Beyond the Dialectics of Acceleration and Deceleration

Rethinking church in the Age of Acceleration

Published
four women praying

This essay is part of a series reflecting on the loss of transcendence in contemporary culture and the experience of resonance through the Relevance to Resonance project.

The world has changed dramatically since the inception of the Information Age in the mid-20th century. An acceleration of life and access to information due to innovation and technology has reshaped the way we as humans interact with one another, receive and distribute information, as well as our weekly rhythms around life and work. The sociologist Hartmut Rosa calls this phenomenon “social acceleration” whereby the world—at least in theory—becomes more attainable, available, and accessible to us. The social impact of our accelerated age spares no one and no institution, including the church. And one might argue that social acceleration in cooperation with the rise of secularism has impacted the church and other religious institutions more than any other. In fact, at least statistically, religious participation and the social import of the church have declined drastically and beyond what many would have thought or anticipated. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has indeed exacerbated the decline of religious participation and codified technology as our primary source of communication and information both in society and in a congregational setting. As a result, the makeup of the congregation has evolved and devolved in ways that many believed the church to be immune from, namely, the church in both its evolution and devolution has become a technological animal in its own right. Some cry anathema to the rise of technology in favor of a slower culturally antithetical character meant to preserve Christianity’s place within society, while others laud the rise of technology as a means toward relativizing the church’s mission and message as a remedy to the rise of secularism. 

I want to suggest that both of these postures towards the church, a posture towards acceleration and a posture towards deceleration, negatively impact the life of the worshiping congregation, and in fact, these postures dramatically lessen the influence of the church in the secular age. I don’t simply want to make this assertion about the church on theological grounds, but also from personal reflection within the context of congregational ministry. Thus, what follows will be a theological and practical critique of these two postures toward the church followed by a proposal of a third way.

What’s wrong with acceleration?

As the world accelerates with no sign of slowing down, it only makes sense that the church would feel compelled and pressured to accelerate in step with the larger society and culture. Many churches have felt this pressure and at least have attempted to close the gap between accelerated society and an often technologically “behind” church. The goal of an accelerated congregation is simple: use the tools of accelerated society and technology to combat secularism and decline. This type of congregation has marketing prowess, technological innovation, and often social influence. They may continue with regular programming like youth group and small groups, but these too bear a likeness to that of everyday society —there is a conformity that takes place. 

A congregation that embodies a posture of acceleration doesn’t offer its congregants an alternative, but rather a cloak, a cloak for religiosity within secular life. The accelerated congregational posture attempts to maintain its influence upon its community and society through relativizing all aspects of church life, even the sermon. The sermon becomes more and more approachable, the music becomes more and more like the music heard on the radio, and the message evolves into a reification of societal values namely: increase, increase, increase. The accelerated congregation has equally hopped on the train of social acceleration, but sees itself as a vehicle for religious relevance rather than simply another arm of secular society and social acceleration itself. The interesting aspect of the accelerated church is that it often presents as a Niebuhrian Christ of Culture motif where there is little distinction between Christ and his church and the culture at hand. However, in many of the congregations that present this posture, there is a bait and switch that happens. The accelerated church uses the tools of social acceleration yet at its core it is antithetical to the values of culture. Although the language the church speaks is one adapted from and shared with culture, it is not clear that the transferring of values from social to ecclesial ever happens. 

The goal of the accelerated congregation is to “meet people where they are at” using the tools that speak most plainly to them. What largely happens, however, is a deeper contribution to the acceleration of life. No longer does the church offer a wholly other alternative like a highly decelerated congregation does, but it in fact exacerbates and engenders social acceleration because the accelerated church is indeed a mechanism of secularism. Accelerated churches are cool and bright and shiny, that is, until they are not, and their identity devolves into either nothingness and is consumed by culture, or it evolves into something more like a self-help group or leadership organization than a worshiping community. In the attempt to fight secularization by using the tools of secularization for its own good, the church becomes a tool for the secular age and its ecclesial identity is consumed by cultural identities. 

What’s wrong with deceleration?

On the other side of the ecclesial coin is the decelerated church. As we see declining religiosity and church attendance, particularly in the West, many churches, pastors, and congregants are quick to name the culprit: social acceleration. The speed at which we live is moving so fast that the church cannot keep up. Many local congregations lack the marketing prowess, social influence, technological adaptations, and appeal necessary to grab the attention and elicit prioritization by our social economy. And the church knows the antidote: the decelerated church. The church that seeks to decelerate attempts to offer an alternative to the accelerated pace of life found in the world. It publicly laments the death of mid-week dinners, youth groups, choir, and education programs, and even more so laments the reality of athletics on Sundays. To harken back to a motif coined by Niebuhr, it takes a Christ Above Culture posture by which the church as an alternative is not necessarily antithetical to the life of mainstream society, but it is better. 

The congregation in the suburbs of Atlanta, or name your chosen city, doesn’t play into the accelerated technological culture at hand, it simply offers itself. It maintains its morning in-person worship times, offers mid-week programming regardless of participation, and vocally opposes the choices that conflict with participating in the life of the church, hoping to leave the congregant feeling empowered to make better decisions for the sake of Jesus—that better decision being: church. It’s a full-fledged rejection of social acceleration which is defined by attainability, availability, and accessibility.

What occurs in reality is the congregant is left deflated. Deflated by the response to their attempt at making faith a priority for themselves and their children, deflated because they have tried, deflated because the church doesn’t seem to care about their entire lives, and deflated because they feel as though their church community is only their church community if they indeed are present physically. Not only does this method of slowing down create animosity between congregations and their congregants, but it engenders a language gap. In other words, the language of the “decelerated church” over time evolves to speak an entirely different language than those it seeks to reach. The church speaks a language foreign to those outside of it, and in doing so the church becomes unintelligible to anyone not already speaking the language it prescribes. A decelerated posture, although there are benefits to deceleration, ostracizes both its congregants and itself from broader society, engendering both secularism and decline. What the decelerated posture seeks to combat, it in fact exacerbates.

A third way

It is doubtless that the current congregation I serve has dabbled with both decelerating and accelerating, and I as a pastor have been a proponent of both at times. There are positives and negatives to both postures, but what is troubling at its core is that both of these postures are mechanisms of survival, and survival has never been a tenet of the gospel or the goal of the universal church and local congregation. What these postures create is what Hartmut Rosa calls alienation, where there is “a process of dampening, in which the vibration or oscillation of the entities involved is not reinforced, but rather weakened or disrupted. In a state of alienation, the particular voices of these entities instead tend to become inaudible or inexpressive, with subject and world confronting each other as a rigid mute.”  Exchange “world” for “church” and you have an entity that can no longer speak into the lives of real humans existing in a 21st-century world. In other words, the conversation between congregations and congregants is no longer conversational; either the congregation speaks an entirely foreign language, or its language is so familiar that the congregant is simply speaking to themselves. 

In my own experience as a pastor, these two postures are not just theoretically, but practically alienating—congregants are either left with guilt or nothing at all. In our attempts to either decelerate or accelerate, we fail to demythologize or translate our mission and existence to the congregants we are already ministering to and to those we seek to know (Congdon). It is also clear that people are longing for more. They are longing for more than an alternative to mainstream society and yet they also do not want their church to simply be a reification of it. They are longing for something similar to what Miroslav Volf defines as “an emotional attunement between the self and the world—usually a small portion of it—experienced as blessing.” I might add to Volf: an emotional attunement between self, God, and the world. 

There is another way, however. A way that neither embodies deceleration nor acceleration as an ethic, but rather values the unification of communal life with God and one another that exists in the broader context of a secular society. In his book Churches and the Crisis of Decline, Andy Root makes a distinction between a church that is “waiting toward having” and a church that is “waiting toward being”. A church that is waiting toward being is the beginning of an alternative, for this church’s primary role is to listen for the direction of God rather than the direction of society, which in turn creates a unification of God, self, and world. This feeling or understanding of existence can be best described by Hartmut Rosa as “resonance”. “Resonance is a kind of relationship to the world, formed through affect and emotion, intrinsic interest, and perceived self-efficacy, in which subject and world are mutually affected and transformed”. In ecclesial terms, there is a communion of saints and God engendered not through a one-way conversation, but through the work of the Holy Spirit moving God and humanity toward one another in real-time. 

The church embodies resonance when it rejects the acceleration of the world for the sake of acceleration, while simultaneously rejecting the inclination to decelerate simply as a means of being culturally antithetical. Instead, the church seeks not a middle ground, but a third way where deceleration and acceleration converge, not in method but in translation. In other words, a decelerated church finds challenges speaking to an accelerated world because the language is foreign, and an accelerated church is a burnt-out church whose goal is not the kingdom but building its own kingdom. A resonant church transcends these categories because in a resonant church it is God who is moving and speaking, not us

In my own ministry, I have sought not to respond to the attainable, available, and accessible expectations of the world in favor of being relational, missional, and accessible, which seeks to reframe the church as a commodity to a community. It is only when we are relational with God and one another, missional in our sharing of this experience, and accessible to people from all walks of life that we in practice seek resonance without seeking ourselves. Attainability, availability, and accessibility are not in themselves bad or harmful ideals, but they cannot be the telos of the church. The telos of the church must be grounded in God, and what God is saying to us. Thus, until the church helps its congregants seek resonance with God, self, and world, it will simply be another commodity in our accelerated and secular age. 

Resources

Congdon, David W.  The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015)

Root, Andrew. Churches and the Crisis of Decline: A Hopeful, Practical Ecclesiology for a Secular Age (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2022), 155. “This second way of waiting [toward being] gives us the freedom not to have the world but to be freely in the world, by waiting with and for the world”. 

Rosa, Hartmut. Resonance: A Sociology of our Relationship to the World (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2019), 174, 179

Volf, Miroslav. “Joy and the Good Life”, https://www.abc.net.au/religion/joy-and-the-good-life/10096486 

  • Andrew Esqueda

    Andrew Esqueda is the Associate Pastor for Family Ministries at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, GA. He is married to his wife Megan, has two sons, Isaiah and Desmond, and an English bulldog named Cali. He regularly speaks and writes on issues pertaining to ministry and theology, church in the secular age, and youth and family ministry.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Upcoming Leadership Training Series

  

Apply the insights of Brené Brown’s work to your faithful leadership.

Upcoming Lay Leader Training Cohort

  

The School for Lay Ministry is Back! Reserve your spot today.

Upcoming Preaching Workshop

  

Address controversial topics from the pulpit with wisdom, humor, and grace.