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Sermon illustrations

Secularism

 The Death of Christendom

In one generation, the place of Christianity within culture dramatically shifted as we experienced what theologians and sociologists of religion call the “death of Christendom.” Christendom isn’t Christian faith. Christendom is the culture that supports Christian faith, giving Christianity privilege, priority, and place in our society.

Christendom was the Los Angeles Times publishing a week’s worth of Bible readings in 1963, and thousands of small towns being developed with a library, courthouse, and the “First Church of (whoever got there first)” in the town square. Christendom was churches that were thriving because everybody in town knew that their boss at work would be taking notice of who was a good churchgoer.

Everybody, including most non-Christians, held pretty similar Christian values. Most of us pastors had been trained by seminaries and in denominational structures that believed that if we focused our attention in this Christendom world on good preaching of the Scriptures, attentive pastoral care, and a few relevant programs for kids and youth, then all would be well. But over the past generation, those assumptions have been called into question. Churches of all kinds have seen diminishing attendance.

Millennials are leaving the churches that raised them at the rate of one million a year, and the number of nones—those who, when asked on demographic form what religion they belong to, answer “none”—is climbing at skyrocketing rates. Many of us began to realize that the training that we received needed to be augmented with a different kind of leadership. And

In her book Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Ruth Haley Barton describes the daunting leadership moment that many of us feel—and have felt with even more intensity in this season of unprecedented worldwide change.

Somehow, we know that this moment is different. This is not about making a brilliant career move. It is not about security. It is not about success or failure or anything else the ego wants for us. It is not about choosing among several attractive options. This is about the Spirit of God setting us on our feet and telling us, “This is yours to do.”

Taken from Leadership for a Time of Pandemic: Practicing Resilience by Tod E. Bolsinger Copyright (c) 2020 by Tod E. Bolsinger. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

A Post-Christian America?

The United States is undergoing a marked change in its attitude toward religion, and Christians here face new challenges. When a blogger named Marc Yoder wrote about “10 Surprising Reasons Our Kids Leave Church,” based on interviews in Texas (a comparatively religious state) his post went viral. Instead of a hundred or so hits, his website got more than half a million. “There’s no easy way to say this,” wrote Yoder, in words that struck a nerve: “The American Evangelical church has lost, is losing and will almost certainly continue to lose our youth.”

If we don’t adapt we will end up talking to ourselves in ever-dwindling numbers. What lies behind the downward trend? I got some insight from a friend of mine in Chicago who once worked on the staff of Willow Creek Community Church, one of the nation’s largest churches. Daniel Hill took a side job as a barista at a local Starbucks where, he now realizes, his pastoral education truly began.

One of his customer said, when the conversation turned to religion, “When Christians talk to you, they act as if you are a robot. They have an agenda to promote, and if you don’t agree with them, they’re done with you.” Often Hill heard an anythinggoes attitude: “I don’t personally follow Christianity, but I figure whatever makes you happy, do it.” As one person told him, “Look, we all know that ‘God’ is out there at some level, but no one has a right to tell another person what ‘God’ looks like for them.

Each person is free to express that however they want, but they should keep their opinions to themselves.” During his time at the coffee shop Hill heard two distinct approaches to the faith. “Pre-Christians” seemed open and receptive when the topic of religion came up. They had no real hostility and could imagine themselves connecting with a church someday. In contrast, “post-Christians” harbored bad feelings.

Some carried memories of past wounds: a church split, a domineering parent, a youth director or priest guilty of sexual abuse, a nasty divorce which the church handled clumsily. Others had simply absorbed the media’s negative stereotypes of rabid fundamentalists and scandal-prone television evangelists. Listening to Hill’s stories, I thought back to C. S. Lewis’s analogy of communicating faith in secular Britain.

It’s the difference between courting a divorcée and a virgin, Lewis told a friend in a letter. A divorcée won’t easily fall for sweet nothings from a suitor—she’s heard them all before—and has a basic distrust of romance. In modern America, Hill estimates, around three-quarters of young “outsiders” qualify as post-Christian, the divorcées of faith.

Philip Yancey, Vanishing Grace: Bringing Good News to a Deeply Divided World, Zondervan, 2018.

Secular Sam

Allow me to introduce you to Secular Sam. Secular Sam is very successful. He has a good job, a nice girlfriend, a beautiful apartment, a new car, and excellent health. He’s humorous, intelligent, and personable. Secular Sam is also a Christian, and actually he is quite an active one. He has an evangelical background (though he has chosen to leave behind some of the embarrassing bits of this background), is theologically conservative, and believes in the authority of Scripture. Indeed, he’s even come to see Scripture as the most satisfying explanation for all kinds of phenomena, from the origin of the world to the meaning of life.

Sam, being a student of Scripture, can realistically examine humanity’s sinfulness. He can even confute his secular friends with historical evidence for the resurrection. He knows that all of life is under the scrutiny of God’s Word: not just his religion, but also business, philosophy, ethics, economics, and law.

What is it, then, that makes Secular Sam so secular? Sam is secular because he expects to wake up in his bed tomorrow morning. He’s never even heard of what his grandparents called “the blessed hope.” Sam’s hopes and concerns, even about his own spiritual life, are all contained in this seculum (the Latin word from which we get “secular”), that is, this age and this life. Sam assumes that tomorrow will be just like today, and that has some serious implications for the way he thinks about today.

Taken from Augustus Nicodemus Lopes in Coming Home edited by D.A. Carson, © 2017, pp.79-80. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

Neither an Optimist Nor a Pessimist

Towards the end of his life, the great missionary, theologian, cultural critic (and even bishop!) Lesslie Newbigin gave an interview. His interviewer asked him an interesting question, made even more poignant by the fact that Newbigin had returned home from the mission field to find his home country (England) had become increasingly secularized, showing scant interest in the Christian faith. 

Newbigin’s reply was quite powerful: “I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!” Unlike many Christians, Newbigin was able to keep that which is most important at the center of his faith and life: the tomb is empty, and even when circumstances seem challenging, Jesus Christ is risen from the dead! We know the ending, and it is an exceedingly good one.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Staying in our Christian Bubbles

I was in London browsing one of the ubiquitous British tabloids and an advertisement for a new health club grabbed my attention. The picture was of a magnificent gothic church sanctuary that had been turned into the swimming pool of the new spa. It was a telling image of the continuing demise of the Anglican Church in a city where more people attend a mosque than the Church of England on any given weekend.

Or consider the church building, one block off the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, that is now a nightclub and lounge.

To add insult to injury, the club is called Sin, and the logo that has replaced the stained-glass window is a fallen angel descending from the heights of heaven. The decline of the Christian movement in the West is well documented and unsurprising to honest observers. Unfortunately, many of us are like the proverbial frog in the kettle.

We remain in our religious bubbles, oblivious to the rapidity of change around us until it is too late. But the point is that without a restoration of apostolic function and the necessary apostolic structures, I believe there is little hope that the Christian movement will ever regain the initiative in the West.

Until we understand, legitimize and embrace the essentiality of such apostolic gifting and structures, and free them from the limitations imposed by well-meaning local churches, local church leaders and denominational authorities, we will never be able to overcome the perceptions of irrelevance and marginalization that confront the good news of Jesus in the Western world.

Taken from Beyond the Local Church by Sam Metcalf Copyright (c) 2015 by Sam Metcalf. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

What a Fascinating Question

In Europe, the seat of Christian faith for most of its history, many do not give it a thought. Barely a third of French and British respondents even believe that God exists. While visiting France I spoke to a Campus Crusade worker who had practiced evangelism in Florida before moving to Europe.

Carrying a clipboard, he would walk up to strangers and ask, “If you died and God asked why you should be allowed into heaven, what would you say?” That approach got mixed results in Florida, but in France he was met with blank stares; he might as well have been speaking Urdu. Now he leads with the question, “Do you believe in God?” and the typical French response goes something like this: “What a fascinating question! Let me think. I’ve never really considered it before.”

Philip Yancey, Vanishing Grace: Bringing Good News to a Deeply Divided World, Zondervan, 2018.

See Also Illustrations on Atheism, CultureDoubtWestern CultureThe World