Book Review: Faith Formation in a Secular Age

In early 2015, I remember picking up a then recent copy of Youthworker Journal with the headline article reading, “Why Theology Isn’t Enough for Youth Ministry.”[1] The author’s name was familiar: Andrew Root, who had also published youth ministry titles such as The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry and The Relational Pastor.[2] While I had strong reservations about the author’s thesis in the article, I have grown to appreciate Root’s desire to think more theologically and philosophically about ministry among youth.

Root’s works are a refreshing change from the overly pragmatic and theologically muted youth ministry books that crowd bookshelves. Root has become a prolific voice within the field of youth ministry. His most recent book, Faith Formation in a Secular Age, offers an insightful and provocative perspective on how one should think about the formation of faith in our current milieu.

This book joins a contemporary chorus of volumes responding to and appropriating philosopher Charles Taylor’s landmark book, A Secular Age. Root analyzes Taylor’s work while exploring some areas Taylor mentions, but does not fully address.[3] In the latter half of the book Root aims to bring a variety of theological perspectives to bear on his discussion of faith formation. This includes discussions on Pauline theology, particular interpretations of Luther, his own Reformation theology of the cross, Eastern Orthodox imagination, and much more.[4]

This book is the first volume in a series called Ministry in a Secular Age, with two volumes forthcoming, both authored by Root. This particular volume is separated into two major sections. The first part attempts to “follow the path in the age of authenticity that codes toward a consumer mentality, exploring how this particular coding has been a challenge to the church and the forming of faith.”[5] The second part offers a theological vision to address the issues that Charles Taylor raises. 

Charles Taylor and the Age of Authenticity

The strength of this book, in my opinion, comes in Root’s first section, “A History of the Age of Authenticity: The Challenge of Forming Faith.” He helpfully fuses insights from A Secular Age with his own research and observation.

His analysis of how we’ve developed an obsession with youthfulness was particularly illuminating. Root notes, “There have been many in the church who have seen sex, drugs and rock and roll as the problem, when in reality they were only the reverberations or echoes of a more encompassing song being sung.”[6] Often times in faith formation, we’ve dealt with the symptoms but rarely with the disease itself. Root shows readers the foundational problem(s) within the American church in this area. With analysis of Taylor’s work, Root masterfully demonstrates how mass society, Bohemian culture, the hippie movement, youthful marketing, and other social factors have cultivated our cultural obsession with youthfulness. In his words, “Youthfulness was the glue that allowed the capitalist pursuits of the bourgeois and the expressive individualism of the bohemian to fuse in the last decades of the twentieth century.”[7]

For those familiar with Christian Smith’s articulation of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD)[8], Root argues convincingly that MTD is not so much the result of poor faith formation, but rather the natural fruit of our “age of authenticity”—an age defined by expressive, youthful individualism.[9] I’m convinced of the ill effects and influences of consumerism, individualism, and hipness upon the American church. For this reason, I found Root’s survey to be provocative and deeply insightful. This review does permit a full articulation of Root’s argument; still he convincingly demonstrates how these various tributaries of American culture have led to an idolatry of youthfulness and authenticity—the two becoming one. Think on this: In the age of authenticity, “Youth become priests of cool who inherited the practices, perspectives, and predispositions to lead us all into authenticity.”[10]

Faith and Faith Formation  

In reading this book and others by Root, I find that I agree strongly with his assessments and critiques, but I am not always able to follow him fully in his prescriptions. This, of course, may be largely due to our different faith traditions.[11] This was my sentiment as I engaged with the latter half of Root’s book—a part of the book that can seem a bit theologically obscurantist. Nevertheless, Root seeks to articulate a new theological vision for faith formation in our current secular age. His critique—one I share—is that we’ve thought of faith for far too long as simple assent to a certain number of held beliefs and institutional participation. Root argues that we should instead think of faith primarily as a divine action.

Root states that we have not found ourselves in this cultural moment because of spiritual or theological subtraction, though contemporary narratives seem to articulate otherwise: “We believe that we are dealing with an epidemic of faith formation because we’ve lost moral commitment, dropped prayer in school, declined in church attendance.”[12] He helpfully notes that our current state is not a result of subtraction but rather of the multi-layered addition of effects: mass society, consumerism, bohemianism, etc. Even still, we live within the pull of a secular society that negates the transcendence of God.[13]

Root’s theological vision is predicated on both personhood and experience.[14] Integral to this new theological vision is defining faith in a way that engages our current secular removal of the transcendent. In seeking to define faith, Root writes, “To have faith is to have an experience of the person of Jesus Christ coming to your own person.[15] Further, he notes,

Faith is not something that we do or create; it is the gift given to us to share in the person of Jesus through negation, where our narrative arc is transformed and becomes Jesus’s own . . . Faith is allowing our lives to be bent toward the transcendent experience of divine action that comes to us in negation, ministering new life to us. This is an experience of transcendence because it is a hypostatic experience (it is more than natural or material); it is the spiritual reality of finding ourselves in union with Christ.[16]

I agree that extending our understanding of faith is necessary. While I may misunderstand Root, his understanding of faith and faith formation seem to be strongly existential, or at the very least heavily experiential. He may deem this a necessary perspective due to secularism’s effect on our understanding of transcendence.

In responding to Root’s formation of a new theological vision, I have two questions I would like for him to unpack more. As stated before, Root and I would diverge theologically in various areas. I am engaging with this book from an evangelical, Reformed Arminian theological tradition. Therefore, these questions arise from theological inquiry and not criticism.

First, does Root’s approach to faith formation render assent to certain doctrines unnecessary or at least of secondary importance? That is, do formal catechesis and cognitive understanding lose merit within this new secular age? Is there a divide in faith formation that would pit assent to beliefs against experience? If not, what role does mental assent play in faith formation? Root explores some of these questions and advocates strongly for ministry established in experience, but I would be curious to hear more on these subjects.

Second, what significant role does Scripture play in the process of faith formation? There is substantial discussion in this book on experiencing Christ and on personal union with Christ. Concerning Root’s theological vision, the question then arises, does one primarily encounter the resurrected Christ though the Scriptures? While Root may give more attention to this in future volumes, this area isn’t explored thoroughly in this volume.


Root’s Faith Formation in a Secular Age is deeply insightful and challenging. His assessment of our cultural moment is incredibly helpful. Youth ministers and the Church at large would benefit from understanding our current obsession with youth and authenticity. Our cultural postures are too often assumed, and Root’s survey allows the reader to step back and assess the Church’s trajectory.

As for Root’s theological construction in part two, readers may engage with the author’s argument at various levels. While some may disagree in different areas, I believe the substance of his argument is worth considering, whether one fully subscribes to his vision. Root helpfully pushes his readers to engage with their own theological framework and forces them to ask whether they need to reassess their understanding of faith and faith formation.


[1] Andrew Root, “Why Theology Isn’t Enough for Youth Ministry,” Youthworker (Winter 2014), 26-28. See for an online edition.

[2] See Andrew Root and Kenda Creasy Dean, The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011); and Andrew Root, The Relational Pastor: Sharing Christ by Sharing Ourselves, (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013).

[3] Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age: Responding to the Church’s Obsession with Youthfulness, Volume One, Minister in a Secular Age, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), xi

[4] Root explains, “In this book you’ll discover a dialogue on faith through a discussion with Pauline theology and with the Finnish interpretation of Luther and through an interactive discourse with hypostasis, kenosis, and theosis.”[4] He further states, “This project endeavors to more fully connect my Reformation theology of the cross with an Eastern Orthodox imagination.” (Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age, xii-xiii)

[5] Ibid., xi

[6] Ibid.. 10.

[7] Ibid., 89.

[8] For those who are not familiar with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, see

[9] Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age, 12, 89.

[10] Ibid., 60.

[11] Root is the Carrie Olson Baalson associate professor of youth and family ministry at Luther Seminary. Luther seminary is the largest seminary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Root himself is a member of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

[12] Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age, 98.

[13] Ibid., 103-112.

[14] Ibid., 136-142.

[15] Ibid., 142.

[16] Ibid., 149.

Author: Chris Talbot

Share This Post On

What do you think? Comment Here:


The best way to stay up-to-date with the HSF

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This