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How Christians Have Responded to the Secularization of Culture

Over the past several weeks I have been tracing how western culture was impacted in eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the rise of secularism.

An initial response to the rise of secularism by Christians was to accept a separation of reason and faith and attempt to affirm both. However, adopting the rationalist redefinition of reason also ended up redefining faith as something ultimately “emotional” rather than rational. Instead of refuting these new philosophical developments by proving that they are self-refuting, many professing Christians actually accepted the premise that this new way of thinking was “intellectual” and sought refuge by denying the need for the intellect.

As a result of these philosophical changes and the growth of secular society, “emotion” entered the void left by a growing absence of religion, and in many cases the liturgies and music of worship devolved into a mere aestheticism—worship of beauty and tradition for the feelings they create, feelings assumed to be the very core of religiosity. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), considered the “Father of Modern Liberal Theology,” described religious piety as “essentially a state of feeling.”1 Religion eventually became defined as individual and private expression of emotion divorced from doctrine, leading to worship that shunned the intellect and attempted to speak simply and directly to the worshipers’ emotions.

By the mid-nineteenth century, western society had been forever changed. As the secular culture moved further and further away from the traditional beliefs and practices of Christendom, Protestant churches were faced with a dilemma—continue to cultivate their historic worship traditions, and risk becoming increasingly alien compared with the rest of culture, or reject the church’s traditions and adapt to the culture in order to remain influential. Christianity’s cultural influence was increasingly diminished, and as the surrounding culture plunged into popularized secularism, the church’s traditional forms became foreign.

Churches responded in one of two ways: First, the traditionally liturgical churches attempted to revive Christianity through “a renewal of their historic liturgies,” but heavily influenced by what Faulkner calls “aestheticism,” which valued beauty for its own sake, and “historicism,” which valued tradition simply out of a belief that old is better.2 The response characterizes what are sometimes called “Mainline Denominations,” as well as groups with more loyalty to historical traditions and liturgies, such as various Lutheran and Anglican (or Episcopal) synods. Active cultivation of worship culture slowed considerably but was preserved. Second, the new evangelical churches reacted against rationalism, initiating “vigorous attempts at revival”3 through methods that would eventually lead them to break from the worship traditions they inherited in the name of effectiveness and relevance.

What all of this meant for worship forms is that active cultivation virtually stopped. The church still had the hymns and liturgies that had been nurtured for thousands of years, but now talented poets and musicians stopped writing for the church and began writing for money. For a while, they continued writing in the noble artistic forms that had been handed down to them, but with high culture broken off from any moral direction, it eventually all but died away. Whatever high culture now existed was devoid of any significant Christian values. In the church, ritual and ceremony became suspicious or even embarrassing to the reasonable, modern mind, and worship gradually became seen as merely emotional expression.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, ed. H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart (London: T&T Clark, 1999), 11. []
  2. Faulkner, Wiser Than Despair, 188. []
  3. Ibid., 189. []