Bigger doesn’t mean Better | What America Can Learn from the European church | Part 3
[This is the third 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.]
- To read Part 1 of this series, “From Intervention to Incarnation,” click here.
- To read Part 2 of this series, “Do yourself out of a job,” click here.
This is true of nationalities. I am an English Pastor but I spend on average about 10% of my time in the USA and so I’ve had some opportunity to observe our two different cultures.
For the Brit, America is the land of vision, space and abundance. We have about 1/5 of the population of the USA squashed into a land mass around the size of Ohio, which probably helps us to learn to tolerate those who are different from us, but is not great for helping us to “think big” or “outside of the box.” I try to get as many of my team to spend time in America as possible, because your nation teaches them to branch out, to think out of the box, to expect more. In many ways the entrepreneurial pioneer spirit is alive and well in America, and for those of us from settled, institutional Britain, it is a joy to see.
However, there are some cultural ‘blind spots’ too. The ability to ‘think big’ can also become the belief that ‘bigger is better.’ this might be true of some things, but not always true of the church. The church is a living organism, a body made of many parts.
The mark of maturity in living things is not size so much as ability to reproduce.
Getting big is not that difficult – all we have to do is eat delicious food non-stop and sit around doing little exercise. I believe that this is true spiritually as well as physically.
On the other hand, when a couple have many children you know that they have a very busy life ahead of them, and also that raising those children well is going to be a difficult task! However, in time their influence on their community will be significant. There will be members of their family in different places and walks of life across the region and if their children have lots of kids too then the whole clan can become very influential!
As Christians, we reproduce by making disciples. This means that we find the ‘People of Peace’ referred to by Jesus in Luke 10; people who will welcome us, listen to us and serve us. When we find them, we begin to find ways to live ‘life-on-life’ with them, knowing that the life of Christ in us is contagious. As friends who are committed to their wellbeing, we look for opportunities to challenge them to go further in their journey towards Jesus as well as opportunities to invite them to participate more in our life.
Making disciples is not a complex thing to do, but it is costly. It costs us in time and energy. It may cost us financially. It will require our spiritual capital. It requires a commitment to the Great Commission, to following the commands of Jesus. If we are not careful we conveniently forget that this is what He has asked us to do and default back to being spiritual consumers.
I come from a ‘renewed evangelical’ tradition, where we love to study the Word of God and we love to worship Him together. We traditionally leave “mission” to the professionals. We give money to Christian aid agencies and to overseas missionaries. I remember growing up we had a ‘Missionary Box’ where we were trained as children to put some money every week. We can feel quite good about ourselves if we do this conscientiously. Or maybe we pay professionals who can get people to make a “decision” if we get them to church on a Sunday morning, but we requires very little of us.
Back in the 1990’s our culture began to change at St. Thomas’ Church. Our Senior Pastor at the time, Mike Breen, introduced us to a tool called the ‘Up, In, Out’ triangle. It is an articulation of the way that Jesus clearly had a balance between His devotional life with His Father (up), His close community with the disciples (in) and His ministry to the crowds and to strangers (out). This may not seem to be a great revelation theologically but when we applied it to our lives as a mirror and we started to see things we never saw before.
We realised we had a tendency to be an ‘Up and In’ church who were really quite dysfunctional in our response to the Great Commission.
They say that observed behavior changes. Perhaps this is true. What I do know is that since we started to apply the cultural mirror of the ‘Up, In, Out’ triangle to our communities, we have seen transformation in the area of mission. Where our growth once came through transfers from other churches, now we have seen hundreds of people come to faith in Christ. ‘Up, In Out’ now runs through every part of our church; every size of group from twos and threes to large gatherings.
What about your community? Where are you hitting the mark? What are the blind spots? Is it more about “bigger” or about “reproduction?”