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Churches and the Crisis of Decline

A Book Review

By Anthony Mullins, Church Planter, Durham, NC

A Church Like Ours

I read this book based on the recommendation of a trusted friend while also being compelled to read because of the intriguing title, Churches and the Crisis of Decline. According to a National Congregational Study survey taken in 2020, there are 380,000 churches in the United States, many of which are experiencing some sort of decline. Whether it be decline in attendance, financial resources, the local church’s significance in the community, or coming to grips with an increasingly post-Christian society, churches and people who inhabit the church, are feeling a sense of loss. It’s something we can all relate to.

Dr. Andrew Root wrote this book to provide a hopeful ecclesiology (understanding of the nature of the church) while facing the crisis of decline. In typical Root fashion, he elucidates the book’s thesis by writing in narrative prose using creative metaphors, insightful anecdotes, and cultural references (plenty of TV show and movie mentions) to connect with all types of readers including pastors, lay members and academics. What I found particularly helpful was his creation of a fictional church, St. John the Baptist. The fictional characters Root fashions sound like the average members and leaders of any local church. St. John the Baptist church is facing decline. The church has tried different ministry methods, hired new pastors, and rewritten the vision statement multiple times in an effort to be relevant as a means to the end game: growth. Despite those sincere efforts over a span of many years, nothing worked.

The Problem

Although the author never states it in these exact words, I conclude the book’s thesis is this: the crisis of decline is in actuality a crisis of theological mission. Root contends the church has sought innovation and relevance through its methods and in doing so, the church has unwittingly placed itself as the center of its own story. Said another way, the church has made its own survival its primary mission and thereby has missed the true mission and the center of the narrative: God revealed in Jesus Christ and his ongoing mission of love to the world. Each chapter in the book addresses a particular challenge St. John the Baptist church is facing. Root then calls upon the pastoral theology of Karl Barth, the sociology of Hartmut Rosa, and the language of philosopher Charles Taylor as conversation partners to offer reflections and insights to those challenges.

The Solution

If you read this book in search of a magic bullet solution or a five-step system to resolve what ails the church, you will be sorely disappointed. The author avoids being overtly prescriptive, by design, because he understands every local church has a unique context with distinctive characteristics. However, Root makes it abundantly clear the church must stop thinking that its methods of ministry, relevance or having enough resources will save it. The mission of the church is not to save itself but rather, to have relational fidelity with God, which gets expressed as love to one another and the world.

Root repeatedly points his readers and the church to pursue the transcendent God (outside of the human experience), which enables God’s people by the Holy Spirit to apprehend the immanence of God (the perceivable presence of God) at work in the particularity of churches, neighborhoods, and the world. According to the author, that looks like actively waiting on God who is on the move.

I highly recommend Churches and the Crisis of Decline to anyone who cares deeply about this present moment in the church’s history. Take note; the book is steeped in theology, and it can feel dense at times. If you are seeking an easier read dealing with similar content, I would suggest Root’s follow-up book When Church Stops Working.

Gospel Reverb podcast

I am pleased to offer this review in partnership with a “bonus” episode of the Gospel Reverb podcast. Dr. Andrew Root and I discuss his book, Churches and the Crisis of Decline. Our podcast team hopes you will listen and be encouraged by Andy’s thoughts for pastors and members who are experiencing church decline or closure and what it means to actively wait on God in an impatient world. Listen here.

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