Can You Hear the Music: The Congregation in a Secular Age

By Tripp Gordon

In May, the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an 82-page report titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” in which Murthy seeks to call our societies attention to a major growing health concern – our lack of connection to one another.

Murthy joins the ranks of many (Robert Putnam, Sherry Turkle, etc.) who have sought to further explain one of the primary paradoxes of our technologically engaged, socially media filtered world: How is it in world that is more connected than ever before are we lonelier than ever? Or as a New York Times columnist recently wrote regarding Murthy’s report, “America is, by any historical standard, unimaginably rich and powerful, and yet we’ve lost what matters most: community and connection.”[i]

Murthy, Putnam, and Turkle, are important voices analyzing the problem of loneliness, and we should be grateful that the church is not the only voices recognizing the problem of expressive individualism and social isolation. Another helpful resource to engage this “epidemic” is Andrew Root’s The Congregation in a Secular Age: Keeping Sacred Time Against the Speed of Modern Life (2021). Where Murthy, et. al. explain the data of the epidemic of loneliness, and it’s collateral damage of depression, anxiety, and loss of social capital, Root places the reader within the larger milieu of a secular age which has allowed for such a framework to become an accepted approach to living.

In the summer blockbuster Oppenheimer, Kenneth Branaugh’s character (Niels Bohr), asks Cillian Murphy (Oppenheimer), “The important thing isn’t can you read music, it’s can you hear it. Can you hear the music?” In other words, can you not simply read what’s on the page, but can you hear and sense what is happening around you? Likewise, Root not only helps us to understand but he also captures the dull beats of loneliness playing throughout our society.

The Congregation in a Secular Age (henceforth, Congregation), is the third book in a series of three by Andrew Root, following his works Faith Formation in a Secular Age (2017), and The Pastor in a Secular Age (2019). You may have noticed by now, Root takes a very targeted approach to his writing, seeking to apply insights from Charles Taylor’s The Secular Age (2007).

Along with Taylor, in Congregation Root incorporates the writings of sociologists, Alain Ehrenberg, and Harmut Rosa into the upshot of his argument. Root observes that within the post-enlightened world of secularism one of the primary results is an increase of the speed of time. Thus, depression is not merely a problem resulting from social isolation, it is
is an ailment resulting from the speed of time – and us not being able to catch up. In 1998 Ehrenberg wrote, La Fatigue d’être soi: Dépression et société (The Fatigue of Being Oneself: Depression and Society).

According to his argument, in a world that has removed itself from the timeline of eternity, where our time is caught up in God’s time, we have shrunk time to only 70, 80, 90 years. Time is now solely our time, and when we are no longer responsible for thinking about how the time given to us is a part of eternity, we feel responsible for going faster and trying to accomplish more in a short period of time. As Root says, “eternity is shut out of time, and now time is free to rev its engines and speed up” (47).

In an era and society marked by authenticity, we constantly feel responsible for crafting our identity in a fast, ever-changing world, as Root summarizing Ehrenberg puts it,

Depression is la fatigue d’être soi; it’s the fatigue to be yourself. It’s the openness, the broad horizon stretched before us, that demands we create and curate our own self, which then boomerangs on us. Depression breeds within the freedom to change and then change again and again, but this freedom never delivers on the promise that this change will produce the good life we seek and the meaning we need.

Depression is us facing this horizon and realizing that we don’t have the energy or time to reach it. It’s the need for change itself, the openness to be and do anything (which is supposed to be exciting), that turns on the congregation, giving us la fatigue d’être eglise, the fatigue of being the church. (13)

Living in such a world where we constantly feel like we are responsible for creating our own identities, through whatever means including our families, and our career – we naturally feel exhausted by this pace of life. Root observes throughout the book how the contemporary church often takes their strategies for congregational life and growth from the time-keepers of secularism, through the makers our various gadgets and devices which have the power to shape how we approach time, namely, Silicon Valley. Church as a result, just becomes another exhausting thing to add to your to-do list, to your “identity crafting project,” as it has adopted the bill of goods sold to it by the increasingly fast world offered to it by secularism.

Root argues that when the church buys into this framework of living we are buying is a secular lie, which whispers deceptively, “You need to chase peace, joy, and more time.” More particularly, that innovation is the key to success in a late modern world. For Root, when the church depends on innovation, this is one of the primary examples of the church attempting to follow the pace of life provided by Silicon Valley, rather than the pace of life offered by Jesus.

The church then rather than seeking to innovate to keep up with the speed of time, should pursue opportunities to resonate. However, resonance is not simply calling the church to slow down the speed of time.

Borrowing a concept from Harmut Rosa, Root notes that resonance are moments in life in which,

You feel a resonance between yourself and the world, a felt relationship that reverberates at the frequency of the good… In these moments of resonance you experience your own life teeming with meaning. This meaning seems to be coming to you. It’s an experience that seems to be full of time. Meaning is not just produced from within you amid the hurried pace to make something new of yourself. The world is animated. You sense that you’re connected to something bigger than a container of resources. You’re alive for something more than quickly seeking the new. … When we sense that there is something in the world reaching out for us, pleased to join us, desiring to share in us as we share in it, speaking to us, we encounter resonance. (195-196)

As a young pastor, and someone who engages with young adults regularly, I found all of this to be on point. Thinking about the category of resonance has been my Neils Bohr-to-Oppenheimer moment if you will, where I not only could see the problem on the page, but I could hear it within the context of a larger theme of music which presently finds itself in a moment of discord, waiting to be resolved. In congregational life, church strategies, apologetics, and pastoral ministry we are invited people to inhabit time, rather than catch up to time.

One may be prone to think Root’s main application is some form of re-enchantment with the liturgical life of the church in step with the likes of an Alexander Schmemann. While Root does compare the timekeeper of Silicon Valley with the previous timekeepers of the church, Root’s primary framework for resonance in the church has nothing to do with the church’s calendar. Rather his two models are that of a child-carrying and communal transformation.

Root argues extensively from the extensive resources of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that, “the church-community becomes a community of resonance by being a life-community that concretely carries children.” Children in a fast, material driven world have little to no tangible value. If there is any value, it is in the “potential” value they present to the community. As Root notes, “a volunteer-society sees children only as potential– potential members, potential voters, potential consumers, and potential denominational affiliates.” Communities of resonance by contrast, “sees its children as persons.” For Bonhoeffer and Root their ecclesiology did not primarily ask, “How can we survive? How can we grow? How can we innovate and be more relevant? Instead it asks, “How can we care for and carry our children?”

And further, when considering a unique apologetic approach, in defending the faith into a globalizing world, perhaps our best resources will invite people to resonate with the larger world around them. In Roots terms, we may begin to ask how do use an apologetics to invite people to see that their time is a part of a larger narrative of time? We might ask, what if there truly was “something in the world reaching out for us, pleased to join us, desiring to share in us as we share in it, speaking to us.” That there is a way to live life that is sustainable rather than exhausting, that we can approach life as a gift to be treasured rather than a resource to be used, to not only see the music but hear and resonate with the theme of God’s redemptive symphony throughout time, and this comes however surprisingly through the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth nearly 2,000 years ago.

Root challenges our assumptions by asking us to consider: If you want to know whether or not a church will thrive into the 21st century, pay attention to the value this church gives towards its developing children. Are they peripheral members of the community? Are they distractions to the “real work” of discipleship? Are there consistent opportunities for catechesis? Do our congregations know what catechesis is? It’s no wonder that Jesus tells us, “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:3) Again Root is wise to remind us, “to be a child is to be a person who reminds us all that we are the kind of creatures who have our being in and with others. We are persons who need relationship in order to be” (238).

Perhaps we have lost what matters most: community and connection, even in the church, because we have subtly bought into the lie that in order to thrive it’s our responsibility to keep up, to build as much of a sandcastle of a professional life, so we can retire well in it when we turn the corner into retirement. Root’s book is not only important for the pastor looking to engage their congregation in a difficult secular world, but it is a call to take the hand off the panic button and come to the Lord as a child for themselves. As G.K. Chesterton once wrote,

“It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”



Published October 9, 2023