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Disappearing Church

Ever since Jesus commanded us to  “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s,” Christians have struggled with the question of how the church should relate to the culture around it.  Mark Sayers new book, Disappearing Church is the latest book to explore these issues.

Sayers wants us to become extremophile disciples – Christians who can thrive in a hostile environment through finding deeper intimacy with God and deeper insight into ourselves. He wants the church to give up its quest for "relevance" and live as a creative minority. He urges us to develop gospel resilience and resist false cultural narratives through a process of withdrawal and return

City Man Person Skyline

Structurally the culture stands, yet emotionally, socially and spiritually it is disappearing … Everything falls apart while looking beautiful.”

Mark Sayers

Those familiar with Sayers' work will find in this book a sort of updated Trouble With Paris cultural-critique mixed with the withdraw/return model found in his most recent book, Facing Leviathan. This model is now applied to the whole church with a sense of urgency. If we don't learn to adjust to today’s hyper-real, meta-modern, post-Christian, gnostic culture, the church will just disappear. 

“The church is not destroyed; rather it is emptied of its essential truths, becomes a mere shadow, and eventually disappears.” [p.64]

The book is split into two parts: the first half critiques both culture and the church’s attempt to be relevant to that culture; the second half sets out Sayers' vision for developing gospel resilience as a creative minority

The Beautiful Apocalypse

What I appreciated and enjoyed about the book was Sayers' ability to bring together a fascinating and diverse range of cultural sources. He speaks and borrows widely from the worlds of literature, journalism, cinema, philosophy, and theology. He uses his sources to paint a perceptive portrait of Western culture and skilfully diagnoses the various diseases afflicting the church within that culture.

As Sayers observes, we face a gnostic gospel; a cult of self and self-deification. We find ourselves in the midst of a "beautiful apocalypse," where “everything falls apart while looking beautiful” [p.91]. Sayers shows how the public and private spheres all follow the Gnostic project – seeking to keep everyone happy, busy and distracted, while splintering any hope of integration, meaning and purpose. Everyone and everything becomes more fragile.

This resonates deeply with my own observations. As I minister on campus and in a coffee/craft beer/hipster area of Melbourne, I’m continually meeting 20, 30 and 40 somethings who follow this pattern. They display the marks of their individuality: tattoos, beards and piercings. On their way to Yoga they wear t-shirts with Hindu symbols, Lorna Jane and carry cotton string bags – all the while attached to their iPhones and other devices. They call themselves atheists, agnostics or pantheists, but live unaware or apathetic to the various contradictions to which they hold. They all want to be young, beautiful, rich and well-travelled, yet underneath many are depressed, anxious and addicted. They've become lost in a maze of choices and idolatries. Despite their mantra of freedom they’re enslaved to their own journey of self-realisation. 

​Sayers brilliantly shows how this Gnosticism has infiltrated and influenced every aspect of church life, community and discipleship.

Sayers brilliantly shows how this Gnosticism has infiltrated and influenced every aspect of church life, community and discipleship. Surrender to the prevailing spirit of autonomy has robbed the church of authority and substance. The implicit prosperity gospel produced by the compromise offers its followers comfort and the good life but can't foster a life of true discipleship. Sacrifice and suffering have no place.

A Call to a Cruciform Discipleship

For Sayers, only a cruciform, cross-centred church will be able to hold together what the Gnostic world has separated: earth and heaven; public and private realms. He wants to call us back to costly obedience to Christ:

“The churches that do not fade and disappear in the third culture of the West will be churches that preach, teach, and live out the truth that we are called to live as slaves of Christ, a church fragrance of selflessness in a culture of selfishness.” [p.85]  

And he wants to refocus our attention on the cross:

“Only the cross can hold together both the world and heaven. Only the cross can rejoin our public and private worlds…Resilient believers view creation and the world through the prism of the cross.” [p.104-105]

Sayers urges us to see this as a time of rebuilding. We need to recognise the opportunities before us, embrace faithful orthodoxy, withdraw from the world and return as a faithful and creative minority. In summary: “The challenge of this book is to allow the unique pressure we face, alongside submitting to God, to forge within us a prophetic posture.” [p.153]

More, Please

I enjoyed, and was stimulated by Disappearing Church, but it left me wanting more: more theological reflection and deeper interaction with other models of cultural engagement. Sayers’ clearly has his eyes fixed on the "relevance" camp, so this makes it harder for him to address the traditions outside this tribe. 

As the book unfolds this creates a bit of confusion as it’s hard to work out what positive model of church/culture Sayers has in mind. Sometimes he describes the church as countercultural [p.12]: in but not of the world [p.105]; in exile [p.49]. At other times he sounds like a classic transformationist: “…we need again to rebuild the devastated spaces and structures of our culture…” [p.74]. He offers qualified support for a "public theology," [p.173] but doesn’t show us what that might look like.  

Withdraw to What?

Where he does provide synthesis he borrows an idea from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Arnold Toynbee – specifically Toynbee’s withdraw/return paradigm. This seems to lead to a counter-cultural, neo-monastic, neo-Anabaptist hybrid. We withdraw and go deep before we go wide.

But what is the Gospel life that he wants us to withdraw to? Sayers offers scenes from the lives of Benedict, Calvin and Ignatius as inspiration for this withdraw/return paradigm. Yet he doesn’t seem to appreciate or reflect theologically on the vast differences between these figures, specifically in their views on culture. Sayers may simply be seeking to lift the discussion above historical theological baggage, but is it that simple? 

Sayers' call for rebuilding and recreating the institution is similarly frustrating. He calls the church to learn from the past voices which “can teach us the principles, beliefs, and values that operate in any time or context.” [p.135] Yet he doesn’t refer to any Creeds or Confessions, so which voices does he mean?   

An Unnerving Gift

Sayers' gift to the church is his ability to diagnose Western culture and its effects on church life. He has an unnerving ability to get under your skin and see – not only what’s happening in society, but in our own lives and ministries. 

Anyone who wants to understand our post-Christian culture and the danger it poses to the church should read this book.

Sayers helps us see the ways we have been unwittingly infected by our surroundings. For that, I am deeply thankful. Anyone who wants to understand our post-Christian culture and the danger it poses to the church should read this book.

Theology for Winter

Yet as we enter this "Winter season" where opposition and persecution are becoming more common, we also need deep theological reflection on cultural engagement. I would recommend following Sayers' book with Timothy Keller’s section on cultural engagement in Centre Church; or Don Carson’s Christ and Culture: Revisited. Those who want to go deeper still might try Michael Goheen's, A Light to the Nations for a ‘missional’ active influence approach or Michael Horton's, Where in the World Is the Church? for the Two Kingdoms perspective. 


Mark Sayers, Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience (Chicago: Moody, 2016)


Photo: pexels.com

Dan Saunders was converted in the Sinai in Egypt while backpacking through the Middle-East. He is currently the Lead Pastor of Arkhouse Church (www.arkhousechurch.org.au) in East St Kilda, Melbourne, Australia, a church plant with the Acts 29 Network. He holds degrees in Arts and Law and a Masters of Divinity from Ridley. He has worked previously as a Commercial Lawyer, in Anglican and University Campus ministry and has been church planting for 5 years. He is married to his pilgrim partner, Ali and they have 4 kids, 3 boys and 1 girl. 

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