Finally I have managed to get around to reading Andrew Roots first volume in his new series ‘ministry in a secular age’ – I’m hooked and have volume two on pre-order! Volume One: ‘Faith Formation in a Secular Age’ examines the churches understanding of faith suggesting that it may reflect cultural norms rather than the counter-cultural reality of the gospel. One particular concept from the book really jumped out for me and aided me in grasping the bigger picture of Roots argument – its the image of a picket fence.
Root draws the picture of our present faith-formation practices being like trying to keep a picketed panel on a fence.
For many young people in our churches God is one panel out of many on the ‘fence’ of their lives, perhaps it sits alongside whatever sub-culture they have chosen to belong to and the friends they spend their time with. What is important here is that a defining characteristic of our secular age is that these panels are “individually chosen”. Root argues that this is part of belonging to the age of authenticity. He writes ‘In the age of authenticity, I individually evaluate concepts for their worth; I pick and choose those that most help me follow my own path to authenticity. Concepts do not put a demand on me. So if the concept of God helps me be authentically me, then it is worth keeping. But if the concept makes me feel unhappy or guilty—or worse, restricted—I abandon the concept for the sake of my own authentic journey” (Root, 2017). How Root gets to the conclusion that ‘authenticity’ is the defining characteristic of our culture is fascinating, I will leave you to read the book for yourself!
So how has God become a concept that can be added or subtracted from the fence? Unintentionally we have ‘turned Jesus from a transcendent person (who encounters each of us with a revelatory call to follow) into an idea (or a kind of product) … the impact…flattening divine action and turning the personhood of the living Christ into an idea that would allow you as an individual to reach your authentic goal’ (Root, 2017).
The problem is that we flatten divine action – the horizontal fence treats faith formation as the things we do to mature (or simply remain) as christians rather than the biblical picture of faith as a gift and work of God in our lives. In fact – its possible to talk about how to keep young people in church without ever recognising the reality that God has a lot to do with us being Christians. Root writes that often we don’t talk about ‘faith as a reality bound in the action of a God who transcends the natural order. It was as if faith formation had as its goal keeping young people in the social/cultural institution and had little to do with.a divine order finding footing and movement in the present’. Is it possible to talk about faith formation in a vacuum without any language for divine action? Is it possible that we have joined our materialistic and naturalistic society and started doing Christianity without God?
The solution then is to begin looking for divine action! Our picketed fence will not serve us in this. I want to suggest then that the fence needs to be propped upright (vertical rather than horizontal) and used as a ladder. What will aid young people in recognising divine action in their lives? The youth worker is no longer one of the people holding a hammer adding extra nails to the God panel to the fence instead they might be one of the steps who help young people reflect on their lives and discover the activity of the divine there. Church attendance no longer becomes a mark of a healthy personal faith but instead becomes a place where the divine is encountered within worship and sacrament alongside others. Christian Unions in schools become places for young people to explore the activity of God within their school. This is an exciting shift! It trusts that God is already carrying out His mission and gives all the opportunity to locate and join Him.
Root’s book obviously goes into a lot more detail than I have, it is a valuable resource for youth ministry in our age and I would encourage all youth workers (and ministers) to engage with it. It paints an exciting vision and in many ways is a needed reminder to not leave God out of the picture. The fact that we need to be reminded of this and that this reality resinates with us demonstrates I think how our flattered (material and naturalistic) culture has infiltrated our practice, might we really be doing faith formation leaving out the God who forms faith in us?
References: Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age: Responding to the Church’s Obsession with Youthfulness, Baker Academic, 2017.