Secularized Pluralism: A New Opportunity for Christian Witness?

by Caleb Cohen October 22, 2020

The Evangelical Missiological Society’s 2018 national conference addressed the question: “How does the process of secularization impact the task of Christian mission in the modern world?” A year later, the society published some of the conference’s key papers in a helpful little book called Against the Tide.[1] The book’s central inquiry is an important one, not just for your missions pastor, but for everyone in the body of Christ. Drawing on recent developments in sociology, nearly all the contributors point out that secularization has actually not pushed modern people to abandon their spirituality or their belief in transcendence. Rather, the secularist creed of today really just commands that we keep our religious thoughts and convictions to ourselves.

Steve Thrall is a missionary pastor in that bastion of European secularism: Paris, France. In his chapter of Against the Tide, Thrall writes, “Secularism casts religion as merely private and personal, a question of conscience and personal reflection with no bearing on any public role.”[2] The urban pastor touches on one more element of secularization though, which I think may have some even deeper implications for our Christian witness in the modern world. He says that according to the secularism he sees all around him, “No particular religious belief is perceived as truer than another.”[3] Not only should we refrain from getting into any dialogue about religion, says secularism, but we could never find any universal truth there even if we tried. Ultimately, Thrall’s pastoral analysis of this secularized pluralism is pretty optimistic, and he is not alone.

The idea here is that when religion was privatized it was also subjectivized – every religious claim is as true as the next. In our secularized society then, religion is still something of a private entity, but it has effectually “gone public,” and its shares can now be hawked freely on the trading floor. In his chapter of Against the Tide, the linguist and former church planter in eastern Europe, Marc Canner observes that “secularism allows the free public expression of religion and has contributed in the West to a greater degree of pluralism.”[4] Raphael Anzenberger, a French national, makes essentially the same observation in his own chapter, insisting that religion’s privatization is exactly what has allowed for genuine religious dialogue in many societies today.[5] The very force that made religion private, in other words, is exactly what ended up taking it public. Secularism has given birth to true and unfettered religious pluralism, and some in the church are seeing this as a new opportunity for Christian witness. The contributor to Against the Tide who makes the most of this opportunity though, is the historian of Christian missions, Shawn Behan.

“I propose that secularization in a society is a good development,” Behan announces, “because it provides a pluralism of belief options. This pluralism, then, is an opportunity for the church to engage culture (and its members) on equal footing with other beliefs in the public sphere.”[6] Behan’s rationale here is that “differing religious options push and pull each other, forcing these beliefs and their choices to be defended in the public spheres, where they can interact with one another. In this, they refine each other.”[7] In my mind though, everything seems to hinge on whether this secular pluralism really will force our differing religious convictions to interact with one another in public spheres. After all, only relatively recently have the world’s preeminent sociologists, Peter Berger[8] and Charles Taylor[9] finally agreed that a public muzzling of religious discussion is the very essence of secularism! Either way though, this secularized pluralism can mean only one thing for our duty as Christian witnesses. Whether our society tells us to keep our religious convictions to ourselves or invites us to showcase our beliefs on the open market, we still have the same commission we have always had. Let us be about sharing the gospel of Christ tenaciously no matter what. And just imagine what might happen if this moment of secularized pluralism really ends up affording us the opportunity that many in the Evangelical Missiological Society think may be in store.


[1] https://missionbooks.org/products/against-the-tide

[2] Steve Thrall, Against the Tide, Chapter 6, “Reconnecting with Secular,” paragraph 8.

[3] Steve Thrall, Against the Tide, Chapter 6, “The Roots and Development,” paragraph 16.

[4] Marc Canner, Against the Tide, Chapter 8, “Where the East Does Not Meet the West,” paragraph 3.

[5] Raphael Anzenberger, Against the Tide, Chapter 3, “Telling the Story Correctly,” paragraph 3.

[6] Shawn Behan, Against the Tide, Chapter 2, “Embracing Plurality,” paragraph 3.

[7] Shawn Behan, Against the Tide, Chapter 2, “Reexamining Secularization,” paragraph 9.

[8] https://www.eerdmans.com/Products/4691/the-desecularization-of-the-world.aspx

[9] https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?content=reviews&isbn=9780674026766