The social and cultural context of the church in North America is aptly described as post Christian or post-Christendom. It is rightly observed that the church, which a generation ago had a voice, some authority, even perhaps a privileged voice in society, is now a church at the margins. The church, as some have put it, is in exile. In some ways this may appear to be a relatively new development, but the major cultural shift began in the 19th century. Increasingly, over the past century and a half, atheism has become the default ideology of the societies of which we are a part. Even if the intellectuals of the West acknowledge an historic and cultural debt to Christianity, the sensibility of our age is no longer merely dismissive of Christianity but as often as not rather ignorant of it. We live in a culture where we see traces of the influence of the Christian faith, yet we can presume that the Christian voice is even at the table.
The church in North America may be surprised at such a statement. Many assume that if we live in a “secular age”— to use the language of Charles Taylor— this is a relatively recent development. They assume that just a generation ago, Christian sensibilities still had an authoritative influence in the public square. It may actually be more accurate to say, at most, it seemed as such. Although it has taken a while, the secularizing seeds planted in the 19th century have grown and matured. Today, we live in a world where we face the hegemony of secularism.
New or old, this is our context. The Christian faith and community is now a distinct minority and very definitely not the privileged voice.
We tend to bemoan this development—wringing our hands and wondering what went wrong, but we should instead view this as an opportunity, perhaps even one providentially offered to the church. Rather than viewing this as a tragedy, perhaps we should rather invest our emotional and intellectual energies in the work of asking what it means to be called to be the church in this context. Rather than fighting the loss of “voice” or authority in the culture, might it be better to ponder what it might mean to have a different kind of influence within the societies of which we are a part?
With respect to theological education in this secular age, how do we prepare leaders to serve the church in this society? Rather than bemoan this development, we must invest our intellectual and emotional energy in intentionally forming women and men for ministry in this social, cultural, and political context.
When we ask this question—What does theological education look like for such a time as this?—we have to first ask what it is we hope to be and do, and how Christian witness and the mission of the church will find expression in this context. How will it be live out? What does Christian witness look like in this time and in this age?
Typically, there have been three responses to this question. As of late, a fourth response has been proposed.
While, without doubt, I am inclined to think that the fourth approach—faithful presence—is what should inform our thinking and practice, there may actually be some truth, even some value, in all four approaches.
If this is the challenge for the church in North America, we need to consider the implications for ministerial formation. In order to navigate our world faithfully, we must learn what it means to be the church and what it means to do ministry in this context—the way it is, rather than the way we wish it to be. In the next essay, we will explore where we can find the wisdom and guidance to respond to this challenge and opportunity.
[This essay is an adapted and revised version of an original essay written by Gordon T. Smith, “Formation for Ministry in a Secular Age: Equipping Clergy and Laity for the Church in Exile,” Didache: Faithful Teaching 16:2 (2016). ISSN: 15360156 (web version)–http://didache.nazarene.org. Used by permission. Copyright (c) 2016 by Gordon T. Smith.]