American Church Adapts to Self-Centered Culture

The expression "secular church" may be a contradiction in terms, but it is what many sociologists say is emerging on the American religious scene.

The secularization process that has transformed Western civilization over the past two centuries has taken different paths in Europe and in America. In Europe, secularization has meant large-scale defection from religion and the appearance of many empty church buildings and cathedrals. In America, churches have survived, however, by adapting to secularization and by commending themselves in terms that are attractive to "secular man."

This strategy has insured short-term success, but it also has meant that the church has undergone many fundamental changes. In its organization, for example, the church tends to take on the characteristics and values of contemporary secular organizations and institutions; it comes to resemble surrounding technological and bureaucratic organizations. Too frequently such churches are beehives of committee meetings, questionnaires, self-studies, memos and related paraphernalia that primarily serve to maintain institutional momentum.

Further, the secular church alters traditional ministries and multiplies a host of new ministries through which it seeks to "meet needs." Committed to meeting consumer demands, the accommodating church must check constantly the latest shifts and fads which announce the appearance of a new "need." In all of this the secular church almost comes to resemble a delicatessen offering samples to attract customers. Its members are exhorted to be involved, to share, and occasionally, to serve. Far less frequently are they called to serious Bible study and discipleship.

Traditional tasks of the minister are increasingly unimportant, both to society and within the secular church. In order to survive within the organizational framework of the emerging church, many ministers find themselves forced to pay close attention to style and technique. They must learn how to meet the demands of an increasingly secular clientele whose expectations frequently are shaped more by TV personalities than by Christian belief. Ministers succeeding within the secular church thus may come to know more about managerial techniques, executive decision making, group dynamics and popular psychology than they know about the Bible.

The importance of the church also changes its meaning in the life of the average member of the secular church. While for older members the church may retain something of its traditional importance, for many younger and newer members it no longer offers a clear body of beliefs and values vital for life. Rather, the outlook of the average member of the emerging church tends to be an unexamined and unstable hodgepodge of bits and pieces taken from folk wisdom, Dear Abby, horoscopes and the latest version of psychotherapy.

Not surprisingly, the church tends to play the same marginal role in the life of the average member as it does in the secular society. While the church may be a beehive of activity, church life is leisure time pursuit. The secular church becomes a "Christ Club," providing social contacts, entertainment and recreation (and just possibly minimal religious obligation to salve consciences).

Clearly, in spite of its many apparent successes, the secular church pays a terribly high price for its survival. For example, it may be just a matter of time until many members, having their appetites for "need gratification" whetted by the church, turn to such alternatives as health spas and dinner clubs.

Behind the many problems of the secular church, however, lies a fundamental problem: there is little place for the God of the Bible in the secular church. In a secular world that must quantify, manage, program and manipulate, the unfathomable mystery and majesty of the biblical God simply does not fit. The so-called transcendence of the secular church is a false transcendence which merely uses the Creator in a thinly veiled adoration of and infatuation with the creature.

Worship, for example, in the secular church tends to become a quasi-entertaining media event that must "meet my needs" by providing an emotional outlet and offering an occasion for conviviality. Worship is fundamentally not an occasion marked by reverence, awe and an awareness of the mysterious otherness of the God of Abraham and Isaac, Jesus and Paul. Salvation likewise comes to be loosely linked with the gratification of personal needs and the pursuit of "self-realization."

While all of this largely goes unnoticed in easy times (and one suspects that the secular church is only possible in comfortable times), leaders of the secular church find hard going when it becomes necessary to call for humility, patience, or self-sacrifice. There can be very little place for the cross in the easy and self-centered life of the "Christ Club."

Recovering the way is always a difficult task. For the secular church, recovery will depend upon a painfully honest recognition of the problem. It will demand nothing short of a recovery of transcendence, an openness to the biblical record of God's shattering and unpredictable incursions into human history. This, in turn, will rekindle near-forgotten memories that "His ways are not our ways." It will remind us that God is worshipped not because he is useful but because he is God. Only such a turn to the God above our countless false gods can free us from our self-imprisonment within a web of illusions and fantasies.

Ironically, only with a recovery of the biblical faith can we make any meaningful and lasting attempt to "meet needs." For it is only within a recovery of the biblical perspective that we may recognize and redirect false needs and identify secondary needs idolatrously masquerading as ultimate ones.

Consequently, repentance also will be a necessary part of recovering the way. We will confess that we have put ourselves in the place of God. We will recognize that it is not our tasks to manage, much less manipulate, the church; nor are we called to be executives in the Kingdom of God --only servants. We are not called to be successful; we are called only to be faithful. -- Michael R. Weed, associate professor at the Institute for Christian Studies, Austin Texas. Christian Chronicle, June 1985. (Editor's Note: Without question, the Church of Christ (all segments) is following the other denominations in fast becoming "a secular church," adapting to the self-centered culture. The Church of Christ is now an institutional, corporate operation based upon business and worldy concepts. The church is no longer merely God's people; it is an organization.)