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Posted by on Feb 16, 2013 in Theology | 7 comments

How pastors can inadvertently fuel the sacred/secular divide

How pastors can inadvertently fuel the sacred/secular divide

 

I recently interviewed David Platt, the pastor of Brook Hills Church in Alabama, for  Christianity Today. We talked about his new book Follow Me: A Call to Die, A Call to Live – a theological follow-up to his bestselling Radical. Though the book had redeeming qualities, I found myself disagreeing with Platt on everything from his use of persecuted Christians in the Middle East as models for American discipleship to using hell as a motivator for evangelism. But perhaps my greatest concern was how he, and many pastors, can inadvertently exacerbate the sacred/secular divide.

At several points in the book Platt references persecuted Christians as models for “real discipleship.” At one point he says, “We have brothers and sisters around the world today who are imprisoned, beaten, persecuted, and killed today not because they smile as they serve people,” but because they tell people the gospel with the words. This is true – sharing the gospel is illegal in many countries. But I had to ask, Isn’t “smiling as you serve,” especially in one’s vocation, an equally valid calling as that of an evangelist?

I wanted to push him here because in several points of the book, Platt equated a radical discipleship to Jesus with separating yourself from your career for things like prayer and Bible study. He references Luke, a successful businessman, who grew in his faith and separated himself from learning about business:

“He [Luke] told me [Platt], ‘My insatiable desire for business books, seminars, and motivational speakers has completely gone away. God has replaced that desire with a hunger for his Word.’”

Again my question: is a desire for run a business well antithetical to being fully committed to God and His Word?

Katelyn Beaty, the Managing Editor of Christianity Today, must have picked up on this subtle sacred/secular divide as well. A portion of an earlier interview she did with Platt was merged with mine for the article, and she asked him: “What about, say, a factory worker who loves Jesus and wants to follow him, but works long hours because he needs to support his family? How would you counsel him?”. It’s a good question. Can’t factory workers please God, even if they’re not converting co-workers?

Although I don’t think there’s any malicious intent here, I think pastors can often exacerbate the sacred/sacred divide by equating real discipleship with more participation in church programs, service events, or Bible studies, often at the cost of doing their daily work with excellence and in the service of God and neighbor.

Skye Jethani, a former pastor and now the senior editor of Leadership Journal, realized how many times he had accidentally contributed to this problem:

“I realized how insensitive and guilt-inducing many of my past sermons had been. In sermon after sermon I had called them to give more time, more money, more energy to the work of the church. Little did I understand or affirm their callings in the world. I had inadvertently created a secular/sacred divide in which the ‘sacred’ calling of the church was pitted against their ‘secular’ callings in the world. I never said this explicitly, of course, but it was implied.”

Nearly all the pastors I know want to dissolve the sacred/secular divide, but in the attempt to find ushers, children’s ministry volunteers, and others to staff church programs, bulletins are often filled with ways to serve ‘in here’ and not ‘out there’ in people’s vocations.

Pastor JR Vassar of Apostles Church in New York City said at a Work as Worship Conference that the real tragedy of this situation is that instead of sending Christians into the world to serve, pastors often take them out of the world – their secular work – to perpetuate church programming. He asks a simple question: What is more significant for the church’s mission: more church programs (and a bigger church), or equipping the Body of Christ to serve God out in the world, in their careers and the tensions of a modern, pluralistic society?

Theologically I think we need to understand two things. (1) God fills us with his Spirit to speak the word of God. The examples are numerous:

  • Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied… (Luke 1:67)
  • The Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit said to them… (Acts 4:8)
  • And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the Word boldly (Acts 4:31)
  • As he spoke, the Spirit came into me…He said, “You must speak my words to them,” (Ezekiel 2:2,7)

Those who have been given the Spirit will speak his words boldly, and be engaged in activities like discipleship and evangelism. The Scriptures make this clear.

But (2) God also fills us with the Spirit to do work. The Bible’s first mention of the Holy Spirit is in Exodus, when two men are chosen by God to make the tabernacle.

“Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills – to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts” (Exodus 31:2-5).

If both of these statements are true, we must speak the words of God, and we also must show the majesty and goodness of God through our work.  No such sacred/secular divide needs to exist, either inside the church or out in the world

The simple lesson: let’s not remove people from the world in attempts for more build more church programs, but instead let’s equip them to be salt and light in the midst of the world, namely, at work .

Discussion question: Does your church inadvertently fuel the sacred/secular divide? If so, how can this change?

(Photo: Church, Lloyd Photography)

7 Comments

  1. Thanks for expressing that thought so well. Serving in the secular world is such an important ministry.

  2. I flat-out didn’t get that at all from Platt’s interview in CT or from his books. His point in mentioning “Smiling as your serve” is that it’s not the same as presenting the gospel verbally to others. “Smiling as your serve” is not the great commission!

    Sure, we should work “as unto the Lord” and be polite and nice. But that is not the same as sharing the gospel with others and putting our entire lives on the line, as his examples of missionaries.

    We don’t leave the work of spreading the gospel to only “official” pastors and missionaries. It’s not enough to just be nice to others and serve them. We need to tell them about Jesus and the good news. How can they know if they don’t hear, the Bible says.

    Platt is not advocating “removing people from the world to build more church programs” as you said in your conclusion. Could you site a page number in his books or a direct quote from him in the CT article that shows this is what Platt says? That person you quoted had an “insatiable appetite” for business rather than the things of God. Would you agree that this is out of balance for a Christian?

    “Smiling as your serve” is equally valid as the calling of an evangelist? Are you kidding? Will smiling give people the knowledge of Jesus to save them? No. But the bigger key is that we are all evangelist. We are all called to share the gospel and that is not equal to just smiling.

    • Sorry, one other point: Three years ago, I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Stage 5 is death. I was the guy who smiled as I served for most of my Christian life. I realized that wasn’t enough. That wasn’t enough to get me through a life-saving crisis. I regretted that I had not been more bold about my faith. That’s what Platt and Chan are trying to say. Wake up. Be bold. I understand completely.

  3. Mr Harris. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I appreciate your willingness, and desire, to “wake up and be bold.” Frankly, we need more people in the world who are wiling to be bold for Christ and his kingdom.
    Let me respond to your comments. First, I took “smiling as you serve” to mean the way in which you carry out your work, and even the type of work you do. In response to your concern that this “isn’t the great commission”, I must disagree. In my post I argued that saying the words of God verbally is only half of witnessing to the resurrected Christ – the other half is the deeds which confirm our words. If you tell somebody that Jesus died for your sin, but do your work poorly or go about in somber drudgery in your work, they’re likely to question the validity of your words. True, we are all called to be evangelists. But to communicate the euangellion requires both words and deeds, both telling the gospel and showing it.
    And though an insatiable desire for business is surely wrong (any insatiable desire not driven by God can be idolatrous), a desire to conduct a business well, provide for customers and employees, and produce products and services that promote human flourishing is not “out of balance” for a Christian. It is out of balance of the words are missing – as I said in the post. It isn’t if the Spirit inspires us for BOTH work and words.
    Brother, I thank God that your experience with cancer made you more bold. Let’s be bold together in every task God has given us.

    • It is impossible to show the gospel by our actions. This is a category mistake.
      The gospel, the good news of what God did in Christ, can only be TOLD.

      Yes, our lives must adorn the gospel. But that is the rightful place of our good works: they adorn the gospel. They are not the gospel and they can NEVER communicate the gospel of grace.

      And no, you CANNOT live the gospel. Live according to the gospel, yes. In step with the gospel, yes. But NOT live the gospel. Because the gospel is historical events and their incredible significance. And they cannot be lived!!!

      I am saddened to see such confusion. Serving others is NOT part of the great commission. It is certainly part of the great commandment.

      You want to take part of the great commission? Do evangelism and discipleship. This is what ‘always abounding in the work of the Lord’ (1 Cor 15:58) is all about.

  4. “There cannot be two parallel lives in their existence: on the one hand, the so-called “spiritual” life, with its values and demands; and on the other, the so-called “secular” life, that is, life in a family, at work, in social relationships, in the responsibilities of public life and in culture. The branch, engrafted to the vine which is Christ, bears its fruit in every sphere of existence and activity. In fact, every area of the lay faithful’s lives, as different as they are, enters into the plan of God who desires that these very areas be the “places in time” where the love of Christ is revealed and realized for both the glory of the Father and service of others. Every activity, every situation, every precise responsibility–as, for example, skill and solidarity in work, love and dedication in the family and the education of children, service to society and public life and the promotion of truth in the area of culture–are the occasions ordained by Providence for a “continuous exercise of faith, hope and charity.”

    Pope John Paul II, Christifideles Laici

  5. Jeff, in your follow up to J. Harris you said it all. “In my post I argued…”

    There you go. The whole heart of the problem. Someone comes along with something that starts getting people excited, and the theological crowd has to come along and argue against it, start finding the holes, tearing it down, bantering over semantics.

    But hey, at least they do it with a smile, even if it is a big fat phony one.

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