Earlier this week I wrote about “the Americanization of British ecclesiology.” I was reflecting on an article from The Economist suggesting that some British evangelicals are eager to do church American-style. Also in the news is the announcement from Rowan Williams that he will be resigning as the Archbishop of Canterbury. The changes in the making referenced by The Economist have just intensified. Making questions like these all the more important:
What is “an American model of religious expansion,” and how fitting is that model for England? What is “the American way” when it comes to ecclesiology?
And is “religious expansion” specifically American? Could The Economist article be referring to a biblical model of religious expansion which the writer just associates with America?
When it comes to business practices, “Americanization” evokes the mass-production of cheap products vigorously marketed for optimal profit. When you survey the commercial landscape of England, Americanization is recognizable in the iconography of glowing golden arches and green mermaids printed on paper takeaway cups frothing with steamed milk. I must admit to cringing at times when the scenery of stone pubs, bricked inns, and chapel spires amidst sheep-grazed fields is crassly interrupted by a fast food joint from my country of origin. Then again, even the Brits I know value a quick meal for a few pounds—the steak and ale pie in the stone pub are delicious, but you might have to wait half an hour and pay three times more than the meal deal at the American establishment next door (which comes with a soft drink). No one can argue with the economic pragmatism of the American option.
In spite of the universal appreciation of fast food, though, American models of business expansion are easily held suspect over here. And some of them just do not work. Take the recent campaign by Starbucks to know the names of their customers. This might suit a suburban context in the Southern United States, but here in England it struck many of the British clientele as odd, invasive… and “very American” (BBC News).
But what does “very American” look like when applied not so much to lattes or burgers but to liturgy and baptism? If there are “very American” models of commercial expansion, then what is American “religious expansion” (or “church growth,” to use a phrase more recognizable in Christian subculture)?
Are we talking about new churches that are mass-produced, craftily marketed… and pandering wares cheap and unhealthy?
There is actually a vast diversity of ecclesial structures and strategies in the States. Many of them even have English forbears (i.e., the Wesleyan movement, as a recent commenter wisely observed). Most churches in America are small and entirely unknown to anyone outside their immediate locale. Some churches baptize infants, some do not. Some are charismatic and fiercely evangelistic, others are somber and darn near stoic. Some churches are growing through small groups, others through the attendance of a Sunday morning “main event.” I suppose some of appears to be “American” are those practices and modes of thinking in the church that have been intentionally brought into alignment with American commercialism appealing to American consumerism. Not all American churches have embraced those “American” models.
And sometimes church growth happens because God grows the church, with or without the book-selling strategies. In such cases, “American” has little to do with it.
But what if, for the sake of economic pragmatism, we exchange the movement of God and the slow, tedious work of living biblically in our communities for a robust franchise scheme superb at selling lattes and burgers but quite insufficient for promoting the mystery of the Gospel?
More anon…. But for now, what are your thoughts?