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Wednesday, June 5, 2019

"The Pastor in the Secular Age" (Andrew Root)

TITLE: The Pastor in a Secular Age: Ministry to People Who No Longer Need a God
AUTHOR: Andrew Root
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019, (336 pages).

Some authors address youth concerns from a program-centered and activity standpoint. They address the symptoms of youth boredom well. Other authors analyze the challenges of youth ministry from an experiential standpoint. Still there are those who interviews youths in order to find a better fit between faith and life. Unfortunately, many of these efforts fail to get beyond the aesthetics. Questions need to be asked not just about what the young people or the next generation need, but why things are happening as they are. Contextual understanding needs to come before any attempt at solutions. In this deeply philosophical book, author and professor Andrew Root carries on his analysis of the culture affecting youthful minds with a concentration on the increasingly secularized society. All the efforts about engaging youths through authenticity, through authority, through activity, and others, cannot be sustained without a clear theological vision to guide us through a secular age, let alone any age. This is the crux of this book that peruses the historical past; probes the present context; and proposes a path forward for the future. The reason for the focus on youths is mainly because they are the ones most likely to "no longer need a God." Until we address this area of concern, youth ministries will continue to reach out merely at surface level. Root goes much more than mere youth ministries. He looks at how pastors are affected and ways to address their ministry concerns. These two concerns, one to young people and the other for ministers, drive the writing of this book.

Framing the Context
Root drills deep into the cultural environment affecting the malaise of faith matters. He uses two well-known philosophers to helm his engagement: Charles Taylor and Michel Foucault. Since Professor Charles Taylor's monumental work on the secular age, a lot of people have been talking about what that means for our churches and our faith communities. In one of Taylor's public lectures, he delivered "The Malaise of Modernity" which helps spur the thoughts in this book. Secularism rose due to three factors: 1) increase of meaninglessness; 2) inability to find significance in what we do; and 3) the "emptiness of the ordinary." The author in this book seeks to show us how this malaise has also led to the loss of pastoral identity, which in turns affects the larger Church. The distancing of society from the transcendent is lived out in ordinary lives who shun Church and things religious. Not only is the Church becoming less attractive, the very God the Church seeks to proclaim is also becoming less prominent and essential in the lives of the public. From the medieval times of "everything is sacred," we are now moving in a totally opposite direction to an age where everything seems to be secular. Pastors are trapped in this divide and their vocation and relevance are increasingly being questioned. If there is any place for such clergymen, it would be shoved to a corner of mere rituals and within the four walls of religious places. This relevance becomes challenged as people desert churches, even among those who profess to be believers.

Just like Michel Foucault, Root uses history to understand how sex, power, and punishment leads to the secularizing effect on the faith of the next generation. What is enlightening is that while many people see the secular climate as one that distances people from God, Foucault's analysis points out the exact opposite: it heightens people's need for God. For all the desire for independence and self-accomplishment, people still need pastoral care. Political power is more "pastoral than territorial." Being benevolent not only reflects God's character, it meets a social thirst for grace. Our society need community even as people opt for individualistic choices. Root brilliantly analyzes Foucault's thoughts to come up with four elements of "pastoral power": "Analytic Responsibility," "Exhaustive and Instantaneous Transfer," "Alternate Correspondence," and "Sacrificial Reversal." For all of these principles, Root reminds us that we need to do all of these with God leading the way. In doing so, they counter the secularizing effect with the sacred awareness; and to make conversations about God more appealing.

Based on Charles Taylor's work on the secular age, Root's historical survey traces the reasons for the present secular culture. In Part One, we read about the theological and philosophical treatment of the malaise. Root shows us a historical map on how we can to where we are today. This symptom of people no longer needing God is also known as secularism. The author shows us that this is not a new problem. Thomas Becket lives in a rising age of disenchantment in the 12th Century. With kings who professed religion but behaved otherwise, the job of bringing respectability to the pastoral profession fell on people like Becket. People wanted to see reasons and relevance of faith. More specifically, they hungered for some "magical" experience that religion can give. Pastors were expected to play the role of "re-enchanting" the religious community again. In the time of Augustine, Root draws a parallel of Augustine's inner confessions with our modern preference for privacy and inner confidentiality. The purpose however is different. Augustine's inward journey was toward inner purity and confession while the modern man tends to seek self-fulfillment as the goal. The era of Jonathan Edwards posed a different challenge but the secular climate remains the same. In fact, Root identifies two "radical transitions" that contribute to secularism: 1) The affirmation of the ordinary; 2) expectation of politeness. If anybody could do these, why do they need the Church, or for that matter pastoral guidance? Henry Ward Beecher and Rick Warren are examples of celebrity pastors whose personalities frequently draw crowds. Gradually, the religious climate starts to resemble the world that is shifting of focus from the "what" to the "how." No wonder Warren's best-selling book appeals not only the Christians but also to non-Christians. Harry Emerson Fosdick lives in a time of tensions. Conservatives draw hard battle lines against liberals. People shift from declarations of belief toward declarations of unbelief. The stance of declarations of independence continues the divorce of faith concerns from all other matters.

Part Two of the book combines both Charles Taylor's and Michel Foucault's work to give us ways to move forward, especially the pastoral vocation. Root's starting point is God. Like how God arrives and appears to Israel back then, pastors ought to shepherd the flock and the community toward anticipation of the second coming of God. God not only speaks to the people then, His divine action is evident through ministers who perceive the presence of God and live out the reality of God through events and experiences. We are pastors or prophets of the "exodus paradigm" in every age. Like God caring even for people like Hagar in the wilderness, we have a great opportunity to minister in the wilderness that are becoming more crowded than before. Go look for them. Testify of how God's work in our lives form our identity and how our ministry flows out of this relationship with God. It is the resurrection of Christ that gives us hope and the practice of spirituality that evidences this hope.

My Thoughts
Research has also shown that non-church going believers are the single largest group in North America right now, and they are growing in size and numbers. In addition, the pastor and the Church are now living in an age of God being seen unnecessary. If the pastor as a key leader in the Church becomes trapped in this malaise, what hope will there be for the Church? What does it mean to live as a pastor in a secular age? These questions are tackled and discussed by Andrew Root, who teaches at Luther Seminary in Minnesota. How does a pastor serve in this secular age? As culture changes, so do the challenges.The pastoral malaise is a direct result of the loss of theological vision for divine action. Root spends time meticulously painting the theological vision for us. This vision is dependent on God's action. People are abandoning churches not because it is not necessary but because people are increasingly choosing not to believe in God. This departure from faith in a divine has created a vacuum that continues drive people to seek fulfillment in all kinds of places. Christian theology teaches us that humans have a "God-shaped vacuum" and could never find true fulfillment outside of God.

While this is not an easy book to read, it reminds us the importance of theory and philosophy prior to any action or practical steps. The rush toward quick-fixes has crippled many ministries. In fact, young people are most sensitive to any attempt to see them as problems and programs as solutions to their needs. People being people need to be loved. Sinful people being sinful people need to be reconciled with God. Ministry being ministry must begin and must end with God. I appreciate Root's reminded to resist the temptation of programs to release our anxieties for youth work. We need to begin any ministry in prayer and to be aware of the dangers that seek to derail our work. A key takeaway I have from this book is to recognize our tendency to see people as problems to be solved. Such a philosophy belies a majority of training programs and health professionals in many societies. If we are able to begin with God, to see from where He sees, we will be able to minister as shepherds to people who need us more than our abilities to care. In other words, the need for greater human connection surpasses all human activities. The need for God transcends the latter and everything else. Root shows us throughout the book that even in a secular age, the world need God and more more.

Dr Andrew Root is the Olson Baalson Associate Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary in Minnesota. He is also visiting professor at Regent College.

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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