From the Reformed Quarterly Winter 1987 Bulletin.
William Edgar is Professor of Apologetics at Reformed Seminary in Aixen Province, France. An honors graduate of Harvard in musicology, Edgar is an accomplished pianist, both of classical music and jazz. He is also a graduate of Westminster Seminary, and is the author of “In Spirit and in Truth,” a Bible study on worship, and most recently, “Taking Note of Music,” a biblical theology of music with applications to the modern world. Also an astute observer of cultural trends in modern society, Edgar here talks about increasing secularization and assesses the evangelical movement in the world today.
Q: Secularization is a popular term today. How do you define it?
A: Secularization is not, in my judgment, a conspiracy to turn people into atheists. There are a few secularists that push secularism on our culture, but they are few and far between. I question whether their influence is really very important. Nor is it simply the rationalization of life–the trend toward making everything in our modern life increasingly impersonal, rational, and machine-oriented. Secularization is the uncoupling of the church and Christian thought and influence from society. This is not simply a trend away from religion; it is a trend showing the diminishing influence of Christianity on the rest of society.
Contrary to what people think, secularization is not the declining of religion. We have replaced our Christian vocabulary with religious vocabulary. In the West, for example, we have new religions and idols, such as the cults and the strange and fascinating therapies that people are practicing. For many, science has become a kind of religion. For others, nationhood and strong government have taken an idolatrous role. For some, such mundane things as travel or even physical pleasure have taken on a religious dimension. If, by religion, you mean a devotion to an object of worship which occupies most of your attention, plenty of candidates can substitute for the God of Christianity.
Q: Why the increase of secularization?
A: I think the uncoupling of church from society is due to many factors that have happened simultaneously. The first of these is the massification of society. Our world has become a mass of society. This massification of society is usually not conducive to the Christian religion. For example, through mass techniques, television advertising is able in thirty seconds to a minute to stimulate us to buy a product. Now, Christianity will never be able to do that because Christianity is not a product, and we can’t be stimulated to buy into it. Acceptance of its doctrines takes reflection and deep thought. Repentance is not something one conjures up in a thirty-second decision.
Another reason for this uncoupling would have to be the loss of vitality in the Western church. Today, individual Christians and Christians as a whole put their confidence in modern life and progress more than they do in the living God. But this has not been all bad. What has been a loss for the West became the greatest age of missions that the world has ever seen. The nineteenth century was the classic age for mission work. Scores of countries received the gospel because the church was not doing its work in western Europe; it began doing its work elsewhere.
Q: What do you suggest we do to combat this increasing secularization?
A: One of the major challenges that Christians have in the West is to rediscover the full-orbed biblical faith–the faith that Scripture transmits to us. This does not entail simply one type of activity. For example, it is not only a vital prayer life or a faithful, committed, and involved church life. It is also a way of life which has relevance and impact–a cutting edge–in every single sphere, whether it be government, research, arts, sports, or family life. In other words, culture.
If you look at the strong links between the Old Testament and the New Testament, you conclude that the Bible speaks to absolutely every sphere of life. Our evangelism has often been very narrow in that it has only sought to convert the “soul” at the expense of the rest of the human person. By contrast, conversion in the New Testament is spoken of as a radical change of the whole man in every sphere of his involvement. I think this is a major mandate for Christians in the West. If we could rediscover the relevance of Christianity to every sphere of life and reach leaders in each of those spheres with the gospel, I think we might be able to see some turnaround in a few generations.
Q: How do you assess the evangelical church in the United States?
A. It seems to me that evangelicalism has grown very rapidly over the last ten to fifteen years from essentially a subculture in the U.S. to a place of prominence and recognition. That growth process has been a difficult one for the evangelical community. I think that many evangelicals in the U.S., while in this place of prominence, are still operating on a subculture instinct with a minority complex. That is inadequate. Others are embracing the modern world with its pressures and requirements and tend to be tempted to give up some of the essence of the evangelical faith in the process. The evangelical church must learn how to grapple with its new position of prominence, not sinking back into obscurity, nor falling into the alluring temptations in the modern world.
Q: How do you assess the evangelical witness in France?
A: We are not at the present time experiencing a revival. We are simply not seeing any dramatic turnabout in favor of the gospel in France. We have small signs of encouragement, but as far as I can see there is no major trend like the evangelical movement in the U.S. Eighty-five percent of the French people are nominally Catholic. Of that population only thirteen percent go to church with any regularity–that’s less than the Orthodox Christians in Russia. There is only one full-time Christian worker for every 19,000 people in France, and the history of the Protestant movement in France has made it very difficult for modern evangelicals. With the history of the Huguenots, the persecutions of the eighteenth century, plus the strong higher critical winds that blew in the nineteenth century and so many other modern trends, Protestantism has become a minority with all the attributes of a minority group–one that does not claim any right to be recognized.
Q: What would have to occur for there to be an evangelical revival in France?
A: The Holy Spirit would have to touch the hearts of a large group of French people with the conviction that the idols they have built in modern life are fragile and need to be destroyed. In that situation the gospel could be communicated as the power of God for salvation. Until the French realize this, however, the gospel will be stymied in that country. Officials with Evangelism Explosion have told me that the only part of the world where E.E. is not succeeding is northern Europe. People are closed because of complacency. Consequently, we are living in France with people who don’t think they need a Saviour. There are plenty of wonderful exceptions to that. For example, since Vatican II, many Catholics have opened Scripture for the first time and are discovering that the Bible is a book about human beings and for human beings, a book that can be applied to their lives. They are also discovering Jesus Christ as a real person.
The lack of openness to spiritual things here is a surprise to missionaries. We have had young missionaries come, full of zeal, only to be in despair within a year because no one told them how hard it would be. They thought they would turn the whole place upside down in a few weeks, and it did not happen. The American success story does not apply in France.
So, we are in a seed-sowing time, which is very important. I think it is a time for humiliation, a time also for preparing the ground for the time when God will give revival. Many times revival comes, peaks, and is over because no one was ready with the follow-up. Spiritual nurture and perseverance cannot occur under those circumstances. We want to be ready for the time when God does bring revival.