The pastor who has been dubbed ‘the orthodox Rob Bell’ explains how he’s reaching millennials in America’s most secular city
Mark Sayers: Meet the culture guru who believes revival is on the way
The Australian pastor and star of the This Cultural Moment podcast explains why he believes the "highly individualised life script of secularism" is destroying itself
Melbourne, Australia, has the most cafés and restaurants per capita in the world. One in four people who live there have Italian heritage. It’s also home to the highest number of Greeks outside Greece.
Mark Sayers reels off these statistics (and more) from memory. Then, he explains how the culture of Melbourne informs the way his church does outreach. His short, pithy answers surprise and enthral me. I’m left scrambling for my next question, regularly caught off guard by the depth of his insight.
Sayers is a guru. His expert analysis of Western, secular culture has made him an in-demand speaker and, increasingly, a household name among church leaders. As one pastor put it to me recently: Sayers has an unmatched ability to put into words exactly what Christian leaders are noticing about the post-Christian culture they find themselves in. That tallies with how Sayers sees himself. He views his calling as interpreting and “giving language” to what’s happening in culture, and how God “wants to respond to this moment”.
Sayers’ rise to prominence among Christian leaders has been aided by a podcast called ‘This Cultural Moment’, which Sayers launched last year with the Portland-based pastor John Mark Comer. It’s required listening for anyone who wants to follow Jesus in a post-Christian climate.
Sayers had an “early awareness of faith”, which came from the Christian family he grew up in, but God became real when he was a teenager, following a mental health crisis. Depression had gripped the 16-year-old and he didn’t want to go on living. “It took many years and a number of diagnoses, but basically I was struggling with bipolarity,” he says. “It had this overwhelming effect on my life. In my final year of high school I got to this breaking point, went and saw a Christian counsellor, and that’s where God really started to break into my life, both in spiritual healing and emotional and mental healing.” Sayers says there “doesn’t need to be a stigma”, but admits that for many, there still is. He seems reluctant to spend too much time talking about his own diagnosis, pointing out that there’s more to who he is than one illness. “One of the things that has been most helpful for me is when someone said it’s like managing diabetes. There’s something about that that just puts it into the category of: “Ah, OK, so it’s a medical thing.”
After university, Sayers looked set for a career in advertising. But God changed his direction when he went to work in gang-affected areas of Los Angeles. “I think it was a month or two before the LA riots. And it was just hard core. God really challenged me in a particular alleyway when this missionary who was living among the poor spoke to me about ministry, and really kicked my butt. And I came back and realised God was calling me into ministry.”
What were your early experiences of church planting in Melbourne?
I feel like the first part of my ministry life was learning lessons of what not to do, which has been good; hard at the time. I did a congregation plant when I was with The Salvation Army, aimed at young people. It was very innovative. It started well, but then it just struggled and sort of passed away. Then we tried a new thing again in the downtown, and again a similar story. And then I tried another plant in the area that I was living in, out of south Melbourne, and that also failed.
What lessons did you learn through those failures?
People don’t realise that a large percentage of church plants actually don’t succeed. There were things I was doing wrong...One of my mantras, which I got from my mentor, Terry Walling, is that personal renewal leads to corporate change. I needed personal renewal and to realise that ministry is an overflow of what’s already happening inside of you.
You now lead Red Church and your strapline is “more than me”. What does that mean?
We live in a time of radical individualism, in a city like Melbourne which is so comfortable – it’s often rated the world’s most liveable city. It can just be this life story about you. So we want to say: “Hey, there’s something bigger and life is about living for more than just yourself.”
Why Red Church? It’s an unusual name...
The church in south Melbourne went through a change – we split into four sites around Melbourne –north, east, south, west. And we were trying to think of a new name. One of the guys was a Spanish speaker, and he said that in Spanish ‘net’ (as in ‘network’) means ‘red’. But it’s continually confusing. The local paper rang me up and said: “Are you a socialist church?” So everyone gets it wrong!
Recent polls would suggest the West is becoming more secular. I’ve heard some Christian leaders claim that there are green shoots sprouting, but that’s not reflected when you look at the overall statistics, is it?
Søren Kierkegaard wrote a really interesting book called The Present Age (Harper). In it he attacked a tendency that was emerging in the West – which now is everywhere –and that’s the concept of ‘the public’. We talk about ‘the public’ as if it’s a person who rocks around with one set of ideas in their head. The reality is that the public is so broad. I often will sit in my office – I can see the street – and I just watch who goes by. There’s an Iranian guy and there’s a Vietnamese-Australian mum and there’s a white businessman – they all think different things.
There is evidence now in America that there are more people who believe in UFOs than are atheists –those sorts of statistics aren’t spoken about. So I actually think we’ve bought into this myth that Christian renewal looks like the public changing their mind – it has never looked like that. The Church has always been a healing, creative minority. The end of Revelation isn’t when public relations gurus in the Church get 87 per cent of people believing in Christ. It’s actually about the Church showing the kingdom of God and being faithful to Christ’s mandate and message for them.
But there’s a really interesting trend at play, if you are someone who does hold to a secularist view. For example, in Australia, if you look a tour hipster-ish professional suburbs– in the inner city of Melbourne and Sydney, their birth rate is absolutely in the negative. The more religiously inclined people are, and the more serious they are about their faith, the more babies they have – it’s just a sociological reality. So what’s really interesting is this highly individualised life script of secularism basically destroys itself in one generation.
Tell us the story of what happened after your church was covered in graffiti...
I was going through this stage where I knew so many people who were losing their faith in Melbourne. We also had a number of people with quite serious...I would almost say “bullying” at work, over their faith. Not just the usual jokes – I mean people walking up to them and questioning whether they could work in the public sphere and be a Christian. So it just felt like this incredible pressure. We got to Easter Sunday. I pulled around the corner, and just across the front of our church, I could see this giant sheet. And then the words, “off God”, and I thought: “Oh my goodness – what is this?
You can imagine what word the sheet might be covering...
Yes, and I lifted it off and, there’s the F-bomb there. Someone had done this on Saturday night for Easter Sunday; it was planned. My heart sank, and I felt like this tremendous pressure coming from the culture had ruptured up. I grabbed my phone and thought: “Who do I call who’d be happy to paint it off the wall?” I felt God say: “No, I want you to do it.”
Then I noticed that someone had left a note at the bottom. It was from a Catholic priest over the road. It said: “Hi Red Church, we’re really sorry that this has greeted you this Easter morning” – I think they’d been there earlier for their 6am Mass. Their people had come out and sat on chairs and tried to scrub it off. All they could do was put this sheet across it, wishing us a really wonderful Easter.
My wife’s family are from Northern Ireland, and you understand the sectarianism that happened there and how Christians fought. I had this beautiful image in my head of these Catholics coming and serving our church, which is Protestant. And I thought: “How weird. This moment of anti-Christian sentiment has actually brought this moment of Christian unity.”
I spent the rest of the afternoon painting this thing. I’d been running around, and doing this calmed me down. I felt like God was saying: “What if this moment of intense post-Christian pressure is a blank slate I’m creating for you”, and that moment got reframed. That’s where the genesis of my book Reappearing Church (Moody) came from – what if this could be our best moment?
Why are you hopeful that another revival is around the corner?
Xanthie, who’s a really sharp young woman in my congregation, came up to me after I’d preached once and said: “Mark, are you speaking as a prophet that there’s going to be revival, or are you saying it as someone who reads Church history?” And the answer is: I’m seeing it as someone who reads Church history.
James Burns said back in 1900: “Faith is like a tide that goes in and out, and just when it seems to have gone out, it comes back with force.” And I think for me, it was twofold. One – it was looking at it sociologically, and realising that in moments of high globalisation, high social dislocation and a meaning recession, people’s faith tends to comeback. The second thing I realised is there was this myth coming in the Church, which I was part of, that if we just educate everyone enough – if we just get smart enough – that’s what’s going to do it. But when I read scripture, it’s actually when people turn back to God, and don’t try and do it in their own strength, that he moves.
One idea that has been prominent in recent years is the Church needs to be ‘culturally relevant’ in order to reach people. What do you think of that?
Yes, I remember we were pushing into that so hard! I did a church in a café and we did all these crazy art installations and stuff. I remember this non-Christian guy came and he goes: “Not for me; it doesn’t feel like church.” And I realised that there’s a definite sense of the sacred in people’s minds. Christendom is a little bit like Hamlet’s ghost – it may be dead, but it’s still acting in the play. Actually, what people are looking for is authenticity; people are looking for a sense of the sacred; people are looking for an encounter with God – and we’re giving them relevance! We’re getting to a point where people are now overdosing on ‘cool’ – everything in Melbourne is cool, everything is stylised and has this Instagram hipster aesthetic. And people are just over it.
The world is overdosing on digital; I think we’re approaching a possible digital recession – a break-up of social media giants, people switching off because they’re just anxious. There’s an element where it was fun at the beginning, but now it’s anxiety-inducing. So there’s an opportunity for the Church to reconnect people to community, authenticity, humanness.
So trying to be culturally relevant isn’t going to cut it when it comes to countering secularism?
We are getting to this point where because of what’s coming against us, we’re not going to be able to turn things around with just being smarter. We need to cry out for God to move. We always need to be renewed and that begins with ourselves. Revival is renewal gone viral. Lesslie Newbigin had a really interesting view of secularism – he believed that secularism was something which came against all belief, shook any foundations of authority and left humans only being able to rely on the foundation of God. And I feel like we’re part of that – everything from #MeToo, to Brexit, to political scandals, to FIFA corruption. Whatever you put your hope in – environmentalism – there is this shaking of the world; people desperately want a better world. So I see people looking for renewal, and Christians have a part to play in looking for renewal.
I think the business as usual for the last 30 years has changed; there’s something here to be grasped. I’m one of many people preparing for what God wants to do next. That could be my daughter’s generation; it could be in 50 years’ time. When you study renewal, you see it as a very long game; some of them play out over a century. But I do pray and hope that God will move, and I am having conversations with people all around the world that are sensing similar things.
Do you think young people are going to be craving more and more real community, because the digital world has failed to deliver on its promise to provide meaningful connection?
Yes. Thirty years ago we thought about people coming into a church and we had an assumption that they’ve got some basic functionality in their lives. Then we realised there’s a group who were coming in who were broken – maybe they had substance abuse, mental health challenges. But now I’d say it’s overwhelming – 90 per cent of people coming in need formation; particularly in younger generations. Many struggle to have a conversation and they’re overwhelmed with social anxiety.
The stats for Australia and the US are less and less young people are having sex, because you actually have to be in a room with someone to have sex. They don’t know how to meet people from the opposite sex. They don’t know how to get a job – there’s this whole concept of ‘adulting’ now, the stress around: “I’ve got to pay a bill.” So I think there’s a place for the Church to offer formational life skills, as part of the discipleship journey. It’s almost like we get to help people rebuild from the bottom up.
You’ve spent quite a lot of time here in the UK, meeting leaders, seeing what’s going on. What have you noticed in the time you’ve spent here?
The country is being shaken at the moment – Brexit and whatever side you comedown on the divide. The foundations that were there which seemed solid a few years ago are dropping off.
There’s this sense that there’s almost a humbling and an embarrassment. I feel like that with people here in the UK; they’re almost apologising to me. And what if this is a humbling that God’s allowing? I walk around here – the far reaches of the British Empire – as an Australian, knowing how my city was touched by that empire. But what if God takes away a political, economic empire, and offers back a spiritual kind of influence that goes in both directions? So it’s not one of triumphalism and domination, where West Africans and Filipinos and Brazilians come to London, but it goes in two directions. I have this sense that God wants to do something through the UK.
I also feel American evangelicalism is going through a period of reckoning and God is using some of the humility of the UK Church as another counter voice in the English-speaking Church.
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All photos © Samuel J Butt