Churches and the Crisis of Decline

A Hopeful, Practical Ecclesiology for a Secular Age

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Pub Date 01 Mar 2022 | Archive Date 01 May 2022

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Congregations often seek to combat the crisis of decline by using innovation to produce new resources. But leading practical theologian Andrew Root shows that the church's crisis is not in the loss of resources; it's in the loss of life--and that life can only return when we remain open to God's encountering presence.

This new book, related to Root's critically acclaimed Ministry in a Secular Age project, addresses the practical form the church must take in a secular age. Root uses two stories to frame the book: one about a church whose building becomes a pub and the other about Karl Barth. Root argues that Barth should be understood as a pastor with a deep practical theology that can help church leaders today.

This book pushes the church to be a waiting community that recognizes that the only way for it to find life is to stop seeing the church as the star of its own story. Instead of resisting decline, congregations must remain open to divine action. Root offers a rich vision for the church's future that moves away from an obsession with relevance and resources and toward the living God.

Congregations often seek to combat the crisis of decline by using innovation to produce new resources. But leading practical theologian Andrew Root shows that the church's crisis is not in the loss...

Advance Praise

“Perhaps you’ve met Barth the intimidating theologian, but have you met Barth the pastor to pastors? Andrew Root introduces today’s church to the Karl Barth it never knew, artfully putting this theologian in conversation with a church that is fearful about the future. Just what’s needed by the church and its leaders right now—a lively theological dialogue between one of the church’s greatest theologians and one of the church’s most loving, faithful, bold leaders. If you are worried about the fate of your church (and who isn’t these days?), this is a book you must read.”—Will Willimon, professor of the practice of Christian ministry, Duke Divinity School; United Methodist bishop, retired; author of Aging: Growing Old in Church

“An engaging and creative work which draws us aside from the church’s current crisis to plant us back in it with new vision and hope. I looked up from this book no longer feeling surprised by the crisis and my inability to solve it, no longer ashamed that I need the power of God to lead this church. I closed this book with a new imagination for what God can do in the crisis if we reach outside our own small efforts, over and over again. Andrew Root dares us to live and to lead as if God is actually alive and still cares about the world and the church.”—Mandy Smith, pastor, St. Lucia Uniting Church, Brisbane, Australia; author of The Vulnerable Pastor and Unfettered: Imagining a Childlike Faith beyond the Baggage of Western Culture
Churches and the Crisis of Decline is a marvelous achievement. Root argues that the principal challenge for the church in decline is not a loss of relevance or resources but the loss of a God who really is God. Root draws on the work of Karl Barth (the pastor), Charles Taylor, and Hartmut Rosa to identify the current captivity of the church to secular metrics. He proposes a way forward that waits on the hope that comes from outside of us and among us as one of us in Jesus Christ. Root’s use of a possible-world story about a particular congregation shows his skill as a teacher and his hope for the church in concrete form. This is a must-read!”—Richard R. Topping, president and vice-chancellor, Vancouver School of Theology
“Andy Root is the guy in Matthew 25 with ten talents. He has been given a rare brain that can understand Charles Taylor and Karl Barth and explain them to others—the ministry of wisdom. He has also been given exceptional sight that notices and discerns where the church is, why we’re here, and how we might find the next steps—the ministry of prophecy. But even more than that, he has been given a compassionate heart that cares about the state we are in, because of the impact this has on people—the ministry of the pastor. In this book, Andy has put his talents to work and gives us a great gift—this is theology that we need most vitally at this time. It’s beautiful, applied, inspiring, kind, practical, deep, stretching, and, if we would only put it into practice, transforming. I don’t know of another contemporary theologian who is continually serving up such applicable and helpful theology to the church.”—Rev. Canon Chris Russell, Archbishop of Canterbury’s Advisor for Evangelism and Witness

“Perhaps you’ve met Barth the intimidating theologian, but have you met Barth the pastor to pastors? Andrew Root introduces today’s church to the Karl Barth it never knew, artfully putting this...

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Featured Reviews

Saying that the Church in the West is on the decline is nothing new. The Church at large is in a crisis. Even before the pandemic, many churches are already in dire straits. Older people are decreasing with attrition. Young people are leaving because of disillusion. The majority of the rest in between is basically too busy with their own concerns to be worried about Church! Yet, what exactly is causing this? What are the roots behind this decline? Is there hope for the Church? What can we do about it? The problem: No pulse. That means the heart had stopped and the demise is declared. In a stark and shocking picture of the state of the Church, Author Andrew Root shows how a formerly thriving church had turned into a pub! This fictional story of a gentrified neighborhood commercial pub is called "Church Brewhouse" once it has taken over an old church building. How does a Church survive the secular onslaught? What is behind the disillusionment?

He eases theological discussion with a story of people struggling to keep the faith. From John the Baptist to Karl Barth, sacred places to secular influences, Root poses several observations about life, faith, and what it means to be Church. He notes that a small number with a vibrant community is more beautiful than a large congregation that hardly interacted. He critiques how some pastors have exchanged dependence on the living God for reliance on resources and human programs. He helps us distinguish between thin and thick culture formation. Of particular interest is his critique of churches that hire new pastors not on the basis of their ability to speak the Word, but on their appeal to young people. Theological concerns become mere theory while practical matters occupy center stage. Why the chasm that comes between transcendence and earthly Church? That is because many churches have gravitated to worldly practices like marketing, business management strategies, budgets, and aesthetics to draw in the crowd. Root shows us the way forward to lead the Church back from program-based mediocrity to biblical spirituality. Using the examples of Karl Barth and Willie James Jennings, Root combines Barth's theological vision with Jennings's ecclesiology to provide us with an alternative ending. Root does this with a style that is "part time travel saga, part contemporary musical update" using historical figures to showcase the story of the Church's decline and a vision of hope. Some of the historical challenges for faith include:

- Loss of connection/pulse
- Manipulation of religion in support of wars
- Replacing God with Moralistic themes
- Incoherence with "God is God"
- The problem with "Institutionalized religion" and "Individualized spiritualities"
- Failure to find or experience God
- Ecclesiological disagreements over the need for Church
- Crisis of Relevance
- Allowing busyness to crowd out faith matters

Thankfully, after listing out the problems that lead to the decline of the Church, Root starts a process of re-envisioning the future of the church. He reminds us to have a proper perspective of the place of the Church, that the Church is not to fight for "market share" of the world as if she has the right to own the world but to learn to co-exist and to remain in the world. Distinguish it from apathy which is a form of negativity that arises out of a failure to possess something. However, active waiting is to learn to keep in step with the cultural changes without compromising or diluting the Christian witness. Learn to be relevant without losing our identity in Christ. Root calls it "resonance" and continues to help us distinguish between "having" vs "being." Possessiveness and the desire for control via human wisdom are some of the key impediments to the spiritual vitality of any Church. Impatience is the antithesis of learning to wait upon the Lord. Root explains resonance not emotively but active and constructive critique; openness; affection.

My Thoughts
Root does an excellent job of breaking down some of the most critical reasons for the Church's demise. While this might seem too general for comfort, it should make church leaders sit up and take note of any similar symptoms in their respective churches. While Root might not be speaking for all churches, even those of us who are leading "healthy" churches need to remember that every human organization is vulnerable. Churches that thrive are those that are alive and know the importance of waiting upon God. Root warns us not to repeat the mistakes of the past, such as substituting spiritual work with human activities. For instance, one could have many activities but participants might still feel disconnected and distant. He is also well aware of the discontent among those who take this path of waiting in the world and with the world. Beware of the individual who bends toward being the initiator of making things happen. In fact, this strong sense of individualism undergirds both expressions of pietism and liberalism. Of interest is Root's observation of how some of the most liberal people are children from conservative and pietist pastors. Is it simply about a reaction against predecessor generations? No. It is due more to this individualistic tendency. This is indeed worth some pondering. If it is true, then we will not see the conservative-liberal exchanges as mere doctrinal stances but two siblings expressing their underlying individualism albeit in different ways. Both are lifeless, which is a warning to any one of us trying to anchor ourselves in any one position. I think this is worth further study.

Discontent, disillusionment, and disappointment may very well be some possible reasons for the decline of the church. The solution: A Dialectic relationship of mutual respect and healthy distancing. We can learn to disagree without cutting off links totally. We can also learn to distinguish when to come together and when to keep a distance. Whatever it is, it is life that ultimately keeps any church alive. This life is to be sought in Jesus. We can organize all kinds of programs but without the life to put them together, these will all stutter. We need to understand more about lived ecclesiology. We need to be real people with God and with one another. Put it simply, once churches are devoid of real relationships, they die. However, the converse is equally true. Inject life and just like how the author has resurrected John the Baptist, Karl Barth, Erich Fromm, Harmut Rosa, Blumhardt the Younger, and others into modern life, even dead buildings will be resurrected!

Andrew Root (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary) is Carrie Olson Baalson Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the author of numerous books, including Faith Formation in a Secular Age, The Pastor in a Secular Age, The Congregation in a Secular Age, and The End of Youth Ministry? Root is also the coauthor (with Kenda Creasy Dean) of The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.

This book has been provided courtesy of Baker Academic and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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