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Do less, and know God better

25 August 2023

The solution to the problems of the Church isn’t greater effort, Andrew Root tells Madeleine Davies

Marksteen Adamson

ANDREW ROOT is a doctor of theology rather than medicine, but when it comes to analysing the Church’s ills, it is a clinical framework that he reaches for.

“Let’s start with the bad news,” he writes in his new book. “Your church is sick. But, that isn’t the worst part of it. We believe that someone has misdiagnosed it. The treatment plan commonly prescribed — effective innovation — will only cause your church to remain sick. . . The problem is not decline. The problem is that the secular age has infected it.”

It is a prognosis that will be familiar to those who have read his earlier books, including the popular Ministry in a Secular Age series (Baker Academic), a three-volume engagement with the work of Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher whose A Secular Age explored the consequences of living in an “immanent frame” (Features, 3 January 2020). A Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary, in St Paul, Minnesota, Dr Root has spent years exploring this shift in the “social imaginary”.

This new book, When Church Stops Working (Baker, 2023), written with the Revd Dr Blair Bertrand, a lecturer at Zomba Theological College in Malawi (the two met while studying at Princeton Theological Seminary), is a synthesis of this work, aimed at lay people — something that clergy can read with their PCCs.

There are, the reader is warned (or perhaps reassured), no “six steps or worksheets or inventories” to be found within its pages. On offer instead is “an invitation to find the stories and visions that can lead the church beyond the crisis of decline and into the crisis of an encounter with the living God”.

WHILE the book explores an American context, there is much about his analysis which will sound familiar to readers in the Church of England.

“It feels like in a lot of our conversations around the Church and the future of the Church the crisis of decline becomes the driving crisis,” Dr Root says, over Zoom. “The issue is just fewer everything . . . fewer people but also fewer resources, and therefore what frames ministry as being good . . . is one that can take a dent out of the decline . . .

“Our perspective in the book is that there is a crisis. . . How do we speak of a living God in this kind of secular age where the kind of default mechanism of all of our imaginations is to not assume a living God?”

The problem with strategies for combating decline, he argues, is that they belong to the secular age. Driven by the logic that we must speed up or die, that “more” is the alternative to extinction, they demand that we schedule more activity and/or “try to smuggle God into all the other activities we do to find meaning”. In this framework, God is no longer “the active agent”, as the Episcopalian priest the Revd Fleming Rutledge puts it.

“The secular age blinds us to God’s action, but, even further, it makes the very possibility of God’s action impossible to imagine,” Dr Root writes.

This effect is evident in sermons that offer “life hacks” from the self-help school, or present human beings as “the star of the story”, he tells me. “We want to remind people that the Church’s only story is the story of God’s action in the world.”

IF THE book steadfastly refuses to offer a programme, it does provide reassurance and an invitation. “We believe God continues to act in the world, and because God acts in the world, we believe it is possible for the Church to flourish,” the authors write. Citing the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, in which “God is the hero, and the Church waits”, they invite churches to adopt a position of “waiting in a ready stance”.

Inevitably, the recommendation has prompted accusations of “quietism”. Yet, Dr Root argues, “Waiting, as practised by the disciples and advocated by us, is not inactive. . . In the end, perhaps our greatest fear is that we will wait but God will not show up.” Over Zoom he reflects that, even for clergy, talking about God as living or active “does comes with a challenge. You do wonder: can I talk like this and be a modern person?”

In our conversation, we talk about the C of E’s response to decline, which has included investing millions in projects with aspirational targets for growth, many of which have not been met (News, 10 March 2022). What would Dr Root make of the argument that these are less about shoring up an institution and more about reaching more people with the good news — about becoming, in the words of the diocese of Liverpool, a bigger Church to make a bigger difference?

“I don’t want to be against creativity, or even really against growth itself,” he says, but, “there’s got to be a way of disconnecting it from this kind of logic of continued acceleration, that just burns people out and asks them for more and more and more, and ends up alienating them from the very ministry that’s supposed to bring life.”

IN RECENT years, leadership in the Church of England has tended to set its face against “the management of decline”.

“We want the Church of England to grow, and even if it doesn’t, then let our death be a grand operatic death,” the Archbishop of York told the General Synod two years ago (News, 16 November 2021).

In Dr Root’s analysis, “only in dying can the Church find its way beyond the crisis of decline, which is a fake crisis, and into the crisis of God’s action in the world. . .The good death is the one that brings us into humility.”

This is different from fatalism, he says. “If we throw up our hands in despair . . . or resignation . . . we are not actually surrendering to God. . . In humility, you confess you need something outside your own energy, outside your own creativity, to save you. You die to yourself by confessing you’re in need of a saviour.”

I ask about what this death might look like in practice, about the loss of institutions, of posts, and the attendant pain.

“At a certain institutional level, I do want us to be aware that this is real death,” he says. “I don’t think in any way we should be flippant about the changes that are coming for our institutions. . . But I do want us to recognise that God is particularly present in those experiences of suffering.

“What I want to pull people’s focus towards is that institutions will have to change and, in some way, die, and that is painful. But I also want to make us very aware of these other real lived stories of people’s loss . . . It’s going to be out of those experiences that the Church is going to be renewed.”

He mentions one of the central stories in the book: an account of a couple, Margie and Gene Jurgenson, whose “off-script” but beloved Sunday School ministry has its roots in the death of their son and their experience of God’s presence in their lives. The words they hold on to through this tragedy — “nothing can separate us from God’s love” — become the watchword for the church, forming the congregation and eclipsing any sense of decline.

A watchword is different from a slogan, Dr Root emphasises: “Everyone in the congregation (directly or indirectly) knew that the phrase had its origins in the direct act of God in the midst of despair. The word was wrapped inside a specific encounter with the living God.

“We know — even in the smallest congregations that have no way of keeping their building up and running — that God is moving, that God is active, and these people have these stories that are often confessions of loss where they found God moving within it,” he tells me.

One of his deepest concerns, is “that the pastoral task gets so co-opted by the decline narrative that the very beautiful human and rich incarnational realities of walking through life with people, through diagnoses of cancer or miscarriages or just concerns with their children, those all get side-lined for some kind of other entrepreneurial journey. I don’t want to lose that.”

AMONG the endorsements attached to the new book is one from the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose recent comments on the fortunes of the C of E — “the future of the Church, and its survival or otherwise, does not depend on archbishops: it depends on God” (News, 16 June) — resonate with its themes. His observation that the Church has been through harder times is also one made by Dr Root, who recently visited the Holy Island of Lindisfarne with his family. “These are not the golden years of, at least, protestant Church history across the West, but there aren’t Vikings coming through the door.”

Yet, at the same time, Archbishop Welby has admitted to a personal sense of failure.

“There’s something really beautiful in being able to admit that we feel that burden,” Dr Root observes. “I think that grief is natural, but I think it’s also right to say, in the midst of this grief, what we’re taught to do is to pray and lean more on God — and that, ultimately, God is responsible for God’s Church.”

When it comes to evaluation, he says, “we are going to need a richer theological imagination on how we even think about accountability, and really, ultimately, what it means to be good. What is a good church and what is a good pastor? Hopefully, the good has more to do with faithfulness, and faithfulness to the very person of Jesus Christ, than just some kind of capitalist logic of growth.”

When Church Stops Working: A future for your congregation beyond more money, programs, and innovation by Andrew Root and Blair D. Bertrand is published by Baker Academic at £18.99 (Church Times Bookshop £17.09); 978-1-58743-578-2.

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