Regional Pastors Bookshelf: The Pastor in a Secular Age

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There are few jobs that require as broad a skillset as that of the pastor. Leader, manager, administrator, theologian, academic, therapist, counsellor, confidante, teacher, coach, speaker, cheerleader, mentor, are just a few of the skills pastors require and congregations expect.

Andrew Root, in his book The Pastor in a Secular Age: Ministry to People Who No Longer Need a God, summons pastors back to their foundational calling and skill; that of being a minister. As those who serve a ministering God, we are first and foremost called to ministry.

Tracing the arc of pastoral ministry through Augustine, the Reformers, Henry Ward Beecher, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and Rick Warren, alongside an understanding of our age informed by Charles Taylor and Emile Durkheim, Root opens up the unique challenges that today’s pastor faces in our secular age, an age of disenchantment.

Even within the church, few people live with a daily sense of divine action and influence. They know prayer and confession are good things but because they have lost the sense of enchantment “the use of these practices holds nearly the same weight as eating kale or doing yoga… Eating kale can benefit your blood pressure, and so can prayer.” (p.33)

The challenge for pastors is often experienced by wrestling with questions like: What is my role? How do I carry out my pastoral identity? What does faithful pastoral ministry look like?

In this age of disenchantment, even though the pastor believes that God is actively present in daily life, “it feels more and more like [the pastor] is speaking a foreign language that few people, himself included, use in their day-to-day lives.” (p.31)

Root offers how people approach the sacraments as an example of how people find it difficult to get beyond their immanent frame. “Dripping water on bodies or dipping full bodies in water, the pastor claims that there is something more mysterious, even transformational, happening. And some people are kind enough to concur… People are willing to have children baptized but are pretty sure that tap water has no power (or force) to bring life out of death. Willing to happily take the bread and wine, hearing the words “This body broken for you,” they also know that it is store bought.” (p.31)

So what is a pastor to do in this secular age? Does she take her cue from models that seek to help people flourish or discover their purpose? Does she take on the role of truth-disseminator or spiritual life-coach? What does the Bible have to say?

Root fixes our attention on God as minister, on God as actively involved in history and in people’s lives moving them toward a particular future, “a future in which humanity participates in the very being of God by receiving God’s acts of ministry…God’s primary doing is to free Israel from Egypt and resurrect Jesus from the dead. These acts are the revealing of God’s being.” (p.185)

As ministers then, we attend to helping people discern God’s revelation in their lives. We attend to entering into their darkness, their brokenness, their “death experiences”—bringing the ministry of Presence—in order that they and we with them might be attentive to how God shows up in those moments to bring light, restoration, and resurrection. 

Root asserts, “A pastor reminds her people to await the coming of God, to prepare them in the waiting for the possibility of God’s arriving. In the impatience of our secular age, where any waiting quickly turns to disbelief, the pastor in a secular age holds a space to wait for God’s becoming. The pastor’s primary focus, then, isn’t to build a church of size and reputation but to attend to revelation.” (p.185) 

As I wrote this review, I came across an article written by Kenny Jahng in Ministry Team Magazine (November 2020) titled, “5 Metrics Church Leaders Should Follow for a Healthy Community.”

The metrics listed are: 1) Giving, 2) Attendance or Groups Participation, 3) Professions of the Faith, 4) Volunteering, and 5) Direct Response (feedback / surveys).

Pastors often get pulled into this management way of thinking about their church and their calling. Root invites us back to being ministers; those who cultivate in their own lives a sense of living in/with the manifest Presence of God (enchantment) and being those who mediate and carry that Presence into the life experiences of their people. 

This is a fine book that effectively reorients the pastor to their fundamental task; a task that, providentially, equips pastors for fruitful ministry in today’s secular age and, arguably, any age.

While some might find this an unnecessarily long read, most will appreciate how Root weaves together historic pastoral expressions, philosophical insights, Biblical themes, and cultural developments in order to give fresh and encouraging expression to a pastor’s basic identity and calling. 

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