings great confidence to secular people that Jesus is more than a good man. He's more than an ethical philosopher, and indeed the divine Son of God.

Understanding some prophecies regarding the rise and fall of nations throughout the Old Testament is convincing evidence for some secular minds. Prophecies like those of the Persian king, Cyrus, named 150 years before His birth (Isa. 44:28; 45:1, 2) or the destruction of Tyre and Sidon (Ezek. 26:1-4, 19-21) and the desolation of Egypt (Ezek. 19:1-9), all establish reliability in Scripture as a divinely inspired document.

As intimated earlier, there are many people who believe that evolution is fact. They believe that a belief in Scripture negates the so-called facts of science. It's almost impossible to accept a Christianity, which their minds convince them is not true. They reason, "If the Genesis account is wrong, how can I have confidence in any other portions of Scripture? If the human race is evolving to higher states of advancement, why do we need a Savior? Doesn't religion only produce the neurosis of guilt?" There are times I have found it helpful to approach some of these select individuals from a scientific perspective. Evolution is not a proven fact but a speculative hypothesis, one filled with its own set of contradictions and problems. Indeed, there are times when some, if confronted with the thought that evolution is theory and not fact and that it takes faith to be an evolutionist as well as a creationist, will begin thinking seriously about evolution's underlying assumptions.


We may rest in the fact that it is God's desire to win lost people to our Lord. The power of the Holy Spirit is far greater than all the hellish forces opposed to the gospel in the world. Filled with the Holy Spirit, armed with the spiritual weapons of prayer, the Word and a genuine love for souls, the last generation will see Pentecost again, yet this time in even more abundant measures. Thousands will be converted. The light of the gospel will illuminate the dark corners of this earth. The bastions will fall. Truth will penetrate the remotest corners. Some of the world's hardest hearts will open to the gospel. Thousands of voices will proclaim the everlasting gospel. Through the voices and lives of God's people, on the printed page, over radio and television, through mass media and electronic genius, the Word of God will go forth. The work on earth will triumph in a blaze of glory!

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Mark A. Finley is a vice president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, MD, United States.

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