I had heard the name “Mark Sayers” here and there over the past few years, but I never really paid attention until Sayers, a pastor in Melbourne, Australia, got together with Portland pastor John Mark Comer and started recording a podcast, “This Cultural Moment.” In brief episodes, Sayers and Comer explain culture through the lens of intellectual history and try to apply the discussion to the average Christian in the West.
I’ve been enjoying these podcasts very much and wanted to see where else Sayers had expressed his ideas about culture, so this spring I read two of the books he has published in the last few years with Moody Publishers: Disappearing Church and Strange Days.
Both are short (under 200 pages) but wide-ranging, showing a variety of influences, from Philip Rieff to Jonathan Sacks to Peter Leithart. In Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience, Sayers argues that the church’s strategy of trying to make itself relevant to the surrounding culture leads to a dead end in which the church loses its distinctiveness:
What if our attempts at relevance, at mimicking and outdoing the beautiful world, actually limit our ministry potential? What if our increasing strangeness to Western culture is actually to our advantage? What if the fact that you can no longer be warmly embraced in the contemporary cultural fold if you are an orthodox Christian is actually the best thing that has happened to us? (140)
What the church needs instead is what he calls gospel resilience: “We cannot solely rely on the contemporary, Western church’s favored strategy of cultural relevance, in which Christianity and the church is made ‘relevant’ to secular Western culture. Instead we need to rediscover gospel resilience. To walk the countercultural narrow path in which we die to self and re-throne God in our lives as the supreme authority” (12).
While he critiques the strategy of relevance, neither does he want the church to embrace irrelevance. Rather than calling for complete seclusion from the world, he wants the church to commit to becoming a creative minority, a term that originated with historian Arnold Toynbee and was resurrected by Jonathan Sacks: “Creative minorities find themselves withdrawn and distant from what they know and find comfort in. This distance enables them to see the myths and blind spots of their own culture, to reject these myths, and find a greater dependency in God. This dependency on a source of power and truth outside of the dominant culture leads creative minorities to refresh and reinvigorate ailing cultures” (50). There is a movement in creative minorities of both withdrawal and return, where withdrawal is undertaken for the purpose of greater effectiveness upon the return.
Sayers’s main reason for choosing gospel resilience over relevance is that post-Christian culture is not the same as pre-Christian culture. “Post-Christianity is not pre-Christianity; rather post-Christianity attempts to move beyond Christianity, whilst simultaneously feasting upon its fruit” (15). If your main strategy of preaching the gospel to post-Christian culture is relevance, Sayers says, you are likely to be unwittingly colonized by the culture. Post-Christian culture is happy to retain various emphases of Christianity, like justice and dignity, but sees itself as having transcended the hard parts of Christianity—the parts about being a disciple. Post-Christianity is seductive because it tells you that you can have it all without sacrificing anything.
In the latter half of the book, Sayers shares specific practices for recovering gospel resilience like rejecting the implicit prosperity gospel and reinvesting ourselves in institutions (the church, specifically). Here I thought there was a lot of ground covered in a relatively small space, and I have to admit that in a few places I wasn’t quite sure what he was proposing. I will probably have to read through it again to really understand and figure out how to apply chapters 6–10.
But in general I’m sympathetic to Sayers’s analysis, especially of the difference between a post-Christian culture and a pre-Christian culture. While he is creative in the connections he makes, he is not calling for the church to change or abandon the historic faith. He still believes the gospel has the power to speak to the greatest needs of individuals and culture: “What if the answer is what it has always been? The path of walking in Jesus’ footsteps, of following the traditions and teaching of the apostles. What if the answer to our culture’s challenges is still the gospel?” (48) We just need to recognize that the times have changed, and prayerfully discern how the gospel can best be preached in these times.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I just read two books by Sayers. When I finished Disappearing Church, I wondered what else he could possibly say about this cultural moment. I’ll get into that in my next post.
Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.