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Let me begin by admitting something: I love the speed of Apple. I love it when they come out with the new and innovative. I'm actually a beta tester for their new software and presently typing on a version of their software not available to the public.

Questions our Neighbors Aren't Asking

While I love the speed of Apple for things Apple, the speed of Apple is destructive to the church. A church’s attempt to run faster, provide more, and build bigger is a never ending task (see part one and part two of this blog series). 

But increasingly, in our society, it doesn’t matter how fast we run or how innovative we are because the resources the church offers are not what people are asking for. In James K.A. Smith's book, How (Not) to Be Secular, he imagines a church planter entering the city of Boulder, CO. He writes: 

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 a Jesus who fills their “God-shaped hole.”

Another Shift in Time

Why aren’t our neighbors asking the questions we want to answer? Because of another significant shift in time. Andrew Root, relying on Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, points out we have moved from one secular stage to another (for Taylor fans, from Secular2 to Secular3). In Secular2 (the world most churches still imagine is reality), people left behind religious institutions.

The solution to being left behind was for churches to create irresistible resources to draw people back. People would stream back if the church innovated a bit more and gave better resources. Churches heard the message, “If you build it, they will come.” Churches built and built, innovated and innovated. Or, alternately, they refused to innovate, holding the gospel as timeless -figuring if we preach well, they will come. 

Wherever a church finds itself in the present moment, neither resources nor good preaching will bring people back, according to Root. Providing more resources will eventually wear a church out, and much to the chagrin of the church, people are not looking for those resources. While preaching is always central to the life of the church, when people are not asking the questions our preaching answers, it will fall on uninterested ears. 

In this secular moment, more than any other before, people are disconnected from the sacred. People do not come back not because we don’t have great resources or excellent preaching (I love excellent preaching and believe we need more of it). The reason is that we live in Secular3. In this secular stage, people not only don’t care about the church, they no longer believe they need God to live the good life. The good life is a busy life where you innovate to have your best life and be authentic. This good life is caught up in a new story (not an old, old story) and freedom to do what you want (not a bunch of rules that the church tells you are good for you). 

Haunted People

Taylor, however, points out that while people are disconnected from the sacred, they are still haunted by it. He speaks of cross-pressures in a person’s life that keep them open to the sacred (have you ever noticed how many supernatural beings there are in Marvel movies?). In this world, the church moves from providing more and more resources (resources are still provided, but they are not central) and looks to: 

  • enliven belief and connect people to God
  • tell and live a better story; inviting people into the story
  • reject the idea that people are resources to be used to increase the church’s impact; instead, they are people who walk with us through life
  • embrace being out of control—we can’t control the outcomes; what we can do is create the context for people to connect with God
  • put together emotion (hearts’ stirred) and affection (moving toward others in love) 

This last one, emotion and affection, according to Root, is central to a church moving forward. Rather than providing all kinds of resources and innovating, a congregation needs to listen to where God is stirring its heart (when we pursue what we love, we rarely become permanently exhausted or depressed) and combine that with an affection that moves towards others in love. Moving toward others in love keeps a congregation from being inward-focused and keeps them on God’s mission. 

What would change in your congregation if you moved into this new reality? Would you find a way beyond being exhausted? Would your community find a different kind of congregation living in their midst?


Where to start... I think most preachers have become "secular". They demand all the benefits, privileges and remuneration and recognition that the secular world demands, no? 
Second, in my humble opinion, our seminaries are emphasizing sound theological preaching perhaps more than the art of PASTORING a congregation. I have heard time and time again "when is the pastor coming to visit me, so that I could have an opportunity to get to know him, and he gets an opportunity to get to know me on a "rubber meets the road" level. It seems many of the seminary grads aspire to become great preachers, neglecting the person to person relationships. I think a "mediocre" sermon can easily be overlooked, when that pastor visits people., just two or three families a week would probably suffice.. 

So, I think gimmicks to attract attendance works, but in the long run will ring hollow.

These are my thoughts, but it's yours (preachers) to struggle with. May God grant you wisdom.

Very helpful article! The description of Secular3 is spot on and something we deal with every day.

Since it is useless (and therefore exhausting) to try and draw people 'back to church' when they are so far removed from any type of faith community, the only way for a church to effectively minister today is to go out and meet people where they are at. Once we've learned what the needs really are, we can better create a ministry context that can help connect them to God. Like Jesus in the Incarnation, we need to 'become' more like the people we are called to minister to. As we see the Apostle Paul describe in 1 Corinthians 9:20-22: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

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