Making Christians in a Secular World

by William Willimon

Dr. Willimon, a Century editor at large, is minister to the university and professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 22, 1986, p. 914. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


A Christianity without Christian formation is no match for the powerful social forces at work within our society. If it is to fulfill its function as the place where Christians are formed, the church must acknowledge its changed status and must now compete, in an open market, with other claimants for the truth.

Though I could not have known it at the time, a momentous event in my faith journey occurred on a Sunday evening in 1963 in Greenville, South Carolina, when, in defiance of the state’s archaic Blue Laws, the Fox Theater opened on Sunday. Seven of us -- regular attenders at the Methodist Youth Fellowship at Buncombe Street Church -- made a pact to enter the front door of the church, be seen, then quietly slip out the back door and join John Wayne at the Fox.

Only lately have I come to see how that evening symbolizes a watershed in the history of Christianity in the United States. On that night, Greenville, South Carolina -- the last pocket of resistance to secularity in the Western world -- gave in and served notice that it would no longer be a prop for the church. If Christians were going to be made in Greenville, then the church must do it alone.

There would be no more free passes for the church, no more free rides. The Fox Theater went head-to-head with the church to see who would provide ultimate values for the young. That night in 1963, the Fox Theater won the opening skirmish.

In taking me to church, my parents were affirming everything that was American. Church was, in a sense, the only show in town. Everybody else was doing it. Church, home and state formed a vast consortium working together to instill Christian values. People grew up Christian, simply by growing up American.

All that ended the night that the Fox Theater opened on Sunday.

While my parents or their forebears assumed that the culture would help prop up the church, almost no one believes that today. Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Catholics -- everyone knows that something has changed. Jerry Falwell may still believe that electing a few senators, passing new laws and restoring Father Knows Best to television would allow us to relax again and let the culture do our work for us, but most of us know better. It is not "our" world -- if it ever was.

My former neighbor across the parking lot, the rabbi, helped me understand this dynamic. One day over coffee he remarked, "It’s tough to be a Jew in Greenville."

I granted him that. If I were Jewish, I wouldn’t sleep well either with Bob Jones running around loose. He continued: "We are forever telling our young, ‘That’s fine for everyone else, but it’s not fine for you. You are special. You are different. You are a Jew. We have different values, a different story."’

I suddenly realized that I had heard very much that same concern expressed in a young couples’ class at Northside Church in Bible-Belt Greenville. "Such language is fine for everybody else but not for you," couples would tell their children. "You are special. You are Christian. We want other things out of life than the Joneses want. We have different opinions. We are Christian."

Once again, it seems, the church must learn the peculiarity of being Christian from the synagogue, which has long appreciated the peculiarity of being Jewish. My neighbor the rabbi served a faith community that never had any illusions about its stance in the world: if its children were to grow up Jews, they would do so as strangers in a strange land. They would not be born Jews; the synagogue would have to make them that way.

I believe that the day is coming, has already come, when the church must again take seriously the task of making Christians -- of intentionally forming a peculiar people.

And why not? After all, we were in the same educational business -- the business of "bringing forth" self-contained, individual, self-discovered identities. Like American society as a whole, the church assumed that its task was to help individuals become ever more assertive and expressive of their wants, desires and rights. The church’s predominant view of humanity seemed to be that people are bundles of desires waiting to be expressed.

But everybody else had the same view. So who needs the church to tell me that my identity is in me, that my life’s significance lies hidden in the recesses of my ego, and that life is a long process of learning more and more about me? Increasing numbers of people have come to see that such views are not only shallow and unworkable, but also unchristian.

The gospel is a story about something that has happened to us -- something that has come to us extra nos, from the outside. This story is, in the words of the Reformers, an externum verbum, an external word. It claims that by rooting around in our own egos or by reflecting upon our life experiences as men or women, whites or blacks, we really won’t discover much that is worth knowing, unless we know this Jew from Nazareth who is the way, the truth and the life, and are part of a people who follow him. It is only by listening to this story and allowing ii to have its way with us that we learn anything worth knowing. As Augustine said, when we look at our lives without Christ, they look like a chicken yard full of tracks in the mud going this way and that. But in the light of his life, our lives take on meaning, pattern, direction.

Thus George Lindbeck reminds us that being Christian (or, for that matter, being anything more than merely me) is much like learning a language. We learn certain words, grammar and syntax that enable us to say certain things and not say others. The enculturation that this language provides gives us a new perspective on life and forms us into a particular person. So the first task of the church is formation rather than education -- not to bring out, but to bring to. The task of Christian educators is not to develop an individual’s potential (as if the world were not already developing all sorts of potentials in us), but rather to induct us into the faith community, to give us the skills, insights, words, stories and rituals that we need to live this faith in a world that neither knows nor follows the One who is truth.

Few books have been a greater hindrance to an accurate assessment of the church than H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture. Relying on Ernst Troeltsch’s typology of world-affirming "church" contrasted with world-denying "sect," Niebuhr developed a theology that acted as if these were the church’s only options. He taught us to be suspicious of any church that became too concerned about its identity as being incipiently "sectarian" -- world-denying.

Yet the church is not rejecting the world when it says that Jesus Christ is Lord. Rather, it is serving the world by attempting to tell and to show the world what the world cannot otherwise know. And the church is not rejecting the world when it becomes intentional about developing the lifestyle, values and insights that enable its young to live nonviolently. Rather it is attending to the necessary formation of Christians who can be in the world without being seduced by its wisdom.

I have never encountered a mainline, liberal congregation that did not view itself as fitting Niebuhr’ s "Christ transforming culture" model. That mainline liberal Protestantism can look at itself, then look at American culture and still presume that we are making our culture more Christian is either conceit or deceit. Jerry Falwell is the last gasp of the transformationist mentality; the Christ-culture typology is inadequate -- a too simple reading of the church’s situation today.

A culture is a people’s acquired understanding of life. Through enculturation and socialization, people acquire a particular culture and are able to sustain it within the wider society. The Christian faith is a way of life together, membership within a people, discipleship. Acceptance or rejection of this faith is a Yes or No to the enculturation of the church.

Formation and socialization are not optional matters for human beings; a person must have some culture. The question is not, Will some community have its way with us? -- for some community inevitably will. The question is, Will the community that forms us and identifies us be true or false?

In an allegedly pluralistic society, the predominant culture is more concerned with openness than identity. Thus a person’s biological family becomes extremely important, since the family is the only unit left in our society that takes identity seriously. If the biological family fails -- as many now do -- then the developing person is left at the mercy of other subcultures: the imperialistic "peer group." Or culture becomes a matter of ethnicity, gender or social class.

We are historical beings who not only make history but are also made by history. We are products of the interactions of others -- more than we like to admit. We Americans enjoy thinking of ourselves as independent, free shapers of our own destiny. Such evangelical slogans as "I made my decision for Christ" or "I have decided to follow Jesus" imply that it is my decision, my heroic act of will that is at the heart of my relationship to Christ, rather than my formation by the Body of Christ.

Decisions are fine. But decisions that are not reinforced and reformed by the community tend to be short-lived. A Christianity without Christian formation is no match for the powerful social forces at work within our society.

Of course, we must make decisions for or against this faith. God has no grandchildren; this faith cannot be inherited. As Tertullian said, Christians are made, not born. The Christian community makes it possible for a person to walk this path for the rest of life, but it cannot guarantee that those who put their hand to the plow will not look back.

We know that before the fourth century the church at Rome insisted on a long period of instruction and examination by the community before an individual was admitted to baptism. The new convert was allowed to experience the Christian lifestyle under the care of the community. The church knew that it could not survive as the church without careful attentiveness to how it made disciples. Enculturation was an integral part of conversion -- a long process of "detoxification" in which the church helped the catechumen critically to examine classical culture and gradually to extricate his or her life from it.

What the church has done instinctively, we must now do intentionally. We must be serious about the task of Christian formation. Our youth must come to see themselves in a sort of master-apprentice relationship with older Christians, in which the young look over the shoulders of those who are attempting to be Christian in today’s world. Christian education should provide opportunities for developing believers to model their lives upon those of developed believers. It should also encourage all Christians to realize that we have the sacred responsibility to fashion our lives and thoughts upon distinctively Christian convictions. Christian development is best understood, not as the ordered pr9gression through various "stages of faith" (as in the work of James Fowler) or as instantaneous, momentous conversion (as in American evangelicalism) or as articulate self-expression (as in American liberalism) , but rather as apprenticeship in the art of discipleship. Being Christian is more like learning to paint or to dance than it is like having a personal experience or finding out something about oneself. It takes time, skill and the wise guidance of a mentor. Discipleship implies discipline -- forming one’s life in congruence with the desires and directives of the Master.

Many of us have been acculturated to think of religious experience as something that is deeply personal and intensely private -- something we discover or uncover. I am arguing that such understanding distorts how we become believers and perverts the fundamental nature of the Christian faith. Becoming a Christian more likely means becoming incorporated into the Christian faith, made members of a body. Any theory of Christian education, any strategy for the formation of new Christians, must begin with ecclesiology -- reflection upon what the church is and how it survives.

For too long North American Christians have assumed that questions of church formation and survival were unimportant because our whole society was, if not like the church, at least a helpful prop for the church. That assumption finally rolled over and died when the Fox Theater opened on Sunday.

When one asks people how they became Christians, one is often impressed by how unspectacular and mundane is the process of formation: an admired Sunday school teacher; the habit of being brought to church by parents; a pastor who was attentive during a particularly difficult time in life; the desire for fellowship with others, which blossomed into a community of faith. Therefore, the church must be attentive to the myriad of seemingly little things that it does to make people feel a part of a community -- the daily, unspectacular acts of caring and living together: the hospital visit, the covered-dish supper, the birthday card, the hour spent preparing food at the church’s soup kitchen.

A stark reality for many liberal, mainline churches is that there is no way to form people into a body if it has no boundaries, no integrity of its own. We must define our beliefs and attitudes. No one ever lived or died for "pluralism."

One reason why formation has been deemed unimportant by many churches is that we have assumed that our community is roughly continuous with the society as a whole. We live in a society in which individualism is valued over community, and personal autonomy and freedom mean more than truth. Thus the chief American virtues are tolerance and affirmation -- virtues that the liberal church has absorbed to its peril.

Formation implies the existence of an intentional, visible community made up of people who are willing to pay the price of community. Anyone who has tried to form a closely knit, truly caring, identifiable community knows the risk and the difficulty of such endeavor. It is much easier to be another voluntary organization of open-minded people than to be the Body of Christ in which members assume responsibility for one another’s faith and morals.

In the average parish church, I believe that all the resources and people exist to form Christians. What is needed is an honest admission of our changed status. The Fox Theater is open on Sunday. The church must now compete, in an open market, with other claimants for the truth. Any church that allows itself to be pushed to the periphery of the struggle, waiting, hat-in-hand, for some socially approved function to perform, unsure of its purpose and lacking confidence in its mission, will perish. In our new situation, we North American Christians have the opportunity to learn again that the church is the place where Christians are formed.