Churches and the Crisis of Decline

Why are church attendance and religiosity dwindling? What are we being called to do about it?

young man praying in the middle of church
emotional intelligence theme image for March 2022. Four cartoons are actively putting four puzzle pieces

Churches and the Crisis of Decline: A Hopeful, Practical Ecclesiology for a Secular Age is Root’s fourth book in the Ministry in a Secular Age series published by Baker Academic, on March 1, 2022. In the previous three books in this series, Root offers analyses of the impact of the secular age on faith formation, pastors, and congregations; however, in this book Root offers the reader a less specific analysis of what is happening to the life of faith within the secular age, in favor of what he calls a “hopeful, practical ecclesiology for a secular age.” 

A fictional church like ours

Root begins this book by creating a fable focused on a fictional church called Saint John the Baptist. He then moves on to engage the theology of Karl Barth, and eventually the sociology of Hartmut Rosa. It is important to note that Barth and/or Rosa purists might see his use and interpretation as suspect, but the goal of Root’s engagement is not to elucidate upon the theology of Barth or the sociology of Rosa, but rather to contextualize their thought by giving them the language of Charles Taylor (Taylor is Root’s primary conversation partner in the book series).

In classic Andy Root style, he brings a narrative approach to his writing full of thoughtful anecdotes and analogies (with no shortage of TV and movie references), that is sure to engage any reader, and he delivers this in such a way that lay readers, pastors, and academics alike are sure to find intellectual, emotional, and spiritual stimulation. The book begins by setting up the fictional context of Saint John the Baptist church and introducing the reader to his primary conversation partner, Karl Barth. Each of the 17 chapters addresses a challenge that Root sets up for Saint John the Baptist church and offers reflection and insight into the life and theology of Karl Barth who was himself pastoring and writing in the midst of a different type of crisis, World War II. 

There is not enough space for me to offer an analysis of each chapter and all the nuances of this important book, so what I offer is a reflection on two important components that shape this book, immanence and resonance, followed by some practical thoughts of my own.

Immanence and the crisis of mission

In my estimation, what Root is contending at the outset of this book is that the crisis of decline is really a crisis of mission. As a response to declining church attendance and the decline of religiosity in the secular age, Root suggests that the church has sought out ingenuity and relevance, and in doing so has made the church itself the subject of its own story—the church has made its own survival its primary mission. As Root explains, the fictional Saint John the Baptist is facing similar challenges to many churches today, for example, declining attendance, declining giving, staff turnover, et cetera, and in an effort to combat these trends they have sought out opportunities for growth that look starkly inward at what the church is and can offer, rather than to the true subject of the church’s story, God. 

This is where Root finds Barth so helpful. Barth, often referred to as a theologian of crisis, in the midst of his own cultural chaos created by World War II, became adamant that the subject of the Christian community must be God. Even within a secular age where transcendence seems to have been lost and the world’s consciousness is closed off to the possibility of anything other than imminence (that which is here, material, and established by the methods of modernity), Barth puts forth what Root describes as a contradiction, the axiom, ‘God is God’. Root traces this axiom to the young pastor Christophe Blumhardt, whom Barth learned a tremendous amount from. But it is in this contradiction that God can actually become the subject of the church’s story. In fact, this contradiction frees the pastor and the congregant alike from the ever-present anxiety of relativizing God to a world that no longer acknowledges transcendence. Churches like Saint John the Baptist have made their mission a rat race of church survival and have gone through a litany of ministry methods seeking to somehow capture God and communicate God to the culture around us. According to Root:

The Meaningless statement “God is God” explains nothing but nevertheless reminds us that to speak of God is to witness to one who cannot be explained. To say “God is God” is to claim that God is beyond explanation. It is to seek to name the one who takes no concern for human constructs of explanation. To assert that God is God is to assert that God is beyond, and even in opposition to, all human frames, explanations, and structures. (pg. 59)

When the church can affirm that God is God, its reliance moves from human “frames, explanations, and structures” and the faculties of the immanent frame to God. “[This] move helps those in the immanent frame find God, because only in confessing that we have no way to find God are we assured that we seek God and not just our own echo” (Pg. 75).

Church and resonance 

Root finds the work of sociologist Hartmut Rosa to be of grave importance for the church in the secular age. Rosa believes that within the immanent frame the world has sped up or accelerated, and according to Root we have been cast into two forms of “waiting,” waiting toward having and waiting toward being. When the world is waiting to have something, it fills our existence with “things.” Because of the immanent frame, immediacy is king, and we find ourselves in constant wait for the next thing, and the next thing, and in our impatience of waiting we fill the void with more “things” that we expect will satisfy us. Root says,“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” (Pg. 155). In this way of waiting, toward being, we become open to the possibility of encounter with the God who is God. This is where Root uses Rosa’s concept of “resonance” in a careful and very well executed way to elucidate the challenges the church faces in late modernity. Resonance requires a communal existence, a communal being together, versus the accelerated modern existence of waiting for “things.” Root says:

“Being in relationships which are bound in the being form as opposed to the having form, is experience as being alive. Rosa explains…that a relationship that is for being together, which produces the energy of life…”(161). 

To explain this Root sets up a scenario between a member of Saint John the Baptist, Sue, and a young man named Woz who comes to the church asking for help “finding God.” What Sue and Woz eventually discover together is exactly this idea of resonance. Sue wasn’t supposed to help Woz find God because ‘God is God’ can’t be found by us; rather, in waiting together they realize they were not waiting to find, “They were waiting for God to find Woz.” However, Root is quick to note that resonance is not simply about an emotion the church embodies, it is a call for action, a call for affection, suffering, and conversation, but not a call for busyness or a call to wait toward having. 

These are my words, not Roots, but the church in many regards is a church waiting toward having, not a church waiting toward being. The church waiting toward having is simply a recapitulation or assimilation of the immanent frame. When the concept of resonance is applied to the church it reinforces the importance of the ‘God is God’ contradiction. We, in our churches, have made our mission the mission of survival, an attempt to capture God on our own accord, rather than a community of existence who waits together to hear the voice of God in a world that is open neither to waiting nor to listening for the voice of a transcendent God. 

What now?

Andy Root, in this fantastic book and the previous books in the series, is hesitant to be prescriptive, and I do think that is intentional. He doesn’t assume that all contexts are the same, or that there is actually one prescriptive model of ministry or faith formation that will bring churches to life and save them from the crisis of decline. However, within the lines of this book are nuggets of prescription that rely not on particular methods, but on an overarching mission—the mission of a communal fidelity to the God who is God. What does that mean, however, for those of us in the practice of ministry where we have been taught that there are “ways” of doing ministry that “work,” and we too find ourselves in the rat race of church survival? 

I think it means this: in the context of the immanent frame, declining church attendance, and a cultural rejection of transcendence, our methods of ministry will not save us, and we must stop thinking they will. The move from method to method, from this context to that one, is at its core an attempt at relevance and we can be assured that these attempts at relevance require the church itself to be the main character of its story. Looking at practical resources, assessing sociological data, and seeking to meet those in the context where we are at are not bad things; they are good. But, if that is all we are doing and all we are for, the crisis of decline will only end when we grow tired of chasing the approval of modernity.

Saint John the Baptist church has taught us something of significant importance that I hope and pray we all can make manifest in our churches: that our calling is to wait, to create space to wait together, and to be open to hearing the voice of a transcendent God in a world dominated by immanence. Although many would see a church like Saint John the Baptist as declining, “Saint John the Baptist was now a church that was now alive because it was a church encountering a lived transcendence.” To survive is not to live, but to wait together for the voice of God is to wait for the source of life itself to encounter you and your church. Seeking survival is a march toward a slow death, seeking the living God is a march toward life together.

  • 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.

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