Andrew Root’s book The Congregation in a Secular Age takes us on a journey in time – or, more accurately, who tells time.
The Church as Time Keeper
In the Middle Ages, the church was the timekeeper. The church defined the rhythms of life, the focus of life, and the critical moments of life. When the church kept time, things moved along at a slow pace. But it was not only the pace but the sense that we were part of generations of people. We lived intergenerationally and honored those who came before us while preserving what we had for those who came after us.
The Nation as Time Keeper
Moving into the 19th century, the timekeeper became the nation-state. Here the nation set the crucial days and moments—and these days and moments sped things up a bit. The focus moved from generations to a single generation—mine. Root writes,
…we always imagine ourselves inside a community. From the early church to modernity, the imagined community was intergenerational. Your imagined community included the living and the dead. …the nation acquires its power by leading us to imagine it as a community. This community is no longer intergenerational but generational. The imagined community becomes so powerful that I see myself as American above anything else.
In this world, we give our one lifetime to be part of this nation, to live its values and ways. This move connected with another vital reality: faith (and the church and denominations) were seen as private commitments. The transcendent was blocked out of life as the nation became the timekeeper.
Toward the end of the 20th century, this one-life commitment to the nation faded quickly. The failures of governments on a massive scale (this impacted commitment to institutions such as denominations) caused people to move away from the duty to nation.
At the same time, there was a call for greater freedom, particularly the freedom to create and recreate ourselves during our lives. No longer were people willing to commit a lifetime to anyone or anything. Now was the time to reinvent yourself, pursue your authenticity, and not wall yourself in. We began to live multiple lifetimes in a lifetime. We leave behind people, faith, church, denomination, and nation all to pursue whatever we think is our best next.
Apple Begins Keeping Time
Enter a new timekeeper, Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley runs at the speed of the latest operating system, the latest gadget, and the most recent devices. The greatest good in Silicon Valley is innovation, and the good life is a busy and fast life. This timekeeping shift proves a significant challenge for congregations that keep trying to run faster and faster and work harder and harder to keep up.
We’ll look more at that in the next post, but for now, note these words about churches and denominations from Root,
The denomination is built for a speed that our cultural conception of the good life has surpassed, leaving us susceptible to church-wide depression. The denomination and its congregations are falling behind, and they are finding it harder to even approach the speed of the good life… The denomination was built for a generational decay rate when people lived in a present of a single lifetime. Loyalty to an imagined community for a lifetime was part of the good life. This loyalty provided the resources the denomination needed.
These shifts directly affect particular congregations. It’s assumed that if a congregation no longer meets your needs, it no longer gives you the sense you are living the good life; you’re free to find another. You worry little if this new congregation is Lutheran or Methodist; the denomination has little effect on your chosen congregation. When you join your new congregation you expect it to affirm your present by providing you the resources to live out your authentic life.