Churches and the Crisis of Decline:
A Hopeful, Practical Ecclesiology for a Secular Age
by andrew root
baker academic, 320 pages, $44.99
If there is one thing everyone agrees about in America, it is that churches are in decline. Agnosticism and apostasy have, as ideas and as habits, been trickling down from Western elites for three centuries. First they came for the mainline; then they came for Catholics; now they have come for evangelicals. The “nones” are rising and long-time parishes are shuttering. One hears of consultants being brought in to help local churches “die well.” Even in the Bible Belt, for every thriving congregation there are five on hospice care.
Andrew Root’s new book is therefore a timely one. Titled Churches and the Crisis of Decline, it speaks directly to churches and pastors looking to survive, if not thrive, in a time of disorienting collapse. The book offers a theological vision for faithful pastoral ministry and church life that draws upon the writings of a young Swiss pastor who lived in similarly trying times a century ago: Karl Barth. Root wants us to see Barth’s theology—especially his commentary on Romans—as pastoral above all: that is, written by a minister for ministers tasked with the proclamation of the gospel and the care of a congregation. Just as St. Thomas wrote the Summa Theologiae for the practical tasks of his fellow Dominicans, so Barth wrote the bullet-stopping volumes of the Kirchliche Dogmatik for fellow preachers of God’s word. Rather than leave Barth to the systematicians, Root wants to reclaim him for the pastors.
Root is right to do so. He is also right to set Barth alongside the work of Charles Taylor, the great public philosopher of our time. Root suffuses his analysis of culture, politics, history, and the Church with Taylor’s concepts, terms, and overarching framework.
Root has a positive case to make about the Church: “We keep interpreting this crisis as the loss of people and resources, but it’s really the radical transformation of belief itself.” The crisis stems from modernity, because modernity fundamentally reconfigures what it means to “believe in God,” “have faith in Jesus,” or “go to church.” Taylor famously describes this as the shift to “the immanent frame.” This framework restricts life to (in Taylor’s words) “a self-sufficient immanent order” that has, as James K. A. Smith once put it, retracted the roof over the stadium of society. The existence of the transcendent, like that of the stars, becomes a matter of “belief” rather than a shared social fact. This construct has been taken for granted in public life in Western societies across the last century or two.
Root argues that Christians in America have been bewitched into supposing that it is a lack of resources, strategies, or sheer resolve that is emptying their churches, rather than the shifting ground beneath their feet. Culturally speaking, that ground was once relatively solid; it presupposed something like, if not an enchanted world, then a God-bespeaking cosmos. No more.
What Barth provides, according to Root, is a model of the wise pastor theologian for the immanent frame. On one hand, Barth does not cover his eyes to the fact that he lives in the modern world; he does not yearn for an unrecoverable past. On the other hand, he avoids the twin errors of liberalism and fundamentalism, both of which are distinctly modern responses to modernity that make the same error: namely, redefining the faith in a defensive crouch, on terms set by the spirit of the age.
What does Barth do instead? He believes, confesses, and boldly announces the gospel of God: that God alone is God, that God alone is the judge of the world, and that God alone is the loving savior of the world. This God lives and acts in this world—“even” in the immanent frame, in the modern secular age in which we find ourselves. Christians need not be embarrassed to say so. On the contrary, Christians should be on the watch for the living God’s presence and action in the world.
This is only a taste of what Barth, via Root, has to offer the pastor today. Root promises no silver bullet, no magic solution to the crisis facing churches. What he offers is God—nothing more and nothing less. No church has a future, or at least one worth pursuing, that lacks courage, as he puts it, “to say the great word ‘God’” out loud.
Root offers many valuable insights. His asides and footnotes are brimming with shrewd commentary and aphoristic wit. Root sees the American ecclesial scene with brutal clarity, and he does not mince words. His advice is not so much a set of tasks to perform as a spiritual charge: Announce the gospel, pray in the Spirit, trust in Christ, and most of all—wait. Wait for the Lord to act, as he surely will, locally, in the smallest of ways, though the world be fast coming apart.
I see no problem with this advice. The problem, rather, is that Root believes the immanent frame is more a given than it actually is. I'm unpersuaded of its supposed solidity. Consider: Root has not one good word to say for modernity. Every chapter of the book contains numerous indictments of secular modernity for its inhumane redefinitions of agency, commerce, community, politics, art, faith, and much more. Yet time and again Root asserts, without justification, that modernity is not to be resisted, revised, or overturned. Instead, it must be accepted and inhabited as it is. The immanent frame is nonnegotiable, in other words. We must live within it; there is no other option. This is why Barth is exemplary for Root: He articulates a theology and church practice fit for modernity’s straitjacket, thereby letting God be God “within the immanent frame.”
Thanks, but no thanks. Modernity is both an epoch and an ideology. We have to live in the epoch; we don't have to accept the ideology, even for a moment. The immanent frame is a picture, a social construct. Like every construct, it is contingent. If it is false—and it is false—we don’t have to give it the time of day. Not only should we rebel against it, we should try to topple it as a widely shared presupposition. To be sure, that means understanding it, which includes acknowledging that it shapes and governs our own sense of the world as much as our neighbors’. But constructs like the immanent frame don’t last forever.
Other constructs have been taken for granted before. It has been widely assumed that the goods of civilization depend on, for example, the subordination of women, or the labor of children, or chattel slavery, or hereditary aristocracy, or colonial expansion, or abortion on demand. Whole swaths of society, indeed entire cultures, have believed such things to be self-evident. Yet none of them is true. No more true is the picture conjured by the immanent frame.
To recognize this is not to eject oneself from modernity “back” into the Middle Ages. Neither is it to indulge nostalgia or register with the reactionaries. It is merely to refuse to be told what or how one is permitted to live or believe. More, it is to renew trust in Christ’s Church as his body and bride, against which the gates of hell shall not prevail. Michael Ramsey once wrote that “the full exposition of God in Christ includes the Church as part of the fact of Christ.” The living Christ has a living bride. She is not powerless, in this age or any other. Her weapons are not earthly, to be sure, for they are of the Spirit. They are weapons nonetheless. She thus has power to destroy strongholds. Long after this secular age, after this present crisis, she will remain. Trust in Christ therefore means trust in her, too.
That’s far from an answer to our current travails. But it’s a start.
Brad East is assistant professor of theology at Abilene Christian University.
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