While America founded its political and institutional culture around the separation of church and state, it continues to be one of the most religious countries in the West. Today, that religious core seems to be changing. This trend is consistent in most modernized societies. We can describe this process as “secularization.”
Secularization occurs when a culture moves from being religious to "nonreligious." As societies modernize, they become less outwardly religious. This is not to be confused with “secularism,” which is an ideology. Secularization is a very important process in our culture that we should seek to understand. Secularization means we become practical atheists, even when holding on to the truth. Here's why.
1. Spiritual But Not Religious
Everyone today has heard of people being “spiritual but not religious.” The spiritual category seems to be on the rise, while religion is on the decline. How does this jibe with secularization? Well, secularization does not mean that spirituality will disappear, but rather that spirituality and religion will take on a more subjective role that is relegated to personal choice and preference. Faith itself will be less of a public institution or force upon daily decisions.
One characteristic of secularization is treating our daily spirituality like a buffet line, picking and choosing what feels right. This change can be seen even with those who believe in Christ. Religion is becoming privatized socially and practically. Faith is becoming more experiential without any external, objective basis on God's Word. Secularization means that religion will fade from the public square while also changing those traditional religions to meet public demands and pressures.
2. Religion No Longer Makes Sense
With secularization beliefs and practices once considered normal are now considered embarrassing or even dangerous. It is increasingly difficult to mentor young people in the faith since it doesn’t make sense to them. The social and moral conditions that made the faith plausible for so many generations have shifted and slowly eroded. The “ecosystem” of faith is radically different from previous generations. What is good, true, and beautiful is viewed differently today. For instance, many millennials believe it is unthinkable that one can love one’s neighbor and yet stand for traditional marriage.
The traditional, historic Christian faith itself has been challenged because the social conditions of life have been radically altered. When religion becomes socially incoherent, children no longer accept their family’s faith because it fails to make sense of their reality. What feels real to them determines reality. Religion then fails to make public, objective claims upon us, and religion becomes increasingly privatized. How does this secularization of faith happen?
3. Removing God From Our Lives
Our culture is convinced that a relationship with God is an immediate experience that no one can determine, except us. This creed has had corrosive effects on our faith. When God is not part of our daily patterns, rituals, and liturgies, he practically doesn’t exist. Children growing up in these environments never really have a faith to hold onto because nothing ever makes a demand of them.
Through social media, digital technology, and modernization of society, we easily go through life without thinking about God or some higher being. Our convenient lifestyles simply do not need God. That is what is unique about our day—we live in a world that gives the illusion that people can get on in life without God.
We live as if God and religion have no real public claim on our lives. We live as if God were dead even while holding to correct doctrine. Children watching their parents hold on to orthodoxy while being unloving and failing to live out the implications of the gospel is one of the biggest arguments against the biblical Christian faith.
This challenge to conservative, orthodox churches is subtle but dangerous. Our social world, our habits, and character are being formed and shaped by practices that are no longer tied to the belief that communion with God is the goal of human existence and human happiness. Secularization happens, then, not just by people leaving religion or the church, but by assimilating the culture’s vision of life and adopting its methods. Religion is transformed into a private, subjective experience. People can believe all kinds of true things while failing to live in accordance with it. Doctrine no longer relates to our daily lives, practices, or habits.
The most important point to remember is that God uses certain means to strengthen our faith. He uses material reality to commune with us. He uses family worship, public worship, and Christian education. God uses public practices, habits, and institutions to form us and bring Christ to us. When those realities are no longer present, their power over our hearts is weakened. Religion becomes unimaginable. Right beliefs become privatized and practically irrelevant.
4. Reinvigorating the Church and Family in Society
While claiming to be religiously neutral, secular society always makes claims about what ultimately matters in life. Secular societies always enforce a certain vision or dream of happiness in opposition to God's Word. People continually reach out to "the good life" society promises. Cultures have certain practices and creeds that determine what is publicly acceptable and forms all of us in our imaginations. For most people, their identity, beliefs, and ethics are determined by the larger culture. They have little capacity to see how their political and cultural beliefs shape their religion. That is why churches and families need to discern what vision of life is shaping them.
Our worship, liturgies, churches, and families must graciously point to the goodness of God, his beauty, and truth for which we were made. Worship should point with wonder to what God has done in the world, so we can see his good providence and grace in our daily lives. This is where the church must become a living apologetic for the truth, a social demonstration of God's goodness and love. Without thriving counter-cultures of hospitality and grace, we will not be able to teach human hearts and minds about the gospel of grace. We won't be able to keep our kids, let alone teach them. We cannot fool ourselves into thinking we can use the methods of violence and a rhetoric of strife while believing in the gospel of grace and peace. We cannot fool ourselves into thinking we can serve God and mammon. Everyone around us can see it when we do. When push comes to shove, this is where secularization meets each one of us.
We must ask, therefore, whether our practices and habits are assimilations of the wider culture, or if they are forming us according to the gospel of Christ, the gospel of peace. If worship is little more than baptized methods from the culture, it will do little to help revitalize and strengthen belief in a transcendent God who meets us in Christ. Young people (and adults) must have the worship practices and education that show God at work in their daily lives to counter this process of secularization and form our hearts to live out the realities of God's grace. We must use these tools, trusting God to work as he has promised, knowing that he has overcome this present evil age.
For further reading see Steve Bruce, Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014).