Book Review: The Reappearing Church, by Mark Sayers
Mark Sayers, Reappearing Church: The Hope for Renewal in the Rise of Our Post-Christian Culture. Moody Publishers, 2019. 232 pages.
For all the promise of technology and other “advances” in contemporary Western culture, we are not doing well. Anxiety and depression are on the rise across the Western world, as is loneliness (ironic for our hyper-connected age). Mental illness is reaching crisis levels among “iGen.” After 60 years of rising, U.S. life expectancies started declining in 2014 and the downward trend continues—largely because of more young-age deaths by suicide and drug overdose.
Technology is not the only factor, of course, but it’s a big source of our grief. We use words like “toxic,” “sickness,” “epidemic,” and “viral” to describe the internet age because we all feel its effects. What will bring healing? Who will step up to be light in this dark age, a non-anxious presence in an anxious world?
The church will. That is, if the church herself experiences renewal—because at least in Western culture, she too is sick. Half-committed churchgoers populate pews. Podcasts and YouTube “disciple” believers more powerfully than their church. Christian Twitter is a dumpster fire of disunity and unbecoming rage. Zealous believers eager to win contemporary culture for Christ end up getting defeated by it—their wispy faith no match for the formidable headwinds of secularism.
Yet we need not despair, argues Mark Sayers in his excellent new book, Reappearing Church. Christian history is a series of ebbs and flows, declines and inclines—often simultaneously, in different parts of the world. In 2019 the church is thriving and revival is happening in some places (largely in the global south), thanks be to God. But what about in Western culture? How might revival happen here? That’s the question Sayers explores in this book. “We don’t need another book on the challenges that the church faces in the West,” he writes. “We don’t need another opinion. We need renewal” (11).
SILVER LINING IN SECULARISM
Sayers, lead pastor of Melbourne’s Red Church, excels in diagnosing the ills of contemporary Western culture, as seen in his 2016 book Disappearing Church, and in his insights on This Cultural Moment—a podcast he co-hosts with John Mark Comer. There is still plenty of “problem diagnosis” in Reappearing Church, especially in the first several chapters. But Sayers sees the silver lining in the dark picture he paints. “What if this secular moment in our culture is only a crisis if we ignore God’s calls for renewal?” Sayers asks (9). “What if we reframe this as brilliantly good news?”
The good news, Sayers suggests, is that as powerful as Western culture is to shape our hearts and minds in destructive ways, the power of God is—and always has been—stronger. God’s transforming presence is also infinitely more satisfying than whatever secular “renewal” program we might seek.
One of the big points of Reappearing Church is that revival is God’s work from beginning to end. The presence of God in our lives—not our cerebral thoughts about God—drives revival. If secularism is “the attempt to create a system for human flourishing in which the presence of God is absent” (83), then the counter-formational answer is God’s presence. “The story of renewal is the story of God’s presence returning to our toxic and regressing human lives, systems, and societies,” Sayers writes (79).
Everything depends on God’s presence: the Holy Spirit re-forming hearts that have been de-formed by a toxic culture. This may seem basic, but it’s radical in an evangelical world often allured by fleshly strategy and pragmatism. The book’s key insight—more of a reminder, really—is that brilliant strategy and cultural savvy is not enough to catalyze renewal. No stylish hipster church with killer flat whites, no preachers in sneakers with Kanye on speed dial, no Philip Rieff-quoting podcast will fan the flames of revival. Only the Spirit in our lives and in our churches will do it.
Unless we are deeply rooted in God’s presence—with regular worship patterns that form us in contrast to how the “giant secular cathedral” forms us—we will be no match for the culture we are trying to influence. “We can only be healing presences in systems without turning toxic ourselves when we first become living temples of His presence,” he observes (80). “We need a great awakening where Christians are influential without being influenced” (188). We need churches characterized by what Sayers calls “hot orthodoxy” (truth + presence) in contrast to “dead orthodoxy” (truth-presence). We need Christians who don’t just believe the right things but whose lives are marked by the fruit of the transforming presence of God. As Francis Schaeffer might put it, we need both reformation and revival.
CONTENDING RATHER THAN CONSUMING
Sayers says renewal begins with desperation and repentance: a recognition of our utter impotence; a passionate falling at the feet of Christ. It’s a vertical look to God rather than a horizontal look to the crowd or an inward look to the self. A posture ripe for renewal is also one of contending rather than consumerism; not half-in, convenient Christianity, but the sort of committed, risky, count-the-cost Christianity I write about in Uncomfortable.
This contending posture thrives in small, remnant groups within the church—“the cells of renewal” that are small in number but strong in God’s presence; the little church within the church, as Martin Luther called it. Revivals historically start here. These groups are less interested in shouting their grievances on social media than crying out to God for renewal. Rather than punditry, they are passionate about prayer. I love Sayers’ emphasis on what he calls “contending prayer”—a practice he says is “central to renewal cells and remnants in every move of God” (169). This is a vision of prayer as battle: desperate, rugged, relentless crying out to God. Again, it’s not a novel concept—but in today’s easily bored and novelty-obsessed evangelicalism, a vigorous embrace of the basics is a radical act.
I do fear Reappearing Church couches these basic concepts in such fresh, I daresay “hip” language that it runs the risk of being construed as just another new trendy proposal that excites young pastors for a time before they move on to the next. As much as the book’s takeaway is that the heart matters at least as much as the head in Christian revival, the book is unmistakably heady. I sometimes got lost in the abundance of pull quotes, “key principles,” graphs, charts, and needlessly complex multi-point steps.
I also wish Sayers gave more attention to how this all plays out in the local church. The “renewal” cell emphasis is great (he encourages the book to be read by small groups like this), and he gives a nod to Tim Keller’s “ecclesial revivalism” where the emotion and energy of revivalism fuel a robust discipleship within the context of the local church. But I can see a twentysomething Christian reading the book and feeling inspired to launch a “renewal cell” (sounds so cool and countercultural!) while bypassing the local church (neither cool nor seemingly countercultural).
The book is best suited for small groups within local churches to read together, and that’s how I encourage pastors to use it. There is much fodder for discussion in its pages, but even more, there is ample prompting for prayer—desperate, aching prayer that begs not for popularity or comfort, but for God’s presence to stir and spark revival.