This is Part 2 of my review of the book Disappearing Church by Mark Sayers.
In Part 1, I explained that Sayers agrees with most sociologists in defining the American culture as “post-Christian.” However, he says this doesn’t mean that the culture has returned to a kind of pre-Christian reality (i.e., what the early Christians faced in the 1st century). Instead, a post-Christian culture “attempts to move beyond Christianity, while simultaneously feasting upon its fruits.”
Understanding the culture is critical because how we understand it will determine how we attempt to engage it through mission. Unfortunately, in Sayers’ view, we’ve been engaging it wrong!
The Pursuit of Relevance
As Sayers’ points out, the 1980’s marked the rise of the contemporary church movement. Pioneers of this movement believed that the church could arrest the advance of secularism by making the church more relevant to the culture with a focus on youthfulness & casualness. Quoting Sayers:
“The assumed belief was that people were uninterested in Christianity because they found church traditions and rituals alien and unwelcoming. If the church could be made more relevant – with culturally relevant forms instead of traditions and ritualized trappings – then Christianity would flourish in the Western world again.”
The flourishing of Christianity didn’t happen. And so, starting in the 90’s, churches began to change not only their form or practices, but also their doctrines & beliefs. The hope was that the church would thrive if it eased up on the beliefs that grate against contemporary sensibilities and instead addressed the subjects people were most interested in (most notably, themselves & their prosperity).
This meant, for example, that a lot of preachers stopped talking about such things as sin, judgment, wrath and hell. In place of these topics, preachers started identifying with their congregation’s “felt needs” (marriage, finances, self-esteem, etc.) and then proceeded to describe to them – in 3 easy steps -- how God would help them be happy & successful.
Evaluating the Pursuit of Relevance
Sayers believes the church has been on a fool’s errand in trying to please the culture by giving up its traditions, rituals and doctrines. An individual church might catch “lightning in a bottle” for a short time, drawing a sizable crowd, yet the annual turnover in these churches can be as high as 60-90%. Even worse, of course, is that many churches have lost their Christian identity by selling their soul to the culture.
Instead of pursuing cultural relevance, Sayers argues that churches should focus on what-he-calls gospel resilience. I’ll describe what this is next week.