Book review: Churches and the Crisis of Decline

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Andrew Root, Churches and the Crisis of Decline: A Hopeful, Practical Ecclesiology for a Secular Age, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2022)

reviewed by Mark Collinson, Winchester School of Mission

Andrew Root is a professor at a Lutheran seminary in Minnesota, and has been writing a series on practical theology in response to Charles Taylor’s analysis of a secular age. This book tells three stories. These stories lightly bounce off Root’s theology, but make no mistake, Root still delivers the theology.

The first story is about a church in decline. Imagine a church that has seen better days, and now has a worshipping community of 20 to 30 people, nearly all of whom are in their 70s and 80s. Sound familiar? The inspiration for this book comes from just such a church that was closed and sold to a microbrewery in a hipster urban area. As a pub the church building attracts exactly the kind of people with whom a young energetic digital age pastor of 10 years ago was unable to engage.

The second story is about how Karl Barth discovered the touchstone of his theology that became manifest in Church Dogmatics. When Karl Barth started ministry as a pastor in a small village in Switzerland in 1911, he had rejected the pietism of his father (who was also a pastor) as out of date in comparison with the modern theology of the German universities. As a student Barth soaked up liberal theology that lauded the achievements of the Enlightenment. He was a strong supporter of socialism, through which God would bring justice to the proletariat. But with the advent of war in 1914, the failings of modernism became apparent in the industrial scale killing on the battlefields.

Having rejected pietism, and been let down by liberal theology, Root tells of how Karl Barth found faith in God. Barth visited an old German pastor in Württemberg, Christoph Blumhardt, who had inherited and developed his father Johannes’ healing ministry. Way back in 1843 when he was a young pastor, Johannes had an extraordinary pastoral situation of a young woman, Gottliebin, who, it appears, was demon possessed. Over a period of two years, he visited Gottliebin and her family, praying with them, in the midst of visions of a ghost, bumps in the night that even made the neighbours complain, and Gottliebin’s illness that could be cured by neither medicine nor psychologists. Eventually, Johannes asked “Are you alone?” to which he got the answer, “No” in deep male voice that was not like Gottliebin’s. “Who is with you,” he asked. “The Most Wicked One,” came the response. Now that Johannes knew what he was dealing with, he prayed steadily for exorcism, which happened one day just before Christmas, as Gottliebin’s sister proclaimed, “Jesus is Victor!”

This story lays the foundation for the theological heart of the book, which Root exposes in various themes, and he suggests could contribute to a hopeful practical ecclesiology for a secular age. Root assumes that Charles Taylor’s analysis of A Secular Age applies as much to the modernism of the early twentieth century as it does to the twenty-first.

There is much here that I found joyfully critiques some of the contemporary cultures that we find in the Church of England. First, Root says, the church cannot know how to find God: the church has to allow itself to be found by God. Second, Root says, the church is not the star of its own story, God is. Whether it be the ancient church building of a village parish, or the building up of a congregation in a revitalisation, we sometimes get so focused on church that the focus is taken off the power of God who reveals himself, sometimes in ways that are (using Taylor’s language) transcendental.

Third, the “crisis” in the title of the book is the church’s preoccupation with chasing relevance. One crisis is recognising the irrelevance of the church in the (Tayloresque) “immanent frame”. Another is seeking to regain it. Relevance opens doors to “resources” that the world would give the church if it trusted they would be used efficiently. I don’t think Root recognises the significance of the word “resource” in relation to churches in the CofE, but he is firmly in the camp of what HeartEdge would recognise as asset-based community development (ABCD). The resolution to this crisis, Root suggests is twofold: that even in the immanent frame of society the church allows God to be God, and that this God can only be recognised through dialectic.

Here, the word, “dialectic” becomes really important, because it is both the answer to all our churchy problems but also the most difficult bit of theology to make practical. I’m not sure that Root finally delivers on it (in this book, at least). Being “dialectical” means expressing two things that are both true and opposites (or at least in tension) at the same time. I liken it to the kind of sermon that captures the vision expressed by Taylor when he describes, standing in the wide open field of the immanent frame, how we feel the tug of the wind of transcendence pulling us in both directions, first this way towards God, then towards the reality of the immanent frame. In non-academic speak, it’s about heaven touching earth. It’s about being in the world not of the world. It’s about being grounded and supernatural. As Root says, the dialectic is the way of divine action itself: look no further than the incarnation.

There is also something for Anglicans here in our current paralysis about human sexuality. According to Root, Barth rejects both pietism (for Anglicans, read evangelicals) and liberals (read progressives) for the same reason. They are both in their own ways committed to “religious individualism”. What he means is that individuals commit themselves to a “religion”, making the individual the driver of religious experience. This individualism once again takes the focus off God, and turns our Christian faith into “religion” on both sides of the coin. Barth is clearly in favour of people having religious experiences, because he was transformed by Gottliebin’s story, but he is at pains to prevent Christian practice from being religious.

Root counters the busyness of the church with an appeal for the church to wait. “Only by waiting can the church of the living God serve the world” (p. 141). It refreshes my sense of what prayer and worship is about, not so much as giving ourselves to God, but simply waiting for God’s next revelation of himself. I was captured by the sense that an exorcism in 1843, seventy-two years before Barth met Blumhardt, was definitive in restoring Barth’s faith in a God who acts. He wasn’t looking for a miracle last week, or last year (though Blumhardt’s ministry seems to be the envy of any charismatic leader of today). 1843 was good enough for Barth. Are we ready to wait decades, abiding in and yearning for God, before we get our next miracle story to share in a sermon?

The third story, woven in between the Tayloreseque take on Barth’s formational years as a pastor, is the story Root imagines if the church in the first story wasn’t sold to a microbrewery. What if the story of that church has a different ending? What if this church discovers its unique charism (what Root calls its “watchword”), celebrates the stories and gifts of her faithful worshippers, naturally incarnates ABCD and the kingdom of God starts bubbling up in their very midst? They discover they don’t need to recruit a new trendy pastor, they just need to ordain the lay leader who had led their congregation all along.

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