US and them

American models of leadership such as Purpose Driven Life and Willow Creek have resulted in massive growth in some US churches. In the UK too, they have had significant influence. However, could we be ignoring what God has for our own churches by relying too heavily on US models?

I thought it was my dream job – associate minister at a ‘church for the unchurched’. In 1991 I had visited Willow Creek Community Church, north-west Chicago. There were thousands there – high performance singing from the front, theatre quality drama, contemporary music and an engaging jargon-free talk from founding pastor, Bill Hybels. I knew from listening to his tapes that the 14,000 people who attended this state-of-theart auditorium represented colossal growth from the 100 who had started in a movie theatre back in 1975. I returned, dreaming of one day doing the same in Britain. So then, four years later, I found I was to work with a church aiming to embody this approach here. It worked there, why shouldn’t God do the same here? I arrived in awe of the energy the 50-strong church put into the weekly set-up in a local hotel and the commitment to excellence. But the four years of weekly demands had taken its toll – some were taking a break out of sheer exhaustion, many left the leadership team in my year, and a few would give up church altogether. Some had come to faith and there was much to be grateful for. But for many there was that gnawing sense that ‘it isn’t going to work here’. The church seemed to be always considering whether it was able to carry on and, when I was due to consider a contract extension, God made it clear it was time to move on. 

Thankfully the church adjusted its course towards a more sustainable model and is in good hands. But as I have watched the UK Church embrace ideas and strategies from the US Church, I have often thought back on that year. As church attendance has declined within the UK and we have become desperate for solutions, our eyes have often looked west, and our American cousins, seeing our plight, have not been slow to reach out a helping hand. 

With no (or minimal!) language barrier, a sense of kinship through shared history, and cheaper air fares (until recently) making Atlantic travel more possible, we have had the chance to see for ourselves how it’s done US-style. We have visited churches whose growth seemed revival like. We have invited the leaders to conferences in the UK and they have come with stories of how it really happened, and tools to ‘go and do likewise’. Willow Creek has been prominent of course. In the 80s the late John Wimber visited the UK to the blessing of many – some 90 churches bear the name of the Vineyard Movement which Wimber helped to set up and, along with other mainline denominations, retain that passion for authentic worship and openness to God to move in signs and wonders. Others have embraced the Purpose Driven approach of the 25,000 member Saddleback Community Church, south of Los Angeles, under the leadership of Rick Warren. Other churches were blessed when its leaders attended Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship (not US I know!) – some 4,000 Brits are estimated to have flown to Canada and many have returned believing that father God will touch people with his overwhelming love the way he has touched them. 

Other major American influencers include: 

Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church, a large church with satellite congregations around Seattle, was the main speaker at the New Frontiers Leadership conference in 2008 and is due to visit New Word Alive. He has become one of the leading voices in what is known as the ‘new Calvinism’. 

• Former pastor, author and thinker on the church in postmodernity, Brian McLaren, who would have been at Spring Harvest in 09 if he could have obtained a visa in time.

Bill Johnson, senior pastor of Bethel Church, Redding, California has visited the UK many times, notably at the New Wine leaders’ conference. 

Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, a mega church in Grand Rapids Michigan, whose books and Nooma videos are reaching a younger audience. 

John McArthur, Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo and Joel Osteen all have their admirers. Many black majority churches, such as the Wesleyan Holiness Church, and New Testament Church of God have US headquarters. TD Jakes’ Potters House church in Dallas has a number of connected churches in the UK including 16 in London. 

Many churches are grateful for American influence: specific methodology, a heightened expectation of God’s work in church life and audacious goals that stretch and challenge. Chris Lane, senior pastor of St Albans Vineyard, speaks for many. “Obviously as a Vineyard pastor our church has a strong American influence. But at one time I was profoundly anti American. My mantra was ‘Can anything good come out of America?’ But when I realised that there was good material I was like a kid in a candy shop. I became tremendously grateful for the humility of their offering, especially John Wimber and Bill Hybels. For churches like ours [1,000 members] I found that there was nothing else that was able to help me in the way I needed.” 

It is always dangerous to generalise from one particular experience, but there is enough evidence to suggest that for all the positive influence, the Church in Britain is in danger of making errors in its application of North American leadership strategies. The heady cocktail of stories of growth brings a potential hangover for those not prepared to be prudent in what they swallow. And ironically in seeking to imitate here what they have done there we could actually work against what God is longing to do specifically for us in our situation.

So before the UK Church signs up to be a satellite of the US Church, we have to do some significant thinking if we are to use US influence appropriately. There are some basic principles to remember if we are not to face similar struggles to the ones I experienced.

1. Your context is different 

The spiritual climate in the US is very different from that in the UK. The table below explains that US church leaders typically work in a very different context. 

Steve Brady, principal of Moorlands College, says: “John McArthur [senior pastor of Grace Community Church, Los Angeles] once told me: ‘Where I come from in southern California, a man can walk along the beach with a towel on his head and by midday he will have 12 disciples!’ The US situation compared to the UK is similar to the difference between Acts 2 in Jerusalem and Acts 17 in Athens. [Revival versus sceptical Gentiles.] The God consciousness that exists in the US today is maybe how we were in Victorian times. Today, we are in a culture that has no God framework. We are wise if we recognise the vast difference in ministry approach.” 

It is jokingly said that the US and the UK are two nations separated by a common language, but when it comes to mission this can be quite literally true. When the US leader talks of ‘reaching the lost’ they are often (not always) meaning those who have consciously rejected a belief in a God they were taught as a child. In the UK there is no such basic understanding upon which we can draw. 

In fairness to the likes of Hybels and Warren, they would always caution against transporting methodology. Sadly, UK church leaders haven’t always listened. 

Furthermore, when it comes to specific methodology, it is easy to forget that the resource of the US Church is of a different magnitude and mentality. Chris Stoddard, director of RUN (Reaching the Unchurched Network), whose church, Southcourt Baptist Church in Aylesbury, had also experimented with a seeker targeted model, told Christianity: “Most of the churches which tried the weekly seeker service approach became exhausted. That particular model looks great, but requires a high level of input which is fine in a large mega church, but not sustainable in a smaller one.” Stoddard adds that in his experience it is rare to meet an American leader who quite grasps the vast difference in cultural outlook between the two continents. It is not just the general spiritual culture that is different, but the culture within many UK churches. Chris Lane spent a year working at an LA church: “There is an ‘entrepreneurial gene -’ a ‘can do’ spirit – inside and outside the church that is so often lacking in the UK,” he says. 

One well-travelled preacher relates a trip he made to a 400-member local church which made a big thing of being ‘seeker sensitive and purpose driven’. “The trouble is, this was a middle class Baptist church average age 50. So the rhetoric from the church was one thing, but it was clear that the church was somewhat bemused. In truth, for all the hype, they were actually doing nothing that most sensitive preachers wouldn’t do – speak wisely to non-believers and build up the saints. Despite the great ideals the church hasn’t grown a bit.” 

Scot Alistair Begg, senior pastor of Parkside Church, Cleveland, Ohio, points out: “If I have an idea in my church in the US, they will give me three ways of making it better, but back in my home area in Scotland, they would say, ‘Hey, don’t come here with your fancy ideas, that will never work round here!’” 

So the apparent logic that says ‘They do x and see God do y. God is the same here as there so if we do x he will do y,’ will not work. The missional context and the working of God with churches is a far more complex business. 

We are wise to understand our missional context as well as we can and look to God for his strategy for that rather than those wedded to a US culture. In due course the US church will be glad we did. There is already evidence that some US leaders are facing a similar context to the one we have been in for the last 50 years. Krish Kandiah, executive director: churches in mission at the Evangelical Alliance, says, “If author Philip Jenkins is correct that Europe is a postmodern secularist society and that other countries such as the US will one day follow, then in many ways we need to be leading the way in how to reach that culture.” 

2. Your leadership needs are specific 

If you are a church leader and long to see growth, the US models represent a great temptation. It is far easier to relate stories of what has happened in a US church than paint a picture of what you hope might happen under your own leadership. And in many cases there are products (books, workbooks, dvds) that enable you to assemble a new approach with a minimum of fuss. You need ‘credibility’ and realise that if too many of your ideas bomb, you will find there is no one following you. 

But ministry is never ‘off the shelf ’. The best equipping for leadership comes from those prepared to give the one-toone help that is particular to their situation. “I would say that leadership influence from outside our present situation will always be limited. You can’t learn leadership from a programme or a book,” says Eddie Arthur, general director of Wycliffe UK. “The likes of Bill Hybels are brilliant in their communication, but it is far better to learn from leaders who are with us. I don’t want to diss American leadership but in the end one-to-one mentoring is the way. Leadership is best learned in community. The danger of importing ideas is that there is a lack of reflection on what’s going on and reflection on people.” 

“If you look at the way Jesus advises the churches in Revelation, we see he has a separate word for each. Why do we then expect that a formula for growth can be taken off the shelf and used for a local church?” asks Brady. “That would make as much sense as a doctor telling you to take an aspirin, regardless of your complaint!” 

Nick Cuthbert, former pastor of Riverside Church and coauthor of Church on the Edge, says: “All of the churches that UK leaders admire developed their models from scratch. So why do we think we shouldn’t need to do the same?” 

By all means have a valued US church or ministry that you believe can help you, but make sure that you have those who can speak into your personal life and the life of the church and can interpret what God is saying for your situation. Many churches have structures for this, and many value the itinerant ministries of coaches, mentors and consultants who can gently probe, rather as Jethro helped Moses. 

Perhaps some leaders find it easier to import their strategic approach than to talk with someone one-on-one who can ask the hard questions about how they are leading a particular group of people? 

3. Your God is able 

The inbuilt danger of influence from the US or anywhere else is that we might elevate any person or ministry above God: imbibing their ‘how-tos’ rather than grappling with the focus God has for us. We give priestly status to leaders we believe will lead us to the holy of holies, not realising that we are subtly undermining the work of the spirit within us. The apostle Paul warned the Corinthian Church of factions (‘I follow Paul, I follow Peter, I follow Apollos, I follow Christ’ 1 Corinthians 1:12). We should be wary of doing the same with Bill, Rick or John. The ideal is that we pick up on the way these leaders are first followers. Paul could say to those same Corinthians ‘follow me as I follow Christ’ – these men would encourage us to do the same. 

Peter Maiden, director of OM, tells the story of the missions conference which took place just days after the Iron Curtain came down, and the hasty rewriting that had to be done by one delegate due to present his paper on evangelism in Communist Russia. After this harrowing time he reported back to his home missionary society, which wryly issued a new mission statement for the society: “We are a bunch of fools trying to keep up with what the Holy Spirit is doing.” 

Maiden adds: “Samuel Escobar has argued powerfully that some of the goal focused work of Western styles of leadership takes too little account of the Holy Spirit. I think he’s right. In OM we have often found that our best laid plans, for example in reaching India, have been overturned when we saw what God was doing.” 

“We can quickly forget that people like Hybels are ‘anointed men of God’,” says Brady. “We think that we can take what they do and imitate it without regard to the way that God has equipped them. We want short cuts without the hard work of seeking God and discerning where he is sovereignly at work.” 

Of course many US leaders would be aghast to think that this is what we have picked up from them, especially as many would be highly God-focused in their approach. But the danger is certainly worth noting. The New Testament actually has very little strategic advice from the apostles on what to do. The so-called pastoral epistles (Paul writing to Timothy and Titus) provide no strategies to reach neighbourhoods, or models to fix problems. Instead his letters reminded them who they are in God, how fantastic his work is in them. Paul had an implicit trust that with the Holy Spirit they would be able to figure it out for themselves. 

Maybe you are tempted to import ideas or focus on a ‘hero’ when actually you need to have the inimitable touch of a God who knows and loves your church better than you ever could? Perhaps instead of imitating others it is time to see what God will do in and through you, that you may be a testimony to the goodness of God in your village, town, neighbourhood or city. 

It may sound trite, but whether our church is seeker targeted, purpose driven, signs and wonders orientated or soaking in the spirit, what truly matters is that Jesus is firmly at the helm, doing his thing. 

So, whatever influences you, make sure he has the last say.



« Back to the October issue

comments powered by Disqus
You may also like...

Skye Jethani explains why digital technology is disrupting our... More

Former megachurch pastor and author Francis Chan has said he's... More

Pentecostal President of Churches Together in England Agu Irukwu... More

Megan Cornwell reviews the most anticipated book of 2019 More