Patience in Our Secular Age

Photo by Eddi Aguirre

You’re a pastor or a church planter who has moved to Brooklyn or Berkley or Boulder. Maybe you received a call to transplant yourself from Georgia or Grand Rapids or some other “religious” region of the country, sensing a burden to proclaim the gospel in one of the many so-called “godless” urban regions of North America. You’ve left your Jerusalem on a mission to Babylon. You came with what you thought were all the answers to the unanswered questions these “secular” people had. But it didn’t take long for you to realize that the questions weren’t just unanswered; they were unasked. And they weren’t questions. That is, your “secular” neighbors aren’t looking for ”answers” — for some bit of information that is missing from their mental maps. To the contrary, they have completely different maps. You’ve realized that instead of nagging questions about God or the afterlife, your neighbors are oriented by all sorts of longings and “projects” and quests for significance. There doesn’t seem to be anything “missing” from their lives — so you can’t just come proclaiming the good news of Jesus who fills their “God-shaped hole.” They don’t have any sense that the “secular” lives they’ve constructed are missing a second floor. In many ways, they have constructed webs of meaning that provide almost all the significance they need in their lives…

These words at the beginning of James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular may as well be describing my life. Just insert moving to Boston from Indiana and he has me pegged, though I hope I showed up with a bit more humility than the church planter he characterizes. I actually read Smith’s book well before I landed on the ground, as well as much of the tome it seeks to provide commentary on, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Due to this, I had somewhat prepared myself for the drastic change in contexts of ministry I would be undertaking, and yet, I still vastly underestimated the size of the issue and the patience this new context would require.

Thus, I’ve often found myself returning to Taylor’s work, as well as the growing number of books that seek to translate his daunting prose for practitioners like me. Due in part to this trend in literature, Taylor’s acclaimed work has trickled down from scholars and philosophers to becoming influential in the lives of many of us in localized urban ministry. Not only does Taylor diagnose the problem that pastors and ministers are experiencing in secular contexts, his dictionary of new terminology gives language for our present age where most of us seem to lack words. Even better, the commentators, like the aforementioned Smith, who have produced companion guides to A Secular Age have opened up a whole new world of practical applications. For instance, recent releases like Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age by Alan Noble and Reframation: Seeing God, People, and Mission Through Reenchanted Frames by Alan Hirsch and Mark Nelson are incredibly helpful in making Taylor’s work a source of missiological creativity.

Stuck in the Immanent Frame

Among the many worthwhile concepts, these commentators translate is Taylor’s immanent frame. The idea is that thanks to the growth in secularism and the rise of technological advancements, we have found ourselves in a world where transcendence feels less plausible. Taylor would also coin the term buffered self to describe the way we modern people see ourselves in this frame. Caught in a closed, physical universe we are now disenchanted in a way, insulated and buffered from the supernatural and transcendent, and thus giving autonomous order to our lives. In the process, an explosion of potential narratives have become viable options for fullness and significance that don’t require a god or transcendental forces. These ideas lead to the world Smith describes in the scene above. Our neighbors have found the same level of meaning in careers, cross-fit, mindfulness, politics, and sports fandom that we claim to have in our faith. Shockingly, in many ways, they’re just as passionate and quicker to seek converts than those who claim a traditional religion. In fact, I’ve often thought that the local running club I’ve joined does a better job of being a church than most of the churches I’ve attended.

This doesn’t mean that our culture never feels a longing for transcendence, that they aren’t haunted by the limits of immanence or by the internal draw to something bigger. As many social commentators from the Christian tradition have pointed out, for instance, much of the art created in our culture seems to cry out in desire for something more. Yet, few in our society ever truly wrestle with the themes our art examines, even those that appear in popular media. We’re always one buzz, click, or scroll away from the next thing, and we leave ourselves so little time to grapple with the divine. Thus, our spiritual instincts are becoming increasingly suffocated.

This means navigating a city like the one I live in isn’t an easy exercise and living in an urban environment is not helpful in the pursuit of transcendence. Most people work long hours, sit in cars or on public transit for long commutes, and are distracted via technology along the way. There are endless entertainment and culinary options to numb emptiness or desire, many that don’t even require leaving the house. Light pollution blocks out seeing anything beyond our city streets, the weather seems to have little impact on our day-to-day needs, and the production of the items we consume in the city (like food, clothing, and energy) hardly crosses our minds outside of an occasional disturbing documentary. These rhythms and rituals are not fertile soil for a lifestyle built on anything beyond the immanent. Further complicating the matter, a city like mine is an epicenter of learning and an intersection of worldviews. If someone is to ponder faith, they have a buffet of religions and faith traditions to pick from (and even blend together).

Even among the churchgoers I know there seems to be a lack of true spirituality, or if nothing else, an absence of those living as if they have confidence in the supernatural of their Christian faith. As Smith states, “…even as faith endures in our secular age, believing doesn’t come easy. Faith is fraught; confession is haunted by an inescapable sense of contestability. We don’t believe instead of doubting, we believe while doubting. We’re all Thomas now.

Navigating the Frame

While Taylor may help us understand the plight of our secular reality and give us words for our experiences with our neighbors and friends, it doesn’t mean that quick or easy solutions abound. For instance, Taylor’s work has been immensely useful in giving me a framework to navigate what I encounter on a daily basis in my city, but it is far from a silver bullet. The way forward requires much more thoughtfulness and patience.

The best advice comes from the companion guides, those who have dared to translate Taylor’s life work to the day-to-day interworking of ministers and practitioners. Much of the guidance seems to circle around the same theme — that the church need not keep up with the digital and secular trends of the day but instead provide an alternative narrative. The reality is that all of us inhabit the immanent frame Taylor describes, but the key is how we go about doing that, or better yet, how we go about upsetting the status quo. Christians in the modern age have often taken their cues from the culture around them and have looked to harness the most popularized mediums for the Gospel, and sadly have claimed relevancy while losing distinctiveness. Even worse, many of these mediums are embraced without the slightest thought of what connotations or cultural messages are being communicated by their usage.

The commentators cry out that distinctiveness is more important than we can ever imagine, especially in our day and age. Alan Noble states: “The scariest thing about modern life is how comfortable most of us are even in our suffering and discontent — comfortable enough to be swept along in the flow without ever having to pause and consider how truly unbelievable it is to be alive. There are just enough notifications, just enough health choices to feel guilty about, just enough answers for why we matter, just enough nice things to keep us grudgingly satiated to prevent us from facing the human heart and the dread of being alone that resides there simmering beneath the electronic buzz of modern life. And it’s the easiest thing in the world to make Christianity just one more identity waving at us for attention as we float along. But it’s not. The gospel is not a preference. It’s not another piece of flair we add to our vest. It’s something far more beautiful and disturbing. The gospel is the power to raise the dead, to proclaim the greatness of God in a fallen and confused world. To be a follower of Christ in the early twenty-first century requires a way of being in the world that resists being sucked into the numbing glare of undifferentiated preferences we choose from to define our identity.”

The church needs to rediscover mystery and wonder and must work to create environments for re-enchantment to be fostered. Ministers and pastors must return to a discipleship-based movement, one where personal habits like dependence on God, creation, and neighbor are modeled and fostered. These habits require a slower, more relational, more intentional pace of living and paying attention. They demand pushing back on individualism and the selfishness of seeing the world through personal experience at every level of our lives. Yet, pivoting in this direction is no small feat.

Are We Patient Enough in This Frame?

As someone who very much believes in Taylor’s argument and the advice from those translating his work, I’ve sought to apply these things to my day-to-day ministry. So much so, that our church plant is a grassroots movement of micro-churches that meet and do life in the very spaces they already live, work, and play. We want people to live distinctive lives committed to one another and to where God already has them, in the process of finding awe and wonder again in their lives. Ultimately, we pray constantly that our micro-churches become spiritual families who develop habits together that tell the alternative story of God’s kingdom.

We’re learning quickly that these spaces are indeed beautiful and deeply needed in our city and culture. They not only seem to help people discover God, but they also seem to help people reorder their lives around spiritual community and an awareness of God’s movement in their everyday lives. The problem is that it is painfully slow work. There is nothing efficient about fostering this sort of movement, both individually and collectively. In a day and age when the church is hungry for effectiveness, and effectiveness at a rapid rate, doing ministry in this manner would seem to be discouraging. A mantra of our age is to “win as many people to Christ in the shortest amount of time possible.” As admirable as that is, it seems to lack the awareness of our time. More than that, it discourages our churches from the kind of rooted, incarnational lives that they and their neighbors need. When fast is the aim, we end up settling for shortcuts that only perpetuate the problem that exists.

So, can we learn patience? That is the question I believe the church in our time must come to grips with. The culture does not seem to align with our current metrics and expectations. For instance, I meet plenty of church planters and pastors in my city who see the need for new expressions of the church to blossom. They deeply desire to see a movement of Christians to once again find the transcendent in their daily lives and disrupt our disillusioned culture with beauty and love. The problem is that most of the metrics and funding around the modern church and church planting structures allow them little freedom to try new things. With families to feed and sending organizations to appease, they’ve felt forced to pivot away from the slow, steady work of doing ministry in this manner. Is it possible for us to reassess our methods?

Our secular age is formidable and the church’s task has never been more difficult or complex. Yet, we have nothing to fear except our own perceptions for success. The industrial complex for the church is unhelpful for the days ahead, especially in our urban centers. We need the patience and the obedience to live life in a more distinctive way, setting aside the relevancy for long-lasting disciple forming. If we have the courage to do so, I think we’ll be surprised at what God has in store.

Church planter & aspiring social entrepreneur in Boston. Also the hub director for Forge Boston. I write about faith, spirituality, and missional expressions.