The Deep Challenge of Faith Formation


(This review first appeared in The Englewood Review of Books.)

Andrew Root. Faith Formation in a Secular Age: Responding to the Church’s Obsession with Youthfulness. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017.

If you’re sitting in the chair of the lead pastor at your church, and this book came across your desk, you might be tempted to pass it on to your youth pastor or the staff person in charge of the children and family programs. And if you’re sitting in either of those two offices, you might be tempted to put it on the tall stack of books that will offer you one more way to tweak your programs to reverse the slow bleed of people away from a church in decline. All three of you would be wrong.

This book is part cultural critique and part theology, combining to open a new way to think about faith formation and the future of the church.

Most anyone who works in or around the church is familiar with the notion of Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism. It’s the concept that emerged out of the sociological work of Christian Smith and became known in church circles through the work of Kenda Creasy Dean. The individualized, consumer spirituality represented by MTD has cut loose faith formation from the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Root accepts that critique of the church and for the first part of the work offers a detailed explanation of how we got here. He argues that as a culture, we’ve become obsessed with youthfulness, not as a way to honor or form the faith of our youth, but as as a culture-wide ethos out of which flows a drive for authenticity and fulfillment. From that false and empty well comes the church’s notion that if we could only keep youthfulness in the church, we could help people become more authentic and at the same time revitalize our churches.

Root is working out Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age for the broad task of faith formation in the church. Taylor makes a distinction between 3 different kinds of secularism, and Root seeks to unpack the implications of those distinctions for the work of faith formation. In Secular 2 (Taylor’s language), there is a competition between religious space and non-religious space; the church is constantly battling to maintain its hold on religious space. Faith formation becomes a battle to keep the youth participating in congregations, thereby maintaining our hold on that particular religious space. In Secular 3 (again, Taylor’s language), the facade of religion is held onto, even when we as a broad culture have given up on the idea that there can be any connection to the transcendent. Faith is simply the grasp of a set of cognitive truths that inform how we live ontologically in this world.

As an answer to the above, Root spends the second part of the book exploring Paul and how Paul’s understanding of faith helps us to seek connection with the divine in a culture that has lost any hope for transcendent experience. Basing much of this part of the work on the new Finnish interpretation of Luther and justification, especially Tuomo Mannermaa, “faith is a death experience (the cross) that leads to new life (resurrection).” What makes this faith possible is the real presence of Jesus as the minister who comes to us and even comes alongside us in our own experiences of brokenness and lostness to give us his very person as new life. Relying heavily on the great Christ hymn of Philippians 2 and the Orthodox understanding of that passage, Root explains how “the shape of Jesus’s ministering person is hypostasis (union of personhood) and kenosis (humble self-giving), leading to theosis (transformation into being a minister as Jesus is minister).”

Against a culture that eschews transcendent experience, Root argues that we experience transcendence when we stand alongside and minister to our neighbor in their own death experiences (brokenness, lostness). In doing so, “we find the real presence of Jesus, meeting our person with his own, infusing our being with Jesus’s own being as we share in the being of our neighbors humbly acting as her minister.”

The church, then is the household of ministry, and faith formation is centered in the church as the place where people receive the ministry of Jesus and then are sent into the world to minster to their neighbor. “The only thing the church offers the world is ministry! And this only thing, as we’ve seen, is everything. It is the very location of Jesus Christ; it is the energy to turn death into life and make us new beings who have our being and action in and through ministry.”

That ministry, he concludes, is lived out in three distinct dispositions for the church: gratitude, giftedness, and rest. Everything the church does in ministry — all of which is, ultimately, faith formation — is centered in these three distinct dispositions.

Don’t come to this book looking for lists of concrete steps to be taken to improve faith formation in the church. Don’t come looking for ways to tweak what you’re already doing to make it more appealing or more effective. You won’t find any of that.

But do come to this book ready to read slowly, to think and reflect upon the whole enterprise of faith formation from the cradle to the grave, and why the cognitive, programmatic approach that we’ve used for so long isn’t working. Come ready to be challenged and to call into question long held assumptions, and the plethora of bandaid approaches to the complex challenge of being church in this post-Christian time. No question, this is a challenging book; Root is reflecting on the difficulty of trying to connect people with God in a culture that is far more interested in the development of individual fulfillment than a life given over to divine service. I suspect that were we to take seriously Root’s diagnosis of a MTD church, we would blow up our present programs and start from scratch.

My fear is that the technical nature of the book and the short supply of practical tips will keep those who most need to read this from diving in. I hope I’m wrong and that this book will be widely read. One doesn’t have to agree with all of Root’s conclusions or even his sometimes too generalized arguments about how we got here. The rethinking of faith and the resultant reconsideration of how the church does faith formation could be transformative for our congregations. I also think this is one of those books that would be most fruitful if read in conversation with others facing the same challenges — as a staff, as a clergy or other church worker cohort. What holds great promise, in my opinion, is precisely the fact that he doesn’t offer a to-do list at the end of the book. Rather, because each context is different, each congregation with different people, different gifts, different traditions and different theological sensibilities, it becomes the responsibility of each of us to determine how we will each work to make our congregations households of ministry, and thereby deeply and substantively form the faith of our people, for the sake of God’s intentions for the world.

In the preface, Root indicates that this is the first of three books that will explore points and theories within Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and the implications for Christian ministry. Even as I continue to reflect on this one, I can’t help but eagerly look forward to the next two.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s