The Pastor in a Secular Age

Ministry to People Who No Longer Need a God

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Andrew Root
Ministry in a Secular Age
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Baker Academic
    , June
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Pastor in a Secular Age is Andrew Root’s second volume of three in a series titled Ministry in a Secular Age, which draws extensively on Charles Taylor’s seminal work A Secular Age (Belknap Press, 2007). Root explores our current secular age that “has devalued the pastor” and “slowly erased the transcendent referent that would make the pastor ultimately needed” (xx, xi). It is within this context that pastors experience a malaise, a kind of discomfort, uneasiness, a nagging illness whose source cannot be identified, and Taylor considers “the malaise of immanence” (5). The transcendent, a belief that there might be a personal God who is active in the cosmos has become unbelievable, resulting in the loss of a metanarrative of meaning (5, 31). Root addresses the matter at hand in two parts, with a connecting transition in between. Part 1 focuses on six pastors as “significant representatives of the role and identity of the pastor in their era” (xxi). This is followed by Foucault’s lectures on pastoral power. Finally, part 2 “seeks to free ministry as only a professional function and moves into seeing ministry as the very way of imagining divine action in our secular age” (xxi).

In part 1, Root describes the transition from an enchanted world that is filled with transcendent experiences “obvious of divine action” (270) to a secular age seemingly devoid of these because of disenchantment (Thomas Becket), a buffered self (Augustine), a moral order of mutual regard (Jonathan Edwards), affirmation of ordinary life as market economy (Henry Ward Beecher), an ethic of authenticity (Harry Emerson Fosdick), and post-Durkheimianism (Rick Warren). In the connecting transition Root explores Foucault’s observation that “the shape of governmental power is embedded in the pastoral,” with Root concluding that “in our day all pastors have to negotiate pastoral power without a shared sense of divine action” (153, 168). Part 2 considers God as a ministering pastor, who arrives in time and space to minister through divine action by (1) identifying with events and speaking in and through them, as illustrated by Martin Luther King Jr’s encounter at his kitchen table; (2) seeing, calling by name, questioning, commanding, and promising, as explored in the recount of Hagar’s running away from Sarah; (3) revealing God’s name to Moses, thereby displaying vulnerability and intimacy; and (4) responding to prayer.

Of interest is Root’s selected trajectory of pastoral roles and responsibilities over the course of time. In part 1, in Becket’s time, pastors as experts in the supernatural offered order and protection from the constant flood of enchantment, while in Augustine’s time their role was focused on impacting, directing, and leading people’s inner lives in order to find the presence of God within themselves (30, 36, 64). In Edwards’ time the focus shifted to a pastor being a man of manners in a church of politeness and order, while in Beecher’s time pastors personified acceptance and friendship. In Fosdick’s time it was the pastor’s job to remind people of God’s ideals and of their responsibility to participate in promoting flourishing for all, while in Warren’s time the pastor needed to become a visionary CEO that provided resources to assist people in their own seeking (115, 118, 143–44). Foucault’s welcomed interjection describes the DNA of the pastoral as exhibiting motion, beneficence, and care for both the one and the many, with Christianity adding four elements to pastoral power, namely, analytic responsibility, exhaustive and instantaneous transfer, alternate correspondence, and sacrificial reversal. Root concludes this section with a pertinent question: “Who is the ideal pastor for the secular age?” (168).

In part 2 Root continues to explore this question by highlighting that God is a shepherd (pastor) who ministers, revealing God’s “being as the act of ministry,” choosing when to arrive and what to reveal, and revealing God’s name, as personal names are needed for ministry (174, 179, 186–87). Thus, the role of the pastor is to help people be open to God arriving, particularly at the “event horizon of nothingness—as in Egypt and the crucifixion” (189, 204). The pastor is present in the event, preparing by means of prayer and practices, for the arrival a speaking God, helping people see God by creating an environment for personal encounters with God, in order for them to be ministers themselves—both giving and receiving ministry (207, 211, 228). The result is that transcendence invades the world and people, through serving others, identify and comprehend moments of divine action in their own lives (265, 268). Root concludes part 2 by stating that in the secular age a pastor’s vocation is to teach people to pray both individually and, more importantly, corporately as prayer redirects their attention back to divine action (274).

Root succeeds in the aim of this volume, namely, to describe “how the dawning of our secular age in the West has hollowed out the vocation of the pastor, making core commitments to divine action questionable at best” (xx), suggesting that pastors focus on teaching people how to pray and thus avoid observation blindness to divine action wherein they can encounter the living God, who is a minister. Root answers the question “Who is the ideal pastor for the secular age?” by referring to Eugene Peterson as representative of pastors who teach their people how to pray. Root’s second volume is highly recommended to all who practice pastoral ministry.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shaun Joynt is a research associate at the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa.

Date of Review: 
March 16, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew Root (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary) is Carrie Olson Baalson Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and has written extensively about youth ministry. He is the author of numerous books, including Faith Formation in a Secular AgeThe Pastor in a Secular AgeThe End of Youth Ministry?Bonhoeffer as Youth WorkerThe Children of DivorceRevisiting Relational Youth Ministry, and Relationships Unfiltered. He is also the coauthor (with Kenda Creasy Dean) of The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry.


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