Andrew Root, Ministry in a Secular Age, 5 vols (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017–22).

We have all seen it.

No matter how cool your church’s youth pastor, the teenagers keep slipping away from the faith. No matter how gifted your pastor or how fruitful her ministry, she nonetheless walks around as if in a fog. No matter what initiatives and programs and tactics your church tries, they can’t stem the tide of decline or break free of stagnancy.

Welcome to our secular age.

Our world has changed. Faith seems fraught. Pastors are bewildered. Congregations sell their souls to consumerism, to the politics of left and right. We chase the latest trends on social media and in the pages of the Harvard Business Review.

We are living in what the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the immanent frame.”[1] Taylor’s magisterial work, A Secular Age, lines out how we got here and wrestles with some of what it means. His achievement is an invaluable gift to the academy and the church alike because it so helpfully describes where we are.

This is no small thing. The nature of our world is a disputed and difficult topic, and any clarity we can gain here is to be celebrated. But once the celebration has concluded, those of us who are trying to lead lives of holiness and faith need something more. This is even more acutely the case for those of us trying to lead churches. Taylor’s descriptive brilliance is a gift to the contemporary church, but sooner or later we need to move beyond a description of what ails us and into a prescription for how to fix it, or at least how to live faithfully as best we can in spite of it. Taylor’s work helps to diagnose the disease. But what is the cure?

Enter Andrew Root’s five-volume series, Ministry in a Secular Age, which engages the current historical/cultural moment and offers plenty of philosophical and sociological theorizing about it. At the center of Root’s diverse conversation partners sits Taylor, whose work donates both its title and many of its organizing concepts to Root’s own work.

Root’s pentalogy is substantive but mostly untechnical; it is written at a level that can engage students, pastors, and motivated laypeople alike. The five books are worth wrestling with, even if you’ve never worked up the courage to crack open your own copy of A Secular Age. Despite the borrowed title elements, this is not merely a summary of Taylor’s work or a study guide—for that, one would be better served by James K. A. Smith’s wonderful How (Not) to be Secular.

Rather, Root’s project is not mainly to make Taylor more accessible but to advance Taylor’s arguments in a particular practical direction. Because of this, and for the sake of space, I will avoid evaluating Root as an interpreter of Taylor. At times Root lacks some of Taylor’s nuance, but for the sake of this essay, we’ll leave that to the side, and I will take his reading of Taylor as given.

Although Root’s prose is usually lucid, at times he slips into theological jargon that seems excessively abstract, if not pretentious. This abstract flavor means that some of his proposals lose touch with clarity. And, as I’ll show below, this lack of clarity exposes a substantive problem: Root’s attempts to move from a description of the disease to a prescription for a cure fall short. As I’ll argue, this shortcoming is because his proposed cure carries a deadly dose of the disease along with it.

That said, Root’s discussions of abstract theological jargon are partly counterbalanced by his attempts to be relatable; his writing is littered with references to the shows he has streamed, contemporary slang, and other pop culture references, just as one might expect from someone who has made a career thinking and writing about practical theology and youth ministry. At times, this pop culture parade seems forced, but in the end, I found that Root’s personality comes through in a way that is ultimately charming.

His five volumes consider faith formation (volume 1), the pastor (volume 2), and the congregation (volumes 3–5). The first three volumes articulate an account of ministry as a locus of divine action, even in our secular age. The fourth and fifth volume extend the work of the third and set forth a practical ecclesiology for our modern, secular world in light of churches struggling with decline (volume 4) and churches placing their hopes in innovation to save them (volume 5).

As you can see, there is an awful lot to unpack in Root’s pentalogy. I’ll start with some of what he gets right. First, Root helpfully identifies the crux of the issue, cutting right to the core of the practical implications of Taylor’s work. In our secular age, he explains, we have lost the ability to conceive of a God who really acts in our world. This difficulty of conceiving of real divine action in the immanent frame flattens God.

A God unable to act is a God who can be molded in any number of different directions. Subject to our Feuerbachian projections, God becomes a tool of power, usable to subjugate or to liberate, or God becomes a subjective principle, feeling, social construction, historical artifact, phenomenon of human consciousness, the silent partner somehow undergirding good human actions, or some uneasy combination of these or other options. What God is not able to do is to act as any other ordinary agent might. Imprisoned within our conceptual, political, or psychological architecture, the best God we find ourselves able to put faith in is ultimately omni-impotent. We’re told this God is important, but upon closer examination, we easily see that this is only wishful thinking.

This is the reality represented by Taylor’s third sense of the word secular, the sense of the word he wrote his magnum opus to excavate. His first sense of secular is construed in terms of space and time—that is, the cathedral and Easter Sunday count as sacred, whereas my living room and last Tuesday afternoon at two o’clock count as secular. And the second sense is located in religious participation and faith commitment. We often mistake this second sense of the secular as our problem: church membership and survey data suggest that faith in our culture is in decline, the sociologists tell us. The opening paragraphs of this essay might even be seen as playing on this confusion, but neither Taylor nor Root are interested in this problem.

The secularity Taylor and Root are interested in is Taylor’s third sense of the secular: the secularity of what people in the contemporary West find believable. This is not about counting believers versus skeptics or about comparing Sunday church attendance to Sunday brunch attendance. To make use of one of Taylor’s own ways of describing it, it is the difference between how hard it was not to believe in God around the year 1500 and how easy it is to disbelieve only five hundred years later.

What has changed is not mainly what we believe, but how we believe.

In an age characterized by this third sense of secularity, a transcendent God who acts in the world is almost unbelievable. We are tempted to accept a closed take on our world, that is, to see our world as closed off from transcendence. In many corners of society (especially the more elite corners), this has become the default position.

And so, Root’s first volume, Faith Formation in a Secular Age: Responding to the Church’s Obsession with Youthfulness, offers a genealogy of authenticity, expressive individualism, and the idealizing of the young and youth culture that emerged after the counterculture of the 1960s. Authenticity became equated with both the good life and with youthfulness. Churches have been catering to our milieu of expressive individualism ever since, leading us to idolize youth, thinking that if we can just get our median age down or if we can have a cool youth group or if we can better engage families, then that will save us.

Root’s point is that the church’s participation in our culture’s expressive individualism and youth obsession both essentially discount the possibility of divine action. Churches have too often attempted faith formation through engaging what is considered cool or authentic. Root pins the accusation of deism on this whole project—the latent assumption here seems to be that there is a God but a distant and inactive one. To put it in language with more contemporary currency, what counts is cultural engagement. The result is churches that try to bring people into the church rather than churches that try to facilitate encounters with a living God. For Root, this encounter with God happens when the church spends less of its energy courting authenticity and more of its energy encountering the world through acts of ministry wherein we enter the “death experiences” of others. “To help people have faith,” Root says, “is to help them experience divine action through the act of being ministered to and ministering to others.” In this way the world is not “re-enchanted” but “re-personalized.”[2]

In a similar way, the pastor’s role in late modernity has morphed through several phases into a place that assumes we have a God who does not act. In Root’s second volume, The Pastor in a Secular Age: Ministry to People Who No Longer Need a God, he helpfully sketches this development through a series of pastoral portraits, from Augustine and Jonathan Edwards to Harry Emerson Fosdick and Rick Warren. The pastor in the late-modern West, he suggests, suffers from a deep malaise. Some hundreds of years ago, pastors knew who they were and what their role was in society. In the medieval world, a parish priest knew exactly where he stood in terms of his importance, not only in ecclesial matters but also in cultural ones. Nowadays, not so much.

There are various social and historical forces driving this shift, but the principal theological shift behind this malaise is the opacity of divine action. “Other than becoming the next Rick Warren or settling for dying denominational forms, [pastors] find it difficult to imagine their vocation. Divine action has been pushed to the far edges of our lives and has become unbelievable to most people—maybe even most pastors.”[3] Pastoral success is measured in worldly terms. Maybe even the fact that we think it is necessary to measure pastoral success betrays a practical atheism in our ways of understanding the pastoral vocation.

If God is a God who acts—or we might rather say, if God is not dead—it seems we should conceive of the pastoral in terms that at least make some attempt at a reference to a God who does something more than merely exist. Root attempts to set forth just such a conception of the pastoral vocation in terms of divine action. Again, his key category is ministry, and for Root, ministry is where we encounter divine action (even in our secular age), because God is a minister.

Perhaps this is a good a time to begin to name some of my reservations. For starters, the intuition that we encounter divine action through giving and receiving ministry seems right, if a bit narrow. (Might a God who acts encounter us in other places too?) But it doesn’t seem entirely clear how we encounter divine action through ministry.

Additionally, Root places a great deal of stock on opaque concepts that he seems to be using in unnecessarily technical ways. He trusts these concepts to do too much of the heavy lifting here. For example, he writes that “God is a minister because God’s being is persons in the event of encounter.”[4] Trying to shed light on who God is as minister seems a good aim. Doing so by rattling off jargony uses of words like being, persons, event, and encounter seems unnecessarily muddy. I fear that this kind of theological writing, which may sound substantive and smart, in the end obscures more than it illuminates.

The skeleton of Root’s response to the pastoral malaise is, I think, basically right, and I concur with his mission when he states that “I’ve sought to return the pastor from being a religious institutional curate to one who leads us into experiences of the ministering God.”[5] From there he moves into a lovely treatment of prayer. Institution building undoubtedly has its proper place in God’s church. But what we need much more than healthy institutions are encounters with the living God. More than butts in seats, vision statements, and budget dollars, churches and their pastors need God. Where I want to press Root is on whether his vision for encountering God in ministry gives it to them.

The third, fourth, and fifth volumes expand Root’s vision to the church. In The Congregation in a Secular Age: Keeping Sacred Time against the Speed of Modern Life, Root suggests that both churches and people in late modernity are depressed because of the inhuman speed of life. The fourth volume, Churches and the Crisis of Decline: A Hopeful, Practical Ecclesiology for a Secular Age, argues that talk about decline in churches risks missing the God who is God and that the way to recover this insight is through the dialectic—what the church needs is not more resources but more resonance. Finally, The Church After Innovation: Questioning Our Obsession with Work, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship, Root’s fifth and final volume, offers a more sober estimation of the usefulness of innovation for the church than is often assumed by many laypeople, pastors, and denominational leaders. Care must be taken when we engage in Silicon Valley–style innovation in the church, he suggests, because when we do so, we inevitably and unwittingly import a view of individualism into our churches alongside the innovation. This in turn raises faith formation problems, bringing us full circle back to the first volume.

It is difficult to believe in a God who really acts in late modernity. Root expounds upon this fact compellingly, even helpfully. Much like Taylor, Root is very helpful in diagnosing the disease. But unfortunately, the great opportunity of a work like this—indeed, Root’s express purpose—is to move beyond philosophy and address the practical. In this aim, he falls far short. Root’s work fails to approach the practical because he also fails to articulate an account of a God who really acts in the world today. In other words, Root explains the difficulty quite well, but my fear is that he also unwittingly demonstrates it.

Root fails to offer more than a notional account of divine action because, as I noted above, it is precisely here that he most consistently retreats into theological abstraction and jargon. In this five-book series, divine action is shrouded behind opaque concepts like encounter and personhood. These bits of jargon could conceivably be used to provide the conceptual framework upon which Root might build something more concrete—I imagine that was his intention—but unfortunately, whenever Root finally does get concrete in his presentation of divine action, it is only ever God acting in the context of human action in ministry.

Of course, I have no problem with God acting through human agents, particularly in the context of ministry. Indeed, this may be God’s most common modus operandi in the current dispensation. But when examples of divine action rarely, if ever, include any activities that can’t be explained in merely human terms, we should start to wonder whether this God is a fantastic delegator or merely a figment of our wishful thinking. Far from the personal agent pictured in the Bible, a God who acts in the world only through other agents seems deistic or more akin to a lightly baptized Hegelian Geist or Jungian collective unconscious.

Think for a moment about the concept of action. It is perfectly intelligible that someone can act through someone else’s agency. A head of state sends a diplomat to negotiate a treaty, a lawmaker has a staffer write up a piece of legislation, or a head coach has an assistant work with the defensive unit in practice, say. In these cases, we don’t have a problem giving the head of state, lawmaker, or head coach credit or blame for the results of the work more directly done by someone else. We can imagine God working through people in much the same way. The problem is that no one would respect a head of state or any other person who only ever acted in this way. At some point the head of state has to sign the treaty, the lawmaker has to get up and argue for the legislation, and the football coach has to make the tough call on fourth down with the game on the line.

As an example, in the first volume, Root makes much hay about Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus. As the story goes, Saul sees a light, hears a voice, and is struck blind. Later, in the dark in Damascus, a Christian man named Ananias comes and is the instrument of Saul’s healing—and of his transformation from Saul the persecutor to Paul the apostle. It makes sense in a book about ministry to place a lot of emphasis on the human actions of Ananias as a paradigm for what ministry is and can be in a secular age. What is fascinating to me is the way in which in Root’s exposition the ministering actions of Ananias on Straight Street eclipse the more dramatic and direct actions of the living God on the Damascene road. If the contemporary church’s problem lies in our difficulty conceiving of divine action, the bright light and voice of Jesus should enjoy as much if not more attention than the humble ministry of Ananias, and that for at least two reasons. First, as an example of direct divine action, it seems more relevant to the topic of divine action than God’s indirect action through Ananias. And second, this more direct species of God’s actions in our world is more difficult for residents of the immanent frame to comprehend. To focus on Ananias’s ministry to the near exclusion of Jesus’s interaction with Saul on his journey to Damascus is not to combat our late-modern difficulty with divine action; it is to concede to it.

Don’t misunderstand me here: surely the Christian must say that God was at work in and through Ananias. Root wants us to minister like Ananias. To that we should respond with a hearty, “Yes!” But surely Ananias was aware that God was at work on Saul independent of his or any other human’s activities, and when it comes to thinking about divine action in faith formation, pastoral work, and congregational life, surely God must sometimes show up through more than our interhuman relational encounters. If God is real, God ought to be able to sometimes speak words and strike us blind. And if ministry is about facilitating divine encounters, such episodes ought to count for a lot in a series of books about ministry.

At several times in the pentalogy, Root seems on the verge of offering an account of concrete divine action independent of human action, only to come up short. For instance, Root concludes his multivolume opus with a discussion of epiphanic aesthetics in the very last chapter of volume five. Unlike innovation, which leads us to curve in on our selves, he explains that epiphany has us waiting for an encounter beyond the self. I fully expected him to confound my critique here and suggest that somehow the living God might show up and move in some kind of more-than-human way. Instead, the book (and thus the whole series) concludes with an example of a photographer in England who trains young people to engage one another through real human encounters among groups of three people, a camera, and the power of poetry.

Once again, allow me to be clear. Finding ways to encourage us in the late-modern world to genuinely encounter other human persons, to move beyond our self-focused lives and give and receive with another: this is no small thing! This is, in fact, the kind of place where I imagine God does often show up. But if this is all there is to divine action, I’m afraid Root has become a fully naturalized citizen of the immanent frame. He lives in a one-storied universe. He has adopted a form of exclusive humanism and merely slapped a Christian bumper sticker on the back. For Root, God is the quintessential minister. But in fleshing his vision out, he ironically makes God into something like the megachurch pastor par excellence: God oversees a great deal of ministry but does basically none of it.

It seems at bottom what we’re waiting for, for Root, is not God but each other. Or to be more fair to Root here, we are waiting for God through the ministering encounter with each other. This just won’t do. When it comes to thinking carefully about an account of divine action, we must ask what kinds of actions God is really doing in a particular case. Concreteness is a virtue here. If the particular actions God is supposed to have performed are all also performed by human persons (as they seem to be for Root), at some point we must start asking whether such acts are God’s at all.

One way to characterize Root’s project is as an attempt to identify divine action in occasions of ministry by characterizing ministry as a means of grace. This seems reasonable to me, but it is not the whole picture. What about encountering divine action through other means of grace like prayer, engaging the Scriptures, corporate worship, and the like? What of discerning divine action through providence? What of the experience of the Holy Spirit? How is God present to us outside of human ministry?

If the problem is our inability to conceive of a God who acts in the immanent frame, and one of Root’s great gifts is naming that problem so clearly, this is also exactly where Root’s work fails. I highly recommend that pastors and laypeople interested in these things read Root’s books and wrestle with his arguments. They will help us understand a little better the disease we all carry and how very tricky it is to locate the cure.

But sometimes the trickiest thing to find is the thing right under your nose. God is at work all around us and within us in a host of different ways—speaking, blessing, judging, and wooing people into the embrace of the Son and the Spirit. As easy as it is to decry such things—I have poked fun at it myself—perhaps God even finds a desperate soul the occasional parking spot. God also heals, transforms, rescues, sanctifies, and more. Sometimes God does these kinds of things through other people.

But sometimes, God just does them.

[1] See, for example, Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2007), 539.

[2] Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age: Responding to the Church’s Obsession with Youthfulness, Ministry in a Secular Age, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 150 and 141.

[3] Root, The Pastor in a Secular Age: Ministry to People Who No Longer Need a God, Ministry in a Secular Age, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019), 148.

[4] Root, The Pastor in a Secular Age, 258.

[5] Root, The Pastor in a Secular Age, 272.