Andrew Root – The Congregation in a Secular Age [Feature Review]
Longing for true abundance
A functional check of
The Congregation in the Secular Age
Paperback: Baker Academic, 2021
Buy now: (IndieBound) (Amazon) (Kindle)
Reviewed by Joel Wentz
Do you ever stop thinking about your time experience? As the father of a toddler, my time experience for many days is simply to hope that his two-hour nap feels as long as possible. When I'm more thoughtful, I remember those days of college when the time itself seemed plentiful (though of course I try not to think too much about how much of that precious time I waste on pranks and video games in the dorm have ). But all too often my general time experience can be reduced to the following: I wish there were more of it. There are always incomplete assignments, books I want to read, unexpected interruptions and of course the annoying need to sleep. Time slips through my head more and more, and yet I rush through my infinite to-do lists without acknowledging the speed with which I move.
Well, according to the practical theologian and cultural analyst Andrew Root in his new book The Congregation in a Secular Age, this is a very common experience in the midst of the secular "malaise" of postmodernism. Indeed, maintaining our pace is a way to avoid facing the inherent futility of secularity that always invades around us. Why are we so busy? What are we ultimately trying to achieve here? What is it all for? Simply asking these questions can lead to “feeling sick through immanence” and “feeling the emptiness of the emptiness that touches (our) soul”. Root explains: “Accelerate better than feel. In our secular age, time itself has no goal that goes beyond itself. “(22) Time itself has been emptied.
Yeah, that's a pretty depressing thought.
But that's exactly the point, according to Root. After all, what happens when this is not just experienced by a collection of people, but an entire culture? Or more precisely, a whole community? That relentless pace and the careful avoidance of confrontation it requires mark the experiences of too many churches today. To further point out, too many of our ecclesiological structures have willingly surrendered to secular modernity's control of time and what makes life meaningful. Instead of facing these realities, we surrender to them by filling our church rhythm with more and more programs or increasingly trying to be "innovative" and, as a result, drive our churches straight into a depression in the church. Who can keep up? Or who wants to keep up when they can't remember why they're trying?
In the third and final installment of his “Service in the Secular Age” project, Andrew Root develops his ongoing dialogue with the work of Charles Taylor, this time focusing on the life of the community (the first two volumes focused on youth service and pastoral, respectively Vocation). Root has woven philosophy, cultural criticism, and constructive theology together and has presented work that is both partial diagnostic and forward-looking and practical (although most of the work is devoted to diagnosis and criticism).
I find it difficult to imagine many readers who disagree with Roots' diagnosis of "bustle" and "empty time" as a nuisance in the life of not only the churches but most of the people in our culture. In particular, his articulation of the way our culture defines “abundance” as “busyness” struck me personally and as a pastor very deeply and made sense of what I see in the lives of many parishioners. What elevates Roots work, and what some readers may struggle with, is its harsh criticism of the focus on endless "innovation" in our ecclesiology. The desire for innovation could actually indicate that our ideas were shaped more by Silicon Valley than by eternity.
The community that seeks change through innovation risks opening our social life to a moral horizon that may be deliver a false sense of abundance, a distorted conception of humanity, and a shallow conception of the longing of the human mind. . . When church leaders embrace innovation as the framework for the birth of the future of the church and employ innovative practices to update the church to keep up with the increasing pace of modernity, it means (knowingly or not) the shape of our social lives upon oneself constantly accelerating path to shift. (76, emphasis added)
I couldn't help but think about the energetic conferences and summits I attended during my years at the Ministry of Professions, where the "new, successful" program or leader is always pre-screened, hyped and called upon to emulate those present emulate. Granted, these experiences are always exciting in the moment, but they are usually followed by a deflating feeling of exhaustion or discouragement. Who can keep up again? And how do I know if I'll be able to keep up? “Innovation itself has to go through a dialectic of judgment and rebirth. It must be judged for its false claims of ultimacy and reduction in the human mind, and then it can be returned. "(132). Yes and amen.
Before we turn to the criticism of constructive proposals, it should be mentioned that Root devotes a significant part of the Congregation in a secular age to the work of the social theorist Hartmut Rosa, especially his work on "social acceleration". As someone who has not read Rosa herself, I found this section extremely stimulating and it piqued my own interest in finding Rosa's work. The three dimensions of acceleration defined by Rosa (technology, social life, pace) are carefully explored in several chapters, with personal anecdotes (and even the occasional humorous writing) pervaded by them. Root does an admirable job of making heady theorists like Taylor and Rosa accessible to the uninitiated reader, but it's still cerebral. Those who cannot stand the theoretical academic work are likely to struggle, but Root shines nonetheless in his ability to keep theory tight and to combine it profitably with the practical life of a church leader. Those who haven't read Taylor or Rosa but are willing to dig a little deeper academic cultural criticism shouldn't be intimidated.
In terms of practicality, Root lands this project with a rousing exploration of "resonance" as an antidote to depressed and accelerated communities. Resonance interrupts the acceleration of time and injects it with abundance. “Read the poem, see the film, look over the mountain view, laugh and play with the four-year-old. Such experiences are full. You feel resonance between you and the world a felt relationship that reverberates with the frequency of the good. ”(195, emphasis added) The more churches that can cultivate these experiences (although admittedly such a deep response cannot be controlled, which will be discussed in this section), the more we will recover from our time-starved depression. The more we will encounter God. And to my personal delight, Root is engaged in Bonhoeffer's work to advance this conclusion theologically. In particular, through Bonhoeffer's youth ministry work, Root encourages modern communities to purposely spend time with children, for nothing breaks the accelerated reality of modernity faster than the simple and full enjoyment of a child's joy. There is something brilliant in the simplicity of this proposal, expressed in the deep and thoughtful cultural criticism that preceded it.
Deserving to be recognized as one of our most important practical theologians, Andrew Root calls on the Church to a deeper understanding of the culture in which she trains people "in participation in the life and service of this living God." (207) For we really live in a time which longs deeply for the fullness which he describes and which the Scriptures in Christ point to us. “We long for a true abundance that does not draw us through time into a future, but deeper into time itself. We long to live so deeply in time that we hear and feel the calling of eternity. We long to find the infinite again in time, to find the sacred in the present and therefore to be really alive! "(169)
Joel Wentz is currently the Executive Pastor of Missio Dei Church in Portland, Maine. Previously, he served in the college campus ministry at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition to reading and writing, tabletop games, music and coffee are among his passions. His favorite book genres are epic fantasy and epic theology. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and son, and his personal writing and podcast can be found at: joelwentz.com