(By Cristian Boanca)
In the last couple of months, not a few Christians have been engaging (or reacting to) the tidal wave of societal issues that have billowed over both our Christian and cultural landscape. Local churches have often endured much criticism from those inside and outside the church regarding how to best adjudicate what genuine and abiding faithfulness looks like in an age of hyperpolarized politics and pandemic weariness. It’s into this milieu that an Australian author unwittingly speaks with a 30,000 foot perspective that answers, in part, the question that has left many of us scratching our heads in bewilderment: “How did we get here?”
Mark Sayers, in “Disappearing Church”, lays out a compelling and honest analysis of the cultural landscape in the West. In the first pages, he begins with an astute observation, noting “The long-watched, leaden clouds of secularism are now forebodingly overheard.” This assertion, which rings painfully true, is essential to the development of his most pivotal arguments. Mark continually emphasizes the idea that a post-Christian milieu is qualitatively different than a pre-Christian or a culturally Christian society. Sayers uses simple missiological categories of “1st Culture” (polytheistic; pre-modern; minimal gospel witness), “2nd Culture” (Scriptural cultures; rooted in Judeo-Christian ethic), and “3rd Culture”(a strong reaction to 2nd culture, abandonment of truth, etc.).
As history reveals, it was often the missional movements of 2nd Culture nations (think Western nations) that were the pre-dominant partners in shaping any interaction with “1st Culture” counterparts. There was little to no risk of a “Christian” society, or even individual Christians, falling into the snare of polytheistic religions or practices. Rather, the direction of influence often lead to 1st Cultures internalizing the truths and patterns of the 2nd culture. Sayers implies that exactly the opposite is true in Christian engagement with the Post-Christian culture (3rd Culture) of the West. This is a pivotal point in his book that contemporary Christians would do well to internalize. He writes “The danger when Christian second cultures communicate the gospel to post-Christian third cultures is that they themselves may be colonized – for the third culture is just as evangelistic as the second culture. With its great mission to prohibit anyone from prohibiting, it seeks to propagate its dogma that there should be no dogma” (emphasis mine). The all-encompassing dogma of modern secularism demands exactly what the author of the book of Judges observes, that everyone does what is right in their own eyes. As a consequence of this, Sayer notes, no amount of earnest and sincere Christian striving for cultural relevance can gain favor with a culture whose fundamental presupposition centers around the enshrinement of the self, to the exclusion of the triune God. Eventually, it will become clear that the self-disobeying reality of slavery to Christ (being a Christian) is deeply abhorrent to a secular obsession with the worship of self. Such is the friction that inevitably occurs in the context of faithful proclamation.
Sayers’ remedy isn’t the perpetual fixation on opinion polls and cultural relevance, but rather it is a clarion call for the Church to be a “creative minority.” He writes “Creative minorities find themselves withdrawn and distant from what they know and find comfort in. The distance enables them to see the myths and blind spots of their own culture, to reject these myths, and find greater dependency in God.” He makes a compelling point in recognizing that “Much of the strategy of relevance, whether consciously or subconsciously, has been built upon reducing the tension many believers feel with the wider culture.” And yet, he is not describing a novel Christian monasticism, not by a long shot! He prompts us to live into the discomfort, instead of constantly trying to minimize it or retreat from it. Faithfulness to Christ in the 21st century doesn’t look like a fortress mentality, but it does suggest a withdraw/return in which the Church must reconfigure previous compromising cultural engagement for the sake of a more faithful and creative articulation of the truth. He implies that living in a state of perpetual tension between the Kingdom which is coming, and the present world, is part and parcel of our Christian calling.
Sayers is at his best in giving his readers a gentle, and yet persistent assessment of the cultural moment we inhabit, and in diagnosing, with the astuteness of a seasoned clinician, the maladies and idolatries that afflict our churches and our very lives. For those looking for a faithful guide in making sense of our ever-increasing exilic experience, Mark Sayers in “Disappearing Church” is the best I’ve come across.
About: A graduate of Western Seminary (MA), Cristian Boanca is currently serving at Trinity Church of Portland.