Derek Webster is lead pastor at Grace Pointe, a multicampus church in Illinois. Derek is a global teacher, speaker and consultant on leadership, culture, and mission. He is the author of Unlocking the Soul of a City, holds two master’s degrees, and is currently obtaining his Ph.D. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity. He has planted and pastored churches throughout Europe and the U.S.
Are churches losing the generational war of faith? Statistics seem to indicate a rise in agnosticism and a movement away from Christianity, particularly in newer generations. What is the church to do?
Dr. Andrew Root has written prolifically on how the church can best minister to the youth of tomorrow. His book, Faith Formation in a Secular Age: Responding to the Church’s Obsession with Youthfulness, is insightful and worth reading. Set at the intersection of culture and faith, Dr. Root gives the reader pause and forces us to reflect on how culture has impacted faith. His concern is that asking what one should “do” to react to a rising tide of agnosticism is not as helpful as asking “why.” The “why” forces interaction with Scripture, and it is in those tension points that action steps can be examined.
Written in three parts (history, theology, practical steps), his work uses Charles Taylor’s book, A Secular Age, as the foundation upon which he builds. This is particularly important to understanding the vocabulary of the book. Terms like secular, authenticity and youthfulness are used specifically to Taylor’s context. In addition, Dr. Root utilizes the term Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). “MTD presents Christian faith as a kind of individualized, consumer spirituality” (xvi).
In the first part, Dr. Root explores the cultural conditions that were built on the Baby Boomer generation and shaped by marketing. It is in these conditions in which the “age of authenticity” and “youthfulness” becomes means by which authenticity is discovered. He writes, “that which is authentic is more important than that which is holy, good, or righteous” (6). Boring becomes associated with inauthentic (7) and authentic is associated with “youthfulness.” Authenticity means the “genuineness of my own individual experience” (5), and “youthfulness” is the idealization of the young as being the best expression of self. Authenticity is discovered best through the experience or the pursuit of youth. In attempting to reach generations of Boomers and Gen Xers who eschew “conformity, duty and authority” (11), Dr. Root asserts that the church has focused on “individual faith formation” by appearing young and cool. “We’ve tried to legitimize faith through youthfulness” (13). Here Dr. Root walks a line between affirming the need for authenticity, while also blaming the church for its attempts to renegotiate ministry on the basis of how newer generations define authenticity. “So many young people “abandon” faith in college, not because we haven’t been passionate enough to offer them authentic faith, but because we have been so successful at fusing faith with youthfulness, reinforcing that youthfulness itself is the measure of authenticity. In college the critique of Christianity seems more authentic because it is more youthful, calling religion repressive, ignorant, and a major buzzkill” (14).
The rest of part one tracks the rise of marketing, the impact of consumerism, and the birth of “cool” as the “ultimate form of distinction” (67). It culminates in the interaction between Bobos (“those who combine the bohemian with the bourgeois, making experience, emotion, and hip individuality – the bohemian – achievable through association with the right products, fashion, and elitist style – the bourgeois” (74)), MTDs, and the response of Evangelicalism. Here the book shines. The essential argument is that “the bobo longs for spirituality, to escape the mundane and search for meaning. But this search is often bound in ideas” (92) and because of that, the church, while reacting to the desires of the Bobo, also packaged Christianity as a movement of ideas rather than where the transcendent God is found.
This then leads the reader to part two, which is an exploration of transcendence and the points at which one best meets a transcendent God. Dr. Root provides several examples of the difference between ideas. For example, subtraction (I need God because I’m missing something) turns God into an idea that can be rejected (I’m not missing anything, so I don’t need God)– and negation (losing myself), which is a mechanism by which transcendence can be found (God is discovered by negation). “It is not necessarily subtraction that is our problem but rather the development of a social imaginary that gives little heed to transcendence or divine action” (103). Dr. Root then builds on Taylor through the identity of three secular planes and how the church has reacted to each. The first is the notion that the “secular” was once associated with things (cathedrals were considered sacred while pitchforks were considered secular). The second is the notion that sacred is the plane of Christian morality and the secular is the plane of institutions and ideologies (Christian schools verses secular schools, for example). In this space, “the sociologist becomes more powerful (and educative) than the theologian because the sociologist provides the scorecard of institutional space, using her instruments to point to the material, ideological, and cultural shifts in religious market share. Because faith is bound in this spatial conception, there is little need for the theologian, for there is little interest in speaking of distinct ontological realities and radical transformations by a wholly other Spirit” (108). The third secular plane is the place where transcendence is an impossibility. Here spirituality is about making “your time meaningful…and not eternity” (110-111) and the secular is the psychology of that spirituality.
The third part is the shortest, is the last chapter, and is also the conclusion to the book. In fairness, Dr. Root indicates that this is to be the first of three works on this subject material. In it, he offers some practical steps for churches. They are – be thankful (gratitude), rest (act in friendship, not programmatic), worship (transcendent God), discover you are spiritually gifted as ministers, and share personhood (personhood is discovered in service and ministry).
The book was insightful in its themes, and helpful in understanding the action and reaction of American evangelicalism to secularism in culture. It provided a clear understanding of how this secularization emerged in the context of marketing and advertising, as well as, what marketing and advertising has perpetuated. I also believe the book was sharp (sharp = good) in its critique of the church. There’s a lot Dr. Root has provided to chew on as it relates to how ministry interacts with culture and why.
That said, the book fails to meet three realities. First, while the marketing machine in the U.S. shaped perceptions and heightened youthfulness as the ideal, that is not true in other countries. Hyperbolically speaking, Europe has not historically hated its parents as much as the U.S. And yet, the rise of secularization has marched inexorably on in Europe, preceding and influencing the U.S. in embracing secularization. Western Europe was post-Christian before the U.S. heard of post-Christianity. One must conclude, then, that something is happening outside of the marketing machinations that are given so much credit for shaping one’s view of self. Here, Schaeffer’s “steps” for the dissemination of ideas through culture might be more applicable (or at least, equal applicability). So, the challenge in focusing on the American experience is that the American experience hasn’t driven the world forward for decades. European marketing impact on culture is less powerful and extreme than American marketing impact. In the light of this reality, how does one then contextualize the reaction of the European church, wherein transcendence and rest (friendships) were emphasized but without impact culturally?
Second, Dr. Root is right in that youth ministries have largely driven the church’s agendas in terms of future forms or approaches. However, the messaging of following Jesus as a place where negation is not required is a little bit overblown. The truth is that I’ve heard far more messages on losing one’s life for the sake of gaining it (negation) than I have of trying to regain something that people have sensed they’ve lost (subtraction). Yes, sociology and psychology (spiritual formation on how the Bible is prescient to the social sciences) does tend to be synonymous with spiritual formation in the church. But at the same time, most of that messaging views those as points of contact for the beginning of a conversation on faith, and not the main goal of faith formation. They exist because the church is trying to meet others where they are now so that they can bring them into a place where the language of negation can be heard and received. Dr. Root is right in his claim that too often we pander to what people claim they want without consideration of what they actually need. But how, then, does the church “speak the language” of people? The crisis of faith and ministry as applied to spiritual formation is this: if the world is obsessed with ideas and not transcendence, how does one introduce transcendence? And how does one do so to a world that believes transcendence isn’t possible? Where is the meeting space where color can be understood transcendentally to the color-blind?
Third, the book highlights three great points: transcendence, negation, and communication (by formula). But the practical application of ministry gets lost. Here, I hope the next two books explore further. For example, according to Dr. Root, one answer to transcendence is to worship. And yet…isn’t that what the church is already doing? Is the idea to not appear “youthful” in worship? If so, then why haven’t hymns, ancient worship (silence, reflection, etc.) or higher liturgical forms of worship caused more people to explore God in the local church? Instead, those coming to faith come to places where “youthful” music is utilized as the vehicle by which worship can take place. Is the church to be out of date stylistically in order to demonstrate that it does not value “youthfulness” as the measure of authentic worship? The book doesn’t really say. These types of questions occur again and again throughout Part Two. Dr. Root reminds us of the power of the Gospel message as it relates to negation and ministry. And yet, the rise of neo-Reformation from 2008-2015 was a complete emphasis on the theology of the Cross as the means for spiritual formation. This has not stopped the rising tide of secularization. How the church has packaged theology and ministry toward a youth culture in an effort to appear authentic is what the book addresses, but in practical application it leaves the reader with more questions than answers. Does this mean that Matt Chandler or Rick Warren should now wear suits in order to appear “less youthful” so that there would be no mistaking their youthful appearance for authentic faith?
Dr. Root’s book works because it does what great books should. It causes the reader to think critically about what is happening around them, why, and what to do about it. I immediately recommended Dr. Root’s work to others. It is insightful and worth reading. The astute pastor will change for the better according to that insight and thought.