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)