Faith Formation Among a Secular Society

Last week I was in Abilene, Texas for several days meeting with some ministers to discuss faith amongst a secular society and the implications for preaching and teaching. We were blessed to have with us both Richard Beck, a psychology professor at Abilene Christian University, and Randy Harris, who just recently retired from teaching Bible and theology classes at Abilene Christian University.

This conversation was really about  Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age, which is the subtitle to Beck’s latest book Hunting Magic Eels (read my review here) but it also has to do with the monumental book by Charles Taylor called A Secular Age. Taylor’s book is a tome and I’m only halfway through the book but it is good and I highly recommend that those serving in ministry read the book. Of course, if you read my review of Beck’s book, you know that I highly recommend it too.

As a minister myself, I’m more interested in the formation of a faith that is formed by Christ. While understanding the nature of the secular age we live in is necessary, it is secondary to the formation of faith whether we are planting churches or pastoring in already established churches. So there are four other resources that I believe are worth mentioning here.

  1. Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006. Barton addresses some of the practices or disciplines that are necessary for our faith formation as followers of Jesus. What is important to remember is that we can’t transform ourselves but we can cultivate our lives towards a posture that is receptive to the transformation God desires to bring about through his Spirit. Frankly, just about any of Barton’s books are helpful for learning more about faith formation.
  2. Scot McKnight, Pastor Paul: Nurturing A Culture of Christoformity in the Church, Brazos Press, 2019. This is really required reading for anyone serving in a pastoral role, as the book addresses the particular culture the apostle Paul sought to cultivate among the churches he served. Of particular importance here is McKnight attention not just to the cruciform aspect of Jesus’s life but his entire life, death and resurrection, and ascension that is to form our faith. Hence, the term “Chrisoformity.”
  3. James K.A. Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014. In some ways, this book is sort of like a Cliff Notes to Charles Taylor’s massive book mentioned above and for that matter alone, it’s a necessary read for any Christian engagement of faith and secularism. Smith goes further though and touches on how this conversation shapes our theology and leadership.
  4. A.J. Swoboda, After Doubt: How to Question Your Faith without Losing It, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2021. Still hot off the press, this book addresses the deconstruction of faith, which is a phase that many Christians go through. What the book offers is a way forward for the reconstruction or reformation of faith that is squarely centered on Jesus Christ but without the reductionist move that ignores the complexities of the culture we live among.

Beyond the reformation of our faith, one of the challenges that Christianity in North America faces is stepping into the future with a missional posture. In our secular society (postmodern and post-Christendom), the influence of Christians has rapidly diminished and that evokes a loss. The reactionary temptation is preservation, trying to hold on to the past as much as that is possible. Interestingly, Charles Taylor makes this observation:

“In late-sixteenth century England, there was still only forms of Christianity which could be drawn on to fill the gap. In late-nineteenth century Europe, the gamut of choices had been crucially widened. Modalities of exclusive humanism were now options. And the often reactionary stance of the Church could only help make them more plausible.” (A Secular Age, p. 444).
Such an observation is worth noting because that seems to be the script in twentieth-century America too. However, what churches must understand is that the reactionary impulse of trying to conserve the “heyday” of the status quo (traditionalism) only decreases the influence. On the flip side, it is only in returning to the gospel, as recounted within scripture and the living tradition of the Christian faith, where we find open space for cultivating new possibilities in how churches might live as an influential portrait of the new creation God is bringing about in Christ.
The path forward is, as it always has been, in Christ Jesus. As we are reminded in Ephesians 2:10, “We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus for the good works which God has already designated to make up our way of life” (New Jerusalem Bible).
K. Rex ButtsD.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.

One thought on “Faith Formation Among a Secular Society

  1. Thanks, Rex, for these reflections. I celebrate how you continue to read and learn and team with Mission Alive on your journey.

    I am curious how you equip within your church.

    Blessings on on all you do.


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