The Congregation in a Secular Age (Andrew Root) -- A Review


THE CONGREGATION IN A SECULAR AGE: Keeping Sacred Time against the Speed of Modern Life. By Andrew Root. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021.  Xiv + 268 pages.

Does time seem to be accelerating at a pace that far exceeds our ability to keep up? That feeling that time is passing by too quickly might be one of the reasons why many of us of a certain age look back with fondness at what seems to be a simpler time. You know, back when we had dial phones instead of these smartphones. Typewriters instead of computer keyboards. I was born just as the space age was getting going and the churches were overflowing with young children. So, wasn't life better when the churches were full, and we didn’t have to mess with computers and the internet? To be honest, I don't want to go back to typewriters or dial phones or black and white TVs. Nevertheless, it seems harder and harder to keep up with the pace of change. That is especially true for the church as it navigates an increasingly secular age. The recent pandemic has made it abundantly clear that we may not be ready for what comes next.

                One who has been studying the effects of the secular age on church and ministry is Andrew Root, the Carrie Olson Baason Chair of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Congregation in a Secular Age completes a trilogy that began with Faith Formation in a Secular Age: Responding to the Church’s Obsession with Youthfulness (a book I have not read) and The Pastor in a Secular Age: Ministry to People Who No Longer Need a God (a book I have read). I will confess that I resonated more with this volume than the previous volume in which he focused on the role of the pastor in the secular age. I remember feeling that he might have oversold the challenge of secularism on the church. Perhaps the reason this third volume resonated so much with me is that I'm about to retire from full-time pastoral ministry. Like so many of my colleagues, I'm finding it more and more difficult to keep up with the accelerating pace of our world. As noted earlier, COVID has made this even clearer. The need to adapt to new forms of technology to stay connected has been a struggle. What does the future hold? I'm not sure I have the energy to lead a congregation in such a context.

                While Root had turned to the work of Charles Taylor on secularism to undergird the message in his previous book (the one I read), in this book he focuses more on the work of the German social theorist Hartmut Rosa, whose work on the perception that time accelerating fits the context of the book. He notes that Rosa not only speaks to the accelerating pace of time in this secular age but that it has stripped the sacred out of time. So, in the preface Root writes that his argument is "that this accelerating of time has had a huge impact on the congregation. I even assert that congregations are struck with depression because they can't keep up with the speed." (p. xii). The challenge here is that the church feels the need to innovate and grow to keep up, but despite everything, even congregations that seem to have sufficient resources feel depressed. They have resources but little time or energy to be the church. That puts added burdens on clergy who feel the need to pick up the slack.

                I will admit that as I read through the book, I was feeling increasingly depressed. I recognized in myself and my congregation much of what he was saying. It spoke to why I am retiring a bit early. Nevertheless, if you persist to the end, you will hear a word of hope. But if you think that he’s going to tell you that the way to respond to this current age is to slow down and smell the roses, you will be disappointed. That’s because slowing down simply doesn't work. However, he does believe that sacredness can be restored to time, even if time is accelerating. The key he believes is resonance and resonance is relational. That is where the hope is to be found—in relationships with God and with one another.

                In Part 1, Root speaks to the reality of Depressed Congregations. He tells stories about churches and their struggles with the speed at which things are changing. He shares stories of attempts made by congregations to be relevant. He talks as well about the sense that fullness involves busyness. The subtitle of chapter 3 is revealing: "Why Busy Churches Attract and Then Lose Busy People." We're attracted to churches with lots of things happening because that seems to speak of vitality. But what happens is that busy people tend to be tired people and so they quickly find themselves stepping aside from the church because they don’t have room for it in their lives. It’s not so much about God as it is room to move.

                Part 2 is titled “Examining Congregational Despondency.” With a title like that, you can understand why a reader might start feeling depressed! This section of the book is comprised of seven chapters (most chapters in the book are relatively brief, which is good news for busy people—such as pastors).  The fifth chapter, which opens the section is titled "When Time Isn't What It Used to Be." It sets up a series of six chapters that explore three dimensions of this speed-up—technological acceleration, acceleration of social life, and acceleration of the pace of life. The point here is that all three dimensions are interconnected. That means the church can't just focus on one dimension of this speed-up and believe it will succeed in coping with the pace of change because each of the three dimensions affects the other. Root writes "What opens the church to despondency is that it is always trying to catch up, and we envision catching up as taking place inside or alongside technological change. Yet technological change is never disconnected from social change—and the timekeepers of Silicon Valley know this, which is what gives them such hubris, believing that a new app can change the world." (p. 61). Big Tech is in the news these days and appears to be under attack, but it is the time-keeper, not the nation-state or the church. So, you can't just improve your live stream or add a video to the service and think you've arrived. That’s only one component. So what happens is fatigue as we chase the new and fall flat (and exhausted). If you're not despondent yet, you may survive.

                Part 3 is where a bit of hope emerges as Root invites us to move from "Relevance to Resonance." Don’t worry, there is still bad news for us to digest, but there is also a bit of good news if you can keep pressing on. Root begins with a chapter on "time-famine and resource obsession." This obsession with resources only leads to alienation from one another, from the church, and even God. He addresses the slow church movement, suggesting that ultimately it won’t because the world is on a path that makes it difficult to truly slow down without the world becoming destabilized (think here of a spinning top that starts to slow down). But remember I did say there is a bit of hope to be encountered. So in chapter 14 Root offers resonance as the alternative to alienation. Alienation involves a disconnection from the world. It involves a loss of any sense of divine action. He writes that "Revelation is encountered in the world; it is the unveiling of God's eternal being in time. But if the world is deadened and we feel only a faint connection to it, then believing the immanent frame is closed is the only obvious choice. A grey, hard, inert world is our natural habitat" (p. 193). Does that sound about right? We've lost track of the transcendent, which is related to resonance. So, where do we find resonance? Root suggests that resonance is to be found in experiencing relationships within time. You might need to think in Star Trek terms of warp speed here.  You’re going really fast, past the speed of light, and yet you aren’t experiencing the debilitating effects of time. What Root points out is that hope is to be found in moments of delight that often come in encounters with small children.

                Yes, hope is to be found in children and not as the future of the church but as the church today. So chapters fifteen and sixteen speak of carrying children. In chapter fifteen, Root brings the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer into the conversation, as Bonhoeffer both served as a youth minister and spoke of youth and children in his dissertation on ecclesiology. Then in chapter 16, he turns to Matthew 18 and Jesus' message about welcoming children. It's important to note that the key is not thinking of children as resources for the church (the future of the church) but as participants in the life of the church who are valued for who they are and not as resources for the church.

                The title of chapter 17 seems a bit titillating— "Enticing with a little erotic ecstasy." If your mind goes to sex, then you will either be disappointed or pleasantly surprised. Often, we think of agape as the Christian form of love, but Root draws on the work of the Greek Orthodox philosopher/theologian Christos Yannaras, whose book Person and Eros speaks to the issue at hand in terms of relationship. Yannaras begins by contemplating the Trinity and then suggests that eros speaks of God moving toward us. In other words, God acts. Eros, according to Yannaras, is love on the move, "it's a love that has a passion for what is other, to resonate with another. Eros seeks to be with and for what Eros is not" (p. 247). I had only recently heard of Yannaras, and Root has enticed me to check out his work as it seems to have value for our times. Theologians and philosophers like Yannaras might be able to help restore the sacred to time. Root writes that we can't go back to when Avignon (Avignon was the home of the papacy in the fourteenth century) was the timekeeper. We can't return to the medieval world when time was sacred, nor would we want to return to the medieval world, but even if Avignon isn’t the timekeeper Root believes there is a way of encountering the sacred within time. Again, that is through relationship.

                I think for me, it was this final chapter that gave me hope. Yes, I see the depression and the despondency of the church as it struggles to keep up. We hear lots of promises that if only we adopt the practices of Starbucks or Google we too can be successful. That's not likely, even if we have significant resources. That’s because technology, while helpful, isn’t the only dimension of reality that we’re dealing with. So, we’ll have to find a different path. Root puts his finger on the problem and perhaps, with the help of Rosa and Yannaras, offers us a word of hope. What he doesn’t offer is a quick fix. There are no five easy steps to navigating this current reality, but if we turn to our relationships perhaps we will find a way. I do suggest that clergy should read The Congregation in a Secular Age because it will open eyes to realities that can’t be solved with a new sound system or even a new pastor!


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