What America can learn from the European church | Part 1
[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?