Challenges of being church in an age of consumption outlined by Andrew Root
Avoiding simple platitudes is one key in an age of consumption, to helping strangers form their faith in today’s church, Theologian Andrew Root told an LTSP audience December 8, 2014.
During one poignant moment in his remarks addressing the theme for the day, “Faith Formation and the Future of the Church,” Dr. Root told a story about putting his son, Owen, 5, to bed. Owen was afraid. Root, eager to enjoy his nightly time with favorite television shows, offered to calm his son’s fears with prayers to Jesus. “Don’t worry. We’ve prayed, Jesus is with you now,” he said soothingly a few minutes later. Root turned to leave. “Daddy, STOP!” his son said. “I’m afraid! Jesus is NOT here.”
Root, the Olson Baalson Associate Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary and the author of a series of books called “A Theological Journey Through Youth Ministry” (Zondervan) used that anecdote to highlight a concern about today’s church.
“I wonder about that,” he said after relating his son’s story. “I wonder how often people in the church use platitudes with those they encounter. ‘You’ll be OK. Everything will be fine. Jesus is with you.’” Root ventured that people of every generation in churches today “have nightmares in their closet. We have churches that have buried 3-year-olds.” Recalling Jacob in the Old Testament who wrestled with an angel of God, Root urged his audience to “invite people to church to wrestle with God” about their nightmares and difficult issues rather than espousing platitudes. “They come with nightmares in their closets,” he said. “They need to be part of conversations about the absence as well as the presence of God in their lives. They need to hear from a church that ‘We are the people who wrestle with God until daybreak.’”
Root was one of two speakers who took part in “Inaugural Lectures and Resource Day” December 8 following the installation December 7 of the Rev. Dr. David J. Lose as the twelfth president of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.
The theologian spent considerable time at the outset identifying the characteristics of that new world he referenced, spelling out a “cultural shift” across the landscape that has impacted hard congregational realities.
Root said identity is one of the big issues impacting today’s church. Many people who have grown up in the church have had their identities wrapped up in work and careers based on their skills and abilities, also on a love commitment.
“In our time today, work and love are not what they used to be,” Root said. “They are much more porous and open concepts. Jobs go away. People change not only jobs but also careers.” He reminded of how it was common for a loyal worker to earn a gold watch at retirement. “Today there are fewer and fewer gold watches because of downsizing and changes in corporations. I’ve read a statistic that suggests people may change careers as often as every 20 months. Regarding love, relationships with one person as a partner used to be common. Late marriages and high divorce rates have changed everything, and these collective changes have greatly impacted church demographics, causing in many instances the loss of 18 to 35-year-olds.”
“We used to live in more conventional categories,” he said. “You would go to school, get a job and a mortgage and get married and have a child.” He said these demographics don’t happen automatically anymore, and so the church “light bulb” doesn’t come on as it did many years ago. He also cited studies that note young adults really “don’t hate the church … They just don’t care about it.” A young person who is searching for his or her identity may have trouble pinning it down in part because he or she is living with someone challenged to find identity as well because of job changes or a divorce.
In a current age of transformation, Root said the one-time identity values of work and commitment (love) are being replaced by values of consumption and intimacy. “We use what we buy to define who we are,” he noted. He referenced modern celebrities known more for what they buy rather than what they do, and cited “makeovers” that take place on television where a person’s look and wardrobe is changed. “People having a makeover use evangelical language to describe how they feel afterward,” he said. “They say, ‘My life has been changed. I feel like I’ve been born again.’ What we buy defines who we are.”
Root also noted that young people have credit cards when they are 15 and often graduate from college with credit card as well as student loan debt. “We can buy things without much money anymore,” Root said at one point, and there is the attitude that if we had to wait until we have money to buy something (like shoes) it wouldn’t have the same meaning anymore. You can buy a home theater system on credit with no payment or interest for 18 months, and a young person will say to a parent I have to have ‘this’ because it is how I define who I am.”
The “electric feelings of closeness” (intimacy) have become valued over commitment in love, Root said.
Younger folks won’t have the commitment their elders have had to maintain church buildings, he said. “They would rather give a child a bath or read a child a book than shovel snow off the church walk.” The values of consumption and intimacy are not time and space connected either, he pointed out.
The value of consumption “really works” for people, but it also has a dark side, he noted. The high from buying something does not last for very long. He compared it to the delicious flavor of a favorite chewing gum that lasts for seconds “and then you go and get another stick.”
In such a time the church, he said, will do well to help people understand “what it means to have faith, what it means to wrestle with God, both the presence and the absence of God. We have people in our churches who have trouble getting out of bed because of depression. Like Jacob we have to be willing to share that we too drag our leg in the sand.” But, he said, “We strut easily.” In travels, he said, he once met someone not in church who had been “kicked out” of confirmation class for once having asked too many disturbing questions. “In our churches, do we provide space for that?” he asked. “Are we prepared to talk, listen and journey into a new world together?”
Watch Dr. Root’s Lecture: