Book Review: Disappearing Church

Sayers, Mark. Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience. Moody Publishers, 2016.

In Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience, Sayers seeks to show that the “Western church’s favored strategy of cultural relevance” will not hold up in the “Third Culture” of post-Christianity and must be replaced by strategies that promote resilient gospel-centered, orthodox faith (14). 

In support of this purpose, Sayers maintains that: 

1.     Post-Christianity should not be assumed to be the religious pluralism of pre-Christian societies nor the god-less culture promised by secular society. Instead, post-Christianity is typified by hyper-individualism and the rapid increase of neo-Gnostic “faith” which seeks to escape the world of the mundane for the world of “the awesome, the stimulating, the pleasurable” and seeks to “escape our real bodies for perfected bodies” (61-63). 

2.     The two forces of “individualism” and “neo-Gnosticism” collaborate to corrode all institutions and colonize efforts aiming for relevance. Since the 1980’s, the Western church has experienced apparent success with strategies aimed at relevance but has unknowingly allowed Gnosticism to disciple many. Now, churches are “disappearing” as even their most committed members attend less, give less, and adopt more and more values of the individualistic culture around them. The missional church which sought to transform culture by imbedding itself in culture now finds itself transformed by culture and syncretized to it. 

3.     To respond to the challenge of Gnosticism in the church and outside of the church, Sayers offers multiple strategies. First, individual Christians should be discipled to be “slaves, not seekers” (84). Second, ministries should be freed from the burden of “winning over the public” (117). Third, churches should embrace and relearn the discipline of re-creating institutions that “structure a desirable experience, so that it becomes repeatable on a regular basis” (129). Fourth, leaders must confront their own individualistic and Gnostic tendencies through withdraw/return experiences that root them in abiding in Christ as opposed to the affirmation of the crowd (156). 

In my view: 

1.     Sayers helpfully identifies and names two forces pressuring the Western church, individualism and neo-Gnosticism. His critique of the church growth and missional church movements as naïve to the colonizing ability of the “third culture” is particularly helpful. Philip Reiff’s taxonomy of first culture (belief in many gods, individual is victim, world as spiritually charged and frightful place), second culture (Scripture as revelation of God and Judeo-Christian ethic dominate, ordered and rational universe is ruled by one true God, individuals find peace through worship and obedience to God), and third culture (defines itself against second culture, rejects sacred order and creates constant flux, deconstruction of the sacred is the chief value, autonomy of the individual is the highest good, meaning and purpose of stories and symbols is left up to the individual) is particularly useful as a quick reference and illustration of the danger of pursuing relevance as a missional strategy in a third culture (43-46). 

2.     Sayers’ solution to the forces pressing upon the church favor a monastic, “Benedict option” that may be workable in some situations but largely leaves unanswered how Christians are to be resilient who do not have the luxury of withdrawal (for more on the Benedict option see Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, 2017). Here, Sayers’ solution could be strengthened by pointing to multiple forms of faithful Christianity in a third culture context. For example, in addition to monastic withdrawal, some Christians will need to prepare for and weather hostility and even persecution in order to remain in “public spaces” such as the public schools in America. Individual churches will have to work through what embodied resilience will require in a particular context. 

3.     Sayers’ accounting of the forces pressuring the church is good but does not anticipate the additional forces that have surfaced since the publication of the book. In particular, racial strife has revealed that the “Beautiful Apocalypse” does not look so beautiful to everyone (90). The intensified financial crisis precipitated and prolonged by the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has created a rupturing of resentment along racial and economic lines. The church has been caught in the wake of widespread virtue signaling with “relevance” no longer being established by being “cool” but with vocal, or at least social media, opposition to one side or the other. Whether an individual or church speaks out for or against or remains silent does not matter. They will receive hostility from someone as public opinion fractures even further. The Holy Spirit-empowered ability to “love your enemy” may be the greatest evidence of gospel faithfulness in the days ahead. 

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