About This Blog

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

"Disappearing Church" (Mark Sayers)

TITLE: Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience
AUTHOR: Mark Sayers
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2016, (192 pages).

Why is the Church disappearing? In terms of young people, there are more of them leaving churches and not returning compared to young believers entering churches. In terms of culture, Western secularism has largely replaced the Judeo-Christian worldview in society. With decreasing numbers in attendance, and the passing of an old generation, some churches are even shutting down for good.  What is happening? Is this the end of Western Christianity as we once knew before? Author Mark Sayers believes that there is still hope for the Church in spite of the perceived decline. The way forward is not to tailor Church according to what the prevailing culture expects but according to what Jesus had intended for the Church all along, put by Sayers as a journey from "cultural relevance" toward "gospel resilience." The Church must resist the temptation to wear the costume expectations of the world. We ought to be welcoming of people but not necessarily accommodating of the cultural values, especially those that are godless or relentlessly trying to dilute the gospel. Many of these are the idols of the age. There are the self-enthronement where humanism reigns supreme. For example, personal freedoms have become so treasured that the Bible's teachings have been conveniently displaced. Along with that is the unfortunate strategy of "cultural relevance" in which gospel people are no longer any different from the people of the world. The irony is, in wanting to be "relevant," they lose their gospel relevance. Sayers skillfully helps us understand the history of cultural relevance, the reasons for our fascination, the philosophy, the symbols, and the various cultural types. With great insight and scholarly knowledge, readers have a real treat just going through each chapter.

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 Instead, the content has been replaced by seven widely held beliefs:
  1. The highest good is individual freedom and self-expresison
  2. The traditional forms of religion that resists #1 needs to be "re-shaped, deconstructed, or destroyed." 
  3. Technology is the new saviour
  4. Tolerance is the universal social ethic
  5. Humans are inherently good
  6. Be suspicious of large institutions and structures
  7. Be suspicious or be ready to reject external authority
This cultural relevance takes many shapes. It can be the "I like Jesus but not the Church" or church for atheist movement that believes in community without the religion. There is a historical precedent to this. The medieval theologian Joachim of Fiore had advocated for a "new order of love," to replace the old Church. This order moves from the ancient first, medieval second, and finally the modern third. In this constantly changing religious world order, Sayers offers some explanations for the disappearing church. First, there is the liberal similarity in secular society. Previously, people seeking more relevance would join the more liberal churches that were perceived to be speaking the language of the culture. With the secular society that are seen to be less judgmental and less rigid, and also doing good works as well as the liberal churches, some people leaves the church completely. Second, it is the belief that one can be perfect according to one's choosing. The desire to be good has its origins in Pelagianism, which believes that man can be good on his own accord. Instead of God being the saviour of one's soul, man can essentially save himself. Third, new age practices is a reaction against the political struggles of the past. Such practices enable one to dig deeper into a therapeutic model for individual fulfullment. One such consequence is how people ditch denominational preferences for whatever that meets that needs. This impacts leadership too, as there is a new generation of leaders who are choosing things based according to their own needs as primary consideration. Fourth, the impact of Gnosticism continues to invade society via the gospel of self, where people trust in God up to the level of self. In other words, it inverts the gospel. It corrupts the gospel. It is deceptive as it masquerades itself as a "pseudo-Christianity." Key elements include the desire to enthrone oneself as god; the belief that this world we live in are inferior in every way, and the way forward is enlightenment to find ways toward abandonment from this world; that creation is not good but to be fled from.

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment