Book Review: ‘The Congregation in a Secular Age: Keeping Sacred Time Against the Speed of Modern Life’ by Andrew Root

Despite the ways in which the coronavirus pandemic has confused our concept of time and curtailed a host of plans and activities, nearly all of us—and this is certainly true of pastors—feel as if we cannot keep up with the constant motion of the modern world. Life is fast. Maybe you don’t have to “go” to work, but now you can replace that commute time with more work—at your house! And maybe you don’t need to take your kids to school, but you can replace that time with writing emails—while your kids ask you for food! Life is fast, and even a pandemic can’t seem to slow it down.

Pastoral responses to the quickened pace of modern life have often been overly simplistic and covertly pharisaical. “Take a Sabbath,” we say. Or, “Create rhythms of self-care.” Or, “Make sure your calendar has margin.” There is wisdom, of course, in such advice, but it’s important to pay attention to how and why we pursue it, not just whether. Sabbath and self-care can quickly become utilitarian. Heeding the wisdom of Scripture for selfish gain, innovative productivity, and schedule optimization will only lead us back to where we started: exhausted and confused about where the time went.

Andrew Root achieves something quite remarkable, then, in his latest volume, The Congregation in a Secular Age. Root, a ministry professor at Luther Seminary, places two issues—speed and secularism—at the center of our current cultural weariness. But the solutions he offers are anything but simplistic. Nowhere, for instance, does he encourage pastors to “rest” or “take Sabbath seriously” or cultivate “soul-forming habits.”

What Root recognizes, on a profound level, is that measures meant to un-hurry your life often exacerbate the pressures of speed, since they spring from the same secular impulse to optimize your calendar or create “sustainable” habits. Productivity, not genuine rest, remains the goal. Root calls the church to beware spiritual disciplines cloaked in utilitarian language.

Exchanging our timekeepers

This book is the third and final volume in Root’s Ministry in a Secular Age series, all of which draw on themes from the work of Charles Taylor, a philosopher best known for his landmark book A Secular Age. (Volumes 1 and 2 explore faith formation and the pastor, respectively). Turning to the subject of congregational life, Root asks: How has the pace of the modern world sapped the energy of so many church communities? We pastors feel this: How come no one is signing up for classes? Why is it so difficult to find just one night each week that “works” for a ministry event? Why are the leaders of our family and youth ministries always so tired and busy?

The Congregation in a Secular Age zeroes in on the effects of a cultural shift in our dominant mode of marking time. As Root puts it, we have exchanged our “timekeepers.” Comparing ancient church calendars in a place like Avignon, France (think monks and bells), with the apps, devices, and communication platforms of Silicon Valley, Root argues that our new timekeeper has burdened the church with abnormal forms of anxiety.

In Avignon, the church kept the time. In other words, the life of a village or town orbited around a religious calendar, rather than the secular calendars we rely upon today. Each day, the sounds of bells ringing from church towers marked either times of prayer or the beginning and end of various services.

Today, however, our experience of time has shifted from the bells of Avignon to the push notifications of Silicon Valley, which has sped up our experience of reality. The rhythms of the church calendar have given way to the imperatives of innovation and change. “Innovate or die” is the new mantra of our disruption economy, and the church feels increasingly obliged to operate on the same logic. Now that technological advancement allows us to get more done in less time, we put greater pressure on individuals, families, and congregations to accelerate “impact,” even when we aren’t sure what impact means or looks like.

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Source: Christianity Today