Bonus Episode w/ Andrew Root

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Welcome to a BONUS episode of Gospel Reverb! We are joined by our guest, Dr. Andrew Root. Andy is a Professor of Theology, Youth Ministry, and Culture at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He’s written a number of books and given lectures and presentations across the country and around the globe to church groups, universities and academic communities.

In this bonus episode, Dr. Andrew Root and host Anthony Mullins discuss Root’s book, Churches and the Crisis of Decline. Churches are facing decline in attendance, resources, and influence in the community, but what is the real crisis? This book is an installment in Root’s critically acclaimed Ministry in the Secular Age project.

If you get a chance to rate and review the show, that helps a lot. And invite your fellow preachers and Bible lovers to join us!

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Program Transcript

Bonus Episode w/ Andrew Root

Welcome to the Gospel Reverb podcast. Gospel Reverb is an audio gathering for preachers, teachers, and Bible thrill seekers. Each month, our host, Anthony Mullins, will interview a new guest to gain insights and preaching nuggets mined from select passages of Scripture in that month’s Revised Common Lectionary.

The podcast’s passion is to proclaim and boast in Jesus Christ, the one who reveals the heart of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And now onto the episode.

Anthony: Hello friends, and welcome to a bonus episode of Gospel Reverb. We like a bonus, right? Extra fries at the bottom of the Five Guys’ fast food cheeseburger bag or overtime of a great sporting event, bonus episode of the favorite TV show or a BOGO special at the grocery — we like bonus! And so here we have a completely free and bonus episode.

Gospel Reverb is a podcast devoted to bringing you insights from Scripture found in the Revised Common Lectionary and sharing commentary from a Christ-centered and Trinitarian view. I’m your host, Anthony Mullins, and it’s my joy to welcome our guest Dr. Andrew Root.

Andy is a Professor of Theology, Youth Ministry and Culture at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He’s written a number of books and given lectures and presentations across the country and around the globe to church groups, universities and academic communities. In this episode, we will discuss Andy’s book Churches and the Crisis of Decline. I’ve read the book, listened to the audio book, and it’s insightful. And it’s challenging. Do yourself a solid and pick up a copy.

Andy, thanks for being with us and welcome to the podcast. And since this is your first time on Gospel Reverb, we’re glad you’re here. We’ve been trying to do this for a while. We’d love to know a bit of your personal story and how you are participating with the Lord these days.

Andrew: Yeah. First, thanks for having me. And yeah, I guess probably the most direct way is talking to folks like you and just doing a lot of podcasts and a lot of teaching. But I would say right now my vocation around this series, which this book Churches and the Crisis of Decline fits within, has really pushed, I think, my ministry.

And I guess I believe, in fear and trembling, where God is moving is just helping people who have been in ministry stay in ministry by seeing some of the larger forces that are making ministry really hard right now. I hope that I’ve been a fellow companion as people have wrestled with the frustrations and the joys, but a lot of the sufferings of ministry right now.

Anthony: Do you have a favorite book in the series that you’ve written?

Andrew: Yeah. A bit, I think that’s like asking, what’s your favorite, which child do you like best?

Anthony: You have a favorite.

Andrew: I’m definitely not going to say that on the air.

Anthony: Okay. All right. We tried.

Andrew: The story always goes, no one has a favorite child, and then you name the one that is your favorite. And I’m not going to do that.

But yeah, this one I do like a lot because, I think, it’s trying to put together some pretty divergent things like the story of Karl Barth with a fictional story of a church that I’ve written. So, I like this one quite a bit, but I don’t know. The one that I always like the most is the one I’m working on right now.

Or the one that hasn’t seen the light of day yet or something. There is something like parenting where you try to do everything you can to kind of birth this child and give it the best chance to exist in the world. But once they leave your house to go to college You got to realize they’re out of your control in some sense.

And yeah, so I look at them all fondly. They all took a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. But yeah, probably the one I’m working on right now, which in some sense, I can’t even talk about which one I’m working on right now. Not because it’s a secret, but because when you’re in the middle of it, it takes a while to figure out how do I even talk about what I’m thinking and what I’m trying to get out on the page now.

That’s, for me, the way it is. I heard one very famous French philosopher say once they write a book, it’s dead to them. Like they never think about it again. And that’s not quite me, but I do understand this, just moving forward, working on the next thing. And now let the books that are out do their work out there.

[00:04:30] Anthony: I’m curious — I’ve never written a book; writing’s intimidating to me. And I’m just curious if you’ve faced this. I think it might’ve been Rob Bell I heard say this once: when you pull up your Word document (or whatever you work in) and that blinking cursor, it’s so intimidating. Like where do I start?

Do you have that issue ever where you have writer’s block or just getting started is really hard?

[00:04:55] Andrew: Yeah, for sure. For sure I have that. And I also have just the constant — really, to be honest, I see writing as a spiritual discipline. That makes me seem very pious and holy, but it’s a form of suffering really.

I think it is. Writing is something you have to suffer. And I do think it’s a calling in that way that there are those days where just nothing comes out. Or even you’ve written a chapter or two and you’re like: I thought this was really good yesterday, and today I think it’s really awful. And you’re battling this.

Or you have someone in the back of your mind, you think is going to read this that you’re writing to, and you’re not sure that you can meet their critiques or something like that.

In some ways for me, I would never write if I did it only when I felt like it. It has to be a kind of discipline that I just return to and put myself in jail and work my three and a half hours and then go away from it and work it again. And it is a bit like a craft for me.

Like you’re just working a piece of wood or working a stone, and it definitely bloodies my hands. And there are some days where you wrestle to get 200 words out. And then there’s days where all of a sudden 2, 500 words come or 4, 000 words come.

And those are great. But the majority of it is just trying to scrape something coherent out of your brain.

[00:06:20] Anthony: Gotcha. Before we get into the content of the book, let’s tackle an immensely important subject. You wrote it during the height of the COVID pandemic. And like all of us, we’re watching a lot of streaming TV shows. Now I don’t need a pandemic to watch a lot of TV. I don’t know if you have that same issue.

But anyway, let’s fast forward to 2024. Do you have a TV show or two that you would recommend to us that you really like right now?

[00:06:48] Andrew: Yeah, probably the best show I’ve watched, say, in the last two or three months is the new season of Fargo. It is amazing.

And the way it ends in the final episode, which I won’t give away because you need to just experience it, but you do need to know if you start into the newest season that it ends in an utterly beautiful way. So, every episode was great, but the ending just is something really, just something magnificent.

So that would be one. The other series I just finished recently was the newest True Detective on HBO. And the final episode is worth exploring, but for the opposite reasons, it doesn’t open up anything transcendent to mystical. It closes it down in a certain way.

And I won’t ruin the ending of that, but I found myself more screaming at the TV in disappointment after that one. But both I think give anyone who’s watching with a kind of theological lens or trying to think about our cultural moment, both will leave you a lot to think about.

[00:07:58] Anthony: Yeah, of course, Fargo may be some geographical bias up your way in Minnesota, right?

[00:08:05] Andrew: According to the show, there’s a murder every few hours here in the Twin Cities.

[00:08:13] Anthony: Get out of Dodge, man. Get out of Dodge, man.

All right. So, let’s talk about the book. What prompted you to write Churches and the Crisis of Decline?

[00:08:22] Andrew: Yeah, probably the prompt was — first of all, it’s a failure in some ways because the series that I was writing, Ministry in a Secular Age, which was really a kind of wrestling with the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s epic work called A Secular Age and trying to apply it to ministry, but really be more inspired to do theological construction from it.

It was supposed to only be a three-volume series, and this was the volume that made it four. And made me a liar to everyone that I was going to make you read a lot more. And it became actually six volumes, and we finally decided to shut it down. But this book really did come out of this sense that there was obviously more to say.

And I wanted to do a kind of full ecclesiology in the final volume of this series. That was a book called The Congregation in the Secular Age, but as the title says, it kind of points to it, it became more just focused on the congregation and not a full ecclesiology and then I thought I’d do a full ecclesiology in this book.

And it kind of became that, but kind of not. And there’s just more to say. And I was particularly really fascinated with thinking about a kind of theology, a modern theology that could break into what Charles Taylor calls the “immanent frame.” And what he means is this kind of predisposition we have as modern people to presume the world is made up of natural material things as opposed to transcendent or supernatural things, and that we live an innate kind of bias that tends to see the world as more immanent natural material.

And yet, I think there’s been some really interesting ways of trying to imagine a way God breaks in and trying to think of the church as a community that can find life through an inbreaking God as opposed to — which really becomes the kind of enemy and opposition in this boo — narratives of decline. The book has an incredible clickbait title: Churches in the Crisis of Decline. But really, it’s a little bit of a red herring in the title. I’m a little bit too worried that we have narratives of decline that we’re trying to solve in the life of the church instead of being communities that really seek for the living act of God.

And that if we attend more to narratives of God’s action or more take on practices that conform our imagination that way, that those will serve us much better than thinking, “Why do we have such few resources, such limited relevance, and how could we win both those two R’s back? How could we win resources and relevance back?”

I’m trying to recast what we think about the future of the church in a different way than thinking that we’re in a kind of narrative of declension, in a narrative of loss.

[00:11:19] Anthony: You framed the book by turning back to Karl Barth, which you’ve already alluded to, but especially his early years as a pastor and theologian-in-the-making to shape the hopeful ecclesiology to some degree of the book.

And so, my question is right now, many denominations of pastors are seeking the latest and greatest strategy of church survival and growth because they’re experiencing decline. So, my question is why hearken back to the dusty pages of Barth’s theology and ecclesiology?

[00:11:52] Andrew: Yeah, it’s a good question.

And in the worlds that I live in, interpretations of Barth, either even mentioning the name Barth makes people roll their eyes, or you enter into wars on the right way to interpret him. So, it was probably not the smartest thing in the world that I did, for my own self-preservation, to enter into a dialogue with Barth.

But one of the things that I found really interesting, particularly about the early Barth that I think can be informative to us is that Barth, most definitely, and the whole theological movement around him at the time, particularly as they responded to the crisis of World War I, that they even named themselves (or it was shade throw on them that they then took as a kind of badge of honor) is they were called “crisis theology.” They always had this deep sense that there was a crisis.

And I think overall in American Protestantism, we feel like we’re in a crisis, but I think what’s happened and I’m trying to get at in the book is that we’ve got the crisis wrong. The crisis isn’t one of decline; the crisis really is how do we speak again of a living, acting God?

How do we help people in our congregations have an imagination for a God who moves in history and speaks and is bringing salvation to the world? That becomes our crisis. And I do think we’re at moments, like you’re saying, where pastors have to be — we’ll lose some sleep. People who are leading congregations, maybe even leading denominations, probably need to have some sleepless nights tossing and turning.

But I think too often those sleepless nights really are around, how can we be more relevant? How can we get more of what we don’t have? And some of that is legitimate. Most churches in America are one roof leak away from being done, not being able to survive financially because of that.

So, I don’t want to be naive about that. But I think the real crisis before us and the real crisis of what it means to live in a secular age and to inhabit this immanent frame is not the crisis of having less, not the crisis of decline, all of the title. It really is the crisis of: how do we form people to have an imagination to hear again a living speaking God?

So, I wanted to go back to Barth because Barth is this very interesting theologian who wants to be modern. He’s not interested in throwing off modernity and going back to some pre-modern time or recover some pre-modern conception. He wants to be a modern person, but he really wants to explore how even in a modern world God can speak and move, that even inside the immanent frame, which we don’t get to opt out of.

It’s just thrust upon us. It’s the lens that we get from our larger cultural reality. Nevertheless, God can still act and move and speak. And I think that’s a word that American Protestantism needs to hear again. Really, what the church is about is the crisis of wrestling with a God who’s an agent and who speaks and moves in the world.

And that can give us life. It’s its own kind of suffering and struggle in bearing that crisis. But also, there’s something really generative in it that I think can renew us.

[00:15:02] Anthony: As I’ve read Barth, especially Pastor Barth, I’m grateful for somebody who — we often think of Barth as a “dogmatician” and full of dogma, but yet as a pastor, you’re wrestling through these things with a community of people. I think it was George Hunsinger I heard say that I prefer to read theologians who preach sermons at a local church, they have to work this stuff out.

And that’s where Barth is so helpful. It helped frame his theology. In the book, you talk about churches tend to center themselves by centering their survival as the main focus of their speech and energies. But you want us to redirect those efforts, as you’ve already talked about, to the living God.

And the phrase (though it seems simple, is very profound) “God is God” appeared many times in the pages of the book to acknowledge this transcendent and immanent God. Why should “God is God” be so important to a declining church?

[00:16:11] Andrew: Yeah, I think it is kind of a nonsensical statement. Eberhard Busch (who is Karl Barth’s last secretary, administrator, teaching assistant and then his first real significant biographer) talks about this phrase that kind of started Barth’s revolution. “God is God.” It’s almost a nonsensical phrase; it’s only two words, three words total, two distinct words: God is God. And what are we actually getting at here?

But it is this really profound assertion that God is uncontrollable, that God cannot be controlled. And I think one of the issues we have in just the context of modern life, but particularly American Protestantism’s response, is we feel so much like we’re in decline that we want to turn God into a product that we can sell.

We want God to somehow serve our needs or the church’s continuation, not that the church needs to be drawn deeper and deeper into God’s life. So, the assertion that God is reminding us that God is uncontrollable, that God acts, and God moves, that God is not at our beck and call. But what we’re called to stop and try to discern how God is moving with within our lives.

And I think that’s really important. Like I said at the beginning, I was trying to at least move towards a kind of full ecclesiology here, and I don’t think I got there, but I was starting to take the steps there. And I think one of the first things we have to say in ecclesiology, about trying to ask, what is the church, was that one of the important theological points is that the church cannot be the star of its own story.

And I think almost every consultant who comes to a church that feels like it is in decline or that it is losing out market share in its community, almost the first question is, so what’s your church’s story? What’s your story? What differentiates you within this market? What is your story that we need to tell as a kind of marketing move?

And there some of that, of course, is necessary just as we deal with institutional structures and things like that. But theologically, the church has no story. The story that the church attends to is the story of God. The church has no story of its own. Its own story isn’t what matters. What matters is God’s story.

And the church doesn’t even get to be best supporting actor in this drama of God’s work in the world. Really, the world is. God is ministering to the world. And the church plays a significant role to narrate that story, to participate in it, witness to it, and point to it. The story that matters, that will fuel the church, is this story of how God is acting in the world.

I just hear so many churches that are always looking for their unique story. What do they innovatively do within their community? Maybe there’s some of that’s necessary, but I worry it decenters the very act of God in moving people to be interested in attending to how God is acting and telling those kinds of stories, as opposed to telling stories about what sets us apart in the market.

So, I really want to push that “God is God,” and therefore it’s God’s story that really matters here. And that our job is to try to attend to that story, to try to discern what God is doing in the world.

[00:19:44] Anthony: I appreciated the emphasis that you put on God “is”. There is a here and now, “I am” dynamic.

So, when we proclaim the name, Emmanuel, God is with us — not God was with us and now he’s disappeared and no longer on the scene, but he’s actively at work. And what is he doing? Like you said, discerning what he’s up to in the neighborhood where you’re at in your context. And so, it seems to me, what you might be saying is: we’re talking about anthropology when we should be talking theology. Who is God and what’s he doing?

You wrote, and I quote, “Fifteen is no shame. A community of fifteen people seeking the living Christ is beautiful.” You wrote it. So, I assume you believe it. Though I’ve come back and listened to some old sermons and I’m not sure I believe everything I say, but I’m going to trust that you believe it.

So, if you do, help us to understand how that’s a truthful statement.

[00:20:45] Andrew: Yeah. I think there is this certain late modern, kind of scrim we see the world through, that we haven’t been attentive enough to, which is that we live with a certain logic of escalation and that all things that are good continue to escalate and get more and grow.

And you’ll hear people say that only healthy things grow, which I suppose is true. Like the doctor says, your eight-year-old is not where they should be for their age. That’s a huge issue. But however, on the other side, like if you had an eight year old and your eight-year-old was 6’ 9”, you’d also be really worried. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s health there too.

So, my point is, just things escalating and just things growing at the level of resource and say, relevance (to use those words again), I don’t think that’s the measure of a good church. I just don’t think that that can hold weight to really what the measure of a good church is. A church theologically that is good is one that is proclaiming Christ and him crucified, is living deeply in each other’s lives, is witnessing out in the world, as well as within their own life. This God who takes what is dead and makes it alive, they are living that story out. They are being sent into the world to minister to it.

So, I think there is absolutely no shame in being a small community. I think that is absolutely beautiful. And I think so much of our perspectives in Protestantism is to think what is big is better.

And I don’t know if that’s always necessarily the truth. And I guess that becomes part of the problem with this whole narrative of decline and thinking that’s our biggest issue is that the only way out of that, you imagine, is what the sociologist Hartman Rosa, the German sociologist, talks about as dynamic stabilization.

That we think the only thing that can stabilize our institution is further and further growth. And then this logic of escalation just then never stops. You just have to keep growing and growing and growing. You have to keep going faster and faster. You need to keep innovating and finding new and go and go.

And yet I’m not exactly sure that’s reflective of what God calls us to or of the biblical narrative. I don’t know that there’s this deep sense of continuing to escalate things as much as what it means to participate in. So, growth isn’t about just getting more and more. I think biblically it’s about growing into something, growing into being in Christ, of a deeper sense of participation in the Trinitarian life.

And you can do that with 15 people really sharing each other’s humanity isn’t dependent on thousands of people or thousands of dollars in a budget. So, I just want us to have a bit of a different kind of moral framework about what makes a church good. And I think it really is goodness is embedded in what it means to proclaim the gospel and participate in each other’s lives as a way of participating in God’s life and growing into being reflective of Christ’s ministry in the world more than it is to substantiate our institutions by having excess resources, more capital than we need, enough capital to always be able to exist beyond the day or the year or the decade.

[00:24:29] Anthony: I appreciate what you said about what are we growing into? It really is: how do we see growth? And I want to ask you a question. If you were sitting with a pastor of a church, a small church, and in my context, most of our churches are small and sometimes pastors feel defeated, like somehow, they’re doing something wrong.

If you had the privilege to sit with one of these pastors and you’d want to speak truth into their life, in their feelings of frustration and shame that they’re not accomplishing whatever someone else says they need to accomplish. What would you say to them?

[00:25:07] Andrew: Yeah, my answer would be, and maybe this dates me a bit, but it would be a little bit of a Goodwill Hunting response. At the very end of that Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Ben Affleck movie, where Robin Williams’ character tells Matt Damon’s character: it’s not your fault. In some sense, what I want to communicate to pastors right now — because inside this kind of logic of escalation, inside these kinds of senses of dynamically stabilizing things only through a growth, not a growth into, but a growth of more and more — it’s very easy, what happens in that as you enter into hyper competitive spaces.

So, you’re always competing for these resources. There’s a limited amount of them. How do we get more and more? And therefore, when you start to look at your church, and it’s small, or you haven’t done what you think when you came out of seminary or you took your first call and you thought this is what I was going to do, and there’s just been frustration. It’s very easy to either blame yourself or blame your people. It’s my fault. Gosh, if I only was talented enough. If I only was a better preacher, if only this community’s demographics were different.

Or you start to blame your congregation. If these people weren’t so hardheaded, if these people would just give more money. You start to either blame yourself or blame others.

And that will just suck the life right out of you. And there’s really no renewal in the midst of that because it will create forms of resentment where you either resent your congregation or you start resenting yourself. And I think, so my words would be — and this is really why this whole series was written is to say these forces are making ministry hard.

First of all, as I say, ministry is really hard right now. Yes, it is. And it is hard for really large cultural realities. And this is not the golden age of church leadership. And that’s okay because God will see us through. So, I think that’s ultimately what I want to say is it’s not your fault.

And that is also not your job to save the church. It is a certain kind of odd chauvinism to think it’s our job to save the church, as if God needs us to somehow save the confession of Jesus Christ in America. Now the church is God’s responsibility, and we will be called to deep forms of responsibility in obedience to God.

But really what we’re to do is to embrace the beauty of the gospel itself, to remember the absolute pleasure, the absolute wonder and a hardship, but wonder of walking with people in life and death, of pointing to this very narrative bound in the actuality of our lives of a God again, who takes what is dead and makes it alive.

The gospel itself is so beautiful and the ministerial task, the pastoral task is so profoundly important to just walk with people and prepare them to die well and live well, to celebrate before God and to find forgiveness and healing with one another. That is such an amazing task to remember that, to remember the beauty of that.

And yet I’m so concerned that all gets wiped away because we say to pastors: you got to grow this thing by 30%, 40%. You got to win market share. You got to go, you got to go, you got to go. And all of a sudden just being with a couple when the husband gets diagnosed with dementia or a young woman gets diagnosed with breast cancer and just praying with her and seeing her through this long battle and then helping her die well, and then preaching the gospel at her funeral is unbelievably beautiful. It is hard. It is heart wrenching, but it also is beautiful.

So, I’d ultimately just want to remind us of the incredible gift that we’ve been given, called to, which is to proclaim the gospel in the real, lived concrete lives of walking with people.

[00:29:33] Anthony: Well said. Plus, you got a Goodwill Hunting reference in there. Well, done, sir. That scene where Robin Williams and Matt Damon are sitting on a bench, and Williams is challenging him about the experiences of life was just so beautiful! But that was really well said.

The book articulates how if a church is going to take seriously engaging the living God it has to be a church that waits on God. Andy, this waiting ain’t popular, man. It feels passive and therefore unproductive. Can waiting on God really be the way? And if so, what does it really mean to wait on God?

[00:30:19] Andrew: Yeah, I say this to groups of people all the time, like right before I drop, it’s about waiting.

I say, you’re going to hate this. You’re just going to absolutely hate this. And for the most part, I’ve been proven right. People hate it. Especially as middle class, upwardly mobile people, we hate waiting. And in many ways, waiting is the enemy of a kind of late consumerist society.

We’re trying to, as one social theorist says, we’re trying to take all the waiting out of wanting so, part of the consumer society is to get you whatever you want without waiting. So, your Amazon droid is going to be dropping off your package as soon as you click it at some point. So, we want that to occur.

So, I understand that. And there are forms of waiting, don’t get me wrong, where — I’d actually say I’m not the most patient person in the world. So waiting is not easy for me. And I did have an experience just a few weeks ago of being at the Apple store and getting my watch upgraded and them asking me if I wanted to pair the watch while I was in the store.

And I figured that takes something off my to-do list. Let’s do that. But then it had to do a software update. So, I had to sit there and watch the percentage of the software update download happen. And it was a busy Sunday, and the bandwidth was being eaten up and it was excruciating. It was the most awful form of waiting ever. It felt just like a certain kind of hell. I get it — there are a lot worse things in life than that, but it was not a fun form of waiting.

So, this is usually how we think about waiting is that waiting is some kind of blockage to action. But there is a different, I think, sense of waiting that is really much more profound that I’m trying to get us to. And it all does go back to this idea of God is the one who acts. If God “is, and that “is” means that this God is an actor, that this God acts and reveals God’s being and God’s action, then the disposition we need — to be able to discern and interpret God’s action and to participate in it because we’ve encountered it — is to stop and wait, is to wait on this God.

And we have these biblical themes everywhere. The great Psalm, “Be still and know I am God.” I’ve been told by some Old Testament experts that one way you can interpret that or translate that in the Hebrew is put down your hands and know I am God. In other words, stop fighting me and stop trying to do all this stuff. Stop trying to do more and more. Just put down your hands and receive something that I have a gift to give you.

And Martin Luther, too, thought that the Christian life becomes a fundamentally passive life. Not that we don’t act. He thought we acted. We have to act for our neighbor. We have to minister to our neighbor. We have to proclaim the gospel to the world, but it becomes a passive act of a response to receiving a gift that God is the one who acts to justify, to save, and that our waiting is to receive the gift of salvation.

And really, we forget this, but in Luke Acts, and in the movements from Luke to Acts, the first command that starts the church — we love thinking of the church being birthed in Acts 2 with Pentecost, and we particularly love the text, “And then thousands were added to their number.”

For dynamic stabilization and for where we are at in our modern context, that’s just a luscious text. “Thousands were added to their number.” But we forget that the first command that forms the church, that really gathers the community is to the men on the road to Emmaus, where Jesus tells them to return to Jerusalem and to wait. So that’s a waiting together in community. That’s a waiting by telling our stories of loss and suffering of confusion. It’s waiting as a process of discernment.

And so, I think waiting becomes an essential way that we turn our bodies, that we turn our lives towards one another and towards the anticipation of God’s action. The distinct difference about me waiting for my software to download, and the kind of waiting I think is really quite a holy act, is that the kind of waiting that I’m calling for is a certain kind of attentiveness. It’s being attentive to something. It’s waiting with a story, what I call in the book a watchword: a word that we’re on watch, a way we [inaudible] know God moves. Like when there’s no way this God makes a way, out of death comes life. We hold those stories as we wait.

And then as we start to testify to our experiences, to our experiences of loss and of hope and of need and of want, we start to even just look at those stories through our watchword. And I’m trying to discern what God is doing and how God is acting, and I think we become very attentive to the movement of the Spirit in that way.

So, it’s a kind of waiting that reminds us again that God is God and to discern, to be a community, that the job of the church is fundamentally discern how the Spirit is moving

[00:35:27] Anthony: There have been friends in my circle, pastors, lay folks who have experienced their church closing, and they have actively waited on God, Andy. And they just feel broken when their congregation has to close.

You wrote in your book, “It’s no shame for a congregation to close—no failure necessarily, for a pastor to journey with a congregation into death.” Whew. That can feel icky for people experiencing a church closure.

So, can you help us unpack that? I think you’ve touched on it, but can you develop the thought further?

[00:36:06] Andrew: Yeah. I think it’s not surprising to me that around our discourses around the church, that one of the things we feel the most shame around is having to close the church. And I do think that there are leaders whose responsibility it is to continue to plant churches, to continue to think about how churches can have a sustained life.

But there also is a kind of denial of death that we can enter into here if we don’t recognize that sometimes the tragic occurs and that a church has to close and that isn’t always a church’s fault, that someone needs to be blamed for it. Sometimes it’s just life.

And this is a weird age we live in. One of the main things I’m trying to get at in these six books is that this is a kind of weird age. And what it really means to live in a secular age is to live in a time where you can go a long ways without thinking about God. Like you can go a long ways.

People will even say things like, I was going to church for a while, but I’m just going to take a break from God for a while. I just decided I need a break from God. You could never imagine a medieval person being able to say that. They couldn’t even imagine that was a possible thing that you could say.

But we live in a cultural context where people can go a long way, not thinking about God. That’s quite weird in the whole landscape of human history. It’s just as weird and pretty interconnected, I think, that people can go a long way in our cultural context not remembering, forgetting, not thinking about the fact they’re going to die, that they are finite creatures.

And the churches, congregations, the church universal, I think exists in a different way in a different place in God’s economy. But congregations, gathered expressions of the church, are made up of bodies, of human bodies. And Bonhoeffer reminded us in Life Together that to love the church is not to love the idea of the church, but to love the real church, and that always means real human bodies. And communities that are made up of real human bodies will have a lifespan.

So and so First Baptist, First Presbyterian, First United Methodist, First whatever, these are not eternal forms. They are gathered communities that gather and through our bodies proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But I don’t think any of them will exist in a thousand years, you know probably not. The church will. The church will continue to gather in some way.

But these are historically bound realities, and the very confession of the incarnation reminds us of that. The very confession of the Ascension, that Jesus bodily ascends, reminds us that we are always bodies in a place, and that pastoral ministry is always done as a body to bodies. And that does mean that some of us will have the ministry, and have the heavy burden of closing churches, because the bodies have died off the that they can no longer. The community itself can no longer sustain the life of these people.

And there isn’t shame in that. There would be as much shame in that as the shame of doing a funeral for a person, which is not any shame. It is an incredible, like I said, honor and privilege.

And maybe in the same way, it’s heavy, but that’s the same kind of way of closing a church. It is painful. Just like it’s painful for someone to die, but it also is part of what it means to be a finite creature.

[00:39:44] Anthony: Death is the dynamic, in a sense. As a friend often says to me, the Father did not save the Son from death but saved him through death. And death is a part of the experience, and it is not shameful. And I really appreciate your words. Because again, I know we have people in our listening audience who are hurting from this and that’s okay. God is still on the move.

And speaking of the books that you’ve written, Andy, (and you’ve written over 20) you’ve mentioned this is part of a six book series beyond the book that we’re talking about right now.

And I know you’ve already said, hey, my favorite book is the one I’m writing. But would you recommend a particular book or books to us that help further this framing of ecclesiology and what God is doing in the church.

[00:40:41] Andrew: Yeah, I actually think probably the place to start, the maybe entry way in, probably the best way, is a little book that just came out last year called, When the Church Stops Working, (which also is a very clickbait title). When the Church Stops Working.

But I really do mean it in a double kind of meaning. Obviously, you know there’s a sense we have that the church isn’t working well. But there also is a sense that what might heal us, what might renew us is not doing more, but actually working less, in receiving God’s gift.

But it’s a book that is in some ways a synthesis of the six volumes that really is written more for lay people. I think it’s a book that pastors can read with folks in their church. It’s what it’s written for. And so, I think it’s a good way in. Even if you feel like you want to get into the six volumes, this would be a good gateway drug, for use of a bad analogy.

[00:41:51] Anthony: Drug usage, as well. This podcast is off the rails.

[00:41:50] Andy: I mean like NyQuil or Tylenol or something like that.

[00:41:53] Anthony: Sure. Sure.

Finally, let me ask you this. What is your hopeful vision of the church in this era of history in a secular world?

[00:42:04] Andrew: Yeah, my hopeful message is that God still acts, and that God will be faithful, and that Jesus Christ is on the move, that the Spirit is being poured out and that God is at work. And yeah, these are hard times. But God is moving. And I think that, like I said, there’s just utter beauty and significance in gathered communities that pray, of pastoral leadership that leads us to celebrate our joys and suffer our great losses. And that this is a valuable thing. And God is moving within it. And I think remembering that the church is God’s responsibility.

And that also this seems like a kind of counterintuitive positive word, but there have been worse times. There have been more difficult times, and the church has made it through. And so, I think we can hang on to that, that God is faithful.

[00:43:16] Anthony: Yeah! Friends, the book is Churches and the Crisis of Decline. I certainly recommend it too, and I’ve read several of Andy’s books. There’s not a bad one out there that I know of; maybe he knows of something I don’t. But thank you so much for being a part of this podcast.

And I want to say on a personal level. I’m so grateful for your labor of love in Christ’s service. In our denominational context, Grace Communion International, we talk frequently about place-sharing, which is a wink to you and your work and engagement with Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Relationship is an end to itself. The beauty of, as you said earlier, of sitting with a person who has a diagnosis that breaks their heart and not trying to move them from A to B, but just sitting with them, being with them, and their joys and sorrows, their pains, their doubts, their confusion, as they sit with us. That’s the beauty because God is there.

So, thank you, Andy.

[00:44:12] Andrew: Thank you. I really appreciate it.

[00:44:13] Anthony: Absolutely. And it’s our tradition here at Gospel Reverb to end with a prayer. So, would you pray over the church?

[00:44:19] Andrew: I would.

God, thank you for this time together, and thank you for these people who are listening. And may you encourage them, even right now, as they’re listening, that you are pleased that their ministry is witnessing to your movement in the world. So, God, would you renew us again and again? And give us visions of your continued action in the world. Amen.

Thank you for being a guest of Gospel Reverb. If you like what you heard, give us a high rating, and review us on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcast content. Share this episode with a friend. It really does help us get the word out as we are just getting started. Join us next month for a new show and insights from the RCL. Until then, peace be with you!