The Secular Sensitive Model

Confronting the Fashionable Sins of the Age

During 2014, I sensed the ground beneath us was shifting. As a pastor, I determined it was necessary to speak more directly and firmly in addressing ideas that were becoming culturally and socially entrenched. I realized our reluctance, silence even, was not serving the people within our churches, who were being daily instructed by our surrounding secular culture. Furthermore, given that prevailing ideas about sexuality and gender pertained to our basic self-understanding as human beings, this offered an opportunity for us to know ourselves as male and female image bearers of God, fallen in sin, called to redemption in Christ, and to commend such knowledge as right and good and true. The interest in, and even volatility of, the subject matter could serve to have us know our own hearts before God, enriching our understanding that we are righteous in Christ, and not in ourselves. In other words, this was a teaching moment.  

As we were going through a sermon series on 1 Corinthians at the church where I served, in preaching from 1 Corinthians 6, I taught on same-sex sexual relations and desire. I stated the Scriptures were clear regarding their sinfulness, and that this wasn’t an “agree to disagree” matter. In so doing, I spoke of this particular sin and temptation within our shared and desperate plight as sinners, who are justified through faith in Jesus Christ. Within our young church situated in a highly secular and skeptical cultural context, the sermon seemed to strike a chord on the whole. A professing Christian who left the church, who held an “affirming” view, admitted that I “tried really hard to be compassionate.” (that I “tried” was the best he could offer) 

A point I made during the course of the sermon, which was necessary to address a culturally potent falsehood, was to forcefully denounce the comparison of the Christian understanding of sexuality to racism. Such association is a smear intended to discredit, and is wholly without merit. 

Race is an amoral categorization of human beings based on appearance, physical characteristics, and ancestry. On the other hand, the way we experience and express our sexuality as male and female image bearers has to do with self-understanding, internal desires, and behaviors, which are moral or immoral, disobedient and sinful or obedient and pleasing to God. For example, “transgender” is not a kind of person one is, but a naming and identity opposed to God’s created goodness and definition. Sex has to do with love, marriage, procreation, and family. Neither race nor the unjust differentiation and brutal mistreatment of human beings on account of race have any bearing on this. Simply stated, race and sex are two starkly different categories. 

Shortly afterward, in a discussion with a group of pastors, there was an overt expression of disbelief that I had dared to directly address the comparison of race and sexuality. This sense that I said what I’m “not supposed to say” struck me. 

Secularization Meets Church

These fellow pastors were evaluating what I conveyed to them based on what I will refer to as the Secular-Sensitive ministry model. While the Secular-Sensitive ministry model often speaks of idols and warns against idolatry, it was clear there were certain cultural idols that were untouchable and not to be provoked. The thought I had in subsequently reflecting on our conversation was: “You cannot minister to people whose good opinion you are governed by, and whose hostility you determine must be avoided.”

It seems to me that in the Secular Sensitive model, the goal of the church service, and especially of the sermon, is to expertly and precisely fit the gospel into the unconverted heart. This is supposedly based on the truth of our common humanity as image bearers of God, and of common grace, in that God has not left “himself without witness” (Acts 14:17), but there is evidence of his goodness and presence within all cultures and times and places.

What is a sound theological conviction, with explanatory power, is misapplied, twisted, and hardened into a rigid and pervasive rule confining the gospel to being the fulfillment of misdirected desires and what might be worthwhile convictions. 

What’s communicated is something like: “Look, unbelieving person, if you give him a chance, you’ll find that Jesus fits right into what you already believe. Jesus measures up to your expectations. Don’t you see how wonderful he is!” That’s the way of establishing common ground and is the platform from which the call to turn to Jesus is presented: “In order to have the good things in which you believe realized, and your expectations truly met, you need to turn to Jesus. Otherwise, you’ll always end up disappointed.” 

An approach that could be selectively and wisely employed in personal conversations, or as a point of discussion in certain settings, including within a sermon, becomes the law that governs the Church in its public gatherings, including Sunday worship. 

So, when the people of God in Christ gather on the Lord’s Day for the worship of God among the saints in light, the sensibilities of secular critics and unbelievers, along with professing Christians who’ve adopted secular categories, are sovereign, governing what is said. The one law that must not be broken is not offending them. This law also becomes synonymous with the gospel itself, which is treated as a pristine and delicate object to be protected that can shatter easily at the utterance of a stray word or thought that offends highly valued secular norms. This “law” and “gospel” perspective captures the church, essentially becoming a worldview.

This approach does not love secular listeners and secularized Christians, but enthrones and exalts them and their opinions. It does not result in people falling on their faces worshiping God and declaring God is really among you. The notion that through careful argumentation affirming their existing prejudices people can be delivered from sin, death, and hell, from their rebellion against the Holy One, high and lifted up, is fallacious. It mutes all of the various ways in which the Holy Spirit, speaking through the Scriptures, confronts sinful image bearers. 

It does not result in the conviction and conversion of the secular unbelieving heart, or in the church being salt and light, but in the secularization of the church.

It results in what we are now living in. 

Sin and Salvation

The Secular Sensitive model emphasizes what we have in common with all of our fellow human beings – that we are image bearers of God. This is right and good and necessary and must be spoken about and taught and emphasized continually. One of the primary questions of our day relates to anthropology – what is a human being? Of course, we are not only image bearers, but fallen, sinful image bearers under judgment and wrath, called to repentance and redemption in Christ crucified and risen. This too we of course share in common with all hope and gladness. However, when it speaks of sin, the Secular Sensitive model presents it almost exclusively in psychological, interpersonal, sociological, and temporal (this life only) terms. Sin’s God-defying, God-opposing character, in light of our mortality, the coming judgment, and eternity, is largely, if not completely, ignored. 

Only regarding and presenting sin from such a perspective confirms the subjectivism and relativism that are constitutive elements of our society. The primacy of a Godward and eternal perspective on our sin and our lives, which will culminate in his presence in a judgment we cannot withstand on our own, counteracts this. That isn’t a pristine gospel that must be protected from secular indignation, but the power of God to salvation for those who need deliverance from the wrath of God “to serve the living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven.” (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). 

Given that our secular age is subjective and relativistic and therapeutic, the reality of objective, transcendent truth is practically incomprehensible to our neighbors and friends, including many within our churches as well. Unless and until that is challenged clearly and directly, what is said is liable to be understood and filtered through such subjectivism and relativism. Thus, the presentation of sin as primarily psychological, interpersonal, and sociological will invariably be understood on such terms. Such sin cannot make sense of why we needed the Son of God to assume our flesh, bear our sin, plunge down into death and hell, and rise again.   

In addition, within Secular-Sensitive settings, what we don’t share in common with those who don’t belong to Christ is muted and really not spoken of in the Sunday public gathering. That we are the holy people of God in Christ, set apart for his glory, in contrast to the world – those who are outside of Christ and reject his rule and authority and are under wrath – is ignored.  

What is one of the Scripture’s primary points of emphasis and the fruit and goal of redemption – the holiness of God’s people – is, at best, minimized. 

On the whole, this approach cultivates a desire to have control over every detail and word to make sure that nothing “goes wrong.” It is a way of conveying truth that sedates people to the very truth you are supposedly attempting to convey. 

Can such a “word” wound and heal, kill and bring to life? Does it elicit the cry, “‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’” Isaiah 6:5. Secular Sensitivity does not provoke a person to exclaim, “What a wretched man I am!” Romans 7:24. 

The Lord of the Church’s rebuke is one we must take to heart and is a cause for prayerful self-examination: “‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.’” Revelation 3:1. Perhaps, in God’s mercy, the broken-hearted response will be, “What a wretched man I am!”  

This, I believe, is the paradigm we’ve been ministering from, which has hampered so many of us and weakened our churches for so long. 

A Transcendent Model

A go-to text for the Secular Sensitive model is Acts 17. First, it’s important to note that the setting in Acts 17 is a public forum in which ideas are presented and considered. It is not a Church gathering. That’s an important distinction the Secular Sensitive model often disregards. That being said, it’s certainly legitimate to consider this text as an example of how to preach in a secular context, though not as the “only way” to do so. 

Initially, the Apostle Paul presents a cultural diagnosis, demonstrating his familiarity with the world of his hearers, who are unfamiliar with the Scriptures. On the occasions it’s wisely employed, such an approach can be a strength of the Secular Sensitive perspective. Having insightfully demonstrated his understanding of his Athenian setting, how then does Paul address this pluralistic “marketplace of ideas”? 

While he draws on a connection point from their paradigm – “What you therefore worship as unknown this I proclaim to you” – he doesn’t work within their paradigm but shatters it. He calls them out of their God-ignoring world into a God-saturated one. He proclaims the transcendent authority of God, the certainty of judgment, and the way of repentance through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Such direct and clear speech is the need of the hour and our path forward. 

Image Credit: Unsplash

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John Hanna

John Hanna is New Jersey State Capitol Minister with Ministry to State, a ministry of the PCA to those serving in government. He's a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary and American University Washington College of Law.

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