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Session 4:Our Mission Field: Secularisation


By the end of this session you should be able to:

  • Critically examine and reflect upon the impact and validity of the theory that our contemporary British culture is becoming more “secular”, and the impact of this potential paradigm shift on our missional thinking.

  • Demonstrate an understanding of some of the reasons for this shift, and to be able to consider what response the local church can have in this context.


Begin with a time of prayer asking God to teach you new things about the mission to which we are all called and the part God wants you to play in this.


In the last session we thought about the shift away from “Christendom” which has taken place in our culture. In this session we are going to ask whether we have not only moved away from “Christendom”, but is our society and culture also becoming less “religious” and more “secular”.
Are people becoming “secular” and “non-religious” or are people just not attending church anymore? Or is the truth found somewhere in the middle ground between these two extremes?

Image by Derek Story

Part 1: Secularisation?

Firstly we must note here that we are discussing the process of “secularisation”, not “secularism”.
Secularism is a philosophical position which believes that there is no God and that the world is better off without religion.

Secularisation is a process of social change where religion declines in importance and the extent to which people engage in religious practices and lives are impacted upon by religion.

An American sociologist called Charles Taylor offers us a good, clear definition of secularisation:
“[Secularisation is a process of societal change] which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.”
C Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007)

The argument behind the theory of secularisation is that through the rise of Modernity and the decline of Christendom we can see a process of change in our society where religion has declined in relevance. It used to be accepted that God existed and that the church had a message which was relevant to people in their daily lives; now the church is seen as irrelevant and out of touch, and belief in God is strongly challenged.

Exercise One

Stephen Fry is a well known “atheist” and “humanist”.
In this interview do we hear the words of someone who simply does not believe in the existence of God, or is he expressing a level of anger towards God?
How common do you think this level of anger towards God is in our society?
Can people’s anger towards God, or towards the church, be a barrier to faith?

Part 2: Believing Not Belonging?

The major evidence given to argue that this process of secularisation has taken place in our society is the decline in church attendance witnessed in our recent history.

Is it true that secularisation is the only valid explanation of this decline in attendance?


Listen to this clip taken from a podcast on secularisation in Britain.

In the 2011 census data it was expected that there would be a major shift towards people indicating that they had no faith. In truth there was a slight decline, but nowhere near the major shift towards 50/50 which was predicted by some social commentators. Many more people chose to indicate that they are a member of a faith group than actually attend regular worship.

This, and other examples from national statistics, are at the heart of Grace Davie’s concept of “believing without belonging”.
While it is clear that we have seen a decline in church attendance and membership since the Second World War, religious belief have proved to be quite resilient.

In our society we can evidence examples of “vicarious religion”. People may not be committed members of a church, but there is a common desire for churches to still exist. People want to have the ability or the option to access church should they wish to.
Another argument against the theory of secularisation (that as a society modernises it also secularises) is that Europe appears to be an exceptional case.

In Latin America, parts of Africa and Asia we can find many examples of countries which have not secularised as they have modernised. European religion, predominantly Christianity, was bound up in geographical hierarchical communities (Christendom). Arguably the nature of Christendom in Europe has led to the church failing to “keep up” with societal changes, where in other parts of the world this has not been the case.

Considering the ‘5 marks of mission’ are there areas of God’s mission which could be seen as more ‘attractive’ to people who believe, but do not belong?

Exercise 2 (NB: you will need this information for your second assignment!)

Consider your local context or community. Can you identify any examples of “believing without belonging”?

Do you encounter any examples of “vicarious religion”

Click on the button above and use the Church of England interactive parish map to check the percentage of people who identify as Christian in your local context (click on the parish area map for stats).

Compare this to the number of people who attend church in your parish (consult other local churches if you are able to get a more full picture of how many people attend church in your geographical area).

In your local context are there many people who indicate that they believe, yet don’t regularly worship or belong to a church community?


Reflect and pray upon these results.  Make a note of your conclusions and thoughts on these results to discuss at the Study Day.

Image by Nina Strehl

Spotlight on Doctrine

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is arguably one of the most mind bending and confusing elements of Christian doctrine… What can the nature of God as Trinity tell us about our calling to be the Body of Christ? Can we learn anything for our life as the church in the world from the divine mystery of three distinct persons who are yet one substance, essence and nature?

Spotlight on Spirituality


“Do you need to go to church to be a Christian?” What is church for? Why do we gather together?
How can we communicate the purpose of church better in our local contexts? What answer would you give to someone asking you the question; “Do you need to go to church to be a Christian?”
Click the button to look at the Church of England website and what is says about attending worship



What has been the most significant thing you have learned from this session?  What has been the most challenging thing? LLM(R) students only please post some of your thoughts in the Forum here


Blessed are you, Lord our God, for you love all of your creation. May we not become so caught up in matters of the Church that we fail to act on matters of mission. May we always be seeking ways to reflect your love to the world as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.  Amen

Something Practical To Do

Look carefully at the notice sheet and things around your church that speak of belonging.  Do they suggest you have to believe in order to belong?  What do you think these things say to newcomers to the church? Then look up your church online. What material is there available? What is on your church social media, reflect upon how what your church online presence communicates to potential “newcomers”.

Share some of what you have found on the discussion board in the Forum here for CMM students

or here for LLM(R) students.


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