Ministry Confronts Secularisation
by Sam Hey
Dr Sam Hey teaches at the School of Ministries, Christian Heritage College, Brisbane, a ministry of Christian Outreach Centre. In this paper, adapted from his Ph.D. research with Macquarie University, Sydney, he surveys theories of secularisation and revival.
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Ministry Confronts Secularisation, by Sam Hey:
This paper grew out of a study of the history and growth of an indigenous Australian charismatic group, the Christian Outreach Centre (COC) movement. In this study, two factors stood out. The first was efforts of new religious groups such as COC to counter the forces of secularisation and institutionalisation that act on the church. The second was the group’s revivalist emphasis on experientialism, the supernatural and healing, its appeal to past biblical models for the church and ministry and its adaptation to modern technological society.
If church and ministry are to be effective in society today they need to better understand the changes that are taking place in the world and the extent to which practices and structures aid and hinder their mission. They must learn to adapt to a changing world without losing the core Christian values and beliefs that make their message so powerful. It is the purpose of this paper to examine some of the changes taking place in society and to consider the ways that revivalist groups such as the COC are adapting to them.
The Secularisation Thesis
The secularisation thesis predicting the decline of religion in modern societies became the dominant paradigm for religious change in the twentieth century. Two of the main advocates of the secularisation theory were Peter Berger and Bryan Wilson. Berger used the term ‘secularisation’ to describe a process ‘by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols.’ Similarly, Wilson applied the term secularisation to ‘the process by which religious institutions, actions and consciousness lose their social significance.’
The term, secularisation, was not only used to describe the restriction in the influence of religion due to changes within modern society, but also the adaptation of religion to the changing values of society. Many contemporary scholars suggested that traditional religious beliefs, teachings and practices would struggle to survive in the modern world, suggesting that they were more suited to past cultures and belief systems. They predicted a continued decline in institutionalised religion. This decline has been variously referred to as the most significant trend in religion and the ‘greatest problem facing the church,’ the ‘great contemporary crisis in religion’ and the great ‘drama of our times.’
One of the weaknesses of the secularisation theory is the lack of clarity that surrounds the term ‘secularisation.’ The term needs to be carefully elucidated to avoid the vagueness that frequently surrounds its use. Secularisation is used to describe the transfer of activities from the religious to the non religious, the differentiation of religious and non religious activities, the transformation of institutions from religious to less religious spheres, change in affections and loyalties and the changing roles of religious people in a modern, complex society, the change of the locus of social control from the religious sphere to the technical and bureaucratic spheres, and increasing government responsibility for traditionally religious activities including education and welfare.
Religious decline has also been linked to other developments in modern society including industrialisation, urbanisation, economic and social development, loss of community, rationalisation, modernisation, professionalisation, bureaucratisation, and pluralisation. It can also be linked to the failure of civil religion, particularly in Europe, and to changes in the relationship between the political and religious spheres. Religious decline can also be partly explained by changing immigration and childbirth patterns, and changes in family formation. A decline in church attendance is also linked to the increased social and geographic mobility of the population, factors that have been an integral part of growth and social change in Australia and overseas.
In this study secularisation means the accommodation of church and religion to the demands of modern twentieth century society. This study will set out to show that this relationship is neither simple nor linear. It is a complex combination of many contributing factors, both within the church and outside of it.
Modern science was held to be the prime cause of religious decline through secularisation. However, the rise of post modernism demonstrates that the notion that enlightenment rationalism, empirical knowledge and scientific knowledge provide an absolute epistemology is questionable. A simple linear relationship between the rise of scientific thinking and religious decline is by no means clear.
On careful examination, the challenges to faith attributed to secularisation are found to be due as much to structural changes accompanying modernisation than to deeper philosophical shifts in attitudes towards religion and science. The perceived decline in the influence of religion is strongly related to the rapid increase in the size and complexity of modern society. While ‘clergy’ were the largest professional group in the early 1800s, with roles including teaching, counselling, keeping law and order and government clerical responsibilities, by the end of the twentieth century these roles had been replaced by increasingly specialist positions. Clergy were relegated to the periphery and religion was confined to the private sphere.
Consequently, part of the challenge facing the church is the need to redefine and rediscover the role of the clergy in a rapidly changing and increasingly specialised society. Traditional religions that invested heavily in past models and practices have often been ill equipped to adapt to changes in society. The churches have struggled to come to terms with increasing globalisation and pluralism and from revolutions in transportation and communication.
Churches have also been challenged by the decreased dependence of people on religious institutions through the increased power that modern society has given to individuals. Hierarchical, centralised, theologically-complex religious bodies have found it increasingly difficult to relate to an egalitarian society that was characterised by individualism and freedom of choice.
The threat to institutionalised religion has been further increasing by greater competition from a growing range of attractive leisure activities, greater affluence and increasing consumerism. The decrease in religious observance can be linked to increased mobility, the development of the motor car, competition for leisure time through electronic media, changing participation rates in the work force and a decline in local, community life. Prosperous, modern Australians have replaced trust in God and the church with a commitment to individualism, leisure and the family. Churches that have failed to respond to the many changes in society have declined, while others that see change as opportunity have grown.
Secularisation Within Churches
The most significant impact of secularisation on religion has not occur outside churches but within them. Berger observed that with the passage of time, established churches tend to become more inclusive, tolerant and open to the secular world. As new religious groups seek acceptance by established churches and the wider society their more extreme views become moderated. The inclination to want to change society tends to decline. There is usually an increasing value placed on social decorum and rational decision-making. The value placed on less comprehensible areas including emotionalism and the supernatural decreases. Over time liturgies and doctrines tend to become fixed in more concrete forms.
Established groups have a considerable investment to protect. They tend to look to fixed dogma and past history for security and to be wary of experimentation and new methods. Spontaneity, lay involvement and charismatic gifts tend to decline. The pursuit of security poses a strong challenge to church members who wish to pursue the transcendent, experiential, supra-rational religious expressions or pursue more confronting forms of evangelical outreach.
Five Dilemmas of Institutionalisation
It is inevitable that the more religious institutions develop, the more that spontaneous, unpredictable, experiences of the ultimate will be reduced and replaced by established religious forms that are concrete, routine and predictable.
O’Dea defines institutionalisation as the ‘reduction of a set of attitudes and orientations to the expected’ and ‘regularised behaviour.’ O’Dea (1961) identified five dilemmas that arise from institutionalisation.
Firstly, he observes that pre-institutionalised religious groups are characterised by solitary charismatic leadership, singleness of purpose and a high level of sacrifice by all who are involved. As initial, high levels of selfless motivation weaken, they are replaced by a more complex mixture of motivations. These include the pursuit of economic security, stability, respectability, prestige and power.
The second institutional dilemma identified by O’Dea involves the need to objectify religious symbols and ceremonies. As symbols and ceremonies are formalised the people are increasingly separated from the experiences that initially shaped them. This objectification can aid worship, but it can also become a barrier to an experience of the sacred.
Thirdly, organisational administrative structures help to effectively meet members needs and bring them a sense of security, leads to the elaboration and specialisation of organisations. Unfortunately as the organisational centre grows, people near the periphery of the organisation can tend to feel distanced and isolated.
Fourthly, as institutions reduce the message to concrete, rational terms the emphasis on inner, mystical experiences tends to diminish. The guidelines and rules that delimit the message also remove its sense of other worldly mystery.
Fifthly, O’Dea observes that as religious groups grow, their emphasis on the values of society tends to increase, while the emphasis on religious experience decreases. Secularisation and desacralisation are commonly observed to increase as institutions grow. There is a tendency for leaders of established churches to become isolated from their constituents. The strategies that consolidate an organisations power inevitably decrease the opportunities for the self-expression of members. There is a tendencey for the upper classes to be favoured and the lower classes to be neglected.
Dean Kelley observes that mainstream churches tend to become more relativistic and luke-warm over time, and to lose their ability to provide clarity of purpose and an ultimate, other worldly sense of meaning to life. A decline in vitality and attendance is often observed as churches become overly institutionalised. The formation of new religious groups can be seen as a reaction to the process of institutionalisation.
Working class people frequently feel alienated by traditional denominational churches. Hynd suggests that their emphasis on complex rationalism isolates those who seek a more mystical encounter with God and a simple experiential faith. The growth of new religious groups often occurs when large numbers of people find their inner religious impulses remain unmet. The rapid growth of new sectarian groups is further encouraged by the high demands that they place on their members and their tendency to reduce the number of ‘free riders.’ Strictness makes the new groups appear more credible to their members and brings increased commitment and growth. Established churches that have lower costs and greater acceptance of ‘free riders’ often show slower growth.
Secularisation and institutionalisation create pressures within society that require a redefinition of religious practice and community in order that religious solutions continue to work. The emergence of revivalist groups challenge the notion that secularisation and religious decline are inevitable. The growth of revivalist groups provides support for the observation that demand for the transcendent and the wholly other remains strong, even in times of rapid modernisation.
Finke, Stark, Bainbridge and Yinger have all challenged the inevitability of decline through secularisation and argue that the evidence for the persistence of religious desire is considerable. They argue that in the American context the decline in established churches due to secularisation has been matched by the birth and growth of new religious groups.
Stark and Bainbridge argue that secularisation is ‘a self-limiting process that engenders revival’ (sect formation). They observe that decline through secularisation is frequently matched by increased enthusiasm and commitment through religious renewal groups. The processes of secularisation and revival are two forces which act in tandem. They propel cycles of religious change that are ever acting on society. They are part of the ebb and flow of correction and vitality that continue to shape religious development through the ages.
Robin Gill’s significant work, The Myth of the Empty Church (1993), challenges the notion that traditional views of secularisation account for religious decline in the twentieth century. He provides evidence that church decline was due to structural and organisational difficulties in coping with population and cultural shifts. Gill recognises that an exception to decline is found in Pentecostal and charismatic evangelical churches.
The hypothesised religious decline of secularisation theorists failed to account for the rapid growth of Protestant and charismatic Christianity that occurred in Europe, Africa, South America, Asia, the former socialist countries and in one of the most developed countries in the world, the United States of America. It also failed to account for the growth of Pentecostal and charismatic groups.
It is clear that revivalism has the potential to be one of the significant forces counteracting secularisation and institutionalisation. Revivalism has been defined as
A type of religious worship and practice centering in evangelical revivals, or outbursts of mass religious fervour, and stimulated by intensive preaching and prayer meetings.
Revivalist groups are both re-active and pro-active. They react to changes in society and the church by promoting a return to values and practices that they perceive to have existed in the past. Revivalist groups can be viewed as reactionary responses to the processes of secularisation and institutionalisation that are inevitable bi-products of the growth and maturing of established religious organisations. They are a reaction to the tendency in established religious hierarchies to rationalise and objectify the transcendent in order to contain the wholly other in their words, rituals and beliefs. Revivalists seek to restore less institutional, less hierarchical and more mystical forms of the Christian tradition that more highly organised religious groups try to represses.
Revivalist groups seek to counter the established churches’ emphasis on rationalism with an emphasis on individual religious experience including conversion and supernatural healing, miracles, prophecy and glossolalia. Formality in established churches is replaced in revivalist meetings by spontaneity and informality. While established churches spend most resources meeting the needs of middle class adults leaving the lower class and unchurched young people neglected, revivalists, on the other hand, pursue outreach to the lower classes and young people who are responsive to their contemporary methods.
While established churches develop complex, rationalised doctrines, revivalist groups counter this trend with simplified teachings based on biblical allegories and metaphors and uncomplicated, narrative-based messages. They use simple, expressive songs that empower ordinary, untrained, lay people, neglected by established churches. As sociologist, Bryan Wilson observes, ‘Inner feeling has been hailed as more authentic than intellectual knowledge.’ The complex politics of highly structured centralised, hierarchies and credentialled, highly trained clergymen are replaced in revival movements by egalitarian communities in which the charismatic gifts of each member are valued. Revivalists give greater opportunities for the ‘ordinary’ participant.
Decentralisation is emphasised by revivalists through the formation of large numbers of small, tightly knit communities that provide contexts for intimacy, support and growth and to provide opportunities for every member to express themselves. The observations by sociologists such as Wilson, and Stark provide considerable insight into the way in which processes such as institutionalisation, bureaucratisation and secularization in the Methodist church engender new revivalist groups such as the COC. Their insights also help to explain the development of these groups and the contribution that they can make to religious change.
Revival movements such as the Reformation, Pietism, Methodism and more recent developments within Evangelicalism can be seen as expressions of an ongoing effort to reverse the effects of secularisation and to restore the place of the supernatural and mystical to life and society.
These movements are also the products of particular historical and cultural processes prevailing at the time of their formation. The twentieth century Pentecostalism and the charismatic revival movements show characteristics that were peculiar to the decades in which they developed. They also continue in the western, evangelical, revivalist tradition and form part of ‘a path that involves many turnings but no basic change in direction.’
Church-sect theory has been particularly successful in explaining the development of many twentieth century sectarian developments including Pentecostal and charismatic groups. In church sect theory a church is defined as a religious group that accepts the social environment in which it exists while a sect is said to be a religious group that rejects its social environment.
Churches are defined as large complex organisations with a long history of investment in the past. As established churches mature they tend to become more centralised, develop a hierarchical administrative structure and rely on professional, well educated ministers, specialised administrators and theologians to oversee their activities. Church leaders are expected to have more training, knowledge and faith than the laity. While this provides stability and credence, it also disempowers the laity and also increases the sense of alienation and distance between the church and its constituents. Dempsey observes that extensive theological training favoured by churches isolates clergy from their congregations and frustrates the clergy and congregation. This frustration contributed to the resignation of a large number of clergy from traditional churches in the late 1960s.
As established churches become more than one generation old their attention and energy is absorbed by the next generation who inherit membership through birth. Fewer resources or energy are available for evangelism. The conversion experience receives less prominence as established churches increasingly define the requirements for salvation through formalised dogma and ritualised services. Second generation adherents inevitably lack the emotional emphasis of first generation adult converts.
While some sectarian groups are characterised by a desire to be left alone, others are motivated by a desire to resist and promote social change. Bainbridge identifies the latter as being particularly important. He says that a sect is a religious movement [that] is a relatively organised attempt by a number of people to cause or prevent religious change in a religious organisation or in religious aspects of life.
A number of stages can be discerned in the development of revivalist groups. They typically begin as small, obscure protest groups within established churches. Wach notes that the pressures on these ‘protest within’ groups lead to intense devotional practices and strong community bonds. He describes them as,
a loosely organised group, limited in numbers, and united in common enthusiasm, peculiar convictions, intense devotion, and rigid discipline, which is striving to attain higher spiritual and moral perfection than can be realised under prevailing conditions.
Such small, ideological groups provide a hot house in which revivalist dreams can flourish. Revival movements initially adopt many of the teachings and practices of the existing churches from which they emerge and this gives them stability and confidence. In seeking to revive experience and the supernatural that they perceive to have been lost they place an emphasis on conversion and activities such as healing and prophecy. Opposition from stakeholders in traditional churches gives the new groups a greater sense of purpose and camaraderie and provides a force against which the groups can unite.
Building the Group
Most effort and resources in new religious groups are used in meeting the needs of its members. After these initial needs are met, fast growing revivalist groups may have surplus resources and leaders and be able to initiate further groups. Other independent groups may also seek to affiliate with successful sectarian groups. Most charismatic groups remain small and many die out without impacting more than a small number of people. Others such as the COC grow rapidly enough to survive.
Within six years the COC had grown from twenty-five to over a thousand people and had started seven other churches. It also attracted two similar charismatic groups from New South Wales that merged with it. Within a decade it had commenced similar groups overseas. This national and international expansion was aided by the development in the twentieth century of modern transport systems and electronic communications media.
The second generation ‘established sect’ has very different challenges and characteristics from the first. The initial concerns of a protest movement are replaced by organisational and denominational requirements of a large, expanding organisation. An emphasis on cognitive knowledge and group responsibility leaves little room for spontaneous, intuitive actions, emotional expression, supernatural guidance or mystical beliefs. As the group achieves some degree of respectability, conflict with society and other churches will decrease, and the distinctive beliefs and practices are modified. Gerlach and Hine observe that speaking in tongues usually occurs less often in the second generation and they have fewer charismatic experiences.
The need for the training of second generation children, the acquisition and management of property and the achievement of social respectability shape the second generation agenda. As leadership and teaching needs increase a division of labour is required. ‘Charisma’ is often routinized and economic, political and social needs begin to predominate.
New Models Proposed
Stark and Bainbridge have provided one of the most systematic attempts to provide a new general theory of religion that takes recent developments into account. Stark and Bainbridge’s rational choice model views secularisation and religious revival as cyclical developments that repeatedly occur throughout history.
A number of scholars including Fink, Stark and Bainbridge argue that ‘rational-choice theory’ and models of a ‘religious economy’ are better able to explain religious change and sect development. Our historical understanding is likely to be increased through the recognition of increased consumer demand, freedom of choice and plurality of opportunities in shaping religious developments. They suggest that the constant pressures of institutionalisation and religious desire drive a cycle of secularisation, disenchantment, revival, and religious innovation.
While secularisation theory focuses on consumers, predicting a decline in their religiosity, the newer economic paradigm focuses on suppliers, predicting the emergence of new religious ‘firms’ that meet consumer demands and increase religiosity. New religious groups arise when neglected members set out to explore new opportunities and to seek out unrestricted pathways to the transcendent.
Religious economic theory assumes that people’s innate desire for the transcendent, wholly other remains at roughly the same level in any society and at any time of history. It holds that people are essentially homo religious. Religious economy theory is based on the notion that rational choice and free competition in an open market of religious institutions are well able to explain changes in religious market share. The theory says that in an increasingly religiously plural society, successful religions must be marketed among competing religious institutions. This competition has encouraged the emergence of new religious groups that revive neglected religious areas, and empower people whom traditional denominations have overlooked. Theorists argue that the actions of church and clergy are rational responses to the constraints and opportunities in the religious market place.
The models proposed by Stark and Bainbridge suggest that as Australia moves from the dominance of established traditional churches and sees the emergence of competing sects with an emphasis on revivalism, higher rates of church attendance are likely to result. Revivalist groups are likely to emerge which aid religious change and a resurgence in attendance. Pentecostal and charismatic revival groups have been unique in that their growth has been so rapid and widespread.
The economic model proposed by Stark and Bainbridge is not without its weaknesses. There is an over reliance on simple exchange theory to explain complex human behaviour and religious belief and the revival and religious resurgence are not inevitable. Their use of the terms ‘compensators’ and ‘rewards’ emphasises immediate material concerns and negates the existence of mystical, other worldly realities.
Their theory also over emphasises the similarity of widely divergent religious groups and religious motivators. While Stark and Bainbridge’s theory has been successful in expanding our understanding of religious life, it gives insufficient consideration to the incorporation of economic practices of the surrounding society into the life of churches and sects they describe, nor does it consider other examples of churches and sects that do not fit their model. Despite these weaknesses, the Stark – Bainbridge theory provides a useful and testable model for religious development and it provided a wealth of insights into religious history.
Implications for ministry
Churches have too often been confused as the nature of the challenge that they face from the surrounding society. Many have assumed that declining numbers are inevitable and that their needs are best met by resisting change. If the church and ministry are to remain effective they must recognise that secularisation and institutionalisation are dulling the impact of their message. Churches need to see themselves less as bureaucratic organisations and more as organic structures in which all members and their tasks are valued. Churches today need to recognise that religious desire remains strong, but that people are seeking religious expression that is able to compete with the many other demands placed on them by a changing society. The religious message must be expressed in contemporary terms. Only as church leaders understand the nature of change in society will they be equipped to communicate their invaluable, unchanging message to a rapidly changing, but needy world.
 Peter Berger, The Social Reality of Religion, (Middlesex, England: Penquin, 1973), p. 113.
 See also Wilson Bryan R. Religion in a Secular Society (London:Watts, 1966), p. xiv; Wilson, B.R. Religion in Sociological Perspective. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 149.
 W. Seward Salisbury, Religion in Culture (Illinois: Dorsey Press, 1964), p. 289
 Salisbury, 1964, p. 280.
 S. S. Acquaviva, The Decline in the Sacred in Industrial Society. Patricia Lipscomb (translator) (Oxford: Blackwell, 1979), p. 196.
 Peter Berger, A Far Glory (New York: Anchor, Doubleday 1992), p. 26.
 P. Hughes, 1991 ‘Types of Faith and the Decline of Mainline Churches.’ In Black, Alan W. Religion in Australia: Sociological Perspectives, (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1991), p. 102.
 Peter Berger, 1973. The Social Reality of Religion, Middlesex, England: Penquin., p. 136.
 Werner Stark, The Sociology of Religion (London: Routledge, 1967), p. 132f; Wilson, Bryan R. Religious Sects. (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 1970), p. 66.
 Thomas O’Dea ‘Five dilemmas in the institutionalisation of religion’ Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 1961, 1, pp. 30-39, 32.
 Kelley, Dean M. Why Conservative Churches are Growing (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), p. 37.
 Douglas Hynd, Australian Christianity in Outline. (Sydney: Lancer Books, 1984).
 Stark, Rodney and William Simms Bainbridge. A Theory of Religion. New
York: Peter Lang. 1987; S. S. Acquaviva The Decline in the Sacred in Industrial Society. Patricia Lipscomb (translator) Oxford: Blackwell, 1979, p. 196; Yinger J. Milton 1970, The Scientific Study of Religion, New York: Macmillan, p. 21. Harley and Firebaugh said that the most interesting thing about belief in the after life in the United States from 1973 to 1991 is what it was not doing: it was not declining. B. Harley and G. Firebaugh ‘Amercan Belief in An Afterlife: Trends over the past two decades,’ Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1993, 32 (3) pp. 269-278.
 Stark, Rodney and William Simms Bainbridge. 1985. The Future of Religion:
Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation. Berkeley: University of
California Press.p. 230, 429-430. Time and space do not permit extensive examination of their suggestion that secularisation also leads to innovation, i.e. cult formation. It is beyond the scope of this thesis.
 Gill, Robin. The Myth of the Empty Church. (London: SPCK.1993), p. 189.
 Gill, 1993, p. 2.
 F.L. Cross & E.A. Livingstone, (eds) Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 1183.
 Wilson, Bryan R. Contemporary Transformations of Religion. (Oxford: Oxford
University Press. 1976), p. 37.
 Wilson, Bryan R. 1970. Religious Sects. (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970), p. 66.
 Werner Stark, The Sociology of Religion (London: Routledge, 1967), p. 126.
 Yinger J. Milton Religion, Society and the Individual (New York: Macmillan, 1957), p. 283.
 Johnson, Benton. On Church and Sect. (American Sociological Review 28:539-549. 1963), p.542; See also Charles Y. Glock and Rodney Stark, Religion and Society in Tension, (Chicago: McNally and Co. 1965), p. 243.
 K. C. Dempsey (1969) ‘Conflict and Harmony in Minster-Lay Relationships in an Australian Methodist Community,’ Ph. D Thesis, University of New England, Armidale, 1969.
 Norman W. H. Blaike The Plight of Australian Clergy St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1979, p 32.
 Bainbridge William Sims, The Sociology of Religious Movements. (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 3.
 Joachim Wach, Sociology of Religion, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1944), cited in Hill, 1973, p. 76.
 Gerlach Luther P. and Hine Virginia H. People, Power, Change Movements of Social Transformation (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1970), p. 5.
 Stark and Bainbridge, 1980, 1985, 1987.
 Stark, Rodney and Laurence R. Iannaccone. 1994. “A Supply-Side Reinterpretation
of the ‘Secularization’ of Europe.” Journal for the Scientific Study of
Religion 33(3): 230-252; Iannaccone, Laurence R. ‘Economics of Religion’ Journal of Economic Literature, Vol. XXXVI, Sept, 1998, pp. 1465-1496. p. 1468.
 R. Finke, and R. Stark, 1988. ‘Religious economies and sacred canopies.’ American Sociological Review 53, p. 41-49.
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