What is the Source of Hope?

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David Brown, Rubin Pohor & Karen Swallow Prior

Rise of Secularism

The secularization of a society can be recognized by the weakening of religion in the mindsets of the citizens both in social mores and in public institutions. ‘Secularization’ expresses the tendency of individuals to dispense with an obligatory reference to any religious affiliation. Secularization begins as a sociological phenomenon. Then, increasingly, it manifests in legislation, translating the philosophical relationship between religion and the state into legal and political terms.

There is an urgency to address secularism and its impact particularly due to its increase, particularly in Europe, North America, and other ‘Western’ nations.

There is an urgency to address secularism and its impact particularly due to its increase, particularly in Europe, North America, and other ‘Western’ nations. Secularization, often understood in the first instance simply in terms of data, is generally measured by the number of people or the percentage within a population who identify as being atheist, agnostic, or without religious affiliation, a category labeled as the ‘nones’ in the English-speaking world. For example, a 2021 Pew survey found that about 3 in 10 Americans identify as ‘nones’. According to the same poll, the share of Americans who identify as Christians dropped by 12 percent from the previous decade, while those who are religiously unaffiliated rose by 10 percent during the same period.1 

In the UK, a religious survey has shown that the ‘nones’ are in fact now the fastest growing group, with 53 percent of Britons now identifying as non-religious.2 Polls conducted in France in 2004 and 2011 found that 44 percent of respondents replied ‘no’ when asked if they personally believe in God. In a similar survey in 2021, 51 percent of those surveyed answered that they did not believe in God, revealing an apparent rise in the number of people who do not believe in God.3

A Call for Contextualization

‘To contextualize’ can be defined as ‘to relate an action or a fact to the political, economic, historical, social, artistic and religious circumstances in which it occurred’ (Larousse Dictionary). According to this definition, to contextualize the gospel is to place it in its original Hebrew and Greco-Roman context, ie the context of the New and Old Testaments. But theology and missiology have given it a wider meaning: to contextualize is to situate a fact or an action in any environment, not necessarily in its original context. This form of contextualization is necessary wherever and whenever the gospel and the Christian faith must be culturally and personally appropriated.

This effort to present the gospel clearly and live faithfully within each cultural context is a delicate undertaking. Without a rich understanding of both the message and the context, we risk subjugating the divine message to the sensibilities of a given culture or delivering an incomprehensible and therefore impotent message. In committing either error, we both dishonor God and subject his image-bearers to earthly and eternal harm. Done wisely, contextualization will proclaim the gospel in a way that takes into consideration the different concerns—whether economic, social, philosophical, ideological, or religious—of the target people group. The end result of contextualization should be a relevant Christian life with devotion to God and his Word. 

Just as the Christian missionary endeavor has sought to contextualize the gospel for generations in local cultures around the world, we need to learn how to interact with the different problems and needs of our secular environments—environments which, thanks to modern technology, are no longer only local but also global. Our challenge is to build Christian communities that praise God authentically and in a way which is profoundly plausible in a secular context by using suitable cultural expressions (words, concepts, images, and symbols).

In his seminal work A Secular Age, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor offers three definitions of ‘secular’, categories which can also be seen as describing three progressive stages of increasing secularity within a society. These three definitions, or stages, can be summed up this way:

  1. The withdrawal of religious practice from public life to the private realm 
  2. The decreased participation in religious life or decline in religious belief by individuals
  3. Finally, the shift away from a society or cultural conditions ‘in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others’.4

It is this third condition—one in which religious belief can no longer be assumed by default on the part of the members of a society or culture—which constitutes ‘a secular age’, as Taylor conceives it.

Taylor further describes how in the pre-modern age, God’s presence was seen (and assumed) in the natural, social, and supernatural (or enchanted) world. With the rejection of God from these places, the locus of meaning and purpose became situated within ‘a new sense of the self’, a self no longer ‘porous and vulnerable’ to the supernatural world of a deity or deities, but rather a ‘buffered self’ with ‘confidence’ in one’s ‘own powers of moral ordering’.5 In other words, the individual replaced God as the source of authority—even in deciding whether or not to believe in and submit to God. It is this condition of secularity that now pervades the West.

By this definition, secularism is not measured by the prevalence (or lack) of religiosity within a society, but rather by the conditions within which religious belief and practice (or its absence) occur. Secularism is identified by the cultural conditions where a faith commitment in general, or to a particular religion, are but choices for an individual to make among other possibilities—including the culturally viable choice of rejecting religion altogether. 

Such options lead to (and grow out of) both self-determining freedom and the quest for authenticity.6 While authenticity is often associated with complete relativism and utter subjectivity, particularly within the context of modernity, this is not the only—or even the best—understanding of the concept. 

Authenticity, which Charles Taylor defines in The Ethics of Authenticity as the expression of ‘self-determining freedom’, has indeed emerged as an ideal within late modernity. This value has its roots in Enlightenment ideals7 alongside the concept of the modern, autonomous self. The value of being shaped and directed less by external influences than internal ones is clearly aligned with the rise of secularity as Taylor defines it. Nevertheless, authenticity as a value offers both a challenge and an opportunity for Christian evangelization. When pursued within the context of authenticity, religious faith (of whatever stripe) is less likely to be merely nominal or simply assumed by family inheritance or cultural tradition. 

Secularity as a cultural condition demands a choice. The task of evangelization within a secular age is to present Christianity not only as tenable, but as an authentic choice. We must present faith in Jesus not merely as a commitment that is assumed or inherited, but rather as a belief and practice that is essential to one’s very identity. In a secular age, conversion to Christianity will increasingly constitute not a conversion from one religion to another or from no faith to this faith but will rather be understood as an expression of one’s authentic self. This is both a challenge and an opportunity. Christianity, within an evangelical understanding, is a personal relationship with Jesus, even as conversion is also to enter into a faith community that is global, historic, and eternal. This is the epitome of ethical authenticity.

The Church Gathered and Scattered

In this context, how can churches prepare their members to live out their faith in an authentic way? And how can they help their members to bring the gospel to the increasing number of people who no longer have any contact with Christian belief, sometimes going back generations? These secularized people have very little knowledge about religion in general and often hold a negative attitude towards Christianity because of its perceived intolerance.

As we look back over the past few decades in the Western world, we can see how different approaches to church life and evangelism have been adopted, usually to reflect trends in society. Until the 1960s, churches were rather formal and ‘sanctuary-based’, and evangelism meant going out into the world in order to contact non-Christians. But a shift in the 1970s brought various factors together to make churches more relaxed in order to reduce the barriers for seekers. The ‘attractional’ side of the church’s activities became central to evangelism.

However, in today’s secularized society, few people are attracted to church, even churches that aim to be welcoming and culturally relevant. The pressing question then becomes: What kind of church should we aspire to be in a secular context? Our hope lies in being a healthy church where Christians can learn to live out their authentic identity with each other and in society. Two paths are being increasingly explored in this context:

  • Refocusing on essentials
  • Developing a correct relationship between the gathered church and the scattered church.

The first challenge will be, quite simply, to refocus on essentials. In concrete terms, and seeking to remain faithful to essential Biblical teaching, a healthy church could be defined in this way: A community of redeemed believers, centred on the gospel, who are learning to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30) and who are learning to love others (Mark 12:31) in their cultural context.

In other words, these three dimensions of a healthy church need to be developed simultaneously:

  1. The spiritual aspect—loving God
  2. The social aspect—loving others
  3. The societal aspect—in the geographical and cultural context of the church.

The first two are what Jesus taught when he was asked to identify the most important commandment. The third was the ongoing challenge that Christians faced in each new cultural context as the church spread from Jerusalem throughout the pagan Roman Empire and then to the ends of the earth. As the history of the church has shown, this challenge of contextualisation has been not only geographical, but also chronological, as cultures developed over the centuries.

At the same time, in a secular context, the relationship between the gathered church and the scattered church becomes a key issue in a secular context. The term ‘gathered church’ describes when Christians meet together (including online), whereas the ‘scattered church’ consists of Christians going about their daily lives in society.

Our hope lies in being a healthy church where Christians can learn to live out their authentic identity with each other and in society.

The gathered church equips and motivates Christians to live their daily lives authentically as the scattered church in their normal relational networks—their families (in the widest sense), their colleagues or fellow students, their local community (neighbors, local events, even local politics), and their leisure activities and friends.

The Scriptures make this clear: ‘Let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing but let us encourage one another’ and ‘let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds’ (Hebrews 10:24–25). We meet together as Christians for only 3 percent of our week at the most in order to help us live the other 97 percent of our lives. We want to respond to Jesus’ call and live out Christ’s teachings faithfully and attractively among our contemporaries, praying that God will open hearts and lead us to those who seek him. 

Relationships are paramount in this endeavor. God is love and has lived in mutual love among the three persons of the Trinity for all eternity. We as humans bear the image of our eternally and essentially relational God. The development of loving relationships among Christians as well as with those around us is at the heart of God’s plan for humanity and therefore forms the basis of both our church life and our evangelism.

Preparing the Messengers

It is important that our weekly worship services (which are the prime moments when church members are together), be adapted to our secular contexts. Beyond a warm welcome, a typical church service will need to include not only the traditional motivating ingredients of worship and Bible teaching, but also an intentional form of discipleship aimed at equipping Christians to be the scattered church. 

This will involve teaching on contemporary cultural issues, which will foster wisdom and courage for life in a hostile environment. Such teaching ought to be deliberately apolitical since the objective is to help Christians to understand the issues with a biblical perspective rooted in church history. In addition, church leaders will communicate to the congregation that each Christian has an important role to play as missionaries—people sent out into their day-to-day environment. We can use the acronym AIMS to help us remember what we aim for when we gather.

  • Adoration: Worship in amazement at God’s grace towards us
  • Issues: Training disciples to live in today’s world
  • Mission: Sending out the congregation as the scattered church
  • Scriptures: Biblical teaching

Why is it so important to address current issues during the weekly gatherings of the church? Because the need for plausibility is the key factor when it comes to mission in a secular context. Despite the analysis that secularism means choice, this is theoretical when it comes to Biblical faith which, through its lack of plausibility, is not seen as a potential option. The ‘plausibility structures’ described by Peter Berger tend to exclude Christianity in contemporary secular society. So, for many today, biblical faith is not even on the horizon of what is conceivable. It is dismissed without examination. Christian apologetics in the 20th century has largely taken credibility as its starting point (‘Is it true?’). But in today’s secular society, people need visible, tangible evidence for the Christian faith, and in most secular contexts, the only place they will see this is in their day-by-day relationships with Christians. In concrete terms, the messenger precedes the message, which is why the gathered church has such an important role to play in preparing the messengers. We propose three areas in which this preparation is most critical.

  1. Understanding the issues: A recent survey in France found that 85 percent of Christians didn’t know what to say when colleagues at work brought up current issues.8 Church leaders must provide Christians with the tools to understand society, to live out their faith attractively, and to know how to give reasonable answers. 
  2. Bearing witness: In a world where people look to online reviews and influencer recommendations for guidance in everything from products, to relationships, to philosophies, Blaise Pascal’s advice rings true: ‘Make [Christianity] attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is.’ This approach to evangelism is particularly relevant given how people are influenced today. Users’ recommendations play a central role in bringing people to make decisions, and Christians are users and recommenders of faith in Jesus.
  3. Nurturing a new plausibility structure: Showing the plausibility of the Christian faith in every sector of life—arts, media, business, law, social services, science, and so on. The British missiologist Lesslie Newbiggin wrote these perspicacious words: ‘The gospel gives rise to a new plausibility structure, a radically different vision of things from those that shape all human cultures apart from the gospel. The Church, therefore, as a bearer of the gospel, inhabits a plausibility structure which is at variance with, and which calls into question, those that govern all human cultures.’9 By embodying a plausibility structure that conforms to reality as God has created it, Christians display meaning and belief and effect change in the world, a process which is inherently evangelistic. 

In conclusion, this approach prepares Christians to live their authentic identity in today’s world and also makes their faith plausible for non-Christians. In secular society, the gospel must remain central, rather than other identifying marks such as the type of music churches use. Relationships define the aspirations of people today, so churches need to find practical ways to encourage their members to put into practice the dozens of verses in the New Testament which include the words ‘one another’. Especially in the context of evangelism in a secular climate, we ought to keep Jesus’ words in mind: By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ (John 13:35).


  • Peter Berger. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Anchor Books: New York, 1969). 
  • David Brown. Reconnect Your Church: A Practical Handbook for Church Revitalization (IVP: London, 2023).
  • Andrew Fellows. Smuggling Jesus Back into the Church: How the World Became Worldly and What to Do About It (IVP: London, 2022).
  • Neil Hudson. Scattered and Gathered: Equipping Disciples for the Frontline (IVP: London, 2019).
  • Michel Kenmogne and Rubin Pohor. Vivre l’Évangile en Contexte (Conseil de Institutions Théologiques d’Afrique Francophone: Yaoundé, Cameroun, 2021).
  • Alan Noble. You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World (IVP: Downers Grove, IL, 2021).James K. A. Smith. How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Eerdmans: Cambridge, UK, 2014).


  1. Gregory A. Smith. “About Three-in-Ten U.S. Adults Are Now Religiously Unaffiliated.” Pew Research Center. December 14, 2021. https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/12/14/about-three-in-ten-u-s-adults-are-now-religiously-unaffiliated/.
  2. Hannah Waite. “The Nones: Who are they and what do they believe?” Theos. November 11, 2022. https://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/research/2022/10/31/the-nones-who-are-they-and-what-do-they-believe. 
  3. Joanna York and Hannah Thompson. “Less than half of people believe in God in 2021, French poll finds.” The Connexion. September 23, 2021. https://www.connexionfrance.com/article/French-news/Less-than-half-of-people-believe-in-God-in-2021-French-poll-finds-how-to-find-an-English-speaking-church-service-in-France. 
  4. Charles Taylor. A Secular Age (Belknap: Cambridge, MA, 2007), 1-3.
  5. Ibid., 25-27.
  6. Charles Taylor. The Ethics of Authenticity (Harvard UP: Cambridge, MA, 1992).
  7. Ibid., 28-29.
  8. “Vivre et dire l’Évangile au travail”: survey organized by the CNEF (National Council of French Evangelicals) and presented publicly November 2021.
  9. Lesslie Newbigin. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1989).

Authors' Bios

David Brown

David Brown is a pastor in France and the author of a dozen books (mainly in French) on the interface between the gospel and culture. For several years he led the GBU, the French student movement affiliated to IFES, and he continues to serve in the GBU publishing house and as
coordinator of the Human Sciences network.

Rubin Pohor

Dr Rubin Pohor is a professor at the Alassane Ouattara University, Bouaké, Ivory Coast. He is also Vice-President in charge of teaching methods, research, and publications at the Abidjan Christian Alliance University (UACA) and head of its Human Sciences Department. He is the coordinator of the Council of Theological Institutions in French speaking Africa.

Karen Swallow Prior

Dr Karen Swallow Prior earned her Ph.D. in English at the State University of New York at Buffalo. She writes for Religion News Service. Her most recent book is The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis (Brazos, 2023).