A Feature Review of
When Church Stops Working: A Future for Your Congregation Beyond More Money, Programs, and Innovation
Andrew Root and Blair D. Bertrand
Reviewed by Laura Hicks Hardy
Dire warnings about the crisis of decline in churches have sounded across denominations for decades. They have only gotten louder since the pandemic. Most discussions begin with the assumption that the church’s current crisis is its decline in numerical growth and cultural relevance. However, in When Church Stops Working Andrew Root and Blair D. Bertrand question this assumption, asking: what if we have misdiagnosed the crisis? And what if our proposed solutions only exacerbate the real problem? Root and Bertrand’s small yet resonant work challenges common assumptions about crisis and decline that have long steered conversations about the church in the United States. Many well-meaning attempts to stave off decline through more money, programs, and innovation keep us anxiously focused on our own action instead of attentive to God’s action. Root and Bertrand’s work sounds a simple and hope-filled question: what if the church already has what it needs?
In a convicting cultural critique, Root and Bertrand diagnose the church’s current crisis, of which cultural decline—”lack of influence, people, and belief”—is merely a symptom. True decline, they argue, is the result of a larger constellation of issues they call “the secular age.” In a secular age “the sacred no longer sets the agenda” (12), belief is privatized, and we lack a shared understanding that a spiritual world interacts with the material one. In this view, innovation, often lauded as a cure for the church’s ills, only exacerbates the problem because innovation is itself born from the secular age. The secular age and its drive for innovation keep us in a posture of accelerated busyness instead of a posture of waiting for God’s action. In response to the secular age, two solutions are often proposed: either “throw ourselves into a hurried future” (41) to get out ahead of our culture or return to a sacred age in which the spiritual sets the agenda for society. Root and Bertrand encourage a third option: more resonance—deeper connection with God, our communities, and the present. To cultivate resonance, the church must develop a spirit of active waiting instead of constant acceleration. When we practice resonance, we wait for the living God to speak, move, and prompt us in unexpected ways. Our focus shifts from what we can do to what God is doing.
In one of the most compelling sections of their book, Root and Bertrand trace this active, responsive waiting back to the origins of the church in the book of Acts. Instead of locating the church’s origin story in Acts 2, with action and expansion, Root and Bertrand turn to Acts 1. Here, they argue, we find the true origin story of the church: Jesus’s command to wait on the coming Holy Spirit. Ultimately, the story of Acts is not about what the disciples do, as we often assume. Instead, it is a story about God and the world. “God is the hero, and the church waits,” they write (23). This means that the action of the church is primarily responsive faithfulness. “There is a deep sense that God is at work in the world, doing things we cannot see because we are too busy,” they observe. “Through waiting, the church is sent out into joining the acts of God…The church must wait because its only job is to witness to the living Jesus Christ, who is moving in the world” (70).
What does it look like for a church to wait for God instead of being led by its own anxiety and need for relevance? Root and Bertrand provide some helpful and concrete suggestions. The waiting church follows Jesus’s example of humble death, dying to its own ego and need for control. It practices true Sabbath, not just rest for the goal of more productivity. The waiting church confesses where it has failed and invites its members to confess to each other. The waiting church is marked by gratitude for what God has done, not anxiety about what it should do. Through this, the waiting church sinks deeply into the present instead of being lulled by the future, attending “directly and passionately to this moment with these people,” stewarding relationships with each other and God (56).
In some of the most practical and moving parts of the book, Root and Bertrand propose that the church adopt different guideposts for their life together than those born from the secular age. Instead of a mission statement, they suggest churches look for a watchword–“a phrase or even a slogan that encompasses a much larger story. It’s shorthand for a story of a deep experience that has shaped a group of people” (105). A watchword emerges from listening deeply to members of a community. It testifies to how that community has encountered God, keeping them on the watch for God’s continual movement among them. As a gift from God, and not something manufactured by the community, a watchword draws people into a story that is bigger than themselves.
Motivated by anxiety about decline, churches might dismiss Root and Bertrand’s vision as too small, too slow, not ambitious enough. The authors anticipate this criticism. “Too often,” they comment, “we believe there is something else we should be doing than being together, eating storytelling, praying, and remembering, rehearsing again and again the story of Jesus Christ’s life and its meaning. Yet, its only out of this being together, this waiting, that we encounter the living God. In encountering this living God we are called out into the world to follow this God who loves the world” (66). This encounter with the living God, they argue, is the true crisis that should capture the church’s attention.
When Church Stops Working is a deep, centering breath of fresh air for congregations who feel suffocated by cultural demands to accelerate, innovate, perform, or die. It is a challenging reminder that our faithful God continues to move in the world, and the church’s primary job is to bear witness to that movement and let it move us.
When Church Stops Working is also a condensed, more accessible version of arguments presented in Root’s Ministry in a Secular Age series, particularly Churches and the Crisis of Decline (2022) and The Church After Innovation (2022). While the Ministry in a Secular Age books skew academic in tone and content, sometimes leaving the reader to struggle with practical application, When Church Stops Working is both accessibile and practical. This makes it a good book for a diverse congregation to discuss together. Of course, accessibility comes with a trade-off: in some instances, the book could benefit from the more robust theological, economic, and philosophical frameworks Root works from in other books. The lack of these frameworks occasionally leaves the reader wanting more clarity on their use of terms such as crisis, innovation, resonance, and the secular age. Despite this, When Church Stops Working is a valuable handbook for congregations seeking to navigate our anxious time with faithfulness, patience, and eager expectation of God’s movement in the world.
Laura Hicks Hardy
Laura Hicks Hardy is a preacher and writer living in the mountains of East Tennessee with her family. After teaching writing for several years, she pursued seminary and ministerial work and now works for Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan University in Johnson City, Tennessee.
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior
Enter your email below to sign up for our weekly newsletter & download your FREE copy of this ebook!