Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience

Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience

by Mark Sayers


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Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience by Mark Sayers

When church and culture look the same...

For the many Christians eager to prove we can be both holy and cool, cultural pressures are too much. We either compartmentalize our faith or drift from it altogether—into a world that’s so alluring.

Have you wondered lately:

  • Why does the Western church look so much like the world?
  • Why are so many of my friends leaving the faith?
  • How can we get back to our roots?

Disappearing Church will help you sort through concerns like these, guiding you in a thoughtful, faithful, and hopeful response. Weaving together art, history, and theology, pastor and cultural observer Mark Sayers reminds us that real growth happens when the church embraces its countercultural witness, not when it blends in.

It’s like Jesus said long ago, “If the salt loses its saltiness, it is no longer good for anything…”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802413352
Publisher: Moody Publishers
Publication date: 02/02/2016
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 840,882
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.41(d)

About the Author

MARK SAYERS is the Senior Pastor of Red Church in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of a number of books and is particularly interested in the intersection of faith and culture. Mark is married to Trudi, and they have a daughter, Grace, and twin boys Billy and Hudson.

Read an Excerpt

Disappearing Church

From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience

By MARK SAYERS, Elizabeth Cody Newenhuyse

Moody Publishers

Copyright © 2016 Mark Sayers
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8024-1335-2


Our Current Post-Christianity

"It's the usual utopian vision. ... I mean, like everything else you guys are pushing, it sounds perfect, sounds progressive, but it carries with it more control. ... And that's what's so scary. Individually you don't know what you are doing collectively."

Dave Eggers, The Circle


Within the church in the West it is almost universally acknowledged that we live in a post-Christian culture. However, it is crucial that we understand what we mean by post-Christian. Many have understood post-Christianity as a kind of religious year zero, a mass amnesia in which the West has forgotten its Christian past, and in which we have returned to a kind of pre-Christian reality. As we will discover in chapter 3, this assumption can have dramatic effects on how we perceive the task of mission in the West. Post-Christianity is not pre-Christianity; rather post-Christianity attempts to move beyond Christianity, whilst simultaneously feasting upon its fruit.

Post-Christian culture attempts to retain the solace of faith, whilst gutting it of the costs, commitments, and restraints that the gospel places upon the individual will. Post-Christianity intuitively yearns for the justice and shalom of the kingdom, whilst defending the reign of the individual will. Post-Christianity is Christianity emptied of its content, as theologian Henri de Lubac would warn:

Forms of atheistic humanism often preserved a number of values that were Christian in origin; but having cut off these values from their source, they were powerless to maintain them in their full strength or even in their authentic integrity. Spirit, reason, liberty, truth, brotherhood, justice: these great things, without which there is no true humanity ... quickly become unreal when no longer seen as a radiation from God, when faith in the living God no longer provides their vital substance. Then they become empty forms.

Yet despite such warnings, post-Christianity grows. New York Times columnist David Brooks senses this post-Christian, individualist theology in the wisdom and advice given to university students: They are sent off into this world with the ... theology ringing in their ears. If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism." Sadly such advice can be found not only in the secular college commencement speech, but also in many churches, albeit with the saccharine sheen of a Christianized veneer, as the post-Christian mood affects even Christianity itself.


To get to the heart of our post-Christian context we must understand how we got here, how the ground shifted. Sometime in the night a revolution occurred and we did not notice it. So distracted by the phony war between left and right, conservatives and liberals, we have failed to notice that a new power had seized control of both our imaginations and the halls of power. This new power swirls around a small yet widely held set of beliefs:

1. The highest good is individual freedom, happiness, self-definition, and self-expression.

2. Traditions, religions, received wisdom, regulations, and social ties that restrict individual freedom, happiness, self-definition, and self-expression must be reshaped, deconstructed, or destroyed.

3. The world will inevitably improve as the scope of individual freedom grows. Technology — in particular the Internet — will motor this progression toward utopia.

4. The primary social ethic is tolerance of everyone's self-defined quest for individual freedom and self-expression. Any deviation from this ethic of tolerance is dangerous and must not be tolerated. Therefore social justice is less about economic or class inequality, and more about issues of equality relating to individual identity, self-expression, and personal autonomy.

5. Humans are inherently good.

6. Large-scale structures and institutions are suspicious at best and evil at worst.

7. Forms of external authority are rejected and personal authenticity is lauded.

Political historian Mark Lilia notes that the simplicity of these beliefs means that they are held by seemingly opposed groups in the West. These beliefs are held dear by groups as disparate as human rights advocates, pornography producers, free-market economists, leftist anarchists, Internet hackers, gay marriage campaigners, hippies, tech entrepreneurs, and small-government conservatives. Behind much of the rhetoric these views hold sway for much of the left and right. However, most importantly for millions across the West, these beliefs provide the dominant framework for navigating life.

This new cultural outlook is not so much an ideology but something that borders on a religious belief, which for Lilia "sanctions ignorance about the world, and therefore blinds adherents to its effects in that world. It begins with basic liberal principles — the sanctity of the individual, the priority of freedom, distrust of public authority, tolerance — and advances no further. It has no taste for reality, no curiosity about how we got here or where we are going. ... It has no interest in institutions and has nothing to say about the necessary, and productive, tension between individual and collective purposes." What makes this contemporary outlook almost religious is its unquestioned faith that all we need to do "is give individuals maximum freedom in every aspect of their lives and all will be well."

These beliefs have not so much been argued as assumed. They are not enforced; rather they are imbibed. We do not receive them as intellectual propaganda to be obeyed. Instead they are communicated to us at an almost subconscious level through the high priests of advertising and the techno prophets of Silicon Valley. This new cultural mood becomes all the more powerful as the good is reduced to mere individual happiness. We can no longer see beyond ourselves, to learn from history or be concerned about the future. "The result is an amnesia about everything except the immediate, the instant, the now, and the me," worries media theorist Andrew Keen. The future is not left to God, but rather a kind of implicit, fuzzy faith that things will simply move to get better. Somehow society will get better. My life will get better.

This faith in progress both societal and personal, which requires little of the individual, whilst promising maximum happiness, is an attractive proposition to many, both outside of the church and within. The journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, having found faith at the end of his life, observed and anticipated the post-Christian mood taking hold; "The whole social structure is now tumbling down, dethroning its God, undermining its certainties. And all this, wonderfully enough, in the name of the health, wealth and happiness of all mankind. In the moral vacuum left by this emptying Christianity of its spiritual or transcendental content ... is its opposite — life enhancement." As we will learn, this emptying of faith of its content and desire for life enhancement is one of the great engines driving the disappearing church. It also is one of the great engines driving a new form of hopeful secularism. A kind of Western disbelief with a religious tone.


The Sunday Assembly is a hip, contemporary congregation in the heart of central London. It is filled with progressive, passionate, and idealistic attendees. The congregation sings along to contemporary music. There are messages given, social gatherings, offerings, kids clubs, midweek small groups, and social justice projects for the community. The Sunday Assembly, however, is not your typical church. It is a church for atheists.

The Sunday Assembly started as an idea of two Londoners who wanted to enjoy church without belief. The Sunday Assembly distances itself from militant atheists, instead preferring a friendly, accepting culture. While the movement is theology-free, it intuitively gathers around the values of tolerance, progressive values, and personal development. The London congregation quickly outgrew their three-hundred-seat space. Since 2013, 480 congregations have been planted out of London in key cities across the Western world. The movement has struck a chord with many millennial attendees. Its global conference, called Wonder, features leadership workshops, advice on planting from a former-pastor-and-planter-turned-atheist, and help on growing healthy congregations from the son of a prominent Christian author and speaker, who has moved from being a "progressive Christian" to a humanist atheist.

Spearheading the rationale behind this new kind of atheistic gathering is philosopher and bestselling author Alain de Bottons book Religion for Atheists. De Botton argues, like many of the attendees of the atheist church, that contemporary culture is an alienating place. Not that church was alienating, but contemporary culture was alienating. While these congregants disagreed with faith, they felt that contemporary culture lacked the communal and institutional benefits that churches and communities of faith brought. One of the great mantras of church strategy in the West has been that people liked Jesus, but they did not like church. This was a mantra for many who were seeking to make Christianity relevant. Now, this new atheist church movement has turned this maxim on its head. These people did not like Jesus, but they liked church.

While the original congregation in London has stayed strong, its plants across the globe are smaller. Time will tell whether the growth of the atheist church movement has traction. In the nineteenth century the atheist philosopher August Comte launched a movement of unbelieving congregations; however, most of his congregations struggled to last beyond a single generation. The Sunday Assembly faces the same challenge faced by religious communities of disengaged, radical individualism. However, the appearance of the Sunday Assembly points toward the essence of our post-Christian culture — that is, the desire to retain elements of Christianity while still moving past it.


The idea that Western culture needs to move beyond orthodox Christianity into a post-Christian age can be traced back as far as the thought of the medieval theologian Joachim of Fiore. Joachim hoped for a future epoch of the Holy Spirit, in which the gospel of Christ would be transcended by a new order of love, and the church replaced by a new, spiritualized elite. Hope would not be in the return of Christ but in the arrival of an enlightened future, an idea that is central to post-Christianity. Moving beyond the age of Christ defined by the enfleshed, incarnational contours of the church, the epoch of the Spirit would be the age of the spiritually autonomous individual who has moved beyond mediating institutions, concrete expression, and the sacraments of the church. This is the essence of the idea of post-Christianity: the idea of a purer, less concrete form of Christianity emerging out of Christianity itself.

The political philosopher Eric Voegelin comments on this innovation: "We can recognize, even in this thoroughly Christian context, the first symptoms of the idea of a post-Christian era." We can see also the germ in Joachim's three-part division of history that would grow into the trisecting of history into ancient-medieval-modern. This is the foundation of the belief that Western, developed culture is more progressive, enlightened, and evolved than other cultures. Hope then lies not in God, but in being on the right side of history.


We can see in the trajectory of thought that grows out of Joachims age of the Spirit the genesis of the notion that the church must emerge and evolve into a higher, purer, and progressed form. The German philosopher Schelling, building upon Joachim's age of the Spirit, predicted a coming age of perfected Christianity, creating the idea of a liberal or progressive Christianity. The thought that Christianity must change and evolve into a new progressive form is ubiquitous both inside and outside of the church. Anytime anyone complains that the church must evolve its core theology with the times to stay relevant, or that the church's future is found in ditching the structures, institutions, and forms of "organized religion" and embrace a fuzzy notion of "community" or "spirituality," we can detect Joachim's fingerprints.

Reflecting on our current religious and cultural landscape, the cultural critic Joseph Bottum further sharpens our understanding of post-Christianity. For Bottum, our cultural post-Christianity bears a tremendous likeness to liberal Christianity, in particular its Protestant forms. Liberal Christianity grew alongside modernity, attempting to reshape faith and theology around the worldview of the Enlightenment. Miracles, the supernatural, and Scripture were viewed through the lens of skeptical scientism. A more materialist faith was formed, which removed the transcendent elements of Christianity and focused the believer's attention on an achievable kingdom of God that could be shaped by responsible and diligent human hands.

From the end of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, liberal Christianity won over the leadership of a great part of the Western mainline denominations. These leaders saw liberal Christianity as the correct response to the rise of modernity. However, as countercultural and transcendent elements of faith were removed, liberal churches began to bleed believers. The exact opposite occurred to what many had predicted: the churches that retained countercultural and transcendent elements and maintained orthodox theologies grew, while those who had abandoned central elements of Christian theology declined at spectacular rates.

Over a few decades, once-strong denominations became a pale shadow of their former strength. In the exodus out of these churches, Bottum notes that many made their way into growing evangelical churches and others joined the Catholic Church. Crucially, many simply stopped going to church, and in the process migrated their liberal Christianity into the wider culture. Like a team of suicide bombers who obliterate themselves yet irrevocably change the cultural atmosphere, liberal Christianity has essentially destroyed itself as an ecclesiological, institutional force, yet has won the culture over to its vision of a Christianity reshaped for contemporary tastes.

While cursory glances at our culture's religious hue can give one the impression of atheism, we will soon see its liberal Christian residue. Following liberal Christianity's lead, the majority of Westerners hold to a belief in a pleasant afterlife and a benevolent Christian-esque God. However, the doctrines of divine judgment and hell are ditched as repugnantly retrograde. Concepts of personal morality and the pursuit of virtue are replaced by a desire for the communal good. The dogma of the kingdom of God and the coming New Jerusalem exists, but is reframed as the pursuit and possibility of a perfected, inclusive, civil society. Satan and the possibility of personal evil and sin remerges in a new depersonalized form, as Bottum explains: "Sin, in other words, appears as a social fact and the redeemed personality becomes confident about its own salvation by being aware of that fact. By knowing about, and rejecting, the evil that darkens society."

In this reformulated understanding of sin and evil, salvation is achieved through the gaining of enlightened attitude. For the privileged post-Christian, this realization comes as a kind of revelation that can be used as a badge of power. Thus those who have gained this enlightened attitude, who see the world for what it is, form a refashioned concept of the biblical notion of the elect. This community of the elect has moved beyond the need for concrete forms of church and association, and instead form a culture based on shared opinion manifested in a language based on a correctness of speech, opinion, and belief.


Once we grasp that our post-Christian world is shaped by a liberal Christianity, we can understand better the phenomenon of church-leavers, especially amongst young adults. There have always been those who have left the church over doubts, just as there have always been those who left to pursue pleasure without account. When we understand that post-Christian culture offers a kind of alternative, liberal form of Christianity, we can see that many of those who leave don't imagine that they are throwing themselves into an atheistic sea. Instead, they are retaining their faith, albeit in a reframed form. Half a century ago such people would have probably moved from conservative churches to more liberal mainline ones. Now with the culture reflecting the values of the liberal mainline churches, one simply leaves the church.


Excerpted from Disappearing Church by MARK SAYERS, Elizabeth Cody Newenhuyse. Copyright © 2016 Mark Sayers. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Dark Clouds-or Glorious Sun? 7

Part 1 Understanding Our Craving for Cultural Relevance

1 Our Current Post-Christianity 15

2 The History of "Relevant" 31

3 How Much More Relevant Can We Get? 41

4 The Gospel of Self (Gnosticism) 53

Part 2 Learning Gospel Resilience

5 An Exciting Opportunity 69

6 Reject the Implicit Prosperity Gospel. We Are Slaves, not Seekers 79

7 Stop Catering to "Public" Opinion 89

8 Don't Offer Everything. Deliver Truth 107

9 Re-create the Institution 121

10 Withdraw/Return 145

Conclusion: Going Beyond the Culture of the Ghost 161

Notes 168

Acknowledgments 176

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Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
GCWineholt More than 1 year ago
DISAPPEARING CHURCH From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience By Mark Sayers Answers to these questions can be found in this book, Why does the Western church look so much like the world? Why are many of my friends leaving the faith? How can we get back to our roots? Mark Sayers offers some interesting facts how culture has influenced the church and has changed the way we worship and see God’s Word. He has divided this book into two parts, (1) Understanding our craving for cultural relevance and (2) Learning Gospel resilience. He covers subjects of post-Christianity, the Gospel of self (Gnosticism), stop catering to public opinion, reject the implicit prosperity Gospel and others that will inform you at to the problem and why the church has changed. Hopefully this book will make a difference in how we see the Gospel and how we need to follow God's Word. I found the book very interesting and think that it is a subject that needs to be addressed in our churches. So many churches are struggling today and need to be offering the true of the Gospels. I would recommend using this book in discussion groups for an impact on making changes. Two quotes from the book; “Maybe we need to reimagine church as a spiritual discipline.” “Maybe with cultural spotlight elsewhere, we can get on with the business of being the church.” I received this book free from Moody Press Review Program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255
michellepopewelch More than 1 year ago
Mark Sayers has written a book that should be on every pastors shelf, indeed on every Christ followers shelf as well. He has obviously spent many hours working with God on the reasons behind the decline in the Church as a whole. I love one of the lines in the book which says "In a world where friends are added with a button and the beautiful, blank faces of stock photography stare out at us, church and faith offer us true, face-to-face encounters." As Mark points out, it is only with these encounters that we can live out the words of Christ in Matthew 28:19-20. Gnosticism has indeed reared it's ugly head in the modern church in new, stealthy ways that make self seem more important than obedience to God's calling in our lives. As Mark says "the enemy is not outside the ramparts, it is inside the castle." It is time for the Church to sit up and take notice. "To learn to abide in Christ, we also must break from the lures that surround us, while still offering good news to the culture that seduces us." An excellent book.