Review Essay: The Congregation in a Secular Age

Andrew Root is the Carrie Olson Baalson Chair of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul MN. This is volume three in his trilogy entitled Ministry in a Secular Age. Volume one dealt with faith formation—responding to the church’s obsession with youthfulness. Volume two focused on the pastor in a secular age, on ministry to people who no longer need a God. With volume three we come to the faith community of the local church—the parish or congregation and how it is faring in the 21st century. Full disclosure requires I tell that I have completed a volume with a similar focus but a somewhat different approach: Community as church, church as community, Eugene OR: Cascade, 2021, forthcoming.

In the first two volumes of the trilogy, Root had an anchor in the seminal work of Charles Taylor on the secular age. (I reviewed the second volume here.) Root is brilliant in using the work not just of Taylor but of a substantial chorus of others to offer interpretations of church, ministry and faith most of us do not ordinarily employ. He is careful in all three volumes to maintain a sense of where we are and where we’ve come from in the history of Christianity. For example, he puts forward in volume two an intriguing list of pastors from significant periods to stimulate our thinking about not only the ministry of the ordained but of the local church, its faith, prayer and ministry too. Americans need to be reminded that there was church before their version, and those earlier periods shaped what is taken as normative.

Here, in volume three, while Taylor remains a bedrock mentor, it is German sociologist Harmut Rosa who is Root’s principal interpreter of what drives and moreover afflicts social life generally and the life of a congregation in particular. Rosa is a challenging observer as well as a critic of life in our time. His essential argument is that we live in an age of always increasing social acceleration. The need is constantly to come up with ever faster technology, with ever newer and ever more effective programs for accomplishing an institution’s aims and achievement. The congregation is no exception, though some might think otherwise.

This is the nightmare of never being able to just live, pray, study, enjoy fellowship, and serve the community around us. The pressure to innovate and add more is coupled with parishioners so squeezed for time in their work and families that the result is dysfunction everywhere—for members, parish council, and parish staff especially the pastors. Root diagnoses the outcome as the “fatigue of being church,” riffing off French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg’s concept of the “weariness of the self,” his assessment of what depression widespread in society looks like. Roots gathers so many pieces of the puzzle that both our world and the church have become, it’s not possible to inventory them all. Just one that stuck with me is the idea that just about everything, from TV sitcoms to cell phones to styles of hair and clothing, even glasses, are now subject to extremely rapid “decay rates,” the speed at which they become so “yesterday,” so out of fashion.

Root is to be commended for narrating and then returning again and again to a few actual persons and moments he’s encountered. These are very mundane yet enormously powerful signals of where the frantic pace and pressure suddenly stops and something almost epiphany-like happens. One is a North Dakota pastor’s struggling to come to terms with acceleration and his large parish. Another is the pastor of a tiny congregation, Rhonda, whose flock seems to be shrinking before her eyes. Then there is an ebullient kid at the North Dakota church bursting forth after playing with others– “That was great!” Lastly, there is another pastor, Meredith, and her poignant account of a grandfather in her parish, Henry, standing tearfully before the congregation on a Sunday, begging prayers for his granddaughter, who is coping with a congenital heart defect.

Root keeps us rooted. These ordinary folks halt the hectic culture Rosa and Root conjure up. It is Rosa again who describes a way out of the hyper-accelerated pace of life, and names resonance, really reconnecting, returning to relationships, to ties that bind us to each other, to what is the very heart of church, the soul of congregations. And in a manner that reminds me of the end of the second volume, Root brings in Bonhoeffer and his not widely read doctoral dissertation Communio sanctorum, to illumine this issue of returning to human resonance. For in this text, Bonhoeffer, as he does elsewhere, says that church must be able to carry, that is, welcome and support and nurture children. To return to children is not what most theologians or social scientists or even pastors would do. Yet there is the force of Jesus’ teaching that unless we change and become like little children we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:3).

I will leave to readers to discover exactly how this unexpected and truly moving vision is laid out to Root’s last chapters. I will only add, just to up the ante, that the figure of the Virgin Mary and her child, the icon of Incarnation, figures importantly, as does Christos Yannaras’ insightful view in Person and Eros. Both of these crucial ingredients bring us back to sacred time and holy community. This is a most valuable view of the core of the church—the local congregation—and its struggles and possibilities in our time. Paired with the earlier volumes mentioned, this reflection makes Andrew Root an important voice for Christian communities going forward.

REVIEWER: Fr. Michael Plekon

Michael Plekon has been a presbyter in the western and eastern churches, assisting in parish ministry for close to forty years. He is emeritus professor of sociology and religious studies at the City University of New York, Baruch College where he taught for forty years. He has written on persons of faith and their spiritual journeys and gifts, also the Russian emigre theologians in Paris and later thinkers, among them Mother Maria Skobtsova, Paul Evdokimov, Sergius Bulgakov and Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, as well as Thomas Merton.

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Andrew Root, The Congregation in a Secular Age: Keeping Sacred Time Against the Speed of Modern Life, Grand Rapids MI: Baker Academic, 2021.

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