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Friday, October 27, 2017

"Faith Formation in a Secular Age" (Andrew Root)

TITLE: Faith Formation in a Secular Age: Responding to the Church's Obsession with Youthfulness (Ministry in a Secular Age)
AUTHOR: Andrew Root
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017, (240 pages).

We live in a secular world, or some may say, an increasingly secular society. For religious people, it is a concern because of the lack of faith formation. Young people are leaving their churches in droves. With the non-affiliated group (NONES) rising rapidly, many leaders are concerned that their existence are under threat. Without the youths and youthfulness, the churches will not only decline but will eventually lose their relevance. So many churches embark on programs for the young, hire youth workers, pour huge sums of money to build up infrastructure to make their churches attractive for younger people, so that they would stay and remain in their churches. This is not simply a problem about young people leaving the church. Neither is it about the lack of relevance and programming by many churches around the world. It is simply a challenge of faith formation in a secular age.

The author begins with the classic statement of the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor: “Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say 1500, in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?” In other words, 500 years ago, it is difficult not to believe. Now, it is difficult to believe. This book is essentially an expanded response to Taylor’s work, “A Secular Age,” using his understanding of secularism as a way for us to understand the context of faith formation in an increasingly challenging secular climate. Due to this secular age, churches are fighting a losing battle when they fight the wrong enemy. Without understanding the underlying currents of the secularizing effect, they launch themselves into energy sapping programs in order to attract the uninterested, the unimpressed, and the uninitiated.  For adults, they gravitate toward programs that reflect the MTD coined by Christian Smith, that Christian communities are buying into moralistic, therapeutic, and deistic beliefs and seeing them as more relevant that faith itself. Root indicts our modern church programs by saying:  “The problem with our faith-formation programs is our oversimplified contention that plugging the drain will retain the faith of our youth. Yet, as we saw in Part 1, our issue is much deeper.” Deeper because the modern realities are no longer the same as historical facts. We have given in to a culture of fear, a fear of losing our young; a fear of losing our present shape; and a fear of not doing enough to retain people. When we give in to such fears, we become more interested in people retention rather than faith formation. Of course, some people may say we need both, especially those who argue that retention must exist before formation could happen. Yet, these efforts seem doomed to fail later, if not sooner.

For the few who manage to be retained in their faith communities, it is only a matter of time before they too leave, or desire to leave their religious communities. For some, it is work or for study in some distant lands. For others, it is for the lack of interest in anything deemed religious. For many, it is about the failure to tackle the real challenges to secularism. Root gently points out the reasons why we have fallen into such a state. He lists Taylor’s three different levels of secularism. Level 1 is the “Sacred vs Secular Divide” that originates 500 years ago where people see the sacred world everywhere they go. The goal of life is to be possessed by the transcendent, and to see the whole world through the lens of the sacred. Buildings, priests, religious artifacts, and sacred spaces are explicit ways to see the divine things of God. Other places are not secular places but non-sacred, areas in which people do not directly encounter the sacred. In order to put it more clearly, I would have called Secular 1 a “Sacred vs Not-so-Sacred” distinction to emphasize the context 500 years ago. With the rise of humanism, the Renaissance, and the increase in human confidence in themselves, we enter the Secular 2 age, where Taylor calls “Religious vs a-Religious Spaces.” This new energy and self-belief in people create a new environment where the right to believe or not to believe reside no longer on the outside (Secular 1) but on the inside (Secular 2). People make a conscious choice to secularize everything. Faith becomes bound up in the willingness of one to affiliate themselves to a particular institution or movement. Everything is seen from the lens of self-will. In Secular 1, faith is bound up in living in an environment where everything is seen from the lens of faith and religion. It is Secular 3 that is most challenging of them all. This is the “Negating of Transcendece” where not only do people choose not to believe, they challenge the very existence of the transcendence. This is the problem!

The key to reversing this effect is to adopt Paul’s understanding of faith to negate this negation through the cross of Christ. He calls this the “cross-pressure.” Just as Jesus himself went forth in faith through the cross, our battles against secularism must go through the cross. This is the ultimate act of love, the ministry of ministries. Putting it into real terms, Root gradually presents the way that we ought to do ministry against this climate of secularism. First, we need to learn to live in gratitude. The Church must become that community of gratitude. That means Thanksgiving must never be reduced to a one weekend celebration of Turkey, fun and food, but an all-year round of receiving grace, giving grace, and generous giving from the heart. Second, we minister out of our giftedness within this dynamic of grateful giving and receiving. As we grow in discovery of our response to such grace, we grow to become a community of sharing our gifts and faith. We become people to impact other people with our gifts, that they may discover their own gifts. Third, we move into the space of rest, where the household of ministry must give room to one another to rest. We invite them to find rest. In such a household of ministry, a truly rested community will find space to see people different from us as fellow pilgrims or people that Christ loved. This is where faith formation truly happens.

My Thoughts
It might be hard for some church leaders to accept Andrew Root’s thesis, especially when it comes to his point about the emphasis of youthfulness. Without the young at all, what do we have? I think many churches who had done youth ministries in the past must learn to evolve. They need to remember that today’s contexts have changed from their history of ministry to the young. In fact, the more we try to push the young into the Church, without faith formation, like a coiled spring, they would spring back out into the world when given the first opportunity. The rise of the NONES is not something to be treated lightly. Things happen for a reason. Ministries that originate with the purpose of retaining people are bound to fail. We need to ask the right questions, especially in a world where everything seem to be going wrong. How do we define success? Is it by numbers or is it a qualitative measurement? How do we view spiritual growth? Is it by the number of courses or programs consumed? Or is it by fruits of the Spirit? What do we mean by faith? How do we develop our faith in an ever changing environment? In fact, it is no longer about how to live our faith in a secular world but how we could cultivate living faith in all of our circumstances. There are three reasons why we need to read this book.

First, we get a better understanding of the secular climate. For most laypeople, secularism is simply something that is empty of anything religious. That is just superficial level. I believe that the rise of secularism is partly due to the failure of churches to address changing needs. There is a lot of wisdom in reading Charles Taylor’s various understanding of a secular age. The better we understand the environment, the better we are able to streamline or strategize our various Church ministries. At times, it seems like we are at the losing end of the battle against secularism. A big part of winning any battles is to know the enemy’s strategy. The different levels of secularism help us to understand not only the historical development of this major shift, but also to know why things are what they are today. In other words, movements don’t happen overnight. There will be a period of time where they evolve into what they are. With better understanding comes a more accurate and relevant response.

Second, we know about the true problems affecting our Church, especially the young. Why are people so easily disillusioned with Church? When the animosity the world have against religion? Maybe, the Church have to acknowledge the mistakes made in the past, and to learn from them. Through humble acknowledgement and the willingness to change, perhaps, the Church will stand a chance in fighting the relentless onslaught by secular values. There is also the possibility of the younger generation wanting to discover or rediscover their own sense of identity, and not always being thrust under the shadows of their predecessors.

Third, Root promotes the use of the three things to help us in our faith formation: Gratitude, Giftedness, and Rest. One thing leads to another. I suppose they are not to be seen as some kind of a formula built up, but an invitation for us to develop combinations of it for our own contexts. That means we learn to recognize our own junctures in our spiritual journeys and to mix and match where possible what we need for faith formation.

Andrew Root is Carrie Olson Baalson Chair of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary in St Paul, Minnesota.

Rating: 4.75 stars


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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