By Andrew Root
The “Ministry in a Secular Age” series by Andrew Root seeks to do two key things: 1) explain what’s going on in our wider social context regarding religion, faith, and secularism in our modern era and how they’re affecting the church, and 2) give recommendations for how the church (and Christianity more broadly) can adapt to survive and thrive in a largely secular context.
Regarding the first goal, Root draws heavily on The Secular Age by Charles Taylor in explaining the modern condition. According to Taylor, the world has been “disenchanted” over the last five centuries. In the premodern era, everything was enchanted, haunted, cursed, and/or blessed by supernatural entities (gods, clergy, witches, everyday people). The “cause” of most things was understood to be the result of a supernatural intervention of some kind (God blessing a king’s victory in battle, a witch cursing your business endeavors, etc.). One of the key characteristics of our modern age is that the world has been disenchanted. Instead of assuming that something is the result of a supernatural invention, instead the default interpretation is that it’s the result of atoms and molecules being affected by the laws of physics. Superstition and religious belief have been replaced by science and empirical evidence.
In such a world, argues Root, it’s no wonder that the church, its clergy, and its members are increasingly seen as quaint, yet irrelevant to a citizen of the modern world.
In premodern times, clergy controlled access to God through the sacraments; you had no choice but to pay attention to them and respect their authority if you wanted to avoid an eternity in hellfire. Very few people in modern, Western societies subscribe to that belief, even among faithful church members. The church and its clergy have been dethroned and disenchanted in our Secular Age.
In response to the second goal, Root argues that the most effective way for Christians, clergy, and congregations alike to make God visible in today’s secular world is through ministry. In other words, being present with and serving others in ways that reveal God and God’s nature to those to whom we minister. In these ministry efforts, God can be incarnated in a way that is comprehensible to those whose worldviews have been shaped by modernity and secularism.
Therefore, Root recommends a different path than appealing to youth with attempts to be trendy and hip, or the reassertion of ecclesiastical and sacramental authority. Instead, God can be made most effectively through presence, prayer, and service to open people up to God’s transcendent reality.
All in all, I appreciate Root’s perspectives on different approaches to Christian mission and especially the difficult question of how the church might adapt and thrive in a secular age. He is correct, I think, that neither youthful trendiness nor dogmatic assertion of sacramental authority will be very effective in the long run. I do wonder, though, how ministry and service might accomplish these goals. In Root’s telling, ministering and being ministered to will (perhaps too easily?) make God incarnate in today’s secular world. The skeptic in me asks “yes, but many secular organizations and ideologies also support and encourage interpersonal service” or “receiving an act of service can be explained just as well by atoms and brain chemistry as it can the Incarnation of God.” I didn’t get a satisfying answer to those questions in this series.
Nonetheless, I wholeheartedly endorse Root’s key point that a refocus on ministry would do much to spark energy and vitality in our communities, as it is a key characteristic of the Christian life and ethos.