Navigating Secular Spirituality

Magnificence, burnout, and confession with Andy Root

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In a cultural moment marked by widespread spiritual curiosity as well as a decline in traditional religious affiliation, church leaders face a unique challenge: How can they effectively connect their ministries with a society that is increasingly drawn to secular sources of meaning and transformation?

This question was at the heart of a recent conversation between theologian Dr. Andy Root and host Dr. Dwight Zscheile on the Pivot Podcast. Drawing from his latest book, The Church in an Age of Secular Mysticisms, Andy offered valuable insights for church leaders seeking to navigate this complex terrain.

What Is “Secular Spirituality”?

According to Andy, our society is experiencing a resurgence of what he calls “secular mysticisms”— narratives of self-transformation and “inner magnificence” that inspire people to put spiritual meaning on secular pursuits like education, self-help, or even addiction recovery. “This is not a kind of purely rationalist age where people are like, ‘You live, you die, that’s it,’” Andy says. “People are looking to find significant transformational change.”

These narratives, rooted in the Enlightenment thinker Rousseau’s belief in humanity’s inherent goodness, fuel a cultural obsession with self-optimization and performance. As Andy notes, “There is a presumption that each self is magnificent in and of itself.”

But this narrative comes at a cost: it leads to burnout, shame, and the false idea that our worth comes from our ability to harness our own inner resources.

For church leaders, this phenomenon presents a twofold challenge. On one hand, we must resist the temptation to merely replicate these narratives within the church, perpetuating a cycle of burnout and resentment as congregants strive to “optimize” their spiritual lives. 

On the other hand, we must find ways to connect with those seeking genuine transformation, even if their language and experiences are shaped by secular ideas.

What If It’s a Relief that Human Beings Aren’t All-Good, Actually?

Andy’s proposed solution is a return to what he calls a “low anthropology” – a recognition of our brokenness and need for something beyond ourselves. In old-school theological terms, we might talk about reclaiming the doctrine of Original Sin.

“The burnout that you and a lot of your people feel is a real spiritual epidemic,” Andy says. “It isn’t just that you can’t manage your busyness. It rests in the fact that we have no other kind of moral evaluation of good action than the expenditure of energy.” 

It’s an impossible, unrelenting standard.

Andy adds that the last thing people need is for the church to “simply [replicate] that whole cycle of ‘We want you to get busy volunteering and supporting our institution.’” Instead, he advocates for creating spaces within the church where people can tell the truth about loss, grief, and the impossibility of trying to “have it all,” opening themselves to the transformative power of God’s grace and the consolation of community. 

Recovering the Practice of Confession

How? Andy suggests it might be time to recover one of the church’s most ancient practices: confession.

“We’re in a time where people really deeply need to make confessions,” Andy says. He suggests that the church has a vital role to play in providing contexts where individuals can vulnerably share their struggles and experience the consolation of community.

Root draws inspiration from the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He highlights Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on the “low anthropology of the dynamic of confession”—the idea that acknowledging our weakness and need for God is foundational to authentic spirituality.

In Bonhoeffer’s underground seminary, students were required to confess their sins to one another. Bonhoeffer believed that without this practice of mutual confession, they would be ill-equipped to stand against the evil of Nazism. For Bonhoeffer, the act of confession was not just about individual piety, but about forging the bonds of community that could withstand the trials of the world.

Root argues that confession is just as crucial for the church today. In a world that celebrates self-actualization and autonomy, the practice of confession subverts the narrative of the magnificent self. It creates space for people to be honest about their pain, doubt, and longing for transformation.

Importantly, Root sees confession not as a manipulative technique or a means of reinforcing guilt, but as an invitation to experience grace and consolation. When we vulnerably share our burdens with others, we open ourselves to the transformative power of being truly seen and loved in community.

For church leaders, this means cultivating environments where confession is normalized and celebrated. It may involve recovering traditional liturgical practices of confession, or creating new spaces where people can safely share their stories of struggle and hope. 

When they do this, churches offer a countercultural witness to a world that is weary of performing and pretending. They become communities where people find the freedom to be honest about their brokenness, and in doing so, experience the healing power of grace.

As the cultural landscape continues to shift, Andy’s perspective offers a timely and much-needed reminder: true transformation comes not from within, but from the consolation of a community centered on the crucified and risen Christ. By creating spaces for confession and surrender, churches can become beacons of hope in an age of “secular mysticisms,” offering a path to genuine spiritual fulfillment.

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