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Relevance is over-rated

Sayers argues in this small book that in a post-Christian society, where consumerism reigns and the desires of the self are the revolving centre, the church needs to shift its posture from relevance to resilience with respect to broader cultural life. The primary strategy for much of evangelicalism in the last decades – take the seeker church movement as a prime illustration – has been cultural resonance. The goal was to contextualize the gospel, translate theology into the vernacular, mimic popular musical styles and create familiar environments for unchurched neighbours. Be all things to all people.

Sayers argues this creates a very fluid, fragile “flashmob” church that does impressive networking to gather a crowd but lacks the institutional structures to truly disciple people for long-term faithful worship and service. This critique includes emergent, missional and new monastic churches as well, each vying in different ways to contextualize the gospel for different social niches. Like sagebrush, they blow away with the winds of change.

A threefold scheme of human history from sociologist Philip Rieff frames Sayer’s approach. The first culture is a traditional oral culture that believes in many gods and unpredictable spiritual forces, cultivating a fearful existence. A second culture developed around sacred scriptures (Judeo-Christian), which brought order and rationality to human life through a clear code for human flourishing. The third culture is driven to deconstruct the second culture, elevating the freedom and autonomy of the individual. In neo-Gnostic disdain for matter and institutions, nothing is sacred but the self in this last category.

The upshot is this: Our culture has become an unfamiliar forest in which anti-institutional winds blow strong. Christians cannot be “relevant” to a culture that sees Christianity, institutions and codes as inherently oppressive and which lionizes self-centred ethics. To chase after this rebellious culture can be self-defeating, and may ultimately colonize Christian witness.

This is the crux for Sayers: accommodate by adjusting your views on sexual ethics or shifting to universalist views of Jesus to avoid offending cultural elites, and you have been converted to a different faith. “For many Christians raised with the ethic of relevance, of proving to the world that Christians can both be believers and carry the contemporary currency of cool, the new pressure presented by an intolerant tolerance proves too much. Some compartmentalize their beliefs into an orthodox/secularist mashup, and others simply disappear into the cold embrace of secularity” (48). This post-Christian secularity is clean and beautiful on the outside, adds Sayers, replete with style and affluence, but it’s empty, sad and nihilistic on the inside.

Sayers recommends a rhythm of “withdraw and return” with regards to culture inspired by Ignatius and John Calvin. The result is the formation of a “creative minority” who build institutions like church that shape and shelter people in ways that cultivate shalom. This means accepting our limits in terms of what we might experience, and working under the radar of popular culture to nurture spiritual disciplines that build our character in Christlikeness.

This ultimately conservative book is refreshing insofar as it makes the cultural moment of de-Christianization clear. The deconstructive “third culture” sounds familiar to us in Canada, even if Sayers lives in Australia. I am not convinced the second culture – which displayed rigid, even legalistic norms and a culture of racial segregation (for example) is as desirable as Sayers assumes. I would also contend that the third culture, with its critical appraisal of Christendom, may contain some prophetic critiques to which we ought to penitently respond. Some second culture colonizing of first cultures carries a sad legacy of cultural prejudice and appropriation (which Sayers briefly acknowledges). In effect, I think focusing more on God’s kingdom and less on the institutional church might helpfully blur the lines in Sayers’ three-part scheme.

Overall, however, the call from relevance to resilience (and add in repentance and resistance) is certainly apt. The crude pragmatism that drives churches to seek legitimacy in dominant consumer culture deserves our critique and abandonment. To extend the call to resilience further, we can opt out of pursuing legitimacy with some forms of political correctness that subtly engender a form of self-censorship. All religions are not fundamentally the same. The self is not sacred, the individual is not god, and institutions are not inherently evil.

The opposite of relevance is prophetic living. Prophetic speech requires some distance, some resignation to exile in the desert, and though the crowds do not follow, a few disciples may just catch the vision of a creative subculture for the common good. This is living as salt and light in secular society. To some extent, that is what Christian institution building has been busy with for generations already – resilient kingdom living in a host culture that ignores, resents and even sometimes oppresses Christian testimony. Sayers’ book is helpful if not understood as nostalgic or whining, but as a call to some risk, sacrifice and adventure. A call to stand firm, like a tall willow bent in a strong wind but rooted deep in rich soil.

  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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