Disappearing Church

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A comprehensive overview into this cultural moment. He reflects on current cultural myths and the decline of church attendance in the West. He traces the ideas of relevance and the way to Gospel resilience. He references How (Not) to Be Secular – Reading Charles Taylor in pointing out how current secular myths are rather ancient Christian heresies. I can recommend it as an overview with personal and practical application.


Post-Christianity builds a kingdom without the king

While attempting to move past Christianity, post-Christianity feasts upon its fruit. It attempts to keep the solace of faith while gutting it of the costs.

Individually and corporately it yearns for the justice and shalom of the kingdom, while maintaing the reign of the individual will.

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. Henri de Lubac

Idol stories are counterfeit gospels that can’t fulfil. That’s why collectively we are restless and have a yearning for more.

Post-Christianity paradoxically upholds both pleasure and performance

Radical individualism taken to its natural conclusion would create a hedonistic free-for-all world that leads to the collapse of society.

Yet, the individual is both a pleasure seeker and pressured by a competitive society which values performance. Those who let themselves go or looked down with disdain. There is a perpetual possibility for pleasure that rarely gets taken on and if, hidden for fear of consequences. The author labels this “half-hearted hedonism”.

Post-Christianity paradoxically upholds both meaninglessness and progress

”Nihilism without the abyss” –Allan Bloom

In it all, there is the thought to “make it up as you go along, take ironic delight in the truth that there is no truth; there is no home that answers to our homelessness; definitely (but light-heartedly!)” (–Richard John Neuhaus)

Ironically, in radical individualism the collective holds more power

We shift the authority from the vertical authority of God to the authority of the crowd. In a positive feedback loop we look to one another for guidance.

Radical individuality and instiutions struggle to co-exist

Institutions impede on complete personal freedom. They require sacrifice and show us our limits. Yet lack of institutions were found to be one of the biggest factors in why nations fail1. We hold the unspoken belief that the best organising principle is the one in which the individual will is paramount.

Insitutions show us our limits, the remind us that indeed we are not God. Institutions are beliefs enfleshed. They are created to last. To pass on the wisdom from generation to generation, reminding us that we are not the center of history.

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2 Corinthians 10:13–14

Paul reminds us that limitations, our defined space of being, is a gift. It shapes us into Christlikeness. The boundary-less space that post-Christianity assigns to the individual leaves us feeling burned out and depleted.

The paradoxes of post-Christianity create greater personal fragility

The individual is cross-pressured by the anxiety of falling behind in a competitive society and the celebration of the self. It is torn in the meaninglessness of it all and yet the idea that ‘somehow’ there will be a better world. It works hard for independance, yet is crushed by loneliness.

Individuals are forced to naviagte the terrain between unprecendeted freedom and the fading of those institutions and communities that gave people meaning.

Post-Christianity offers a kind of alternative, liberal form of Christianity

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. Mark Sayers, Disappearing Church – From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience

Many who leave the church don’t “throw themselves into an atheistic sea”. They hold their faith, but in a reframed form. Anything that demands sacrifice gets scrapped, while the pleasant parts get retained. Western culture is not moving forward but reaching back to an older streak of thought.

Currently, unusually low levels of active faith live alongside relatively high levels of nominal belief

Studies conducted by religious sociologist Gracie Davie show that people identify as believing but don’t participate in active religiousness. “Europe believes but it does not belong”.

The challenge that the church faces, is not the rise of unbelief but the rise of a belief that is detached from an idea of belonging.

In radical individualism the self becomes god

What we are experiencing is not that God is eliminated from the Western mind but that the self is enthroned as the highest authority. Therefore all authority, be it in instutions, families, or political, is viewed with distrust.

Modern gnosticism: The religion of Me

This is not a new, enlightened idea but has its roots at an ancient heresy: Gnosticism. Gnosticism grows parasitic on Christian faith wherever cultural Christianity grows alongside devout believers.

Radical individualism is the modus operandi in post-Christianity

Radical individualism …

“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.” – Mark Lilla2

This idea of radical individualism is held by seemingly opposed groups. It prevalent in the political left as well as right and sadly, often also in our churches.

It is almost religious in 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.”2

Radical individualism present new temptations for believers

Post-Christianity presents a “beautiful world”: it’s handmade, natural, aesthetic. It operates on what in foreign affairs is called “soft power”. It is an indirect yet powerful influence. You don’t get bullied out of your faith, but coaxed: each option of post-Christianity quietly proclaiming a kind of gospel where the good life can be yours.

It is not loud propaganda but communicated at an almost subconcious level.

In a culture of selfishness, we are called to be selfless

Modern gnosticism, radical individualism, the religion of Me: It all centers around me and my well-being. The counter-cultural way is the one of selflessness. We are not spiritual “seekers”, finding our fix of meaning, we are slaves to Christ. The churches that won’t fade are the ones that share in the cross-shaped life of Jesus, bearing their cross. Even as it is incomprehensible to the current culture as it has been to every culture of history:

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==–2 Cor 4:3–4==

Missions needs to engage the Third Culture differently than the First Culture

The (provocative) sociologist Philip Rieff divides cultures into three broad types:

  1. The First Culture: It is characterised by polytheism and fatalism.
  2. The Second Culture: Scriptural cultures, rooted in the Judeo-Christian ethic. Religion is creedal, the world is ordered and predictable. Peace and security is found by worshipping the one true God and obeying his commands.

Most of missiology focused on the interaction between the First and the Second culture (Missions MOC). Through Contextualisation cultural bridges get created. Missionaries are careful to communicate Gospel truth and not impose the second culture upon the first.

  1. The Third Culture: They define themselves against second cultures. There is no belief in greater truth, no sacred order. Instead it focuses on deconstructing the sacred, transgressing on the commandments and prohibitions. The only authority is found in the individual. There is constant flux as new authorities and rules appear but are soon deconstructed. Meaning and purpuse is up to individual interpretation.

The third culture of the West is ultimately a post–Judeo-Christian culture, not reverting to a pre-Christian paganism but rather is a culture bent on disfiguring the second culture.

We can’t do “relevance” the same way we did when working with a First Culture. Because there is barely any culture to engage with.

It propagates its own creed, one which believes in no creeds, except the creed of self.

The danger is as we seek to communicate the gospel, we might find ourselves drawn into the deconstruction. In a First Culture there are stories, community, rituals to engage, a Third Culture is as evasive as smoke. When adopting the “marketing strategies” of the business world, our churches might be full, but have huge turnover with little resilience. The Third Culture’s mission is to prohibit anyone from prohibiting, its dogma is that no one should have a dogma. It is corrosive by nature: the pressure is to abandon orthodoxy just a bit to be warmly embraced. We are tempted to find the “quick fix”. But what if our response ought to be patience and faith? Relevance, conciously or unconciously, aims to reduce the tension felt with the wider culture.

The church needs to go deep in gospel resilience, not wide in cultural relevance

God always brought redempting to the culture through a remnant, a “creative minority”. When seeking relevance to the contemporary cultural myths, the church falls prey to it steady allure:

Those who have pursued a policy of relevance in their theology—attempting to reshape their theology into unorthodox forms to suit the contours of contemporary sensibilities—suffer the fate that liberal churches have throughout church history: inevitable decline and eventual disappearance. Mark Sayers, Disappearing Church – From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience

We need to focus on concrete people

Jesus went deep with a few rather than shallow with the public.

Creative minorities bring renewal by withdrawing and returning

Although the Israelites were in exile surrounded by a hostile and more powerful culture, they were commended by God to:

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==Jer 29:5–7==

Through distance creative minorities are able to see the blindspots in their culture, reject the myths and have deeper dependency on God. Thy must withdraw from their culture to return with healing truth.

In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell cites studies showing that when a larger country engages a smaller one in warfare, the larger wins 70 percent of the time. However, when the smaller country employs unconventional tactics, weaker nations win 60 percent of the time.

Rather than mourning the church’s loss of power in the public square, we should embrace our cultural exile and see the unique advantages it brings.

Biographies of withdraw/return

Sayers illustrates the process of withdraw/return through the lives of Calvin and Ignatius. Both went through a process of exile, a time where seperate from their cultural homes they went deep in dependance on God. Both came back with greater resilience and a deeper prophetic insights into their culture that resonated with the people of the day.


”Have faith in God’s faith in us” Jonathan Sacks “The secular version of salvation: safety” Mark Sayers “Man is a sacrificial being, because he finds his life in love, and love is sacrificial” –Alexander Schmemann


  1. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

  2. Mark Lilla, “The Truth about Our Libertarian Age: Why the dogma of democracy doesn’t always make the world better,” The New Republic, June 17, 2014, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/118043/our-libertarian-age-dogma-democracy-dogma-decline. 2