Reappearing Church: The Hope for Renewal in the Rise of Our Post-Christian Culture
–Review by Landrum P. Leavell III, Th.D.
Full disclosure: I love Mark Sayers. I’ve read most of his books: The Vertical Self, Disappearing Church, Strange Days, The Road Trip That Changed the World, and Facing Leviathan. An Aussie, Mark has an incredible interest in and take on culture in the West. He doesn’t write from a lofty perch: “For well over a decade I have interpreted and recorded our post-Christian moment, all while pastoring in the grit and grind of secular soil.” (193) Senior leader of Red Church in Melbourne, Sayers also cohosts This Cultural Moment podcast with John Mark Comer.
Obviously, the book is about renewal. “We will not experience renewal by following the same patterns of life and ministry that are not delivering renewal.” Seems like a “duh,” but how many churches, denominations, and individuals daily incarnate the definition of insanity…? This book is not about getting more information but reading to be transformed, to join God in His great renewal project.
Sayers cites Douglas Hyde, who came to Christ and in 1948 left the British Communist Party yet was shocked at what he saw when he entered the church. He was astounded that those with numbers and truth on their side were weighed down with thoughts that they were a small minority taking on a big majority. “The very concept was wrong. Psychologically it was calamitous.” Sayers’ comment? “One person’s beleaguered minority is another’s dedicated, committed core. It’s all a matter of perspective.” (12)
Sayers takes on the secularist renewal myth: “The average Westerner processes religion through a crude, street-level model of secularism that is assumed but rarely analyzed…. This model presumes that with the right conditions and influences, humans are perfectible and that a kind of human utopia is possible.” (20-21) Everyone, both left and right, is addicted to progress and assume that specific policies can lead to a free, fair, and prosperous future, thus assuming the progress model. But the world we were promised has not arrived, nor has the progress. We are seeing a return to tribalism, a growth in economic inequality, and social divisions expanding. “Post-Christianity is experiencing a crisis of doubt over the prospects of its own program of renewal.” (28) Ironically, migration is reintroducing faith into the secular bloodstream. With the high fertility rates among migrants, the secular gains of the West could be lost.
Sayers give helpful definitions to words that have been used interchangeably. Renewal—“The refreshment, release, and advancement that individuals, groups, churches, and cultures experience when they are realigned with God’s presence. The resumption of our God-given purpose to partner with God fully, participating in His plan to flood the world with His presence.” Revival—“When renewal occurs on a large scale, bringing significant advancement, growth, and kingdom fruit to a city, people group, movement, region, or nations. Revival is renewal gone viral.” God has been in the renewal business since the Fall. Everyone knows something is wrong in the world. We want something better for tomorrow. “We either yearn for renewal of lament its absence.” (33)
Renewal is God’s tool to move history to His ends, and while God leads in the dance of renewal, we must be good partners. “God chooses when, where, and whom He will renew. Yet we can prepare for His coming.” (35) Following God’s pattern is not a guaranteed formula for revival. Some revivals take years. Small groups of Christians began to pray for the city of Melbourne in the late 1850s, yet the breakthrough didn’t occur until fifty years later in 1902. It’s all on God’s timetable.
The essential design from examining the history of revivals, the biblical basis, and the literature on renewal gives a process of “God’s desire to renew us and our life systems, to use His presence to align us with His purposes, and to release us into our God-given mandate for which He created us.” The four stages through which we progress are Holy Discontent, which leads into Preparation, which then sets us up for the posture of Contending, which then moves into the formation of Patterns that center our lives around God’s presence. (39-40)
Crisis can be a gateway to renewal, “the silver lining to be found in dark clouds.” (45) Often it’s good when the ground beneath us moves. Cultural transition gives us a new environment. We need spiritual lenses to discover how transition opens up all kinds of new possibilities. “Faith has not slowly ebbed away during the centuries. Instead, renewal is replaced by stagnation, which mutates into decline, and which eventually returns to renewal.” (49)
“The secularist-progressive creed is looking weaker than it initially appeared. The gaps between its promises and reality are widening. Its contradictions are being revealed in increasingly plain sight… Our cultural crises show us the consequences of what happens when we try and take over the controls of the world.” (50-51) Looking back, Lesslie Newbigin saw these realities of crisis caused by secularism in the 1960s. God allows cultural crises to drive us back to Him. Clinging to the status quo is to plug into the anti-renewal machine. The church in the West is at a renew or decline moment.
Transition and dissatisfaction are companions. We move from dissatisfaction to holy discontent. “As the gap between what our culture promises and what is delivers grows wider, its failures create openings for the gospel. Idols are shown for what they are—new potentials open up for God to move again.” (56) Sayers has joined a number of others who have paid attention to our “anxious culture.” He writes about fostering peaceful presence in the age of outrage and radical individualism. After all, we are deeply connected at an emotional level to others. Anxiety is highly infectious, and our Western system has become emotionally feverish. Helpfully addressing emotional regression in our culture, he also directs our sights: “Live with a peaceful presence in an anxious system, and you will become a healing agent of renewal.” (75)
Coming back to discontent and dissatisfaction, he reiterates that we must reach the point where we make a choice to no longer tolerate our current state of being. We turn our holy discontent upon ourselves. “We are yet to see humans fully transformed by God, and won’t till heaven. Therefore we are limited by a lack of imagination of what we can be in Christ—and we make this lack of imagination authoritative.” (127)
The chapter From Consuming to Contending was excellent, speaking of the sacrificial, risk-taking, responsibility-embracing posture of renewal. He moves then to Repatterning for Renewal, how we need to rebuild our patterns. “The taking up of renewal patterns, the adoption of a contending posture, the seeking of the presence, all come together to offer a renewed purpose for the church, which is embodied by the remnant.”(166) And, there’s more. There is a Weekly Group Framework—Building a Remnant, in the appendix to further the discussion.
This book covers a lot of ground: culture, systems, personal and corporate patterns, meaninglessness and freedom, outrage and individualism, hot orthodoxy and vital Christianity, small groups, form and fire. It is worth your time. If you haven’t read Sayers, saddle up and then catch up.