From monks and bells to apps and notifications
The church used to keep the tempo of life. Now Silicon Valley is pushing the pace—and pulling the church along with it.
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.
In this new order of secular time, Root argues, the church is tempted to mimic Silicon Valley, pushing itself to become innovative, practical, fast, nimble, disruptive, and far-reaching. Congregations are applauded for “accelerating the impact of the gospel” and “advancing the kingdom” (not Root’s words, but words I hear a lot as a pastor). These churches have used Silicon Valley’s business model and philosophy of time to “build up” a church—but what, Root asks, does Facebook have in common with a local congregation? Is Google like the Good Shepherd?
A demanding timekeeper like Silicon Valley pushes both families and congregations to focus primarily on resources. Money, buildings, time, staff, content, attendance, and data-driven analytics become central in determining whether a congregation is “doing well” or “healthy,” to use contemporary church-growth language. This leads the church to adopt what German sociologist Hartmut Rosa (the scholar Root quotes most often) calls the “Triple-A” approach to the good life: prioritizing availability, accessibility, and attainability. In other words, churches living out this philosophy aspire to be available to do anything, to have access to all opportunities, and to attain the goals they have set.
As Root sees it, a congregation chasing after the “Triple-A” ideal threatens its own capacity to experience the present; its leaders and members will grow alienated from one another and from God’s activity in the world. The speed of modern life constantly compels pastors to “cast vision,” which lifts the eyes of the congregation from what God is doing now to what might be done (maybe) in the future.
Within this mindset, writes Root, “the present is for harvesting as many resources as you can, so that you can live your personal dream in each ever-coming future.” When a church operates within a time horizon set by Silicon Valley, he argues, it becomes just another site for resource accumulation here on earth. To use Charles Taylor’s distinctive language, it is “disenchanted,” with no imagination of heaven, eternity, or eschatology.
But this only raises the question of just how disenchanted Silicon Valley’s timekeeping really is. As someone who actually lives there—who experiences this place as something more than a mystical force or a cultural construct—I see a more complicated reality. I pastor a congregation 15 minutes from the Googleplex. To me, my community is only somewhat “secular.” Yes, we are obsessed with earthly innovation; and yes, we live life at an accelerated pace. But the actual Silicon Valley is anything but disenchanted.
The tech titans here are true believers; they see market projections, company evaluations, and stock-option packages as imbued with spiritual meaning. Nearly everyone here believes their work is sacred and their assets have divine attributes. Business leadership books, startup websites, and venture-capital firms are saturated with religious language.
Root’s commitment to Taylor’s philosophical portrait of a “secular age” often prevents him from noticing these decidedly nonsecular tendencies. He could have gone further, for instance, in reckoning with what scholar Eugene McCarraher calls “the enchantments of mammon”—or the worship and awe of business acumen, leadership jargon, and other capitalistic values. The gods of Silicon Valley are obvious here, but they are somewhat absent from Root’s analysis.
How, then, can a pastor shepherd a congregation stuck in a time famine, where all scraps of time must be given over to the goals of dynamic growth? Root displays his greatest strengths as a theologian and writer in addressing this question as he expounds upon one key word he adopts from Hartmut Rosa’s work: resonance.
Resonance, in Root’s telling, is our balm for the speed of modern life. He argues for practices that go beyond slowing down or resting, for relationships based on something other than innovation or growth in our lives and institutions. Resonant relationships are about a community experiencing the action of God together. Church small groups do not exist merely to help us achieve personal goals or aid our own spiritual quests; they exist, instead, as a space of resonance where our activity is second to the activity of Jesus Christ.
Taking inspiration from both Rosa and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Root shows how the church has created “instrumentalized relationships,” or relationships motivated mainly by what they can do for me. This happens primarily through the adoption of consumeristic language and values by church leaders: We offer affinity groups or community events that are perfectly tailored to one’s season of life or personal preferences. In doing so, the modern churchgoer now feels entitled to relationships that are inextricably linked to his or her lifestyle desires. Relationships exist, then, not for the purpose of learning to love but for achieving our own goals.
So long as this pattern persists, Root argues, alienation and fatigue will remain our constant companions. We can carve out Sabbath rest and “create margin” all we want, but there will be no resonance—and therefore no respite from the pace of modern life. As Root explains, “The church loses community when its relationships become instruments. When it loses community, it loses the resonance of revelation itself. It is no long a living community … but is alienated from the world and therefore from the living God.”
The Congregation in a Secular Age invites us to ask whether we, as the church, are playing the same games as Silicon Valley. Competition and speed are necessary for capitalism but are deadly for churches. Why compete in a game of speed that we were never meant to play—and which we are destined to lose? Root’s book is essential for pastors like me, stuck in an accelerated culture. Perhaps it is not enough to “un-hurry” or “slow down”; maybe it’s time to get off the ride for good.
by Chris Nye