‘People have weird experiences — let’s create places they can talk about them’

by
03 January 2020

Faith in a secular age: Andy Root and Nick Shepherd in conversation

ALAMY

Martin Luther and the lightning, from a 19th-century illustration by Gustav König, published by Rudolf Besser

Martin Luther and the lightning, from a 19th-century illustration by Gustav König, published by Rudolf Besser

IN HIS book Faith Formation in a Secular Age, Dr Andrew Root, Pro­fessor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary, argues that “the whole of our social imaginary has shifted.” He writes: “Our culture has little room for belief in a God who is both transcendent and personal.”

Last month, the Church Times recorded him in con­versation with Dr Nick Shep­herd, the director of Setting God’s People Free, the Renewal and Reform pro­gramme that explores how the Church “helps the whole people of God serve God’s mission in God’s world”. This is an edited version of that conversation.

 

Andy, could you summarise the landscape sketched out in Faith Formation in a Secular Age? How has the “social imaginary” shifted? 

Andy Root: My books are really in dialogue with the Canadian philo­sopher Charles Taylor. He’s trying to help us to find out what it actually means — and, even more so, what it feels like — to live in a secular age. It’s not that religion is necessarily disappearing, or that we are getting necessarily a bigger divide between what’s public and what’s private. Ultimately, what it means to be living in a secular age is to have all forms of belief contested.

Taylor thinks that stretches really, really deep — so deep that, if you are a believer, you are often thrust into doubt. But he thinks that, even if you are a non-believer, you can still be thrust into doubt.

You find yourself thinking: “Oh, no, there’s no God here; come on, this is all just made-up stuff.” And then you go to that Christmas concert, and you hear that orchestra, or you hold your child for the first time, you have an experience in everyday life that opens something up — and now even your doubt is shattered. Taylor thinks this is the kind of age we live in — that we are always mutually fragilised, whether we believe or we don’t.

 

Nick, is that picture one that Church House recognises? 

Nick Shepherd: Sometimes, we de­­fault into real self-criticism in the Church: we’ve got to do more, we’ve got to change, we’ve got to innovate, we’ve got to respond to the times. . . And a lot of that is true, in terms of being contextual.

But what we miss in that is that there’s a deep cultural change that has been going on in the West for hundreds of years, and we are caught up in that change, and trying to live out our faith in conditions that have fundamentally changed. I think Taylor explains that. There are some critiques of Taylor, particularly when you look at non-Western contexts, but, by and large, I think he hits the nail on the head.

For a Christian, the conditions of doubt that Andy was talking about have a real, deep impact on us. How we understand where God is active in our lives becomes really difficult, because the rest of our society doesn’t support that, or actually under­­mines that. So you have cer­tain spaces where you begin to feel that God is active, and then cer­tain spaces where that is just closed off for you.

We talk a lot about confidence, but I think sometimes that word is slightly misplaced, because I think it’s more about imagination: how do we help each of us to understand where God is present? God is pres­ent in the eucharist; God is present in Charismatic sung wor­ship; but God is also present at the chip shop, and God is present in a conversation with a work colleague.

 

The C of E regularly publishes statistical analysis of church attend­ance, and we can find surveys of affiliation, identity, belief, etc. Some­­times these are said to create in­­stitutional anxiety. How do you both feel about these analyses? Do we dismiss them at our peril, or do they carry their own risks with them? 

AR: I think we do dismiss them at our peril. I am concerned, however, that the definition of what faith is has been given over to sociologists. You can’t blame sociologists, but they need to create a kind of in­­strument that they can then empirically make decisions on.

Faith is something quite deep, and can’t just be measured by looking at the numbers of participation, or at the four choices on a scale of what you believe. For the earliest forms of Protestantism, faith was in an in­­cred­ibly deep category. It wasn’t just what you believed and what you were willing to do with a few hours a week, or if you believed the Bible is philosophically this or that. Faith was the place, the locale, where the human spirit was encountered by the divine spirit. . . So I want us to be sceptical, in a very respectful way, of those numbers.

ANDY ROOTDr Andy Root

NS: There’s a strong argument that the Church has always been a minority within a broader majority. What we’ve lost is a bit of the cul­tural framing — it’s called a social imaginary for good reason. Our struc­tures in society don’t hold that imagination of what it means to be Christian as they once did. Some people can malign that kind of Christendom model, but it actually had an impact, an effect: it did some­thing for you as a person. I think it had meaning for people. We have lost that. Attendance as an obliga­tion has moved out of people’s pat­terns and practices. We now con­sider people to be regular active participants in our church if they are there two times a month.

The numbers drive me to think: how do we then enable people to live out faith in everyday life, and to find and experience God in everyday life, and then to be part of the worship­ping community where that be­­comes your story and your song and your conversation?

AR: One of the traps for people who are church professionals is that [the numbers] mean something deeply existential. Will we be able to keep posts? Will we be able to keep open academic institutions that train these clergy? This is a pretty big deal, and it will change a lot of things, and there will be questions that we have to ask. . .

But it can also be a distraction from something deeper. What it ultimately means to live in a secular age is not just that the institutions of religion are declining, it’s that idea that transcendence becomes lost, or harder to name. This idea of a living God, in the sense of divine action, becomes harder for people to con­nect. And I think if we want renewal, it will start by trying to address what Taylor calls the loss of transcend­ence, the yearning for meaning.

NS: Something interesting is going on in our regular attendance. In the age bracket 25 to 44, there is 32-per-cent regular attendance com­pared with 14 per cent in the 45- to 64-year-olds. There are always these smaller narratives, these little counter-currents that are happening.

 

Andy, you write: “Our forma­tion has often been boring because it has lacked the connection to our deepest, embodied, lived, and emo­tive ex­­periences.” You mention Martin Luther’s experience of being nearly struck by lightning, and question whether he would find any­where today to make sense of the experi­ence, including in church. Can you expand on this?
 

AR: If Luther was walking in a field and was almost struck by lightning today, he would run to the pub and drink a bunch of Hefeweizen to try to make sense of it, and maybe he would join an artisan beer-brewing club and find meaning there. But — and this is one of the things that makes transcendence or divine ac­­tion seem impossible — there really aren’t a lot of places to talk about it.

I think people actually have these experiences. But the way human cog­n­i­tion works is that, if you don’t actually tell the story of those ex­­periences, they have a hard time pressing in and leaving a mark on your identity. I think that part of the late-modern condition is we do have odd, uncanny experiences.

If you can get people at a pub to have a drink or two, they will start talking about weird things that have happened. But there’s almost no­­where in our culture where they can testify to those stories, or go to try to make sense of them. We don’t tend see the local congregation as a place to come and say: “I’ve got to tell you what happened to me last week. I don’t know what to make of it.”

We need to have these kinds of narratives to know who we are, and to make sense of our world, and we’ve defaulted out of giving people space for that. We don’t need huge budgets: we just need the bravery and freedom to say “Come and tell the story,” and to really ask the question of each other “What does that mean?” There is the openness in this secular age to be seekers, but we have to be in touch with our stories.

NS: We have to resist jumping in and imposing a narrative and under­standing on those stories. Our faith is fragile. I became a Christian be­­cause a girlfriend at the time got healed from meningitis, and that was a really powerful point in time.

We didn’t stay together: she got married, and she ended up being a missionary, and she died at the age of 42, leaving a husband and two kids. I still can’t make sense of that story. And even just telling it now brings a kind of fragile moment of thinking: “Well, did that first thing really happen? Was I just deluded into thinking there was some ex­­perience?”

Faith is weak, but, actually, that’s a great place to be, because faith is trust. So we are trusting in God, and the condition of our churches is not necessarily about the certainty: “I got struck by lighting and God saved me.” It’s the place to go where you are safe to say: “I don’t know what to make of that. Maybe that was God. What do you think?”

Setting God’s People Free is not a programme to get people to do more and learn a rote way of talking about our faith. It’s a way of trying to say to each other: “It’s OK to tell these stories; it’s OK to share vulner­ability; it’s OK to ask questions of each other; but also it’s OK to be positive about the ways in which you think God’s at work in your life.”

 

Many of the Church of Eng­­land’s churches have no children at all. You talk about the “glorification of youth­fulness”, and you have a new piece of work called “Why parents don’t really care about youth groups and what youth workers should do about it.” Could you share your diag­­nosis?
 

AR: Bonhoeffer said that the Church has believed that the youthful spirit rather than the Holy Spirit will save it. I put that together with another Charles Taylor concept of living in this age of authenticity, where au­then­ticity becomes the highest good: being unique and living out of an ethic that says no human being should tell another human being what it means for them to be human. You have to be your own unique self.

My fear is that Protestant youth ministry is actually mobilised as a way to capture the youthful spirit, and that our congregations aren’t as interested in young people as per­sons, and hearing their stories and journeying with them, but they really like to have a good youth ministry in the church basement be­­cause then there’s an aura of youth­fulness to the church, and then you can be assured that we are not really in that bad of a decline-situation.

This is as opposed to turning and prayerfully asking the Holy Spirit to move us. I really do believe theo­logically that, if we do, then the Holy Spirit will always open us up to children. The form that God is moving us into is to be children of God. I find this around the world. People will say: “Our problem is we don’t have any children in our church,” but it’s only if you have a certain anthropology. If you under­stand a human being as their associations and choices, then it’s possible that no families with chil­dren have ever chosen your church. But, if a human being is in some way bound in relationship, there is no church that doesn’t have any chil­dren. There’s a 75-year-old woman who’s got great-grand­children that she cares about, that she wants this church to pray for. There’s the 45-year-old guy who’s got a kid across the street who helps mow his lawn.

There’s no such thing as a con­­gregation that doesn’t have children in it. That, to me, is why children become so fundamental, be­­­cause chil­­dren remind us that we are not cut-off individuals with associations.

NS: The advice, or the warning, about the youthful spirit is really important. We have to be very care­ful about that, but it is important that we do grow younger.

It’s observable in looking at David Voas’s data about generational de­­cline, that the proximal impact of secularisation is equal, so it happens at the window between childhood and youth. So, if you have grown up in a Christian home, you become aware that actually not everybody be­­lieves that, and it has a big impact on you.

If we don’t intervene in that, well then we don’t help children and young people to negotiate what it means to hold faith into adulthood.

We need to be active and engaged with young people: not because their presence is going to save us, but be­­cause we want them to be nurtured, to have a relationship with God.

 

The charity Youthscape recently did interviews with teenagers and found as an expectation that God should come to them. So one guy said: “I don’t think that any God has shown up to sort of say, ‘I’m here.’” What do you both make of this?
 

CHURCH HOUSEDr Nick ShepherdNS: Experiential encounter lies at the heart of children and youth work, but increasingly more so with adults. In the most recent British Social Attitudes survey, we are starting to see decline in the 45-to-54 age bracket, and we’ve never seen that before.

That’s related to the same sort of thing, that sense of “Where is God? Where is my experience of God?”

I don’t think it’s necessarily in the blinding-light way: it’s actually about that capacity to know in your bodily being that God loves you and God is there for you.

The difficulty for me is that, ac­­tually, God sometimes hides Godself from us. There are some times in our life where we actually have to go searching for God. There are some times in our lives where God comes to us unexpectedly. Who are we to expect God to roll out the red carpet and say: “Hey, here I am!” God is always a God of coming to us, who sends his Spirit to be with us.

So I think it’s a question of, are we looking? Do we notice, and do we name that that might be God’s activity in our life?

AR: We live in such an indi­vidualistic age that we think: “If it hasn’t happened to me, then it doesn’t mean anything for me.” I don’t know if that’s really the kind of ecclesiology that Paul has, which is to say that you may not have had this really direct experience with Jesus Christ, but someone in the community has, and it now becomes their job to retell that story. And, in them telling that story, that can be­­come an eventful experience of you having the encounter with Jesus.

You can have faith because your grandmother used to pray, and her prayers got her through your grand­father’s cancer. Faith is embodied and passed on through those experi­ences.

NS: We have developed this con­struct of a testimony as a clear story of why you should believe. It be­­comes proclamation or per­suasion, and I think that’s helpful, and gives people a good sense of why you might believe; but, for me, testimony is powerful in that it discloses God’s presence. When we talk about God being pres­­ent in our life, I genuinely be­­lieve that is part of that flow of God’s presence coming in testimony and the preaching of the word, and the interacting of the two.

Experience doesn’t change the nature of reality, in my view. I think one of the risks in experience being the foundation of faith is that, if you have not had that experience, it can’t possibly be true. We can trip into pri­­vi­leging a particular kind of ex­­periential knowledge as being the marker of belief.

 

Andy, could you talk through your recommendations for min­istering in a secular age?
 

AR: We have this view of ministry as something clerical, or something pro­­­­­fes­sional, and I’m really trying to think of it as being a kind of divine reality. That then means that you have to receive ministry as much as give ministry.

We tend to think that there are all sorts of human action that are much more powerful than ministry: study the law, be a scientist, be a Silicon-Valley entrepreneur, or innovator.

I want to make an argument that, maybe, the strongest form of human action we have in the universe is a very weak form, and that is ministry.

If we follow this God who comes to us incarnate, crucified, and resur­rected, only ministry particip­ates in what is dead for the sake of making it alive. It looks very weak. It looks like sitting with someone who is crying and grieving the death of their father — that’s a powerful thing.

NS: Part of our problem is language. “Ministry” has become a contested term, because it has been defining a certain set of functions. But the ministry or mission that the whole people of God are called to par­ticipate in is way, way bigger than that. I would extend the term and be very happy with that.

I was talking to some people about workplace chaplaincy as their ministry. What the word “chaplain” had given them — they are not for­m­al chaplains — was a language and permission to work out what does it mean to engage in faith-sharing conversations with colleagues.

 

Where does the Holy Spirit fit into all of this?
 

NS: I’m part of the Renewal and Reform team, and that is often seen as being a change programme in the Church, or a managerial programme — and it is, in its reform bit. But fundamentally it’s about renewal: it’s about the fact that, to be a trans­formed Church will only happen if we open ourselves up vulnerably to God’s spirit to trans­form us as indi­viduals, as commu­nities, to engage with others where God is already active and present.

AR: In a secular age, one of the things that happens for the pastor is that you have this deep sense that your own identity becomes lost. What are you actually for?

But to think that your identity may be to teach people to pray is a really profound thing, because there is nowhere else in the world that they’ll learn to pray.

Prayer is the opening up to the Holy Spirit to reveal the living Christ among us, continuing to move the world into the very life-giving gift of the Father.

Our participation in it isn’t neces­sarily maybe to build great struc­tures, or come up with the most popular podcast. . . But to teach people to pray. And to pray our­selves.
 

Faith Formation in a Secular Age by Andy Root is published by Baker at £13.99 (Church Times Bookshop £12.60). Listen to the full conversation on the Church Times Podcast.

Faith Generation: retaining young people and growing the Church by Nick Shepherd is published by SPCK at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.70).

You can listen to the Church Times Podcast on the Church Times app for iPhone and iPadApple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify, and most other podcast platforms. 

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