Why the Future of the Church Is Rootedness
Daniel White, Jr.
Paperback: Cascade Books, 2015
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Reviewed by Jonathan Schindler
Subterranean: Why the Future of the Church Is Rootedness begins in an unexpected place. Author Dan White Jr. was offered “the opportunity of a lifetime to lead a successful megachurch” (p. xiii). White, however, was uneasy with this proposition and began exploring why that might be. He didn’t accept the position, and his loss is the reader’s gain: Subterranean catalogs White’s thoughts on the nature of the church and how to return to its, well, roots.
Subterranean takes the tree as its central image: “Like a tree, the kingdom [of God] brings life into lifeless situations, giving off oxygen to those needing to breathe in grace, grafting itself to a specific location, sprouting at a pace the eye cannot always observe, and persevering through the harshest of seasons. The tree is rooted to this earth” (p. 6). Unlike man-made towers, where what you see is what you get, trees grow taller as they grow deeper. The work of growth is slow, hard to quantify, and in many cases unseen, but trees reflect strength because of and not despite these traits. White argues that the future of the church is in similar practices of rooting in order to grow.
White argues that “our understanding of how the kingdom of God sprouts up in the world is directly related to the way in which we will seek out being visibly significant in the world as leaders” (p. 9). Our methods reflect our beliefs. And, as White diagnoses in the first several chapters, our beliefs often are more closely allied to culture than they are to the Kingdom. His prescription is rootedness, which is “less interested in the sheer utility of our outcomes and more interested in whether or not our practices humanize or dehumanize ourselves and others” (p. 13).
White points to three areas where the church has become more like the culture than the Kingdom of God: excessive personality, extracted perception, and expedited production. In talking of excessive personality, he writes how the church “began to count…not so much how one lived in the smallness of our towns but the impression made in wider public opportunities” (p. 21). The polished presentations of itinerant preachers are often more exciting than a sustained, incarnational example of Christlikeness in our midst. And to catch the attention of a celebrity-driven culture, we often try to beat the culture at its own game. Or, to use White’s phrasing, “We have become known more for our personality fireworks than our quiet faithfulness….The unassuming seedling of the kingdom tree has been stomped under our stampede for attention” (p. 21). By using worldly methods, we’ve lost more than we’ve gained.
White continues by discussing “extracted perception,” the idea that our mode of learning has become divorced from “a context that demands we flesh it out.” White writes, “There are many forces that extract us, working to keep us from embodying our values in a real place with real people” (p. 37). Personal study tools and online media are double-edged swords in that they can often expedite learning while also removing the personal interaction necessary for discipleship. White writes, “I sometimes feel the sermon podcast is one of the worst developments for the life of the church….We have a tendency to swear by the character of preachers we’ve never observed living out their own sermons” (p. 43). White’s image of the rooted church rightfully places some emphasis back onto embodiment as a powerful motivator. The apostle Paul urged, “Join together in following my example…keep your eyes on those who live as we do” (Philippians 3:17), which necessarily involves embodiment. With this extracted perception, we are in danger of becoming James’s fool, “who looks at his face in a mirror and…goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like” (James 1:23-24). Discipleship is the cure; “it’s the only way to close the gap between our minds and our bodies” (p. 46).
Expedited production is the third way the church mirrors the wider culture more than the Kingdom. “The church has a thing for speed…,” writes White, “but often we baptize ‘fast’ in Christian lingo. So much of our language reflects this idolatry of impact.” (p. 48). The church’s desire for impact, inspired by a desire to reach the most people possible in the shortest amount of time, often undercuts this goal: “Speed is violent on human relations and should provoke the call of local church communities to be islands of patience in a world of speed” (p. 55).
White’s argument in pointing out excessive personality, extracted perception, and expedited production is not that these traits are in pursuit of an ignoble goal; rather, that these traits are not unalloyed goods and often do unexpected harm. Something isn’t working.
The solution, in White’s view, is rootedness. And if the Kingdom of God is a tree, then the taproot “is fidelity” (p. 70)—fidelity to people and fidelity to place. White writes, “We need the world: it challenges us to love and look into the face of others….To proclaim the glory of the incarnate God we must live into the good hurt of incarnation” (p. 64-5). That is, the church must become more “radical”—not, as White points out, in the common modern sense of “[outrunning] the unsettling horror that ‘I just might be ordinary’” but in its older sense, related to the Latin radix, “of roots” (p. 62, 68). “Simplified, radical doesn’t go up; it goes down, farther down” (p. 68).
Emerging from this premise, in the latter (and larger) portion of the book, White sketches what it looks like for the church to become more rooted in fidelity, locality, and community. White offers many practical resources to those involved in implementing rootedness in their own communities. Chapter 9, “Practicing Locality,” offers a “renewal” tool for individuals and a “submerge” tool for church groups, both of which should serve churches who want to explore what it would mean to go deeper in their communities. Chapter 11, “Practicing Community,” is the longest chapter in the book, and for good reason: it considers what the purpose of deep church community is and then offers some helpful tools to bring that about. White’s strength here is in naming—once a problem and a solution is named, going through the work of implementing it is less nebulous. In all of these latter chapters, there are guiding but open-ended questions that will help churches, groups, and individuals honestly assess their commitment to and execution of rootedness. Often I find assessment questions in books to be too guided, but here I was impressed that, at least for me, answering the questions required a good deal of reflection.
I’m not sure that Subterranean delivers on the promise of its subtitle—“Why the Future of the Church is Rootedness”—in that I’m not sure the book will convince readers of its premise if they don’t already agree. However, if, like me, you are already on board with the premise, you will find much in Subterranean, both encouragement and practical resources, to aid you and your church as you seek rootedness where God has placed you.