Understanding the spiritual brokenness of their external culture alone makes a church bitter. Understanding the spiritual brokenness of their internal culture alone makes a church self-loathing. Understanding both makes a church submissive to Jesus as their only hope of reconciliation. (And understanding neither makes no church at all).
Two books written by pastors in the past two years have specifically addressed these two sides of the same coin: original sin. They don't leave readers without hope though, far from it.
Disappearing Church1 by Mark Sayers drafts a sociological blueprint of the current cultural assumptions and aspirations outside the church. Sayers references thought leaders as diverse as Martin Buber, Harold Bloom, James K. A. Smith, Carl Jung, Irenaeus, Andy Crouch, and Hans Urs von Balthasar to map the tectonic shifts under our noses. It’s difficult to aptly summarize these shifts partly because Sayers covers so much to make his case. In 176 pages he sweeps through Philip Rieff’s important depiction of three cultures, ancient Gnosticism versus the West's neo-Gnosticism, the general decline of institutions, and living the “nice life” in a beautiful, lonely world.
It's needless to say these pages pack a punch. Sayers isn't shy about his role as jeremiad here. But it’s not easy to indict a “clean, well-ordered” society with “amazing coffee shops, creative industries, great public transport, and a new civil religion of tolerance and progressive values” (p. 38). Yet Sayers indicts, and the thrust is this: the West has steadily moved from credal, communal Christianity to a self-actualized, radically individualistic, allegedly harmless post-Christianity. He accomplishes this with minimal nostalgia and minimal snarkiness. Sayers's diagnosis isn't unique these days among pastors, but his prescription is.
Whereas many church leaders would look at the West as an exciting new mission field like Pakistan or Laos, Sayers recognizes that “post-Christianity is not pre-Christianity; rather post-Christianity attempts to move beyond Christianity, while simultaneously feasting upon its fruit” (p. 15). We cannot use the tried and tested relevance tactics of the pre-Christian mission field in this altogether new environment. We cannot “pitch” the gospel; we must live it in what Sayers and other commentators have dubbed “creative minorities”.
While speaking specifically about the western church’s external culture, Sayers leaves many matters of its internal culture to other authors. Page 146 crescendos with a broad vision of what could be the church’s finest hour though:
Maybe with the spotlight elsewhere, like the early church that was mostly ignored as the crowd flocked to its bread and circuses, we can get on with the business of being the church. Of preaching the good news, discipling, worshiping, helping the poor, building Christian community. What if being a city on a hill is not about broadcasting with the bright spotlights of the day, but rather allowing the world to be bathed in the gentle magnetic glow of the kingdom?
And how gently magnetic is the glow coming from church life described in The Compelling Community2 by Jamie Dunlop and Mark Dever. If Sayers drew a topological map, Dunlop and Dever have written a field guide. To my knowledge these three pastors were not collaborating, but they have together outlined a precise, wide-ranging, biblical understanding of spiritual brokenness inside and outside the church. Sayers shows how the wider culture needs the gospel, and Dunlop and Dever instructs the church in how to put that same gospel on display through relationships.
While The Compelling Community gets specific down to the daily lives of church members, the broad underlying message is that “building community” on something other than the gospel doesn't differ all that much from a country club, group of friends, or any other association of already similar people. “If this is the sum total of what we call 'church community,' I'm afraid we've built something that would exist even if God didn't” (p. 21). Demographic-based ministries, comfort-based commitment, senior pastors who function more like CEOs; these are each signs of a church resetting its foundations on something other than Christ’s reconciling work. (They also happen to be the designs of frontier missionaries working in pre-Christian cultures as opposed to post-Christian.)
Dunlop and Dever offer a high ecclesiology with simple instructions. “The local church is God's chosen mechanism for protecting an unadulterated gospel” (p. 42). It’s also God’s chosen method for showing off that gospel through what the authors call “gospel-revealing relationships”. What do nonbelievers think when they see retirees vacationing with young married couples? Or when a white family of five loads up the minivan to eat a Ramen dinner in a Jamaican student's dorm room? What could possibly join these disparate peoples—dare we say tribes—together? What could possibly make a people for God? Read 1 Peter, then read The Compelling Community.
The answer touches every aspect of life together. These 213 pages pack less of a punch and more of a shepherd’s guiding hand. The hand leads us to a theology of musical worship, closed communion, when pastors should use the words “trust me”, how to pray as a group, communal evangelism, when pastors should not use the words “trust me”, preaching, and a myriad of other applications. Dunlop and Dever don't cover everything, but like a good field guide their book builds a framework for thinking and deciding. And this framework is strikingly biblical(; intermittently do a search of “one another” in your New Testament while reading the book).
Disappearing Church and The Compelling Community go hand-in-hand, seeming to look two different directions—outward and inward. But indeed they are looking at the same King.