There Is No Secular World
Between classes, walking the shiny linoleum hallway of my Midwestern public high school, my long middle-parted hair framing my 16-year-old face, I was shocked to see the interim pastor of our church walking toward me with a smile on his face. Delivering a book to his son for a class, he paused under the wall clock outside the school library door. “Hello Cathy – hey, what should I preach on this Sunday?” he asked. Without hesitation I replied, “Sex.”
Lifting his eyebrows and cocking his head, he took in my spontaneous sermon suggestion and replied, “Now there is a challenge!” I forgot the encounter by the time Sunday came around. But he didn’t.
Hurrying late into the sanctuary that morning, I saw the pastor enter the pulpit and announce: “My sermon topic today came from a member of the church I ran into this week.” Worry flooded my body. I pleaded with God, “Please do not let him say it was me who asked him to preach on sex.” As my panic rose I tried to reassure myself by recalling that a 16-year-old was not a “member of the church,” a title reserved for adults. My attention was riveted.
“He Took Me Seriously”
“This morning I am going to address an aspect of Christian life important for all of us, our sexuality,” he declared. My jaw dropped as I sat in the pew. He had taken me seriously. He heard me. He didn’t out me. I don’t recall one word of his sermon. But I will never forget how affirmed I felt that Sunday.
Church doors open, and we spread our arms wide to welcome people to step inside. Yet fewer and fewer people are meeting us at that threshold. They are navigating the spiritual joys and sorrows of their lives outside the walls of the church, and we do well to pay attention to the many reasons this is happening. One of them is the disconnect between people’s daily life in the world and their experience of church.
An Unhelpful Divide
What is often labeled as the sacred-secular divide between church and world is an unhelpful polarization. As a teenager who was serious about her faith, I needed help navigating attitudes toward the sexuality I was encountering in high school. An effort to connect with the real lives of people, like my pastor did, can make a big difference to the integration of one’s spiritual life. When people sense that their life challenges and dreams are being taken seriously inside the church, connections begin to be made. Listening and responding to the joys and troubles people face gives faith communities a chance to thrive.
Jesus went out. Jesus sent others out. Raised in a faith, formed by the temple traditions, Jesus’ work summoned him out from Jerusalem into the secular world. His leadership was formed by the people he encountered. He took himself to the marketplace, the seashore, rowed off in boats, stopped at the town pool. Jesus sends out 70 disciples into people’s homes in Luke. Twelve go out in pairs in Mark. Out he goes to the lilies of the field and the fig tree in Matthew, in order to teach. In John, Jesus is in a kitchen and garden employing things of the earth – vines and branches, light under bushels, yeast, mustard seeds, bread, salt, sheep, and shepherds – using elements from the daily world to talk about ultimate meaning and growing a spiritual life.
Waking Up to the World
While I was a parish leader I experienced congregations willing to reach out and seek integration with their neighborhoods and towns. Paying attention to the weekly world we lived in allowed us to respond with food, programs, and invitations that spoke to people’s daily experiences.
At first we were not so happy with the small numbers at church during worship on Sunday, but when we opened our doors for parents to sign their children up for the summer day camp we hosted, the line winded so far down the sidewalk that we had to turn people away.
And when we opened a food pantry on Tuesdays, volunteers had to be enlisted to manage the line of 300 people or more who came each week for food.
And when Gene Robinson, then Bishop of New Hampshire, came to speak on being gay and Christian, every fold-up chair in the fellowship hall was filled while others pressed together and stood against the back wall.
When church leaders show up at neighborhood meetings about zoning issues or city parks, sitting with police and politicians and homeowners and all others who worry about safety on playgrounds and green spaces, it speaks volumes. People notice when churches host funerals for a grieving neighborhood or sponsor a summer camp for children whether or not they are church members. There is no secular world. Food for the hungry and school safety and child development are God’s concern as much as liturgy, sacraments, and pastoral care.
My years of parish leadership working side by side with laypeople taught me the lessons I now teach as a divinity school dean and director of formation. One of them is that leaders can step into the larger community and involve themselves in the lives and concerns of others, just as Jesus did. Offering one’s time and energy to learn from the surrounding community – standing ready to affirm their questions without presuming to supply all the answers – makes a difference.
A New Threshold
People often leave the church for solid theological reasons. Today’s faith leaders have an opportunity to value those who never darken the doors, or who because of experiences at church have fled those doors. When people arrive at the threshold of our church entrances they come with lessons we need to learn. And people bring questions that the teachings of Jesus can address.
Thriving congregations don’t divide God’s world into us-and-them. A worshiper or visitor might describe, for instance, their meditation practice as a spiritual resource they turn to because it produces more kindness, patience, and compassion in them. And if they tell us, “I don’t get that at church,” listen. Share with them the ancient practices of Christian contemplative tradition, which few people perhaps even know exist.
Jesus went to the outsider and spoke to the needs he encountered. There is no secular world. There is God’s world, a world in need of faith leaders who can notice, value, and speak to the questions, troubles, and joys in the daily lives of those we seek to live with, pray with, and care for.
The Rev. Cathy H. George is Associate Dean and Director of Formation at the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. A graduate of Macalester College and Harvard Divinity School, she completed her doctorate in ministry in transformational leadership at Boston University School of Theology in 2017. She has served as a priest in urban, rural, and suburban parishes, and as a chaplain in prison and hospital settings. She is the author of You Are Already Praying: Stories of God at Work (Morehouse, 2013).