Pastoring in a secular age: Confessions of a recovering deist

After a decade of innovation, growth and “pastoral shopkeeping,” essayist Andy Kadzban realized he had left God out of the equation.

Text on vintage black sign "Come in we're open" in cafe.

A sense of dissonance crept in during my first few years as a pastor. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel called to this place or vocation. It wasn’t that anything had happened or gone wrong. Things were going well. I felt loved and encouraged by my congregation, like I was trusted.

There were exciting things happening, too. A few years in we had joined a denominational process for personal and congregational transformation, and we were experiencing some of it. After decades of slow decline, we had been presented with a decision: innovation or slow death. To their credit, the church chose innovation, and we set off learning about operational vs. adaptive challenges, managing congregational anxiety, and how to generate and sustain creative tension in our system. We learned all these skills just in time for the pandemic to shut everything down and offer us the ultimate test of our innovation. We used these tools to stay creative and nimble, and weathered the pandemic remarkably well; giving and engagement were even up! The work remained challenging in the good way. The congregation loved me and gave me glowing performance evaluations.

After decades of slow decline, we had been presented with a decision: innovation or slow death.

But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was failing as their pastor.

The post of “pastoral shopkeeping”

I thought that what I was feeling was the conflict of paradigms. I had been introduced to Eugene Peterson in college before I even knew I was called to be a pastor. During seminary, I worked with pastoral mentors who had been deeply influenced by Peterson’s work. By the time I was heading off to accept my first call, I knew that this was the kind of pastor I wanted to be. I wanted to be the unbusy, contemplative pastor. I was intent on working the angles — paying attention to God in Scripture, prayer and spiritual direction with and on behalf of my congregation.

But I kept getting sucked into what Peterson had described as “pastoral shopkeeping.” In the introduction to his book Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, Peterson expressed his frustration that so many pastors were abandoning their post — not to leave their churches, but to take up the concerns of a shopkeeper:

“How to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.” Thirty-six years later, we’re still borrowing our best practices from entrepreneurs and business leaders — now also prizing innovation, iteration, creativity and hustle.

I thought the dissonance I felt was the pull between these two paradigms. I was intellectually and theologically convinced of Peterson’s vision of pastoring, but I couldn’t seem to do it. I was frustrated with the congregation for their expectations and demands, but even more so with myself for failing time and time again to choose the important over the urgent. I was good at administration, and I chased their affirmation. Facing these challenges and innovating felt like exciting and vital work. I found myself spending little time doing anything that looked like Eugene’s pastoral vision. I thought the problem was my job description. I thought I was stuck between two conflicting paradigms. I was about to find out the problem went far deeper.

I thought the problem was my job description. I thought I was stuck between two conflicting paradigms. I was about to find out the problem went far deeper.

Pastoring as a functional deist

The dissonance had grown so loud during the pandemic that I enrolled in a Doctor of Ministry cohort through the Eugene Peterson Center for Christian Imagination, hoping to finally figure this out or exorcise Eugene’s ghost from my pastoral imagination. That’s why one Thursday morning in May 2021, crushed between my reading list on one side and sermon writing on the other, I was looking around my study for a distraction. It came in the form of a yellow book spine that caught my eye, a book I had purchased a few years earlier but had never read. It had taunted me from the shelf many times, but I am not sure what led me to pick it up that day.

The book was Faith Formation in A Secular Age, by Andrew Root.

I skimmed the introduction, completely engrossed. Root told the story of being invited to speak at a conference to address the rise of the “nones” — shorthand for the religiously unaffiliated — and how to respond, especially as it related to youth. There was concern about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) and the growing number of people who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Root was speaking my language. Here was someone who was an authority on all these topics, who was promising analysis based on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and was going to tell me what to do about all of this. I wanted to go to the conference.

Root, though, was ill at ease.

Something struck him in the conversation that, in turn, left me dead in my tracks: never once had they talked about God. They had discussed how faith was under attack, the need to form lasting faith in the church’s youth, how to save the church, and yet they had done so without any reference to God. Root realized that they had taken sociological descriptions of a problem (MTD and “nones”) and begun to seek out sociological solutions.

They were “unwittingly exchanging the divine action of the Holy Spirit for pragmatic strategies that could help us keep youth and save the institutional church,” Root wrote in Faith Formation. Root began to wonder: how had they gotten here and what hope would they have if they continued to bracket God out of the conversation?

Something clicked for me: this is where I had missed the turn. In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor suggests that belief in God is now contestable, not because naturalist explanations cured us of our ignorance, but because we developed ways to account for meaning, significance, morality, and what it means to be a “self” in ways that no longer require any appeal to the divine. These new options have the combined effect of drawing in our horizons, flattening the world. We now live in what Taylor calls the “immanent frame”: the world is a closed system that isn’t influenced or dependent upon anything outside of itself. It is now possible to imagine and live as though God does not exist. I knew all this jargon, and I was convinced by it. I thought it was the correct diagnosis, making sense of our cultural moment, the reason for the church’s decline, and the need to adapt and innovate in this new context. The problem was I didn’t need God to think any of this.

I understood and accepted Taylor’s description and diagnosis regarding our secular age and life in the immanent frame, but in response, I had taken up sociological tools to address a sociological description of the problem. I knew our church needed to embrace change in a changing world, and we borrowed the best tools Harvard Business Review and Silicon Valley had to offer. There is nothing wrong with any of these tools, but what hope did we have if we, too, left God out of the conversation? If they placed us in a story where we and our creativity were our only hope? By jockeying to posture the church as the best option among many for finding meaning and purpose in a world void of transcendence, I had conceded God in the conversation.

By jockeying to posture the church as the best option among many for finding meaning and purpose in a world void of transcendence, I had conceded God in the conversation.

I didn’t realize the degree to which I had accepted the assumptions of the age while reacting against some of its conclusions. I suddenly had this new vision of myself standing in the flat world, gesturing wildly at the ceiling, trying to convince people there is life in three dimensions.

No wonder I felt such dissonance. The problem wasn’t the conflict of paradigms or the content of my job description. The problem was that I was pastoring as a functional deist.

Making sense of who I was as pastor

As difficult as that was to face, I realized something else. What had drawn me to Eugene Peterson wasn’t a rival paradigm for what it means to be a pastor. It wasn’t a different set of techniques that might prove more effective. Peterson had seen what Taylor described, even if he lacked the taxonomy. He saw the flat lives of those he lived beside in the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland. He saw the turn to consumerism and utilitarianism in the absence of transcendence. He saw the way pastors, in the fragilization of late modernity, had lost any sense of the dignity of their profession and turned to other professions to guide and justify their work. He saw it all, but his solution was something I hadn’t seen: live like God exists.

Let’s be clear: there is no going back to the enchanted worldview of the Middle Ages. The immanent frame isn’t something we are able to simply opt in or out of. Let’s also be clear that the solution to our reductive materialism isn’t an equally reductive dualism that rejects the material in favor of a higher spiritual plane. So, what could it mean to live like God exists?

If you read Charles Taylor carefully, you’ll see that the immanent frame does not necessarily close us off from transcendence. Taylor writes, quite succinctly: “The immanent frame permits closure without demanding it.” And the roof isn’t nearly as closed-off as we often think. We don’t have to go far to notice the cracks in the ceiling. While belief in God is increasingly contestable, so, too, is disbelief — even doubters are haunted by faith. We are struck at times by a sense of excess to things that we cannot explain. We find ourselves thinking that there must be something more. Andrew Root traces the proliferation of what he calls “secular mysticisms”, what Taylor called “immanent spiritualities,” which seek to fill these voids without relying on transcendence. There are plenty of cracks in the ceiling if we’re willing to take notice and let the light in.

We are struck at times by a sense of excess to things that we cannot explain. We find ourselves thinking that there must be something more.

By living like God exists, Eugene Peterson was inviting me to attend to something the poets and mystics have long known: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” to quote one of his favorite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins. I didn’t need new or more effective techniques or paradigms. I needed new eyes to see God working right here, right now.

Eugene wasn’t anxiously trying to make God show up or do something. He wasn’t trying to convince us that God was really there, or that worship was useful for giving life meaning and purpose. He was inviting us to sit still long enough, be quiet long enough, pay attention long enough to see God all around us, to notice that the world was actually three-dimensional and that God was already here.

This picture has begun to shape my imagination for what it means for me to be a pastor. I want this to be true of me, too. I want to awaken to a living reality of God. Not because it will “work” as a technique to establish a “successful congregation,” but because my own heart yearns for communion with the Triune God. I want to live in three dimensions, and I want to cultivate space as a pastor for people to imagine and see something more themselves. I want to see my congregation not for what I can do with them, or what they can do for me, not as resources to be used or problems to be solved, but as saints — those for whom Christ died and in whom God is always at work.

I didn’t need more information. I didn’t need better techniques. What I have experienced, as best as I can tell, is a renewal of my imagination. I needed a different picture, a better story, to make sense of who I am and what I’m doing as a pastor.

Catching sight of the holiness

It’s hard for me to articulate exactly what has changed in the two years since this realization. In some ways, it isn’t much at all. It’s not that I’m doing anything different, but I’m doing almost everything differently. One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed is gratitude and awe, noticing the story of God unfolding beneath the surface of people’s lives in ways I never noticed before.

It’s not that I’m doing anything different, but I’m doing almost everything differently.

I spent so long trying to whip these people into something God could use. I spent so long trying to get them to want what I wanted for them. I spent so long trying to use them to make myself look better (that one hurts to admit). But as I have stopped to simply look, slowing down to take the time to pay attention, what strikes me is the abundance of God’s presence and work already going on. I no longer see them for what they aren’t doing, but for all that God is doing in them. I have missed so much over these 10 years. Now I am dumbfounded by the act of baking brownies for a potluck, flabbergasted when someone arrives 30 minutes early to make coffee for the rest of us, struck dumb when a dozen people show up to Bible study. I have begun to catch sight of the holiness of this congregation. Pastor, take off your shoes, this is holy ground on which you stand!

Pastoring is still not without its difficulties. We still bang our heads on the ceiling of the immanent frame often. Days still go by when God is an afterthought to my work. I am a long way from pastoring full-time in three dimensions, but I’m on my way. I want to live and pastor as though God actually exists. I want to see beneath the surface of things. I want to see things whole, not in fragments and pieces. I want to continue to renew my pastoral imagination.

Eugene Peterson once wrote: “The great masters of the imagination … connect the visible and the invisible, the this with the that. They assist us in seeing what is around us all the time but which we regularly overlook. With their help, we see it not as commonplace but as awesome, not as banal but as wondrous. For this reason, the imagination is one of the essential ministries in nurturing the life of faith. For faith is not a leap out of the everyday but a plunge into its depths.”

“For faith is not a leap out of the everyday but a plunge into its depths.” — Eugene Peterson

What I’ve learned is all these techniques and strategies and paradigms keep me on the surface. If I’m going to be a pastor in this secular age, I need to plunge into those depths.