How to Kill a Church

Working on my sermon for this week and it occurred to me how many ways there are to kill a church. Here are just a few that I have identified:

  • Attack the leadership – the congregation’s problems are all their fault.
  • Make every issue about you and them, not us.
  • Never, ever, under any circumstance, volunteer to help.
  • Criticize everyone who does volunteer to help.
  • Compare your congregation to one that is bigger, wealthier, in a larger community that has far more resources.
  • Be sure to be offended by every effort to grow – both spiritually and numerically, and be sure to let everyone else know just how offended you are.

Any others?

The Consequences of Trivializing Sin

[Continuing my thoughts from yesterday, SIN – It’s Not Just a Little Boo-boo]

I think, on a fundamental level, we just do not fully understand sin. As I pointed out yesterday, we may have a pretty good grasp of individual sins, as in moral deficiencies, but I am just not convinced that we really have a handle on SIN. This, I further believe, has at least two huge repercussions. The first is in relation to our understanding of the cross as made explicit through the act of baptism, and the second is our lack of understanding (or appreciating) the depth of the pervasiveness of sin as a systemic issue in our lives. I will have to save point two for a later post.

To set the background for my first point, let me use the only example I can speak confidently about – my own experience. During my early teen years I watched as all of my peers stepped forward and were baptized. I watched as they went into the water, and then came out of the water basically the same person. I never really noticed any changes, and in one or two cases, they actually became more accomplished sinners! I fought being baptized for this very reason – I just did not see much of a change in the lives of my friends. Then one day I too stepped forward and was baptized. I went into the water and came out of the water basically the same person. I felt a little different, at least at first, but as time wore on it was pretty obvious to me at least that there had not been much of a change in my life.

The problem was, at least as I can analyze it today some 40+ years after the event, that before I was baptized I considered myself a pretty good person. Oh, I was only too aware of my sins, but nobody is ever perfect, and since everyone around me considered that I was a pretty good person, I was only too willing to go along with the general consensus. Thus, when I was baptized I was vaguely aware that a legal transaction had taken place, that my sins were forgiven, that I was now a member of the church of Christ.

But, on an existential level, nothing had really changed. I came out just as self-centered, just as prone to anger, just as narcissistic, and just as capable of “playing the game” as I was was when I entered the baptistery. The only real difference, as far as I could tell, was that over the course of a couple of minutes I had now become an “insider” where before I was an “outsider,” and I was now “saved” where just a few minutes earlier I had been “lost.” I could now partake of the Lord’s Supper, and, as I am a male, I could lead in worship.

Outside of the generic Bible classes to which we were all being subjected, I had not been discipled. I was not at that time being discipled. In fact, no one ever took me and became my mentor, my teacher, my “discipler.”

This is just a guess, but I am thinking that my story could be repeated hundreds, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of times for young people in my generation, maybe even other generations.

If all baptism is supposed to do is to be a legal transaction, a “rite (and sometimes a right, something owed and expected) of passage” and a place marker that separates the insiders from the outsiders, the “saved” from the “lost,” then I think the main reason is because we have completely lost an appreciation of what sin really is. By extension, we have completely lost an appreciation of the meaning of the cross.

The “gospel plan of salvation” as it was presented to me illustrates my conclusion perfectly. We are taught, at least once upon a time in the Church of Christ kids were taught, to “hear, believe, repent, confess and be baptized.” That was it. That was the “gospel plan of salvation.” That was the Church of Christ equivalent to praying the sinners prayer or inviting Jesus into your heart. Notice nothing followed “be baptized.” It ended right there. Oh, in some presentations there is lip service given to “live a good life,” but really, what does that mean? For virtually every kid that ever grew up within the Churches of Christ, we WERE good kids before we were baptized (or so we thought, very, very few would have confessed to being “sons of disobedience”) and we continued to be basically good kids after we were baptized. Sin, if it was mentioned at all, was illustrated by dancing, smoking, doing drugs, having sex with our girlfriends (or boyfriends, if you were a girl), or maybe using “cuss” words or looking at magazines that were hidden behind brown wrappers at the convenience stores. That is, sin was simply a list of moral failures, a long list of things to avoid. I was never taught that SIN was a realm, a spiritual dimension of my life presided over by a malevolent “prince of the power of the air” as the apostle Paul describes him in Ephesians 2:1.

It is dreadfully difficult, if not impossible, to renounce something you never knew existed, or continued to exist, in your life.

Sadly, what I have described as my experience is the very same message I have been preaching for years. I can remember baptizing a number of young people, or at least having a part in bringing them to baptism, and then just dropping them. No discipling, no mentoring, no bringing them to an awareness of the seriousness of the concept of sin. They were “lost,” now they were “saved,” so move on to the next target. If no concept of sin, then no concept of grace, of forgiveness, of the cross.

God, save us from our arrogance!

As I am learning in my studies in Ephesians (and, thereby retroactively to other of Paul’s letters), Paul did NOT have this misunderstanding of sin. For Paul the awesome reality of the seriousness of sin was as real as the nose on his face. Paul’s converts were dead in sin, until they died with Christ in the waters of baptism (Eph. 2:1; Rom. 6:1ff; 1 Cor. 15:1ff; Gal. 3:27-28). [Aside here – I just realized today the power, and really the beauty, of Paul’s usage of the words death and dying. We are all spiritually dead outside of Christ, until we die to ourselves and to the world, so that we might live in Him. Wow.] There are only two realms for Paul – we are either in the world, or we are in Christ. The one is under the power of the “prince of the power of the air,” the other is to be ruled by Christ and his Father. Although God is ruler over all, Paul was still aware that for those who so desired, Satan was very much a power and lord of their lives.

As I mentioned yesterday, if sin is only a catalog of sins, if sin is simply a matter of mastering a few moral deficiencies in our lives, then the cross is emptied of all of its power. It should be more than obvious that agnostics and atheists can live as moral, or sometimes even more moral, lives than some “born again” Christians. If morality and ethics are the only issue, the cross becomes literally and physically meaningless. And, if the cross is meaningless, then our baptism means that we only got wet.

I have so much more to say on this issue, but for the moment, I must pause. I hope that these meditations have been valuable to you. I hope that you are reading Ephesians along with me. I hope that either through my words or through your own study you can come to grasp what Paul is telling these Christians. Sin is nothing to trifle with. Sin is not just a violation of a little children’s song. A cosmic battle is taking place, and SIN is the realm into which this world has fallen. There is only one rescue from this realm, and that is the cross of the Messiah, the blood of Jesus.

If we cannot grasp that first reality, then the second is of no use whatsoever.

When We Are Called To Fail

Achieving the wrong goals can never be considered a good thing. To win the wrong prize is to lose.

For thousands of years the universal church has been trying to win the war of power. For the past 200 years the overwhelming majority of the American Restoration Movement has been engaged in winning that battle as well. (We have had our cultural non-conformists, but they have always been pushed to the periphery and ignored.) Today the war trumpets are at full blast – lose the presidency and we lose the Supreme Court and if we lose the Supreme Court we lose . . . power.

Power. It’s all about power. Preachers want to increase the church attendance so the budget can go up so a bigger building can be built so that they can receive greater and greater accolades and . . . more power. University presidents want their endowments to increase so they can build more and bigger buildings and fund more competitive athletic teams so they can bring in even more money and . . . more power. If the American system of economics or justice or education or religion any other topic can be summarized in one word it would be the acquisition of power.

How tragic, then, when we use the name and sacrifice of Jesus to gain that power. Jesus was not just the picture of refusing worldly power, he literally incarnated it. It was Jesus’s kenosis, his self-emptying of all heavenly power, that was the force behind the explosive growth of the church in the first 300 years of its existence. In a paradox that defies all human explanation – and in a refutation of every secular growth strategy – the church grew the fastest and had the greatest impact on vastly different cultures precisely when it was the weakest.

For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)

If the apostle Paul were preaching today, he would be considered delusional.

If that is considered delusional, then count me in too. I am growing more and more convinced that in order for God to preserve his church he is going to have to drive it into cultural bankruptcy. That is to say the church will have to once again assume its position of secular powerlessness and irrelevancy. Then, having reached the bottom of what the world would consider to be power, we can be open to receive the limitless and irrepressible power of God’s Holy Spirit. Then, maybe we can be to American hubris what the first disciples of Christ were to Caesar.

Label me a heretic if you will, but I am not too terribly concerned that the church grows. I am vitally concerned that church leaders create, and re-create, faithful disciples of Christ. If our numbers decrease, but our faith and commitment deepens, we will have won a great victory. I do not want more and more of the shallow pew sitters we have been satisfied with over the past 50-100 years. I want men and women who are so committed to their Lord that they would gladly forfeit everything to be known as one of Christ’s disciples.

The church must once again reject pursuits of what the world falsely labels as power. There is a biblical power to be sure – a power of service, a power of selflessness, a power that surrenders all power to the Holy Spirit. We need more of that power! But we must no longer submit our goals and aspirations to the vision of power that is nothing more than satanic.

We get blinded when look at the brightness of the characters in the Bible that God raised to secular power. We see Joseph as second-in-command to Pharaoh. We see Esther and David and Hezekiah and Josiah. But, let me ask a question: compared to the millions and millions of faithful, spiritual men and women who walked with God – what are these few but a drop in the vast ocean of faithfulness? If God chooses to place someone in a position of secular power, so be it. His ways are past our understanding. My grasp of biblical history is that we should fear such appointments rather than seek them, however. One of the greatest temptations our Lord had to reject was the satanic gift of power.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. . . Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53:7, 12)

It is a paradox, or an irony, that the more we relinquish our human power, the more we surrender that which we think makes us strong, then God provides us with a true and unquenchable power. It is the power of the wash basin and the towel, of the cross. It is the power of viewing ourselves as nothing more than seed sowers and plant waterers. It is the power that only comes when we have the power to say, “I am nothing.”

God has called us to this “no-thing-ness.” When we submit to that call, when we wear the mantle of God’s disciple, we must surrender our most treasured possession – our will to power. As long as we hold onto the drive for power we remain unable to accept God’s most precious gift: the gift of the blood of his Son which was offered during the scene of the greatest example of weakness overcoming power – the cross.

If our baptism does not change our perception of the world and of its lies, then what good does it do to get wet?

There are ways to achieve goals that are not worth fighting for. We can obtain power by using the tricks and manipulations of Satan’s world. But the question I want to ask is why would we want to? If achieving that goal further’s Satan’s kingdom, wouldn’t it be better to fail?

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

Musings on the Gospel of Christ

We are an empty people.

Perhaps it has always been that way – I’m not old enough to remember the days pre-Enlightenment. I’m not too sure about the 1800’s and early 1900’s either. Maybe people were empty back then, too. Maybe one defining mark of humanity is this cavernous emptiness eats away at our soul.

I guess what strikes me about our present culture is how fast, and how far, we have fallen.

We tried the drug thing, and we tried the sex thing. Those analgesics helped for a while, or so it seemed. But when the false high of the drugs and sex wore off, our emptiness became even greater than the void that drove us to the drugs and sex.

The emptiness that returned has now grown to the point that we do not even know what it means to be human any more. Our biological sex is no longer even certain. I read this week where children of younger and younger ages are being given life-altering drugs and undergoing radical surgeries to “change” their birth sex. Boys are undergoing operations to remove their external genitalia and are being given drugs that will keep them in a state of perpetual pre-puberty. Girls are undergoing double mastectomies and are being given massive doses of male hormones. And, if the article is truthful, these procedures are being performed on children as young as 8 or 9 years old.

We have totally redefined marriage, the core unit of any society. With the stupefying progress we have made in the progress to help infertile, heterosexual couples, we now have lesbians carrying “their” babies and gay men parenting a child carried by a surrogate woman.

In terms of gender and sexuality, and by extension marriage, all hell has indeed broken loose.

In politics and partisan conversations, logical and open debate has been replaced by unbridled hatred. Unsubstantiated and unverifiable claims of abuse from three or four decades in the past can destroy a person’s entire career – the accusation does not need to have merit, simply the fact that it has been made is deemed to be enough. A person can honestly and sincerely confess to angry emotions (not actions, mind you, just emotions) and the person is vilified simply because he felt those emotions. And he was confessing the error of holding those emotions!!

Simply put, we don’t have to listen anymore, all we have to do is scream and blacklist and vilify and protest. Descartes’s famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am” has been corrected to, “I hate, therefore I am.”

No one ever proposes a solution. We just hate, and protest. And those who disagree with us just counter-protest. And hate us.

We are just a profoundly empty people. We have no center. When we look deep inside ourselves, there is no “there” there.

And, without a center, without a core truth that sustains us, we have no hope.

And, a people that has no hope will ultimately, and quickly, descend into pure anarchy.

I think we have already started. We have met the enemy, and it is us. (Pogo!)

It is at this point that the gospel of Christ is the most powerful. It is only when it is darkest that a light can be seen most clearly. It is the gospel of Christ that must be returned to the center of our culture – or we face certain annihilation. It is only the gospel of Christ that will allow humans to regain their humanity – it is only the gospel of Christ that gives males the power and joy to be males and gives females the power and joy to be females. It is only the gospel of Christ that will allow virtual wars to become peaceful discussions once again. It is only the gospel of Christ that will allow what is left of our culture to survive – assuming God will even grant it to be healed from the mess we have made of it.

Has a culture ever been as empty as ours? I cannot answer that. I do know that wherever and whenever the gospel of Christ has been preached faithfully, entire civilizations have been renewed.

Can it happen once again, can it happen with us? With God all things are possible.

But, only through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Any other solution will be vanity, a dark and empty void.

The Future of the Church Is . . .

Ever since I was a pre-teenager, back yonder when the crust of the earth had just begun to cool, I have heard that “the future of the church is our young people.” Sometimes it was stated like this, “the youth are not the future of the church, but the youth are the present of the church.” When you are a pre-teen, or a teenager, that is pretty heady stuff. “Hey everybody, listen to me, if not the present, I am certainly the future of the church.”

Well, if my generation was the present of the church back then, or even if we were the not-too-distant future of the church, we have done a pretty good job of mucking the whole thing up.

I have been reminded of my glorified past as I have been thinking about Andrew Root’s two books, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker, and Faith Formation in a Secular Age. Pertinent to both of these books is a very brief work by Dietrich Bonhoeffer entitled, “Theses on Youth Work in the Church,” which is found in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 12, Berlin 1932-1933 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), p. 515-517. I quote the first sentence of these eight theses:

Since the days of the youth movement, church youth work has often lacked that element of Christian sobriety that alone might enable it to recognize that the spirit of youth is not the Holy Spirit and that the future of the church is not youth itself, but rather the Lord Jesus Christ alone.

[For a little longer discussion of these theses, see my post here, The Church and the Idolization of Youth ]

Bonhoeffer recognized, probably early in 1933, that the church was fixated on its youth. Spurred by this insight, and bolstered by many decades of sociological and ecclesiological evidence, Root speaks a prophetic voice to a church that remains infatuated with youth and youthfulness. We have not learned much since my youth-hood, and unless we start listening, we may lose another couple of generations to the mythological concept that they, and they alone, hold the key to the future of the church.

Stated as emphatically as I can, the future of the church lies with Jesus Christ – and I would add the working of the Holy Spirit which empowered the church on the day of Pentecost – alone. The church is not bound by generations, by location, by nationality, by political association. The church is not bound, period. As long as Jesus remains Lord and Christ, the church will be free, and will bring freedom to all who surrender to Jesus.

Let us stop drinking the cup of this noxious poison. The church does not have to “listen to the young people” in order to survive. The church needs to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, and follow those teachings to the cross if necessary. The youth do not drive the church – the youth need to bow in submission to the Christ – just as the middle aged and the elderly must do.

We ascend by climbing lower, not by worshipping youthfulness.

Book Review – Faith Formation in a Secular Age – Andrew Root (pt. 4)

[A little background here – after I posted my first review of Andrew Root’s book, Baker Academic “tweeted” a link to it. I was mortified. It’s one thing to opine about someone’s work if you are, like, 99.999% sure the author will never read your critique. With the surprise advertisement, I was suddenly faced with the fact that Dr. Root might read my review. He did. And he responded. In some of the most gracious words imaginable, no less. I emailed back and forth with him a couple of times, and I am deeply touched by his willingness to discuss his book, and what he saw as legitimate critiques that I made. His correspondence made my week.]

Okay, its been a while in coming, but I think I am finally ready to share my last (maybe, hopefully) review of Andrew Root’s book, Faith Formation in a Secular Age. As I have hopefully already made clear, this book has deeply cut into what I consider to be “faith development,” and I eagerly await the next two volumes in this series. If you have not read my earlier posts, the bottom line is I highly recommend this book – even with the caveat that there is some technical language used, so parts of the book may be daunting.

Now I want to share my main “quibble” with the book. I have a real hesitancy in doing this for one huge reason. My quibble is not so much with something Root said, but with what he did not say. My hesitancy is that I have a real issue with people criticizing what does not exist in a work. I have two master’s degrees and a doctorate, and the one thing that always irritated me the most in getting a graded paper back was when the professor said something like, “…but you did not address ‘x'” (what ever ‘x’ might have  been.) The one time I really deserved this critique was in my Master of Divinity comprehensive exams. I totally forgot to answer half a question. I thought I was going to get “pass plus” and I think I got a pass-minus. Oops.

In regard to Dr. Root’s book, the essence of what he identifies as “faith” centers in the Pauline expression, “in Christ.” My ears perked up. He went on to discuss Saul of Tarsus’ conversion in Acts 9, and the transformation that took place in Saul’s life. I grew more interested. Root emphatically defended his contention that faith in the New Testament occurs when a person symbolically dies, has someone come and minister the death of Christ to them, and then comes to a new life consisting in service and ministry to others. I was totally captivated. And, with bated breath, I kept turning pages waiting for the ultimate hammer to fall – the hammer that would locate this death, burial, and resurrection to a new life in the physical moment of baptism.

It never fell.

And, as I mentioned above, it is not appropriate to overly critique the omission of a topic in someone’s else’s work – so in terms of reviewing Faith Formation in a Secular Age, I will leave you with this simple observation. The omission in no way minimizes the value of this book – I recommend it highly. But – if the book had been mine to write, this is the section I would add regarding baptism.

Ever since the days of Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell, the heirs of the Restoration Movement (especially the Churches of Christ) have been accused of overly emphasizing the physical and spiritual act of baptism. Too many times, I fear, this accusation has been all too accurate. Maybe “overly emphasizing” is overly critical, but we have taken one aspect of conversion and, hopefully not to generalize too much, have turned it into the only aspect of conversion. Just as an example, when someone comes to one of our congregations and seeks membership, the primary question asked of them is not, “do you have the gifts of the Spirit active in your life?” but, “have you been baptized?” (And often included in that question, “. . . by the right person in the right church. . . “)

The end result of this emphasis is that now two hundred years (give or take a few) from the writings of Stone and Campbell, I honestly believe that many members of the Churches of Christ have a totally sacramental view of baptism. Conversion and transformation have been replaced with a magical view of baptism that is utterly absent from the New Testament. What I hear from all too many members of the Church is a curious mixture of evangelicalism (you must be ‘born again’) and Roman Catholicism (it’s just ‘one and done, baptized you’re in, unwashed you’re out’). Talk about your unholy marriages.

Don’t believe me? Just look at the practice of baptism in so many churches. We say that we do not believe in infant baptism, that we are “credo-baptists,” that we only baptize believing adults, or, at the very least, those who have reached the “age of accountability.” [WOULD SOMEONE PLEASE SHOW ME WHERE THAT PHRASE IS USED IN THE NEW TESTAMENT?] And, yet, I see and hear of younger and younger children being baptized – as young as 8 or 9, in some cases probably younger.

We do not allow adolescents to drive until they reach an age twice what we gloriously accept as a “believing adult.” We do not allow anyone to join the military until a couple of years past that. We do not allow anyone to purchase or legally consume alcohol until a couple of years past that. Yet, we trumpet the decision of a child barely into elementary school as a great transformation of life and character. And, we come up with some of the most specious arguments to defend that practice. “But, they believe in Christ.” Um, yeah, so do the demons, according to James 2:19, and it does them no good. “But, what happens if we tell them ‘no’ and they leave the church?” Well, why do we tell our children they can’t have a driver’s license until a  certain age, that they cannot marry until a certain age, that they cannot join the military or drink a beer until a certain age? Why does our judicial system protect minors who are not capable of making adult decisions and being responsible for those decisions until they reach a certain age? And, just to respond to an absurd argument with one equally absurd, what happens if we DO baptize them and then they leave the church – as is happening by the hundreds if not thousands? What then? Do we become crypto-Calvinists and whisper, “Once saved, always saved” as our young adults stream out the back door?

[If you have never sat and answered the anguished questions of one who was baptized as an infant/child, and had them question their faith, their beliefs, their actions, then I suggest that you do sometime. You will not be so quick to dismiss their hopelessness. If they ask for baptism again they feel like they are rejecting the approval of their loved ones years ago. But to continue on living in the doubts and fears of realizing they simply “got wet” in order to please parents or to succumb to peer pressure is spiritually paralyzing.]

You see, as a group of biblical reformers – whose sincere and genuine desire was to restore baptism to a foundational place in the conversion process – we have come full circle to simply practicing baptism as a quaint “right of passage” that doubles as an entry into the membership of a congregation and provides legitimacy to partaking of the Lord’s Supper.

Which brings me right back to Dr. Root’s book. If he is correct in his definition of faith (and I think that if not fully correct, his view points us in a bright and helpful direction), then we must, repeat must, restore the biblical view of baptism to that picture of faith. And, I emphasize this, not just as a brief, momentary photo opportunity, but as a life-long, unending commitment to following in the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

After examining Saul of Tarsus’ conversion in Acts 9, the passage that was most lacking in Dr. Root’s book is Romans 6:1-14. But, hear me on this – it has also been lacking in my preaching and in my life as well. I too have fallen into the “one-and-done, baptized you’re in, unwashed you’re out” mentality. I too have been caught up in the baptism of infant/children. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

I think it is time, past time actually, that the heirs of the Restoration Movement do some actual restoring again. I think we need to restore baptism to its rightful place, not just in the event of a new birth, but in Root’s words, to a lifelong commitment to the death of Jesus – as lived out in service and ministry to others.

In other words, we need to restore the biblical view of faith back into our vocabulary and our practice.

Book Review – Faith Formation in a Secular Age (Andrew Root)

Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 211 pages.

I was first introduced to Andrew Root through his book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer as youth worker. I had seen several references to this book after reading his work on Bonhoeffer, and so I thought I would give it a read (after all, if someone writes on Bonhoeffer, they can’t be all bad, right?). I can honestly say that from a philosophical/theological perspective, it has been a long, long, time since I have had my foundations as shaken as they have been by this book – if ever. But I mean this in a good way – it was a constructive shaking, and in a strange sort of way, it was also re-affirming for some ideas and conclusions that have been latent, but that I have not had the mental acuity to put into concrete expression.

This post will not be all that I have to say about Root’s book – it is just too deep for one little review. What I intend to do here is to just give a brief overview, add some reflective comments, and suggest that I will be looking at a number of Root’s conclusions in greater depth in later posts.

In summary, Root asks one question, “How can we form faith in a secular age,” but in so doing he actually raises a far more basic question – “What is faith?” You might think that is a silly question, because everyone knows what faith is. But for Root (and I think he is spot-on correct here), what we have come to accept as “faith” is really nothing more than assent to a doctrine or set of doctrines. This understanding has had all kinds of negative effects on the church, and is the primary reason why the church is so frantic to discover why so many people are leaving “faith” and to discover what to do to reverse the exodus.

Faith Formation in a Secular Age is divided into two main sections: Part One (chapters 1-6) is basically a philosophical explanation of how the culture and the church have arrived at the place where we stand – the “secular age.” Part Two then addresses how faith can be formed in that secular age, and more fundamentally, addresses the content of what we call “faith.”

I will say with no hesitation that this is NOT an easy book  to read unless you are conversant with (1) philosophical terminology and (2) academic theological terminology. While I would never discourage anyone from purchasing a book, I have to be honest and say that unless you are willing to exercise some synapses and look up some technical vocabulary, this book might be above the head of many readers. I’m pretty sure Root lost me in all the verbiage, and that is unfortunate – this book needs to be read at the non-specialist level, and it just comes across as more of a university level (or maybe even graduate level) philosophical/theological work.

With that caveat in place, the real genius of this book is that Root traces the development of our “secular” world and puts his finger squarely on a problem that has bedeviled the church for decades – the rise of our infatuation with “youth” and “youthfulness.” He openly confesses that he is following the writing of a philosopher whose work Root believes is the “first philosophical book written in the twenty-first century that will be read in the twenty-second” (p. x). Part one is, hopefully not to be too dramatic, a devastating examination of our infatuation with youth, the youth culture, and how that fascination has utterly changed the teaching and behavior of the church. I would suggest that part one is the most easily understandable section of the book, and is worth the price of the book by itself.

In part two, Root then tackles the main question he raises (what is faith), and suggests there is a way for the church to form that faith in this secular age. It is in chapter 7, however, that the real heavy lifting of the book begins (at least for me – others may have different opinions). In chapter 7, Root identifies three different levels, or modes, of secularity. The rest of the book is difficult if not impossible to understand if you miss, or misunderstand, these three modes of secularity. I cannot begin to explain them here (I will discuss chapter 7 and its importance in a later post) but suffice it to say that the “secular” age in which we live today is one that eliminates the possibility of any experience with a transcendent being – God, as a personal being, is simply eliminated from the picture. Faith, in Root’s understanding, is the experience of this transcendent being in our lives, and therefore to form faith in this secular age we must open ourselves up to the indwelling presence of this transcendent God. The key for Root is the apostle Paul’s phrase “in Christ.” Root’s development of the importance of this expression, and the relationship of this concept to faith formation, is deep, and his terminology frequently gets in the way, but I will suggest that Root is on to something here – and his conclusions make far, far more sense to me than the other “solutions” to the faith problem that I have seen.

As with any book that is this heavily philosophical, and theological, I do have some serious concerns. For me, the biggest problem lies in the final two chapters of the book where Root attempts to align his conclusions with the (primarily) Lutheran concept of “faith only.” My issues with this attempt are two: (1) Paul never says “faith only” – it is a purely Lutheran creation, and (2) Root seems to go out of his way to “reconstruct” common Lutheran understanding, and, not being a Lutheran scholar, I am just not convinced he is entirely successful.

I will have much more to say about this particular issue, but the most glaring failure of this book is Root’s (intentional?) refusal to acknowledge one of Paul’s most profound emphases – that of the necessity of baptism for his understanding of faith. I kept waiting for Root to discuss this point and it just never comes. I think Root is basically correct in his understanding of faith in Paul’s thought, but by neglecting the event of baptism he short-circuits his entire argument. In short, Root is just entirely too Lutheran to admit that baptism is critical for the formation of faith – even as he as gone to such great lengths to prove that faith for Paul is being “in Christ.” The omission just boggled my mind.

It is not often that I find a sentence at the end of a book that serves as one of the greatest in the book, and as an advertisement for the purchase of the book. However, I will close the “review” section of this post with just one such quote from Root – and one that I hope will spur you to consider buying, reading, and even studying this book:

The church will never be able to convert an atheist through argumentation but can only invite that person to experience faith by experiencing the action of ministry. (p. 210-211).

If you are a minister, elder, youth leader, or other church leader, you owe it to yourself to buy this book and invest in some time to read it. As I said above, it will not be the easiest book you read this year – but it may be the most significant! You will not agree with everything Root says – I never agree with everything an author says. But, and I say this cautiously, you will learn more about the culture in which you live and will be challenged to review some of your previously held beliefs, more by this book than perhaps any you might read this coming year.

P.S. – This is volume one in a three volume “trilogy” – and the second volume is in the pipeline for delivery some time this year, I believe. I look forward to reading it as well.