AUTHOR: Mark Sayers
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2016, (192 pages).
In Part One, readers learn about just why the culture of relevance had taken a foothold on the Church. It comes about with the desire to have the best of both worlds: minimal faith while embracing modern values, something that Sayers call "post-Christian culture." This type of culture looks similar on the outside to traditional church but are largely emptied of its content. Instead, the content has been replaced by seven widely held beliefs:
- The highest good is individual freedom and self-expresison
- The traditional forms of religion that resists #1 needs to be "re-shaped, deconstructed, or destroyed."
- Technology is the new saviour
- Tolerance is the universal social ethic
- Humans are inherently good
- Be suspicious of large institutions and structures
- Be suspicious or be ready to reject external authority
Sayers gives us an array of cultural observations. We learn of the Dutch cultural theorists, Timotheus Vermulen and Robin Van de Akker's "metamodernism" which is the "new sincerity" based on oscillations between extreme poles. There are the "flashmob churches" where disembodied individuals come together for some random togetherness. The disappearance are not in terms of total numbers but in terms of rotating segments of people when one group that leaves are replaced by another over any period of time. Michael Burleigh notes that Westerners are rapidly taking for granted their beliefs in "diversity," "human rights," and "tolerance" by cutting away the roots of Christianity that bore these fruits. A helpful model that Sayers refers to quite often is that of Philip Rieff's three cultural types. The first is the belief in many gods. The second culture is the monotheistic beliefs rooted in the Judeo-Christian ethic. The third culture is simply a reaction against the second. It is this third culture that Sayers seems to be particularly concerned about. This is because this third culture is intent on destroying the symbols, the story and the signs of the second culture.
Part Two brings a redemptive angle to an otherwise depressing book. In "Learning Gospel Resilience," we need to begin afresh with a firm belief that all is not lost. There is hope. See the present challenges as opportunity to groom a Wesley, Edwards, Wilberforce, Whitefield, Spurgeon, and so on. The suggested formula Sayers had for us:
New Cultural Landscape (A) + Faithful Orthodoxy (B) + Courageous Creative Response (C) = Revitalization of the church and culture (D)
We need to recognize the new cultural landscapes impacting us and not stick our heads into the sand like ostriches thinking that they would disappear on their own. According to many management gurus, the first step in solving a problem is to recognize the problem first. Believe that any cultural declines or threats can be arrested. The resident aliens, the cultural exiles, can be creative minorities to make a difference. By staying faithful to orthodoxy, they would retain their identity instead of being diluted away by the rivers of cultural relevance. This means moving away from relevance toward rebuilding. It means learning to "self-disobedience" and rejecting errors like the prosperity gospel. It means the need to stop catering to public opinions but to obey gospel truth. We need to learn to live with the tension of cultural conflicts even as we practice orthodoxy, for much dilution of the gospel has to do with the general discomfort in tensions. As a result, those seeking to find quick relief easily succumb to cultural relevance. By becoming all things to all people, they lose their identity in God. There are many other good ideas that Sayers had which truly deserves to be savoured slowly and carefully.
This is certainly one of the best books I have read on the state of the Church in a new cultural climate. Sayers is very well-read and familiar with the works of many cultural theorists and social observers. His arguments are sound and readers can follow his reasoning fairly easily. I must admit that the first part of the book can be quite shocking and worrying. There are so many things I can identify with that at times, I felt like there is no hope with the threat of a disappearing church. Fortunately, when I reach Part Two, each chapter comes through as a glimmer of hope. I am thankful that there is a powerful response to the observations in the earlier part of the book. In writing about the disappearing church, Sayers is helping us to see the roots of the problem, aiming his guns at the uncritical acceptance of cultural relevance as the way of life for the Church. Indeed, "cultural relevance" is the Trojan horse of the Church in a postmodern era. It not only dilutes the gospel, it takes away the identity of the Church. Just like running waters that can carve out canyons over time, "cultural relevance" can erode the structures, the stories, and the symbols of all the Church have stood for in the past. It is time to move away from this stance. Look at relevance with a critical eye. Be bold to resist the tendency to be nice at the expense of truth. Love and goodwill must be based on truth.
I recommend this book highly for all interested in the future of the Church. Perhaps, the title of the book can be modified to include "Reappearance of the Church."
Rating: 5 stars of 5.
This book is provided to me courtesy of Moody Publishers and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.