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A Hopeful, Practical Ecclesiology for a Secular Age

Andrew Root

Churches and the Crisis of Decline: A Hopeful, Practical Ecclesiology for a Secular Age, Andrew Root, 2022, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Academic, ISBN: 978-1-5409-6481-4

For the sake of full disclosure, I approach Churches and the Crisis of Decline as both a Universalist and Progressive Christian. This puts me at odds with Andrew Root’s more traditional Christian underpinnings. However, like Root, I am concerned about the “crisis of decline” within the organized church.

These days, there are far too many churches – conservative and liberal – closing, and far too many new start-ups not gaining traction. Even the mega-church movement seems to be declining. This in spite of the fact that the majority of Americans profess to believe in God. The sad part is, that many of these same folk do not feel that they encounter God in church. Witness the rapid growth of Exvangelicals and “dones” (those who have left the organized church, but not their faith).

Andrew Root, Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary, has written extensively about ministry in the secular age. Knowing that his work flows from his extensive study of the secularity and modernity, I figured that what he had to say in Churches and the Crisis of Decline might be beneficial to consider.

A church does not fail, according to Root, because of a lack of resources or attractive programs. A church fails from a loss of faith. It is this loss, Root believes, that has caused the crisis of decline within our churches, liberal and conservative alike. The solution: A vision and hope built upon encountering God’s presence in Jesus Christ at work within the immanent.

Root uses a conceit to enlarge upon this premise: An engaging tale of a fictional church – St John the Baptist – that becomes a pub. Yet, in an alternative universe doesn’t. Juxtaposed upon the tale is the non-fictional, unfolding story of Karl Barth the pastor, not the theologian. Yet, one still learns a lot about Barth’s practical, dialectic ecclesiastical theology. A theology which suggests it is possible to know God apart from reasoning, that ultimately one must give way to a faith where God reveals knowledge.

What makes the juxtaposition work for us is that Karl Barth was a pastor first, and a theologian second, yet his theology informed his pastoral work. More importantly, according to Root, is that Barth sought to minister within the immanent frame of his secular culture. Throughout the book, Charles Taylor, thanks to Andrew Root, shows up with a bit of insight in our secular culture. Taylor tells us that the word “secular” is always multivalent—it can’t be clearly defined. We have definitions that overlap. Thus, we can’t be sure that we are working with the same – exact – definition of the word. “Secular” (Taylor’s “Secular 1”) operates out of the public/private divide. “Secular” (Taylor’s “Secular 2”) is defined as fewer and fewer people committing to religious places. “Secular” (Taylor’s “Secular 3”) is where belief is contested and seems to be fragile, on the verge of being severed once and for all by culture (another multivalent word). In this version of secular, the connection with the living God becomes frayed and perhaps, eventually severed.

A church cannot produce its own life. It needs a frame of reference: The immanent frame assumes that relationships have no supernatural force behind them to give them meaning. The frame of reference is natural, not supernatural. The church, however, to be the Church, draws her life from the work of the Spirit of God. And if this is true the concept must move from mere dogma to practice, a practice where the people in the pews experience God, otherwise the church becomes stale and dying (p. 13).

As Root unfolds the story of Barth, Barth came to realize that modernity has replaced God with reason and that because of this the church has failed to be the voice of the Transcendent God. What is needed is not reason, but the simple dialectic affirmation that God is God. The question, according to Root, then becomes not “Can we know God (rational approach?” but “Do we know God (dialectic approach)?” Through the fictional tale of St. John the Baptist, and the unfolding story of Karl Barth, Root explores why we might not know God. Interestingly, in the exploration of the “why we might not know” we come to see that the “how” is the experience of God in the immanent. Following Barth, Root states that, to know God, is to love God. To love God is to love the world. It is through the world that God judges the Church’s love for the world. Thus, if we love the world (as God loves the world), we then love God (p. 87). Think: “For God so loved the world that God gave….”

Although I may see the role of reason in faith a bit differently than does Root, I can’t disagree with the truth of the above. I have to say (tongue-in-cheek) that it is sound dialectic reasoning.

Or another way of putting it, as Root so aptly does: We are not the story.

I had forgotten that Bath, like many of his day, was a practicing socialist, although he came to realize that socialism could not bring about Christian aims, even though it is embedded with Christian ideas. What Barth came to realize that the story of socialism, as with all political parities and all organizations, is the story about their own survival. And this, all too often, is the story of the church. However, in Christianity, the church is not the star (as Root puts it) of their own story (p.91). And becoming the star of our own story, I believe, is something that both liberal and conservative churches have fallen into. The church is not the star, nor is the pastor. Both are supporting actors.

The story is (1) God’s act (1st subject) and (2) for the world (2nd subject). The church is a supporting actor to the story, the narrators of the story – God’s act (1st subject repeated) – in, and to, the world – to modernity/post-modernity (2nd subject repeated) (p. 91) Pastor “Barth is after specifically a church dogmatics (reflection on this God’s act), because the church, as a supporting subject of the story, is in the position to narrate, hold, and in humility proclaim the story (p. 91).” Barth’s story also is a story about loving life, even modernity, yet proclaiming in word and action God within the immanent.

It is the practice, not merely the recognition, of this truth that gives life to a church.

It is this idea that enlivens the alternative St. John The Baptist church. The story becomes the story of a church that began to know God as a God active in the immanent. It is this role that animated Pastor Barth’s ministry.

There is much more to be said in Churches and the Crisis of Decline about how the church’s role as narrator give’s life to a church, but rather than my laying it out in the review, I suggest that you read the book. No matter our theological persuasion, if we are to be “Christian,” the story that we tell must begin with God’s act in Christ for the world.

Although Churches and the Crisis of Decline is written for those ministering and worshiping within the local church, I believe it also has something to say to the “dones.” To be honest, I am one of those “dones.” I’m a “done” because I haven’t yet found a church where the story is not about themselves. I don’t like being a done though. The story is best narrated within the immanent, in, and through, community (Acts 20:7), and when you are a “done” who claims to follow Christ, as I am, without a community of faith, we are more prone to make the story about our “doneness” than about God working within the immanent.

Not to belabor the point, but it seems to me that many of us Christian Universalists are also guilty of making our belief in The Larger Hope the story rather than narrating through action the all-encompassing love of God for the world.

Although not where Andrew Root is theologically, I thank him for writing this book. It has helped me crystalize my thinking about the crisis of decline, but more importantly – and far more personally – it has made me think about my contribution to the church’s decline. My one quibble (other than the relation of reason to faith) with Churches and the Crisis of Decline is that I do think that a church can experience a “loss of life” for reasons not of its own making. Nevertheless, my quibble takes nothing away from my appreciation of the book. No matter your theological perspective, please read the book. You will be glad you did.

Andrew Root (PhD. Princeton Theological Seminary) is Carrie Olson Baalson Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary, . His Ministry in a Secular Age Series books include: Faith Formation in a Secular Age, The Pastor in a Secular Age, and The Congregation in a Secular Age. © Frank A. Mills, 1997-2024

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