Tag Archives: American Church

So what is “American” Ecclesiology?

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?

 

The Americanization of British Ecclesiology…?

I just read a story from Mark’s Gospel to my kids.  It was the same story they heard earlier this morning at school.  Yes, at school… at the little primary school they attend here in England.  Yes, in England… in the post-Christian society architecturally haunted by the chapels and cathedrals of bygone eras more religiously inclined.

My children would never get a Bible lesson back home in the States, even though we used to live in the heart of the “Bible Belt.”  New York City church communities are having to relocate their worship services from public education facilities.  Yet here in England, a country for which Christianity has become a matter of heritage more than contemporary reality, my kids just worked through the six days of Creation from Genesis.

Christianity in England has been getting attention of late.  Mark Driscoll lamented the country’s absence of young, famous, Gospel-preaching ministers.  D.A. Carson offered more positive comments on British pastoral leaders at The Gospel Coalition.  Relevant Magazine‘s Mar/Apr print edition has a piece on Christianity in Europe (with England receiving some attention).  Scot McKnight posted an article documenting some of England’s frightening religious stats.

"The Church of England: Hot and Bothered" (photo from The Economist)

But my two of my kids were in school-sponsored Nativity plays this past Christmas and they get Bible-readings on a regular basis.

What does all this mean?  What is God up to in England?  What is happening with the Protestant church in the land of Bede, Cranmer, Wilberforce, Newton, Bunyon, the Wesleys, the Inklings, Stott, Muggeridge?

The last thing Christianity in England needs is another American evangelical trying to diagnose the problems and sort things out for them.  I am not presuming to have any profound insights or solutions.

My interest in this post is with an odd phenomenon: the Americanization of British ecclesiology.

That phrase is enough to make any Brit cringe, Christian or not.  Skin-crawling and eye-rolling will likely occasion the claim of anything being Americanized over here… mostly for good reasons.

But the Americanization of how the English do church?  Could that be happening?  Should it be happening?

That churches in England are getting an American spin, at least to some degree, is suggested by the article in The Economist linked above.  Secular reportage on religion often falls into the category of adventures in missing the truth.  But the magazine is based here in the UK and they have quite a bit of experience in doing stories on the church.  Their assessment is that large swaths of the institutionalized Church of England is atrophying and irrelevant (a reality Anglicans accept with sobriety).  Not all the news is bad—the Church has a few good trends to point out.  One that would appear promising to evangelical Anglophiles is the modest surge in evangelical ordinands now rising up the ranks.  But how encouraging should we find this sentence:

“Many of the rising generation of keen young clerics already make it clear they wish to work in large evangelical churches, ripe for American-style mission, rather than in slums or charming villages where social views are relaxed and doctrinal purity is not prized.”

The article also reports that many of the larger, non-Anglican churches are “using an American model of religious expansion.”

“American-style mission;” an “American model of religious expansion”… maybe the magazine is appealing to the general annoyance its readers probably have toward Americans to stir up their readership.  Maybe what they are calling “American” is something else.

But what if what they are calling American is actually American?  And should “American-style” be canonized as a viable option for the life and mission of the Church for whom Christ humbly died?  Should the article’s observations about what I am calling the Americanization of British ecclesiology be received with relief… or with cringing, skin-crawling and eye-rolling?

Some mixture of all of the above, perhaps… but probably more of the latter.  What if the imported models of Americanized church are more competent in expanding an organization than in faithfully following Jesus?

I saw a tweet this morning from the new Bishop of Durham.  He had a large list of exciting ministry posts here in the more spiritually barren north of England.  There are few takers.  America has a lot of church styles and models, but the Americanization referred to in The Economist‘s piece is probably not one that sends young, famous, Gospel-preaching ministers to dying coal-mining villages where villagers can no longer mine for coal.

American and British church leaders have been learning a great deal from each other for a couple of centuries.  That should continue.  But an ecclesiology that does not encompass slums and fading villages is a bad export… and a bad import.

Thoughts?