Like civilization generally, the church moves through history atop the highest peaks and the deepest valleys. While our Western culture presses Christianity to the margins of acceptable public social activity, many have decided to assimilate to the larger culture to stay relevant. This assimilation has caused a decline in social and political capital for the church, a stain on her corporate witness and credibility, and if the current trajectory is continued, could cause outright persecution for any individuals unwilling to conform. It is in this space that Australian pastor Mark Sayers brings his well-known and insightful cultural commentary with the hope of paving a way toward the revival of the church with his newest book, Reappearing Church: The Hope for Renewal in the Rise of our Post-Christian Culture.
Sayers notes early that this book was not written for those unsure, cynical, or “with one foot in the world and another in the church” (10). Instead, he’s writing for people “hungry for God…desiring to see Him move again with power” (10), and he wants readers that are interested in partnering with God by creating small groups filled with people “contending for renewal” (16). Considering this all-in-commitment perspective, it’s interesting that he pulls the renewal methodology used in the book from Douglas Hyde, a former member of the British Communist Party in the late 1940s. After joining the church, Hyde saw that it needed renewal in the post-war West and felt it could learn some things from the way that communism “trained a dedicated minority to renew a culture” (12). Hyde’s approach (which Sayers adopts) places responsibility for the renewal of the church on the church, and Sayers’ expectation is that those hungry for renewal, reading this book together, will “put into practice what they [are] learning” each week (14).
For those reading Reappearing Church for Sayers’ cultural commentary, he does not disappoint. Sayers paints a jarring, but accurate, picture of just how un-Christian our society is while attempting to interject steps to renewal as he goes. Beginning in chapter one, he starts by critiquing the current state of the West’s secularist-progressive map “built around the belief that history will end with a human-powered social utopia and the potential of human perfectibility” (27). In chapter two, Sayers pauses to define how he will use the terms “renewal” (realignment with God’s presence) and “revival” (renewal gone viral) going forward (33). For the most part, the author stays within the confines of his definitions, but occasionally allows the two to overlap, which may cause some confusion to the reader. The remainder of the chapter sets up the direction for the rest of the book. The author describes what he sees as the “renewal process” which he defines as holy discontent leading to preparation, setting up for contending, moving to the formation of patterns that center our lives around God’s presence, and forming a remnant (40). He describes this process as a U-turn moving from a direction of decline to one of renewal, and uses its illustration as a roadmap from which readers may locate themselves in this process.
Chapters three through twelve then lay out in detail how each phase of the renewal process is achievable given our current secular state. Sayers notes that our dissatisfaction amidst seeming unlimited freedom can move us to holy discontentment (chapters 4-7) and that we prepare for revival by first acknowledging and breaking from our lukewarm Christianity (chapters 8-9). Next, Sayers moves the readers into the actionable phases of the renewal process of contending for truth through risk and sacrifice (chapter 10), setting holy patterns of life to resist the patterns the world draws us into (chapter 11), and the power of a renewed remnant (chapter 12). Finally, the author deals with how renewal may “go viral” and cause a full-on revival of the church that could even shape the culture (chapter 13).
Despite the excellent commentary, Reappearing Church may be a challenge for some readers if used as a tool to effect revival. The terminology Sayers uses throughout is particularly problematic. For instance, chapter seven describes renewal as bringing God’s presence into our world. This phrasing, used with regularity throughout the book, was distracting. God is already present among us. He’s everywhere. We can place everything that is in one of two categories: Creator or creation. Therefore, God is necessarily immanent with his creation because if he were at a distance, there would be some third category. Instead, it would have been helpful for Sayers to distinguish between God’s presence (which is everywhere, always) and his dwelling, and then use the terminology appropriately. God dwells among his people (Num. 35:34, Zech. 2:10–11, Eph. 3:17, and others) with a particular manifestation of his presence that creation, generally, does not experience. This particular type of presence is what renewal brings, and is what I believe the author’s intention was. However, Sayers’ general usage of the word “presence” communicated this concept poorly.
Another challenge of the book was the general framing around what those “hungry for God’s renewal” must do. Sayers tells readers early on that “continuing the same things that are not bringing renewal is not going to bring renewal…business as usual is not going to bring renewal” (15). With this statement, paired with the emphasis of reading the book in groups eager to put what they are learning into practice, the author communicates two things that come out in the rest of the book: (1) the pressure is on us to do, and (2) the old ways won’t work.
First, when talking about revival—or any other work of God—a view that places the pressure on people to do what only God can do is extremely unhelpful. Instead, a more helpful setting would have been to press readers toward security in what God promises to do through a faithful people—which the author occasionally does, but inconsistently. The difference lies in focus, but the focus is essential when attempting to motivate heart-felt, and lasting change. Eventually, Sayers acknowledges that “We can desire, hope for, cry out for [revival], but we cannot make it happen. Only God can cause such a mighty move of His Spirit. But we can contend and wait” (173). Sayers tells us that our revival efforts may not bear noticeable fruit for years or decades. However, our responsibility is to be faithful to him who has called us by “[stepping] into His process of growth” (175) and trusting him to work. These quotes were comforting reminders, but it would have been better to have held the reassuring truth of God’s sovereignty as a motif, rather than an afterthought. It would have followed the biblical pattern of indicatives giving rise to imperatives and reinforced how the gospel of free grace brings about our gratitude and a life lived for God.
Secondly, he seems to contradict himself when he tells readers that the old ways won’t work. Some of his many “key renewal principles,” state things like “the path to renewal is paved with obedience” (96) and “renewal only comes with prayer and fasting” (172). These ways may be old, but they’re biblical, necessary means through which God accomplishes his ends. It is possible that “business as usual,” as Sayers sees it, is simply the exclusively worldly tactics that many churches use attempting to effect godly change. However, if that is what he means, it isn’t clear. Perhaps, rather than trying to encourage readers to find new ways to overthrow our culture for God, the way forward is to look back to ancient truth and radically orient our lives around it together.
All in all, Reappearing Church is worth the read, even if it is merely for the excellent cultural commentary. Sayers aptly diagnoses the current state of the West, and he wonderfully describes what revival will look like through the stories he tells and advice he gives. Perhaps no statement made in the book is more accurate than when Sayers says that he expects God’s reviving work to start “in the human heart” (39). There’s nothing new under the sun. God has powerfully worked through his people to cause a revival in the past, and we should expect that he will do it again. However, renewal will start, and revival will occur when people understand their poverty of spirit, and need for a Savior, down into the depths of their hearts, and in that way Sayers’ reminder is both timely and encouraging.
Matt Boga is the associate pastor at Reality Church of Stockton in Stockton, CA, where he lives with his wife and three children. Matt is an MA student at Western Seminary, and in his free time, he enjoys reading, building with his hands, and playing basketball.
 John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief, 48-49.
Note: This review was originally published at modernreformation.org in September 2019.