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Go West: is the American Church the answer to the UK Church’s problems?

This weeks article on Christian Today – you can read the original here – 

Go West: is the American Church the answer to the UK Church’s problems?

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(Photo: Unsplash/Travis Gergen)

“Over paid, over sexed and over here” was one common saying concerning the American GI’s during the Second World War. I doubt that this is the appropriate description for the growing number of American missionaries who are coming to the UK today in order to take part in a different kind of warfare – the spiritual battle for Western Europe. But we do need to consider how much the UK church is influenced by the US – and how much of that influence is a good or bad thing.

Come Over and Help Us

This past week, I attended the Free Church General Assembly that meets opposite the Church of Scotland Assembly, at the top of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. Looking at the make up of the latter (the impression was very much of an aging demographic and a declining Church) it was clear that the Assembly’s emphasis on planting 100 new churches was desperately needed.

The Free Church Assembly had more young men and appears to be growing, but it was also clear that there was a significant need for more resources both in terms of money and personnel.

So perhaps the thing to do is look West – towards the US? The American church has an enormous influence in the UK church. Its wealth, dynamism and perceived success make us wonder if we should just copy their model. To be in large churches, with extensive programs and great wealth, who also seem to be making a significant impact upon their community – that is quite an experience and one which sometimes leaves the Brit feeling a) inferior and b) thinking ‘this is it. This is the way God wants us to work’.

But is the Americanisation of the Church the way ahead for the Church in the UK?

We need to be aware of the dangers of generalising and stereotyping. We also need to be sensitive in how we discuss these things – because there are many good things that come from the US and we are deeply grateful for the help and support we get from our American brothers and sisters. But there are also many good things here in the UK too. We need to listen to one another and be sensitive to each other – not just to ourselves.

There are many differences between churches within the USA, as there are between churches in the UK. But all of us are affected by our cultures – and especially in this globalised age, with easy access to information and materials from churches and organisations across the world; we can find that one culture often impacts the other – especially if it is the predominant one.

In the US there is a great spirit of entrepreneurialism.

A more ‘we can do it’ mentality. That can be a refreshing and encouraging thing. It can also be a nightmare. Those who have great expectations (not about what God can do, but more about what they can do, or what they think God will do) are bound for disappointment and frustration. The opposite extreme is to expect nothing.

As every Scotland football fan knows, if you expect little, you get what you expect and can thus feel vindicated. I would suggest, however, that whilst this attitude might be a suitable psychological defence mechanism for a longsuffering football fan, it is not a biblical attitude to evangelism!

Another real problem is money.

Money buys buildings, personnel, publicity, media and much more. It doesn’t buy spiritual success and sometimes may even hinder it. What happens is that those who give money often do so as a kind of investment where they expect a quick return. I once saw a poster in a Reformed seminary urging us to give to a particular evangelistic programme because “for every dollar given one soul is saved”. This is a crass commercialism that is a negation of the Gospel.

There are of course many ways of doing this, and there is often the opposite extreme of hardly mentioning the biblical teaching about giving at all. But the need to finance buildings, equipment and staff in multi-tech churches and ministries means that money is never far away from the surface – and often appears as the raison d’etre of the ministry. I have been in services where the impression was given that Jesus was the great stockbroker in the sky who we needed to invest in – so that we could get lots back.

Spiritual Trickle Down Theory

Another cultural difficulty which does not in my view adapt well – is one that I fear is already prevalent in UK evangelicalism. It’s what I call Spiritual Trickle Down theory. This is a kind of version of Thatcherite economics. Mrs Thatcher believed that if the wealthy benefited then that would eventually trickle down to the poor. There is some truth in that – although it displays far too great a trust in the basic goodness of human beings.

The spiritual version of this is to assume that the best strategy is to go to ‘the centres of influence’ (usually the wealthy parts of the great city centres) with the hope being that if the rich and influential are converted, then that will trickle down to the rest of society – including ultimately the poor.

At a superficial level that sounds fine. There is only one problem – it’s not biblical.

“Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth”. (1 Corinthians 1:26).

Yet the Church in the US and the UK seem far more focused on reaching the wise, the influential and those of noble birth. No one denies that they too need the Gospel – but having them as the priority because it seems a better methodology is not wise.

What if it really is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than it is for him to enter the kingdom of Heaven? Here’s a counter cultural thought – maybe it’s the poor who will be more effective in reaching the rich, rather than the other way round? It’s necessary to plant churches in the leafy suburbs and the cultural centres, but not at the expense of the poor.

Anti-Americanism?

It’s hard to discuss these things. Because some accuse you of being anti-American. Others fear losing support. Others just are anti-American. But we need to be honest if we are to work together for the cause of the Gospel. It is clear to me that the Western church is weakening – and sometimes by our crass promotion of our materialistic, programmatic culture into the church, we can do great harm in other countries.

A  Macedonian Cry from the West

Maybe the Western Church should now be looking to the East and the South? We are the ones that are drowning in a sea of secularist materialism and illiberal progressivism. We should be the ones giving the Macedonian cry – not the ones thinking in our pride that we have the answers.

All of us need to reflect on how our cultures impact us. All of us need to beware of reading the Bible through our culture, rather than reading the culture through the Bible. And surely the Church in the West, whether the US or the UK, needs to be on its knees in repentance, before the day comes when we will be on our knees in humiliation and defeat.

David Robertson is a minister in the Free Church of Scotland. He blogs at www.theweeflea.com

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Elevation Church – The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

The Suffocating Church – American Style

How Not to Be an American Missionary in Scotland

Tim Keller and Middle Class Churches

11 comments

  1. The Church in the USA tends to indicate that small churches are failures. But the UK realises that they are successes, because they have the gospel in places the ‘large church phenomenon’ has not affected.

    The Church in the USA has also failed so many. We were told yesterday that 50% of US Christians can’t name all four gospel writers.

    1. I fully agree! Often the smallest of groups have the best teaching. Not to say that large churches don’t, but ministry is about encouraging personal faith rather than gloating about numbers. The alarming fact is any statistic on the number of Christian people is likely to be incorrect, due to the hollow, ritualistic nature of so many professed Christian’s faith.

      1. But we have the Gospel (the power of God unto salvation) and the Holy Spirit. Of course we should expect faithfulness, but we should also expect fruitfulness. Too many Christians on both sides excuse a lack of one by appealing to the presence of the other.

  2. Well said, David! As Clayton Christensen has shown, “innovative disruption” almost always comes from the margins. It happened in the early church. It’s happening in Latin America. This should be our primary strategy in US and Britain.

  3. I think that we have much to be thankful for that comes from what God has done, and is doing through American Christians – both North and South. I think of Kathryn Kuhlman, Francis Macnutt, John Wimber and the Vineyard, Agnes Sanford, Claudio Freidzon, Toronto Airport CF, Jack Deere, Bill Johnson and Bethel, Redding – and there are many others.
    And also in the UK: Alpha and Holy Trinity Brompton, New Wine, Ffald y Brenin in Pembrokeshire, Causeway Coast Vineyard and Healing on the Streets, Peter Carter and N Kent Community Church. Plus I have just been made aware of King’s Arms Church in Bedford – through whom God is doing wonderful things (see Simon Holley’s ‘Sustainable Power’ ).
    Perhaps it would be good to pay more attention to what God IS doing – and praise Him for it – than to what satan has been allowed to do. The former takes a bit of effort and research, while the latter is presented daily on all media.

    1. Thanks Nigel…but some of the groups you mention kind of illustrate my point….Kathryn Kuhlman, Jack Deere, Bill Johnson…Toronto have not helped the cause here…

  4. The church is not well acquainted with entrepreneurial thinking or action, but maybe it needs to be. The reliance on money from the pews and legacies has stood us in good stead when giving to the church was one of only a few options. Now people give widely to many causes, and there is only so much that can be asked from the people of God, especially as a large number live on pensions.
    There has to be, and there is, huge opportunities for the church to explore new and innovative forms of income generation to finance the valuable work it does. This should not be seen as a shameful thing, for even Paul made tents to support his work.
    This may or may not be an American model, but looking at the sheer number of enterprises that are emerging in Scotland, I think it is possibly more akin to the Scottish flair for invention and self-sustainability.
    I for one will continue to explore these new ways.

    1. Do you not tithe in the Scottish Church? In America, in general, you would tithe to your home church, and that 10% of the parishioner’s income would go to help support the needs of the church. Not sure if it works a different way here in Scotland, though.

  5. Hi David! I thought this was an intriguing statement. Would you be able to expound on what it means, maybe in context to this article. Thank you

  6. Hi David,
    I’m in Canada and the traditional dominations here fare no better than their UK counterparts. As is the case in the US, more evangelical denominations are the successful ones and they are indeed more dynamic and entrepreneurial. They are also more urban and typically convey more simplistic theological messages. I don’t fear for the churches in our cities as much as I do in rural areas. It’s pretty tough to be the only couple under 60 in a church and to have your children the only kids in a congregation, with no minister or priest based in town to provide that key level of pastoral care and encouragement to the remaining parish or congregation. In my heart, I know my children will likely be the last generation of churchgoers in our family.
    If we are lucky enough to have a growth evangelical church in a town or on a highway corridor nearby, our older denominational backgrounds make a switch spiritually and emotionally challenging. And there’s the rub. Betrayed by our leaderships for over 40 years (especially if you’re an older denomination protestant), we should owe these institutions no loyalty and walk, putting God first. They are property management companies with little interest in their remaining membership, obsessed with not being criticized by a media culture intent on their destruction. But it’s easier said than done to leave as we are emotionally attached to the bricks and mortar. The Free Church’s approach is the right one, I think, and I wish them well.

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