Almost anyone seeking to carry out a faithful pulpit ministry recognizes that preachers must now ask questions and engage issues we have not had to consider in the past. I began my chapter on preaching and postmodernism in We Cannot Be Silent with these words, “A common concern seems to emerge now wherever Christians gather: The task of truth-telling is stranger than it used to be. In this age, telling the truth is tough business and not for the faint-hearted. The times are increasingly strange.” We now live, move, and have our being in a secular age. But the only authentic Christian response to the challenge of secularization is faithful, clear, and informed expository preaching.

The Impossibility of Belief

Without the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and even without certain technological advances, secularization never would have been possible. Theorists explained the modern age would necessarily and inevitably produce a secular society because modernity provided alternative answers to the most fundamental questions of life and made God irrelevant.

With great foresight in his 1965 The Secular City, Harvey Cox wrote the future of the Western world, particularly its cities, was predominantly secular. Cox further argued this coming secular city would provide a larger range of worldviews as alternatives to what had been offered before. This multiplicity of worldviews would be one of the hallmarks of the secular city. As a result, Christianity — the once ubiquitous worldview of Western society — would be displaced, giving way to a seemingly infinite number of worldview options.

The renowned sociologist Peter Berger has considered why secularization achieved dominance in some parts of Western society, but has yet to do so in others. As he notes, secularization happened just as the theorists predicted with respect to Europe, a continent with almost imperceptible levels of Christian belief and no memory of a Christian heritage.

Secularization happened at the same rate and to the same degree in American universities — which are, in many respects, isolated islands of Europe on American soil. Consider for instance the University of Tennessee, which recently ordered that gendered pronouns be replaced by gender-neutral pronouns like “ze.” While this administrative mandate was later overturned, the point remains that even in places such as Knoxville, Tennessee, major American universities are on the same trajectory of secularization as many of the most secularized parts of Europe.

While America is not characterized by the hardline secularism and open ridicule of religion in European nations, Berger argued the United States is still largely secularized. In 20th-century America, he explained, Christianity and religion in general were transformed to something non-cognitive and optional. Consequently, many of our friends and neighbors continued to profess faith in God, but that profession was ultimately devoid of any moral authority or cognitive content. From the outside looking in, America did not appear to be secularizing at the same rate as the European continent, but in reality professions of faith in God had little real theological or spiritual content.

Berger predicted that this collapse would result in adherents to religious principle quickly giving way to the secular agenda in the face of opposition, which is exactly what happened. When the cultural tide turned against our society’s empty religious commitments, people were happy to jettison their moral judgment on homosexuality to retain their social capital.

For preachers, Berger’s observations are tremendously important. We, above all others, need to realize the culture no longer shares our worldview and the very language we use may mean something entirely different in the ears of our listeners. The meaning of words like morality, personhood, marriage, or virtually any other moral term has radically shifted for many postmodern Americans, making our job as preachers that much more difficult.

Additionally, as Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor explains in The Secular Age, the way people hold to theological convictions and religious principles in the modern era is fundamentally different than how people believed in the past. Modernity has made religious belief provisional, optional, and far less urgent than it was in the premodern world.

We are not preaching to people who hear us in the same way as previous generations in Western societies. The question remains: What does preaching look like in the secular city?

Taylor notes belief is now a provisional choice, an exercise of personal autonomy. When people identify as believers in Jesus Christ they are making a far more individualistic statement than was possible in years past. Furthermore, they are doing so in the face of alternative worldview options that were simply unavailable until very recently.

Perhaps the central insight from Taylor’s book is his categorization of the premodern, modern, and postmodern time periods with respect to the worldview options available in a culture. As Taylor argues, Western history is categorized by three intellectual epochs: pre-Enlightenment impossibility of unbelief; post-Enlightenment possibility of unbelief; and late Modern impossibility of belief.

In the pre-Enlightenment era it was impossible not to believe. No other worldviews were available to members of society other than supernatural worldviews, particularly the Christian worldview in the West. While society had its heretics, there were no atheists among them. Everyone believed in some form of theism, even if it was polytheism. As Taylor simply states, it was impossible not to believe.

That all changed with the Enlightenment and the availability of alternative worldviews, which made it possible to reject the supernaturalism of Christianity for a naturalistic worldview. Taylor’s careful phraseology here, however, is also important to note. While it was certainly possible not to believe, it was also the case that it was not likely that people would reject the Christian worldview because the theistic explanations for life were simply more pervasive, binding, and persuasive than non-theistic worldviews.

The intellectual conditions in Europe and on American university campuses have now secularized such that it is impossible for those under such conditions to believe in God. In other words, we have arrived at the third intellectual epoch of Western society: impossible to believe. As Taylor observes, to be a candidate for tenure at a major American university is to inhabit a world in which it is virtually impossible to believe in God. Under the first set of Western intellectual conditions, not everyone was a Christian, but all were accountable to a Christian worldview because there was no alternative. Secularization in American culture has reversed the conditions: not everyone is a non-Christian, but all must operate under a secular worldview that denies the legitimacy of a Christian worldview. In 300 years, Western intellectual conditions have moved from an impossibility of unbelief to an impossibility of belief.

So what does this mean for us as preachers? We must recognize these intellectual conditions now prevalent in Europe and in the American universities are quickly filtering down from the elites to the general culture. The mechanisms in this process are fairly easy to trace. A number of polls reveal the greatest predictor for whether you will find yourself in an increasingly secular space comes down to whether you live near a coast, a city, or a university. Given that the future of America is increasingly defined by most of its population being coastal, urban, and university-educated, you can see that the future of America is also increasingly secular.

We are not preaching to people who hear us in the same way as previous generations in Western societies. The question remains: What does preaching look like in the secular city?

Preaching: The Church’s Means of Survival

With our cultural analysis behind us, I would like to consider the role of preaching in a secular age as a survival strategy for the church.

In a secular age, preaching will be met with one of three responses. First, we will find ourselves preaching in a context of hostility. At least in the immediate future, much of this hostility will look like cultural marginalization. Those who listen to us will now do so by paying social capital, not gaining social capital — a cultural situation notably different from our grandparents or even our parents. Second, our preaching will also often be met with befuddlement. For many among the intellectual elites, Christian preachers are not an object of derision as much as they are creatures of oddity. The plausibility structures of society are so different from our own that many people simply cannot understand us. Finally, we will find that we will not only be met with hostility and befuddlement, but also indifference. Many in our society will not even care enough about our message to spend their energy attacking us.

One of the problems is that our approach to preaching in relation to other theological disciplines is wrongly skewed. For years in the theological academy, homiletics has been seen as something of a finishing school for clergy. We have imagined that the true theological heavy lifting occurs in the disciplines of theology, exegesis, or church history, while homiletics was merely the practical work for those who were moving on to the professional and less theologically involved environment of the pastorate.

The curriculum in our seminaries and theological institutions must reflect this commitment to train preaching theologians, and not just men who are entertaining.

This alienation between the classical theological disciplines and homiletics is detrimental to the life of the church. While there are benefits to specialization in academic disciplines, we should also recognize that segmenting theological study along the lines of specialization has come at a cost in the lives of many modern preachers. The preacher’s task is exegetical and theological. Homiletics cannot be divorced from theology and exegesis simply by virtue of the fact that what we proclaim in the pulpit is a biblical theology originating from the exegesis of God’s Word.

Preachers need to be competent in many arenas of life. They need managerial competence. They need organizational competence. But above everything else, the preacher needs theological and exegetical competence. The curriculum in our seminaries and theological institutions must reflect this commitment to train preaching theologians, and not just men who are entertaining.

By preaching the church expands and by preaching the church remains faithful in a hostile culture. In a secular age, we can no longer rely on the luxury of having other cultural voices do the work of instilling our people with a Christian worldview. The plausibility structures of the culture now work at crosscurrents to the message we preach on Sunday mornings. No longer does the culture indicate one “ought” to listen to preaching or one “ought” to give credence to the Christian moral tradition. Those days are behind us.

Fundamentally, the survival of the church in the secular city comes down to a promise and a command given us in Scripture. Jesus promised, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). The church’s only recourse in a secular city is to do as we have been commissioned: “Preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2). We need to remember both of these words from Scripture in order to serve faithfully in the secular city. Jesus has given his church a strategy for survival in the face of cultural hostility. That strategy, it turns out, is the apostolic call to preach.

R. Albert Mohler Jr. is the ninth president of Southern Seminary and the Joseph Emerson Brown Professor of Systematic Theology.

This article appears in the Spring 2017 Southern Seminary Magazine. Read the full issue online here.