Finding our Subterranean Way Again: Chapter 1 Review of Dan White Jr.’s New Book

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Numbers tell us very little about rootedness.

This sentence captures the strong start of Dan White Jr.’s new book Subterranean. And it captures my attention too.

See, I used to be a church planter. It’s not that I am against church planting now – it’s just that I’m not a church planter anymore. I have a clarity about that, a clarity that’s been hard to come by, that has taken some time to embrace, but a clarity nonetheless. Yet, my clarity about not being a church planter anymore, and about being something else with respect to continuing ministry in the church of Jesus (because that is surely going to continue), only serves to emphasize my ongoing commitment to rootedness.

What makes both Dan (a church planter) and me tick, and the point at which our somewhat different callings converge, is precisely this: the American church has got a metrics problem. In the face of indisputable decline (which Dan aptly demonstrates in Chapter 1), the church in the U.S. can’t seem to get its head out of the numbers game. Or in Dan’s words, it can’t seem to break free of the numbers leash:

I sense it is a major misstep to address renewal in the church by starting with how to propagate it or prevent it from shrinking… We’ve allowed our fixes to be led around by the numbers leash. We’re twisting and turning under the strain of numbers. The unnerving truth is God gets heated when leaders survey the success of their organizations using numerical metrics.

I mean, right??

The conversations about Christian faith decline almost inevitably oscillate around the how’s and why’s of numerical success. How do we get millennials back in church? Why is that midwestern megachurch so successful? Out of these conversations come strategies galore, and we become alchemists seeking the perfect concoction to reverse the shrinkage. And in the process we never stop to consider the root of the tree.

Ah, trees.

That’s another thing that makes Dan and me tick, judging by the opening Subterranean salvo. Because the metaphor of the tree captures the essence of the kingdom like few others can, and handily overshadows the bad man-made metrics under the canopy of its organic beauty. Not too long ago I, my wife, and our three little girls moved to the Maine countryside. I’m not saying that our context here is superior to Dan’s in downtown Syracuse, but I am saying that there are a good deal more trees.

And yet, for the church, the metaphor brings these two literal contexts together: it is possible, in both the urban center and the small town countryside, to envision a church renewed at the roots. Yes, that is what we need. Renewal exactly at the source of the church’s life, for the sake of its organic sustaining, not its numerical success. If I may end at the beginning, Dan sketches (literally) a picture of a willow that he grew up with, a tree whose “creature-like presence was a sprawling fixture in the adventures of my childhood.”

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Contrast that sketch with the image of a European hotel designed with a shiny science-fiction vision of progress, and you get the picture of where the American church is at. We want all the shine of progress and none of the grit of depth. Our bad cultural metrics have “traumatized our love for the mustard-seed smallness of God’s style of work.” To wit:

When you compare the attention grabbing glitz and glam of the Atomium Hotel in Europe to the slow and sleepy growth of a tree, it takes a different set of eyes to see what is infinitely more valuable.

Fire on that!!

Yes, that is what we need. We need deep roots that give us tall trees, and we need new eyes to see that the slow and the small are infinitely more valuable and transformative and sustainable than the fast and the fantastical. The kingdom tree is growing – it is growing in the urban center among faithful missional communities, and it is growing in the countryside among transitional congregations like mine, seeking to follow the Spirit’s lead in the green, tree-laden neighborhood. In all contexts, the roots must go down or the kingdom doesn’t really actualize; because, “This tree orients everything.”

Finding our subterranean way again is a discernment process. Peeling back the layers of ego is required to identify the deeper story – the story that:

The creator of the world is gathering people together not to compete with the machinery of the world but to point out what is sprouting up unnoticed in this place. God is restoring relationships in creation, albeit in slow, subterranean, and subversive ways. God treasures this world like a gardner does her garden, tending to it, watering, weeding, and watching over it. And now Jesus’ strategy is one of covert recruitment: “come labor with me to build a Tree of Life in your place.” We must begin to look at every facet in light of this kingdom Tree, allowing it to loom over our present pursuits.

Yes, that is what we need.

You can buy Subterranean wherever books are sold, or order it here on Wipf & Stock. If you enter the discount code ROOTED you’ll get 40% off!

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