Book Review: When Church Stops Working

When Church Stops Working: A Future for Your Congregation
beyond More Money, Programs, and Innovation
By Andrew Root and Blair D. Bertrand

This a specially designed, shorter text, aimed at reaching ordinary people, clergy as well as lay, in serious reading and reflection on the local church, namely the parish. It distills a long, remarkable series of previous books by Andrew Root: Faith Formation in a Secular Age, The Pastor in a Secular Age, The Congregation in a Secular Age, The Church after Innovation, Churches after the Crisis of Decline,  Grand Rapids MI: Baker Academic, 2017, 2019, 2021, 2022, 2022. I too have tried to take on the situation of congregations in decline and shrinkage. The Church Has Left the Building: Faith, Parish and Ministry in the 21st Century, and Community as Church, Church as Community, Eugene OR: Cascade Publications, 2016, 2021.

In the Root-Bertrand volume of less than two hundred pages, many of the really fascinating earlier studies are omitted. I think for example, of what makes for the secular age in which we live. Charles Taylor’s massive study is the primary source. There is much that is transformed in the secular age. One example is that this is a time in which we cannot take anything beyond what is observable, measurable, verifiable as truth. Given the recent rise in “alternative facts” and the deniability of even documented statements by political operative, the complex character of our secular age goes without saying. This disenchantment of the world, reduction to the experience and feelings of the individual—an eclipse of community—all this is a huge challenge for communities of faith. Similarly, the corporate world presents strategies of growth, marketing methods that work for businesses of all kinds. So too, we have been told, for the church. If we are not constantly active in our congregations, if we are not consistently increasing membership and income, if we are not producing new and exciting programs, if we are not employing the efforts of megachurches in worship and member retention, then we are condemned to further shrinkage, closure, disappearance of congregations. Growth and change are the keywords of the church.

Root and now with his graduate school colleague Bertrand raise a very Barthian “NO” to all of this. Congregations need to again realize that the grace and power of God come from without, from beyond the church. Parishes need to stop their frantic busyness, for this is, in their view, a “killer cocktail,” busy people, busy church. Contrary to what secular culture seems to say—something Taylor himself was emphatic about—people of faith can indeed have a communal, public existence, something that has continues for more than two millennia despite all kinds of historical challenges. However, rather than reacting, struggling to find always newer ways of worshipping and reaching out, they need to be still, to wait on God, to learn again to resonate with each other, with the world in which they live, and most importantly, with God. The authors are calmly certain on that score, namely that God continues to speak to God’s people, through the scriptures, sacraments, their fellowship and learning, their ministry to their neighbors. Congregations need to learn again from the liturgy, the liturgical year, the scriptures, the feasts, that is, the tradition that has been passed down to them from apostolic times. They need not to try to recreate the primitive church, yet likewise they have to fight the urge, very much pressured upon them by consultants and specialists, to keep engineering newer and more attractive ways of being church.

Root and Bertrand are not at all interested in a how-to-do-it book, a manual for reviving a congregation, for ending shrinkage and decline. It may just be that our 21st century needs smaller, calmer and devoted congregations. People of God who know that waiting is one of the most biblical things they can do. What the authors propose is counterintuitive in the present, but absolutely right. They offer a couple of case studies of very different parishes—Queenston UCC and Prince of Peace Lutheran– and how these communities learned what might have appeared counter-intuitive. They call on Bonhoeffer, a potent source on community as church. They also at some length consult a major modern theologian who has been a special focus of my own study, the Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard, and I believe they bring readers the very best both of these have to offer, not to mention Karl Barth and Martin Luther King Jr. among others.

This admirably clear and succinct book can well be accessed by people in parishes, lay and clergy. As such it deserves a commensurately straightforward review and one which finds a great deal of wisdom of the best and most faithful kind. I have reviewed many of Root’s earlier publications in the same manner. Admittedly here and there I have found myself held up by some assumptions, one being that all Christians are Protestants. Granted the authors are and so they write, but well, not so all facing the challenge of being followers of Jesus today. I missed the centrality of the Eucharist, something fundamental and ecumenically so, in my biographical experience in churches East and West. This said, this is a solid and wise book and I hope it will be read and pondered.

Root, Andrew and Blair D. Bertrand. When Church Stops Working: A Future for Your Congregation beyond More Money, Programs, and Innovation. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2023. 176 pages. $21.99. ISBN: 9781587435782.

REVIEWER: Michael Plekon
Michael Plekon is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Religion,
The City University of New York, Baruch College,
and has been a priest in the Western and Eastern Churches.
Community as Church, Church as Community
 (Cascade, 2021) is his most recent book.

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