The Congregation in a Secular Age
Series: Ministry in a Secular Age
- ISBN: 9780801098482
- Published By: Baker Academic
- Published: January 2021
The Congregation in a Secular Age is Andrew Root’s third volume in a series titled “Ministry in a Secular Age.” He draws extensively on Charles Taylor’s seminal work A Secular Age (Belknap Press, 2007) and in this volume introduces the work of German social theorist Hartmut Rosa, who he asserts answers and develops “the challenges that Taylor raises” (6). Root’s aim throughout the three volumes is to ask, “What time are we in?” (xii). He contends that congregations are in a secular age, namely, “an age of accelerated time, wherein the sacred has been replaced by a drive to innovate and grow [and] [f]aithfulness has been replaced with a drive for vitality” (xii). He unpacks this in three parts.
In part 1, Root considers depressed congregations. He suggests depression is linked to the speed of life and “not being able to keep up” (6) as well as a fatigue from having to constantly curate oneself, extending these aspects to the church. Moreover, Root contends that the church seeks to address these challenges via change as opposed to transformation. Change via increased speed of life helps avoid dealing with meaninglessness, achieve the good life (in the future), and deal with the guilt of wasting time, the author argues. However, busyness has erroneously been equated with fullness due to a lack of a transcendent vision. The church has succumbed to this by, firstly, offering more programs and, secondly, assisting busy members with finding resources to obtain more out of their busyness. This results in a la fatigue d’être eglise—the fatigue of being church. His premise is modernity introduces speed that imposes change resulting in angst. Eventually sacred time (time that mattered) is replaced by secular time (busy time).
In part 2, Root examines congregational despondency, linking it to time. Based on Rosa’s work, he lists three factors speeding up the world: technology, social change, and the pace of life—and each of these affect the other. One of the side-effects of technological acceleration is that new becomes a high good. Another is that technology (i.e. trains and cellphones) influences our social lives, both at the consumer and identity level. As for social change, Root indicates we live in a compressed present where the decay rate has exponentially shortened, including social norms where old now equals slow. He elaborates on the effects of the change of speed by focusing on the topics of work, sex, and family, traversing the ancient, medieval, and modern worlds, indicating a change in timekeepers from church (multiple generations) to the state (one lifetime) to self (multiple lives in a lifetime). With that said, the denomination is in decline because it “is a vehicle not built for the speed asked of it” (117) and these and congregations are resource depleted.
Next, Root turns his attention to the pace of life and its acceleration, which results in alienation. He uses email and social media as case studies to illustrate the myth of these being timesaving means to an end. We use them to achieve “reach” (or relevance, which is not a bad thing in itself), defining this as the new higher good, and we curate ourselves without encountering the other. The church has also fallen prey to the drive for reach, using it as a means to stem decline. Root concludes this section with a discussion of the three seculars, describing secular 1 as “a divide between public and private” (between church and state), secular 2 as “the loss of participation in religious institutions,” and secular 3 as “the loss of the reach of transcendence itself” (140-145).
In part 3, Root advocates moving from relevance to resonance. He starts off indicating there is a time-famine across three classes. There are the elites and middle class who believe saving time is saving money; those below them in the service industry who have time imposed upon them by the above; and the lowest layer of forcefully excluded people, including the homeless. Root continues to link resources to time and writes that people are resource-obsessed in order to have more time in the future, with more time viewed as the “good life” . Quoting Rosa, he indicates that in order to thrive, these resources need to be “available, accessible, and attainable” (163); however, these “resources will not be used to find the living God in the present” (168). Root asserts that the church slowing down is not the answer but rather a different perspective, which he describes as “the cruciform good life” (178).
Hereafter Root describes one of the challenges of acceleration which is the lack of time to integrate, resulting in disintegration and erosion and eventually alienation. Root considers Taylor’s term “excarnation” as the opposite of incarnation, that is, losing a sense of a living God taking on flesh and dwelling in the world as Jesus Christ. Next, he asserts that the challenge being faced, as described in all three of the ‘secular age’ volumes, has been the loss of divine action. Root argues that the answer to this is “resonance,” which is alienation’s other. Resonance consists of two dimensions that include two elements each. The first dimension is phenomenological (a feeling of fullness) and its two elements are affection (being touched from the outside) and emotion (a response to affection). The second dimension is efficacy (being called out to act) and its two elements are transformation (a new story and identity) and elusiveness (an encounter beyond our control). He further describes resonance as “carrying the child,” meaning that children are to be treated as persons and not resources and offers this as a means from alienation to resonance (218).
Root answers his question concerning what time we are living in by indicating it is secular 3. He offers resonance as an opportunity for divine action to be encountered and sacred time to be experienced to counter secular 3. This resonance is found in “carrying children” as they best depict our response to the transcendent, specifically, humility and transformation. Root’s third volume is highly recommended to scholars, clergy, and laity in congregational ministry.
Shaun Joynt is a senior academic at the South African Theological Seminary in Bryanston, South Africa.Shaun JoyntDate Of Review:May 28, 2022