Churches and the Crisis of Decline: A Hopeful, Practical Ecclesiology for a Secular Age

Philip J. Reed reviews Andrew Root's new book.

Andrew Root
Baker Academic, 304 pages | Published March 1, 2022

A man walks into a church and says, “I’m here because, well, I’m trying to find God. I’m assuming you all can help me …” According to Andrew Root, the crisis in churches today is that this man’s assumption is wrong.

Churches and the Crisis of Decline: A Hopeful, Practical Ecclesiology for a Secular Age is a game-changer. While we often define the crisis as a decrease in people, resources and relevance in our community, Andrew Root names a theological crisis: our diminished understanding of God as the “God who is God” and, therefore, our inability to help people connect with this God.

Root weaves together three theological themes: Charles Taylor’s “immanent frame,” the “dialectic” theology of Karl Barth and “resonance” as described by Hartmut Rosa. Our current context is an “immanent frame” in which all reality is knowable, and transcendence is pushed to the margins; we might believe in God, but we do not live as if God is at work in our lives.

With care and appreciation, Root tells a story of theologian Karl Barth as a young pastor who comes to know God as “Wholly Other” and “Totally Transcendent.” This “God who is God” cannot be contained by the church and is not known through myriad tactics and programs intended to reverse our decline. “God who is God” must come to us, break into the immanent frame, and reveal Godself acting on behalf of a suffering world.

For Root, resonance is not passive. It is actively waiting for God to reveal Godself. It is fully embracing life in this world and realistically anticipating that God will show up and be known.

To illustrate, Root describes Saint John the Baptist, a once-thriving church that was closed, sold and re-imagined as a brewpub. Root fleshes out the theological bones in a fictional alternative future in which church lay leaders reinvigorate the church when Woz, (the man in search of God) helps them realize that the “God who is God” must first find him. When the church seeks to connect with Woz, they recognize that the church cannot be the star of the story; they learn to fully embrace life in rich community as they wait for God to reveal Godself.

Read this book to find out what happens and to prepare for the next time someone asks you to help them find God. In fact, read this book twice — that’s what it took for me to begin to grasp the message. We have attempted to address the crisis of decline through strategies of attraction, marketing, social media and increasing awareness of the major issues of our day. Andrew Root challenges us to something different. He challenges us to address the crisis of decline theologically by waking up to the power of the “God who is God.” This is the God who acts personally in Woz’s life and context and ours as well … and that’s the game-changer!

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