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What America can learn from the European church | Part 1

March 11, 2012

[This is the first post of a 6-post series titled “Letters to America,” written by Paul Maconochie, the pastor at St Thomas Philadelphia. Paul was the pastor who followed me at Philadelphia and now, 8 years later, it is one of fastest growing churches in Europe, doing some incredibly imaginative things in a truly post-Christian context. I hope you enjoy the series, and if you’d like to read a little on the history of St Thomas, check out this blog post on how I chose Movement over Mega.]

As a British Pastor I love coming to America. I love the pioneering ‘can do’ attitude of the American people. I love how so many of the churches are full and the way that faith is often spoken about as part of daily life.

In England things are quite different.

Churches are often half empty and the attitude of many of the British people towards evangelical Christianity is pretty negative (to say the least!). A large church in England might have 300 people. Obviously, this is a really foreign reality for people who have grown up in a culturally Christian United States. However, there are some things that we as British Christians are learning that may be useful on both sides of the Atlantic. Britain has become a mission field again in the true sense of the word and the remnant believers have had to change and adapt in order to remain effective as God’s people.

I live in Sheffield, a northern, post-industrial English city where about 2.5% of the population attend church on a Sunday. This means that the vast majority of people in our city never go to church. Ever. Even at Christmas only about 5% turn up in a church building. For us, ‘Build it and they will come’ does not really figure any more. Instead, we have had to learn afresh what Jesus meant when he said ‘go and make disciples.’ One of the most important lessons we have learned is this:

Incarnation is better than intervention.

Intervention says “I really want God to touch my life and make it better. But God is a little scary; I think I need a Pastor to stand between him and me.” Of course we never actually come out and say this; we just act as if it is true. Instead of going to Jesus directly we expect our Pastor to go to Him, praying, fasting and reading the Bible and then to instruct us in what he has learned at the worship service. In return, we pay out tithes and turn up on a Sunday morning before going back to our lives, and to be honest, not changing too terribly much.

Intervention also operates the same way with other people. We want to help others who are poor or struggling or who do not know Jesus, but we want to do it from a distance. So we give money to overseas missionaries (not a bad thing in itself!) and maybe occasionally even take blankets or soup to folks living on the streets before going back to our nice warm comfortable homes.

These things are all good and I am sure that God likes it when we intervene to help people, but I believe that God actually has a preference for incarnation. He does not want to help us from a distance, through our Pastor. He wants to be in every part of our lives. I love Eugene Peterson’s translation of John 1:14; he writes:

The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood.

God wants us to access His presence and His Word for ourselves. He wants to deal with us directly, and He wants us to do the same with the Last, the Least and the Lost.

In recent years in our church we have seen an incredible thing – every day members of the church who consider themselves to be missionaries even while they still live in their home city, and who actually live that way. They believe that if you’re a Christian, it means you’re a missionary. There isn’t really a choice in the matter. They have found that life-on-life engagement with others allows our contagious faith to spread. They share their time, energy and resources with each other and move into the lives of those they are trying to reach. In a city where no-one goes to church, we have begun to see people come to the Lord in the hundreds, most without ever darkening the door of the church.

For those of us with an interventional approach to faith, I believe Jesus brings the challenge of incarnation. Are you living your Christian life from a distance, or up close and personal? If you’re a Pastor, are you fully engaged with the mission of God in an up close and personal way, or do you simply hope by running the machine of the church, others will do it and you’ve fulfilled your part in it?

31 Comments leave one →
  1. March 11, 2012 9:43 pm

    Wow. I don’t even know what to say and I’m always runnin my mouth. I have to read this a few more times; dense, wise, factual, encouraging. Thanks.

  2. Lewrie Harmon permalink
    March 12, 2012 12:06 am

    Thank you so much for bringing the reality of what it means to follow the Lord Jesus. This is not just a reminder, but a jolt into our American evangelical churches. As the Lord leads me to people to disciple I have them go to the gospels and just follow Jesus as He goes about “doing good.” I never cease to be amazed at the dear ones He brings into my life. Thanks again for the jolt. Awaiting the remainder of the series.

  3. March 12, 2012 12:20 am

    As a fellow Brit who has lived in America for 25 years, identify with and understand too well. I once heard Russian and South American interns to a church in Dallas explain why they were happy to return home as missionaries: life is too easy in America – so for them being a Christian is ‘easier’ where life is harder.
    That would include being a true follower of Jesus in England today.
    Lord, may they and we abide in you, do you will bear fruit through us. Incarnation Lord.

  4. March 12, 2012 1:47 am

    I love the theme of incarnation. For some reason, we love it that Jesus incarnated Himself to us, but we rarely want to incarnate to others.

  5. March 12, 2012 11:07 am

    I live in Sheffield too and totally agree with Paul. I work for Church Army who’s ‘strap line’ is to serve the Least the Last and the Lost – seems we’re getting closer all the time!

    One question you might be able to answer – with all the great work over the last 15-20 years from St Thomas’ and other churches, has the 2.5% gone up a bit yet? Please say yes!



  6. March 12, 2012 2:12 pm

    Great stuff, Paul!

  7. natakery permalink
    March 12, 2012 3:45 pm

    I’m curious to know what it means to be a missionary in your church. In the American sense, a missionary is actually an evangelical who is bent on converting people by giving them stuff they need (i.e. a house, clothes, food). So the equation is something like…

    I give you what you need
    I tell you Jesus gave it to you
    You convert

    So, what is a missionary?

    • Paul Maconochie permalink
      March 15, 2012 5:13 pm

      I guess for us it means someone who will try to live the life Jesus has called them to, which should include an ‘extended family’ of folks who are living life together – praying togehter, eating together, having fun together, reacing out to others, sharing resources in some way; and then when they find ‘People of peace’ (Luke 10), they seek to live life-on-life with them too. They are trying to be a disciple (learner, student) of Jesus and are looking out for others who want to do the same. In my opinion conversion is important – there is a moment of change in the life of a believer – but the Holy Spirit does that and coercing people is wrong.

  8. March 12, 2012 4:55 pm

    The first Reformation left the laity/clergy status quo in place in the end, though the Radical Reformers carried it further for a time. Maybe in this Reformation (every 500 years according to Phyllis Tickle) we can rediscover the meaning of Pentecost, or really see Jesus example at the old well in John 4..

  9. March 12, 2012 7:16 pm

    Thank you so much, I live in Almere, a growing metropolitan city next to Amsterdam and ony 3-4 % of the population goes to church on a Sunday morning. A lot like cities in Britain.

  10. March 13, 2012 6:35 am

    #dminlgp I like the concept that every christian is a missionary and the act of moving in the neighborhood. I think if all christians move in the neighborhood there would be a revival and impact in the community.

  11. Rob Shoaff permalink
    March 14, 2012 12:15 pm

    A brilliant reminder of what Christ desires of all Christians… on life mission. Thanks Paul!

  12. March 15, 2012 12:50 pm

    I have been reading through Paul’s piece and thinking about it. I am an American in northern NJ by the way. I think his explanation of intervention as the sort of standard of how many Christians or cultural Christian Americans view interaction with God is correct. I experience that all the time. That section is very powerful and deserves a wider read after it is fully fleshed out. I hope Paul is doing/has done that. In my opinion, a sort of critical mass of deconstruction has either been reached or is very near to being reached, so I suggest the excellent descriptive style that Paul used here. You probably know this, but in some sections of the US, there is marked decline in church participation too. Many of my pastor friends believe that this is a sign of judgment from God, most of them are Reformed, and the Baptists believe that this is a sign of the end times. Neither of these groups of fine men preach or model a ministry philosophy that emphasizes that we are all missionaries needing to live and minister incarnationally to re-introduce the Church into their community. Frankly, they accept the decline as a part of God’s plan. Men from both points of view will wax eloquent from scripture explaining their view. IF someone responds to the church decline in a way that resembles what you have written here, they turn down the volume. Looking forward to the other pieces.

  13. Tom permalink
    March 19, 2012 12:22 am

    Paul, I have a question: I’m a seminary student, and here’s what our text book on preaching says:

    “The preacher is a member of the community, set apart by them and sent to the scripture to search, to study, and to listen obediently on their behalf. So, the preacher goes to the scripture, but not alone. The preacher goes on behalf of the faithful community […] the preacher turns back toward those who wait–and tells the truth.” (Thomas Long, 2005: The Witness of Preaching, p. 49)

    What do you make of this — in light of the intervention perspective?

    At first, I liked this quote, and thought it was a good description of the task of preaching. But I changed my mind — I think it mainly spoke to my own vanity. It makes the preacher feel needed, but does a Christian community really want someone to study the scripture on their behalf?

  14. Chris J permalink
    March 19, 2012 9:22 am

    This is a great read.

    Stories (especially true stories like this one) pack a punch that is missing from other kinds of writing. I live only a couple of hours drive away from Sheffield and should pay a visit, maybe bringing some friends with me on a sort of fact-finding trip.

    Thanks for sharing.

  15. Jake Armentrout permalink
    April 28, 2012 1:30 am

    This is beautiful, thanks for your inspiration and encouragement to go out and be the people God created us to be!


  1. What America can learn from the European church
  2. Incarnation is better than intervention..
  3. Weekend links «
  4. What America can learn from the European church | Part 2 «
  5. Bigger doesn’t mean Better | What America Can Learn from the European church | Part 3 «
  6. We must expect different things from Pastors | What America can learn from the European Church | Part 4 «
  7. Is Church about the Superstar Pastor? | What America can learn from the European Church | Part 5 «
  8. What America Can Learn from the Church in Europe « Christianity 201
  9. Are you building an organization or a missional family? | What America can learn from the European Church | Part 6 «
  10. Is Church about the Superstar Pastor? | What America can learn from the European Church | Part 5 | Mike Breen
  11. Weekend links | Mike Breen
  12. What America can learn from the European church | Part 2 | Mike Breen
  13. Bigger doesn’t mean Better | What America Can Learn from the European church | Part 3 | Mike Breen
  14. We must expect different things from Pastors | What America can learn from the European Church | Part 4 | Mike Breen
  15. incarnation versus intervention

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