Secularization and the Perseverance of the Saints

I have continued to ponder Phyllis Tickles’ thesis on the 500-year-cycle of transformation of the church….This interview with British sociological academic Linda Woodhead, specialising in the sociology of religion, gives some insights into the last century of changes in religious beliefs, practices, and influence on society. .

Woodhead notes: “A significant insight is offered by a Belgian sociologist, Karel Dobbelaere. He made s a distinction between three levels of secularisation. He talks about secularisation at the societal level, the meta level of society; secularisation at the organisational or meso- level, and he’s thinking in part of religious organisation themselves declining, like the churches having fewer members or attenders; and then thirdly, secularisation at the personal level, where fewer people believe or their lives are less guided by religion. He says : “Don’t just talk about secularisation. What sort are you meaning, or what level of society? The macro level, the meso level or the micro level?” … It’s another clarification of secularisation theory. The most important current defender of secularization theory is Steve Bruce at Aberdeen University, even though it’s waned very very much, it’s very much fallen out of favour in the last ten or fifteen years. Steve is a true believer still in secularisation theory and defends it very very strongly. He combines really particularly Durkheim and Marx. He thinks that it is about individualisation, the Durkheimian theory that societies break down and we don’t need that bond anymore (the religious/societal community bond), and he thinks it’s about rationalisation. , ……. So it’s about the demonstrable decline in the number of people who are members, attenders, who had their child baptised, who have a Christian wedding. There are lots of statistics that support his case, that he regularly cites.”

Nevertheless, while institutional religiosity is declining, individuals’ stated value of spirituality, faith, and spiritual practices is still very strong (and annoying to secularists.) It truly does seem to be the case, however, that religion is becoming more individualized and preference-based which risks a significant degree of superficiality, syncretism and beliefs that cannot stand up over time. It becomes a case for many with more solidly founded orthodoxy and orthopraxy that the opportunity to share their faith or evangelize arises in the midst of someone else’s discovery of the inadequacy of their faith and religiosity and on a very personal, in-the-moment opportunity. As the Apostle Peter states and as the Apostle Phillip showed with the Ethiopian, we need to be ready, disciples!

1 Peter 3:15

“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

We may only get the opportunity to share the Gospel of Christ when someone else’s world is falling in on them. Are you studied up, prayed up, and standing up, attentive to those around you to be there when they are ready to listen? Where will the true “lighthouses” be when the storm comes?

The institutional Church (with a big “C”) may be in continued decline but the church universal (with a little “c”), Christ’s presence and power in the world, is alive and well.


For Linda Woodhead’s interview, go here: