Harley Scalf ~ Secular and Sacred

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What is secular? What is sacred? What’s the difference?

I have had this conversation within every congregation I’ve ever served, and a few times even outside the walls of the church. In fact, I had this conversation just recently when meeting with worship leaders from our various campuses. (The subject mostly comes up when discussing music.)

My question to the worship leaders was, “what are some “non-churchy” songs that may fit with the Scripture and message?” One leader spoke up and said he did not like doing “secular” music once worship started. I think probably most worship leaders feel this way. That’s just a guess on my part, but it’s been my experience, so it’s at least an informed guess.

To be clear, I have no issue with wanting to do a certain style or genre of music in worship. Most every church has their own flavor of music: southern Gospel, rock-n-roll, traditional hymnody, jazz, country western. If you think of a style of music, there’s probably a church somewhere that utilizes that style to reach people for Jesus, and thank God they do!

It brings up a bigger theological question for me, though: What makes one thing sacred and another secular?

It’s not the tune. Like I said above, churches are using all genres of music.

It can’t simply be the words. Let’s be honest about this. There are a ton of worship songs that are just simply fluff. Throw in some cool guitar chords, mention Jesus (and maybe the Holy Spirit…if you have to), and there’s your song: just rinse and repeat 15 times! Seriously, can’t we do better than this!? As an example, here’s a worship song that could be sung to Jesus – or to a middle-school crush:

  I want to touch you

 I want to see your face

I want to know you more

And here’s a song from the other side of that great secular/sacred divide, “One” by U2:

One love

One blood

One life

You got to do what you should

One life

With each other

Sisters

Brothers

One life

But we’re not the same

We get to

Carry each other

Carry each other

That second song – the secular one – sounds more appropriate (and just less awkward) for church than the first. So, then, my questions become:

Why must we have a sacred?

Why must we have a secular?

Do we enjoy division that much?

A.W. Tozer wrote of this division:

One of the greatest hindrances to internal peace which the Christian encounters is the common habit of dividing our lives into two areas, the sacred and the secular. As these areas are conceived to exist apart from each other and to be morally and spiritually incompatible, and as we are compelled by the necessities of living to be always crossing back and forth from the one to the other, our inner lives tend to break up so that we live a divided instead of a unified life…This is the old sacred-secular antithesis. Most Christians are caught in its trap. They cannot get a satisfactory adjustment between the claims of the two worlds. They try to walk the tight rope between two kingdoms and they find no peace in either. Their strength is reduced, their outlook confused and their joy taken from them.

I’m with Tozer on this one. In reality, I believe there’s no such thing as this sacred/secular divide, at least not as we Christians tend to define it today. Are there things that God has declared holy and sacred? Of course! Think of Holy Communion or baptism. There are also things that would detract from our relationship with God. Those things would not be considered holy and sacred (think sin!).

Somewhere along the way, though, we have self-appointed ourselves to be judge and jury in the trial of sacred-vs-secular. Herein lies the problem. This is how the divide is created, at least in our own little worlds. This is how we Christians unplug from our communities. This is how we become irrelevant to our neighbors and the unchurched.

If we enjoy something, it must be of God. If we don’t like (or understand) something, we become more like Mama Boucher in the Adam Sandler movie Waterboy, and everything is “the devil”!

Christians are supposed to be followers of Jesus. Jesus, who left heaven (the most sacred of all places), and came to earth (the most secular of all places…at least when compared to heaven). He’s the guy who was both fully God (Sacred) and fully human (secular). He’s the guy who wants to take us from where we are (secular-minded) to where He wants us to be (sacred, holy, set apart). He’s the guy who became the atoning sacrifice for our sins (sacred) when the Romans crucified him (secular).

Jesus does not divide the sacred from the secular. Instead, He takes the secular and redeems it, thus making it sacred. There is no divide as we understand it, because Jesus stands in the gap reaching with one nail-pierced hand to each side, uniting all of creation into one holy Kingdom.

What is secular? What is sacred? It seems to me that the answer to that question all depends on the level of surrender you and I make to Jesus.

Why does there seem to be such a division between the two? Good question…

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Harley Scalf, an Ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, is the Northside Campus Pastor at Christ United Methodist in Hickory, NC, where he also leads their Celebrate Recovery ministry. He is married to Jessica and they have one daughter, Madison.

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