Reaching the secular world

The church, which no longer has the kind of cultural support it once enjoyed, must now take its gospel message to this radically new world. How is this best accomplished?

Ernan Norman, DMin, is assistant professor of religion and Theology, Atlantic Union College, South Lancaster, Massachusetts, United States.

In our largely secularized society, it has become increasingly difficult for the church to reach secular people, a problem made even more difficult by the “postmodern condition.” 1 In the postmodern condition, the seemingly rational, objective, and managed world of modernity has undergone deep and significant shifts regarding knowledge and understanding. Secular people are now faced with certain prevailing patterns, such as endless choices made available by technology, loss of shared experiences, meanings conveyed as surfaces and images, transient relationships, and plurality of approaches to sexual expression and experiences. The postmodern condition also includes an increasingly two-tiered economy with many dead-end jobs, personal spirituality without the necessity of organized religion, random violence, clashes between cultures, and feelings of anger or resentment because somebody has left our society in a mess.2

The challenge

The church, which no longer has the kind of cultural support it once enjoyed, must now take its gospel message to this radically new world. The autonomous rationality and the burgeoning secularity of the West, pushed forward by the rise of urbanization and the steady growth of postmodernism—along with the graphic reality of religious pluralism—have all taken their toll on Christianity.3

Religious pluralism offers not one, but a number of ways, humans supposedly can connect with God.4 Other options include Islam, animism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Judaism, Confucianism, Native American religion, Unitarian Universalism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Baha’i faith, Sikhism, Wicca, Eckankar, secularism, Shinto, and New Ageism of varying stripes, to name a few.5

All these represent a range of alternatives in our postmodern world. It has now become apparent that postmodern people, while increasingly secular, are also open to the spiritual. They are searching for a satisfying worldview, while characterized as spiritual secularists.6

At the same time, an intense search for a spiritual meaning to life exists today. Thus, the problem is not a lack of interest in spiritual matters; but a lack of interest in the established, old paradigm church. Secular postmodern people perceive the church as boring, irrelevant, unfriendly, and money hungry. Some even believe that the church lacks intelligence. George Barna states that 91 percent of non-Christians find congregations insensitive to their needs.7

The question is, therefore, what should the church be doing in terms of its mission outreach and evangelism to reach these people? Tim Wright has suggested that when trying to reach unchurched people, congregations will do well to find experiential, relevant ways to share the truth of the gospel. People not only want to know about God; they want to experience God. The issue is not just truth, but relevance. Does the gospel make sense? Does it have something to say about my life? Can it make a difference?8


Secularization has impacted a growing number of people without and within the church. This can be said for many areas of the world, especially in Europe, North America, and other parts of the Americas, including South America, Canada, Australia, and the Caribbean. Other sectors are not exempt from the growing specter of secular postmodernism. The phenomenal growth in technology and high-speed travel has rendered our world a global village. The information superhighway of computer-Internet-global cable access and mass media communication networks has helped to bring about deep cultural shifts that are moving people away from their traditional moorings. People now perceive and view reality differently.

With this has come, for most people, a difference in understanding and knowing what is real in our world. This includes not only the physical realities of life, but the metaphysical realities as well. Unfortunately or fortunately, the search for the answer as to what is truth is open to a litany of voices—a plurality of meanings, each of which hold legitimacy in the postmodern dialogue. As we engage the world and our culture with the claims of the gospel, we must understand that, for the most part, they are no longer influenced by traditional forms of evangelism and methods of outreach. Consequently, the church must be intentional and culturally relevant in ministry, worship, and outreach.

The slowing process

Church growth in terms of baptized membership has become markedly slow among Caucasians and is slowing among minorities and ethnic groups and even among children born to immigrants. As society has been impacted by the secular postmodern condition, evidence has come forth that we are failing to reach those first, second, and third generations. We are now faced with a whole new mission frontier, and the challenges it poses for the church as we seek to “finish the work” and prepare a people to meet the soon coming King are formidable. Our success or failure here, as Seventh-day Adventists, will depend on our attitude and willingness to break with tradition and ineffective methods. A time for change has come and a new visioning that will lead to intentional ministry on all levels of our church growth strategies.

The call to be intentional

Alfred McClure, former president of the North American Division of Seventhday Adventists, stated,

We must not expect the unchurched to come to us on our terms and adjust to our unique culture. . . . It is imperative that we be willing to devise new wineskins to serve as vehicles for the Water of Life. . . . We must be intentional about reaching those who speak another language—ethnically or culturally—even if it means planting a new and different kind of church.9

In the book, A Strategy for Reaching Secular People: The Intentional Church in a Postmodern World, this strategy has been suggested, that the church must be intentional in every aspect of its ministry and outreach.

There are several areas where we can be and must be much more intentional in our efforts of reaching secular postmodern people. One area that is especially important is storytelling.


God in His providence has entrusted to us, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a very important key to reaching this postmodern generation with the gospel. “The key,” says Martin Weber “is narrative. ‘Tell me your story’ is a favorite conversation starter for postmodernists. They care about human experience more than they do impersonal propositional truth.”10 In the modern world, says Leonard Sweet, abstract principles were privileged over “stories.” The intellectual was simply the nonvisual person.11 In the postmodern context, however, Sweet suggests that “storytelling” is

the third upgraded avenue of ministry.. . . The narrative quality of experience is a deeply religious issue. We inhabit a storied reality. Human cognition is based on storytelling. . . . Stories are “the fundamental instrument of thought.”. . . The language of scripture is story. You can tell stories and never use words. . . . The stories of the Gospels are told most effectively with bread and wine—images and elements of the earth, images and elements you can taste, touch see, smell, and hear. Postmodernists need to be able to taste, touch, hear, smell, and see this story of Jesus.12

At first glance, this seems like bad news for Seventh-day Adventists, as we have been generally propositional in our presentation of the gospel, and very cerebral in our evangelistic preaching. We do hold, however, a very important key— the great controversy. This God-given narrative, if used intentionally, provides one of the secrets of reaching this secular postmodern generation effectively and convincingly. The great controversy, which entails the story of Eden lost to Eden restored in the earth made new, synchronizes well every Adventist belief, characterizing it as uniquely Adventist in both content and scope.13

By utilizing this narrative, through the rediscovery and application of the lost art of storytelling, we can be intentional in our evangelistic preaching. The gospel must be made into a story. The great controversy, as understood within the parameters of the third angel’s message, must be made into a story. Each facet of Adventist teaching holds within itself the answer to many of the questions of the postmodern mind (Christ and His high priestly ministry, heaven and hell, the Sabbath, the state of the dead, etc.) must be made into a story.

“Everything Adventists believe can be framed in the context of story,” says Weber, “Everything! Even prophecy is narrative in advance, a spotlight into future events from a loving God who guides the universe.”14

We must communicate with secular people within their frame of reference.15 What frame is that? It is the frame of reference in which secular postmodern men and women dismiss out of hand any cold and rational presentation of the gospel. The mind-set of postmodernists is basically relational and, by implication, will not be influenced by any pure propositional presentation of the gospel. Certainly we “can no longer rely on didactic, cognitive approaches, as if Christianity were a case that could be proven in a court of law or demonstrated by methods suited to the laboratory.”16 Within this frame of reference, the gospel must be presented as narrative, “set in aesthetic, poetic, or dramatic fashion and lived out in relationships and concrete ways.” Postmodernists not only need to know about the gospel, they also want to feel it.17

We must be storytellers, we must be relational, and we must be community oriented in our communication of the gospel. Cerebral, cold, unimpassioned presentations of the biblical message must give way to a narrative that has feeling and passion! Postmodernists will be effectively influenced by the narrative gospel, if presented in an experiential, dynamic, interactive, relational, and engaging way.

The intentional church

A model of the intentional church pictured as relational in its outreach andcommunity involvement for the purpose of reaching secular people also deserves serious consideration. This idea of the intentional church, based on Christ’s method, is a model designed to reach secular people in our communities in ways that will allow us to get close to the people.

This church could be described as thoroughly biblical and rooted in such images as “Jerusalem, the city on a hill,” and the “tower” with Christ as its Chief Cornerstone. Mission and evangelism are understood as calling people out of the world, away from evil, secular associations and into the safety of the City of God. Church growth becomes primarily seen as increasing the number of those safely behind the walls of the city, expanding its institutions, strengthening its administration, keeping the walls secure, and perfecting the citizens.

This particular paradigm tends to maintain constancy in traditional ways of doing outreach ministry and in-house breathing. Evangelism, done by a few specialists and supported by the troops as their long suit, is mainly an event—“the crusade.” Very few, and sometimes none at all, of the postmodern-secular world are reached effectively by this approach. Herein lies the reason for our lack of growth in our secular context—a fortress model inflexible in terms of innovative and intentional ways of reaching postmodern-secular people.

However, to be more successful at reaching secular people, other methods should be followed as taught and exemplified by Christ. For example, Jesus speaks in Matthew 5:13–16 not only of being a light or a city on a hill, but of also being the salt of the earth (v. 13). How does salt function in this symbolism? We are scattered out there, mingling with the people where they are. Mission and evangelism become the task of every believer and accomplished as a way of life rather than as a sideline or a part-time activity, more through spontaneous sharing than through programs, by participating in secular affairs; involvement in the world rather than isolation from the world. Believers mingle with people of the world, identify their needs and witness through deeds and words.

Listed here are a couple of ways we have been blessed to be able to share in a relational manner the care and love of God with those outside our immediate circle of influence.

Community Services programming. This area of ministry carried on outside of the traditional paradigm, which entailed distribution of clothing and food baskets to the needy, is characterized as a resident model of collaborative ministry of the church to the immediate zip-coded community in which the church resides, functions, and worships. As a community-based model, that church is relational by nature. This model of ministry in the local church meets and responds to the felt needs of secular and postmodern people in several areas:

1. Community outreach involved in teaching parenting skills

2. Family related issues for husbands and wives addressed through Family Ministries

3. Addictions and codependency issues—counseling and health ministries

4. Economic concerns, such as job hunting skills, interviewing skills, preparation of résumés, budgeting issues, etc.—Personal and Prison ministry and Community Services departments in collaboration

5. Youth concerns and ministry to children through after school programs— home and school, Adventist Youth, and Pathfinder departments

6. Health issues dealing with maintenance and prevention through screenings, knowledge of nutrition, abstinence from smoking, drinking, and other harmful practices, exercise, and other lifestyle changes—Health Ministries department

7. The feeding and clothing of the hungry and homeless through soup kitchens and clothing distribution activities— Community Services, Men’s Ministries, Women’s Ministries

This represents just a number of doable areas tailor-made to ministering to some of the concerns of postmodern men and women in our communities. This allows us to be a relational model of ministry that approximates the Christ method. Obviously, as a church, we have become abundantly blessed in ministry avenues that are timely, relevant, and engaging for the secular world. We cannot describe our problem as a lack of method(s), but as a certain ineptitude on our part to break with the familiar, the comfortable, and the traditional in order to employ more unconventional ways of intentional ministry to the growing needs of the people in our changing culture.

1. Darrell L. Guder, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998), 37.
2. Ibid.
3. Douglas John Hill, “Metamorphosis: From Christendom to Diaspora,” in Confident Witness Changing World: Rediscovering the Gospel in North America, ed. Craig Van Gelder (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999), 69.
4. Chris Wright, “The Case Against Pluralism” in The Unique Christ in Our Pluralist World, ed. Bruce J. Nicholls (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1994), 32.
5. Wade Clark Roof, Spiritual Market Place: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 124. See also Barry A. Kozman and Seymour P. Lachman, One Nation Under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society (New York: Crown Trade Paperbacks, 1993), 15–17.
6. Guder, 44.
7. George Barna, The Barna Report 1992–1993 (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1992), 69.
8. Tim Wright, Unfinished Evangelism: More Than Getting Them in the Door (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1995), 23, 24.
9. Alfred McClure, “Planting and Harvesting,” Adventist Review, December 5, 1996, 17, 18.
10. Martin Weber, “Reaching Postmodern Society” Outlook, September 2006, 7.
11. Leonard Sweet, Postmodern Pilgrims: First Century Passion for the 21st Century World (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2000), 123.
12. Ibid., 123, 124.
13. Weber, 7.
14. Ibid., 9.
15. Jon Paulien, John The Abundant Life Bible Amplifier (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Ass., 1995), 41; Mark Mittleberg, Building a Contagious Church: Revolutionizing the Way We View and Do Evangelism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000), 51, 52. See also Ernan Norman, A Strategy for Reaching Secular People: The Intentional Church in a Postmodern World Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse, 2007) 11–57.
16. Michael Pocock, Gailyn Van Rheenen, and Douglas McConnell, The Changing Face of World Missions: Engaging Contemporary Issues and Trends (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 104, 107.
17. Ibid., 107, 103.



Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus
Ernan Norman, DMin, is assistant professor of religion and Theology, Atlantic Union College, South Lancaster, Massachusetts, United States.

November 2008

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

Bonhoeffer: A Christology for today

The words of this young theologian are as relevant today as they were when he first wrote and spoke them in the twentieth century.

A theological approach to pastoral leadership today

Many myths exist in Christianity today focusing on what qualities pastors with good leadership skills possess. Find out what true pastoral leadership consists of from a theological perspective.

Recognizing abuse for what it is: A personal story

Domestic violence is a crime that occurs far more often than most people realize. As hard as it may be to believe, it's probably happening in your church.

A conversation with Jamaican pastors

Multichurch district pastors in Jamaica explain how they handle different ministry challenges.

The Joseph factor

Every age has had its own approach to the study and practice of leadership. For us as Christian leaders, our approach should begin with the Bible. The Word of God has more to offer on the subject of leadership than one would imagine. One way to focus on the biblical concept of leadership consists of studying the lives of its great men and women. This article features a study on the leadership lessons we may glean from the life of Joseph. Together they form what we may call the Joseph factor. The Joseph factor will cluster seven essential leadership skills and engage them with today's research on leadership. First, however, we should lay out our assumptions regarding how Scripture will be handled in our study.

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - SermonView - Medium Rect (300x250)

Recent issues

See All