The mission is the same, but the people with whom we must share the good news of the “eternal gospel” (Rev. 14:6, NIV) are not. Sociocultural shifts during the past few decades have profoundly affected how people view and practice religion worldwide. For instance, God’s mission has been severely harmed by the continuous growth of secularism, which involves eliminating anything related to religion or spirituality. At the same time, many have developed attitudes of rejection of Christianity and the church as a whole—particularly against institutionalized religion.
The Secular/Post-Christian Reality Around the World
Some of these shifts are greater than what we can see. Let’s consider the sheer number of people this group represents: approximately 1.1 billion people worldwide. In other words, one in every seven individuals on this planet identifies as “religiously unaffiliated.” This is a very diverse and complex group comprised of atheists, agnostics, nonreligious persons (i.e., “nones”), or anyone who does not espouse any particular religious tradition or faith.
We typically have the Western world in mind when we look at the secular/post-Christian challenge. There are many reasons for this, including, the deliberate efforts in place to eliminate religion from public and social life. For example, according to research done by the Pew Research Center, about 3 in 10 adults in the United States consider themselves religiously unaffiliated, and a secular/nonreligious worldview is now embraced by roughly a quarter of the population. During the past 15 years the number of those who identify with Christianity has decreased by 15 percent. Those who claim no religious affiliation have increased by 13 percent. These figures are even higher when younger generations, such as Millennials and Gen Z, are included in the mix.
In some ways the issues related to irreligiosity in Western Europe are much more complex. Very few people attend church regularly in what was once a Christian continent. The number of Europeans who are indifferent to Christianity and who consider religion irrelevant is constantly growing. A similar pattern is also emerging in Australia, where the rejection of religious faith is on the rise. Almost 10 million Australians, roughly 38 percent of the population, claim to have no religion whatsoever.
With the advancement of globalization and new communication technologies, the waves of irreligiosity are not just washing up on Western shores. In Euro-Asian regions this is an ever-growing tendency. For example, the rise of secularism as a social and political order coincided with the revival of religion in the post-Soviet regions. In Russia 28 percent of its citizens do not embrace any religious tradition, while 13 percent do not believe in God. Moreover, Asia has become home to five of the world’s 10 least religious countries: China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, and Hong Kong. As a simple example, because of a lack of parishioners and priests, one in every three Buddhist temples in Japan will likely close during the next 25 years.
Similar attitudes are also perceivable among “cultural Muslims”—especially with young people—who identify with Islam in cultural and social ties but tend to disconnect from their parents’ faith. Jews are experiencing the same phenomenon. Among those who live in Israel, age 20 or older, 44 percent say they are secular. And in the United States, when asked to explain their relationship views, 25 percent identify themselves as agnostics, atheists, or believers in “nothing in particular.”
Waves of atheism, agnosticism, and secularism also show their impact on the African continent. More than 15 percent of people in South Africa consider themselves atheists. In Mozambique 14 percent declare themselves nonreligious, compared to 20 percent in Botswana. At least 30 million individuals in Sub-Saharan Africa identify as “religious nones,” affirming they do not follow any religious faith.
It is no surprise to find similar parallels in Latin America. With the downfall of Catholic authority in many countries in Central and South America, secularism is prevalent in various forms. In Uruguay, the least religious country in South America, about 47 percent of the population do not believe in God’s existence. Additionally, around 10 percent of Mexico’s people are now nonreligious, making it the fastest-growing secular group in Central America.
These are just a few examples of the worldwide reality caused by a secular/post-Christian attitude. What happens next? With the development of a relativistic view of religion, many are now attempting to create their own “spirituality” exclusively around personal choices, leading to a gradual development of religious pluralism in which ultimately, any religion—or nonreligious attitude—is appropriate and acceptable. At the same time, there is a rising suspicion of institutional authority, which leads to rejection and alienation of any form of institutionalized religion.
But one question remains: Are there still opportunities for mission in secular/post-Christian contexts? It all depends on how we see and take advantage of them.
Opportunities for Mission in Secular/Post-Christian Contexts
As Seventh-day Adventists, following Paul’s counsel in “making the most of every opportunity” (Eph. 5:16, NIV), we can develop intentional “contact points” to share God’s love with an unreligious world, mainly through our lifestyle.
Health concerns and care, family and community focus, and the Sabbath message of rest are some of these “contact points” we can use to connect and share the eternal gospel with religiously unaffiliated people.
The implementation of the “third-place” concept—creating an option between first (home) and second (workplace) places—represents another tremendous opportunity to connect meaningfully with secular and post-Christian mindsets in which traditional approaches to mission are not as successful.
These and other approaches have been implemented and experimented on pilot projects supported by the Center for Secular and Post-Christian Mission (CSPM) at the Office of Adventist Mission.1 CSPM serves the Adventist Church worldwide to make disciples in secular and post-Christian societies in preparation for the second coming of Jesus Christ. We must not lose sight, however, of the fact that our message of hope must focus on the future reality of God’s kingdom and the hope that our secular and post-Christian friends urgently—and often without realizing it—need today.
People change, but the mission remains the same: “The mission of the church of Christ is to save perishing sinners. It is to make known the love of God to men and to win them to Christ by the efficacy of that love.”2 Can God count on us in the fulfillment of His mission?
1 For further information on CSPM, visit: https://cspm.globalmissioncenters.org/.
2 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 3, p. 381.