Reaching Secular People Q & A
A question-and-answer look at what it takes to reach people for Christ in highly secularized Europe and how that translates to reaching people in the United States.Europe — the former heart of Christendom — has traveled far down the path toward secularization. An increasingly secular United States is following a similar trajectory. Shawn and Deborah G. work in Spain and lead the Secular Peoples Initiative. In this interview, Shawn G. discusses the need to reach secular peoples.
Europe is often described as post-Christian. A better term might be secular. What is secularism? And how widespread is it in Europe?
Terms are challenging in describing the faith system of Europe. When we hear the word “post-Christian” we might think European people groups are backslidden. But the average European lives within a framework that has little connection with what we call Christianity.
By using the word “secular,” we are not referring to a political agenda. Secularism is a worldview in which God and religion are no longer the center points of reference. The self becomes the highest authority of life. God is an option but not an obligation.
This is not to say secular people are simply selfish. One can be a self-centered Muslim, Christian, or Buddhist because selfishness is a part of human fallenness.
Rather, secular people see the self as the only plausible option for organizing and making sense of life. The meaning of life is not found. Rather, it is my responsibility to create it for myself. We call this project self.
This perspective sounds great at the beginning. We all value freedom and the autonomous self, but ultimately it is a crushing burden. All I have is me.
In Europe, this is the most widespread worldview.
Is secularism radically anti-Christian? Or are there a variety of secularisms?
No more radical than any other worldview or religious system.
The European history of religious wars, scandals, and political-religious confusion makes people see Christianity as a failed project, so it is not a viable option for them.
Secularism, like any faith, has different flavors, depending on cultural context. The Southern European flavor is different from that of Northern Europe, and both are very different from the American version. On a more individual level, we see four general types of secular people.
First, there is atheism. This is what most people think of when they hear the word secular, but atheists are the smallest group of the four types. Most secular people are not atheists.
Second, we have the traditional or slightly religious secularists. These folks are culturally conservative, perhaps identifying with a historic state church, but they do not believe or practice any faith. The self is still their highest authority.
Third are spiritual secularists. They borrow, often from Eastern religions, spiritual practices as tools for project self.
Finally, the largest group are what we call pragmatic secularists. Their mantra is, “If all I have is me, and there is no greater meaning to life, I just do what gets me through the week. You do you; I do me.”
All of these secularists decide for themselves what goes in the spirituality box of their lives, in keeping with self-authority. Within each group, there are obstacles — as well as helpful bridges — to the gospel. The key is engaging everyone with grace.
What unique challenges do Christians face in reaching secular people groups with the gospel?
I see three major challenges.
First, gospel access. In many parts of Europe, people can live their whole lives and never meet a practicing Christian. They may not even know someone who knows someone who knows a Christian. This is a major contrast with the U.S.
Second, Europeans think they have already tried Christianity and it failed.
Third, because secularism is not a recent trend in Europe, the average European has greater distance from the gospel. That is to say, their mental and emotional worlds are so different from people with a Christian background it takes time and multiple interactions with the gospel for them to process it.
What are effective starting points in reaching secular peoples?
The starting place is with us. If we are going to open our lives, homes, and Bibles with secular people, our hearts and attitudes must be in the right place.
If we begin from a posture of us versus them, seeing people as culture-war enemies, our stance becomes combative and even aggressive. If we focus on fear of the influence they may have on our families, we shut ourselves into safe cocoons. These people are not enemies to defeat. They are lost sheep without a shepherd.
We must begin seeing evangelism as Spirit-empowered gospel proclamation + presence. Share a meal. Share lives. Share the stories of Jesus.
The starting point is the stories of Jesus. I don’t mean that as a slogan. People do not know what Jesus said and did. The four Gospels and Acts are what we talk about most with secular people.
It is amazing how relevant the stories of Jesus are, because Jesus talked about real life. We can easily say to our secular friends, “That reminds me of something Jesus said or did.” Then let Jesus do His work.
What lessons from Europe can be applied to reaching increasingly secular people in the U.S.?
The good news is the Church doesn’t need institutional power to be effective and have influence. The gospel doesn’t need public affirmation from all the authorities to change lives. The Holy Spirit can work through ordinary Jesus followers who are willing to be His witnesses in the world.
However, we have learned in Europe that attractional methods of church will have little impact on people with secular backgrounds, unless we live among them in a way that makes the gospel credible through what we say and do.
The lesson is to be confident in Jesus and His gospel, not in secondary things. God’s people — in love with Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, and in loving relationship — can still change the world.
We must ask ourselves how our lives can intersect with secular people outside church walls to help them hear the good news. Sometimes it starts simply with inviting someone over for coffee.
Where can readers go for more information about the Secular Peoples Initiative?
My wife and I do travel back to the U.S. and speak to churches and leaders about reaching secular people. We are building a community of European missionaries who can do that as well. Also, we are launching a website and creating resources for a broader audience at secularpeoples.org. You can email us directly at [email protected].
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of Influence magazine. Used with permission.