I still vividly remember the American evangelicals fearful reaction to the Y2K challenge as we approached the new millennium. Thousands welcomed the year 2000 hunkered down in remote cabins, stock piled with dehydrated food, water and guns, apparently expecting Y2K would trigger the final conflagration at the end of time.
My wife Christine and I had the opportunity to speak at Spring Harvest in 1999 and we didn’t find any British evangelicals heading for the hills, stockpiling food and guns and getting ready for the end times. Rather we found British believers viewing the coming of the 21st century not in alarm but as a time of opportunity to birth a range of new millennial ministries.
We are two peoples divided not only by a common language but by a common faith as well. There are significant differences between British and American evangelicalism. As an American I am puzzled by the tendency of many evangelical leaders in the UK to constantly look to the church in the United States for new approaches. You seem to have so little awareness of how much you have to offer the American church.
In fact, I believe we are witnessing a serious ‘balance of trade deficit’.
Virtually the only thing British Christians have exported to the US in the past ten years is the music of Delirious? and the Alpha course which has been a great gift to both evangelical and mainline Protestant churches in the United States. The church in Britain, on the other hand, has imported a huge spectrum of programs and products with a made in America label. They include everything from church growth formula’s to Christian management programs. While some of these imports have been a boon to the church in the UK, several British leaders have confessed that they have imported some things from the States that should have been left alone.
In the 80s the Vineyard Movement had a very positive impact, I am told, on the British church. Today, leaders in the UK tell me that materials from Willow Creek have been very useful in enabling churches in the UK to grow again.
There are significant differences between British and American evangelicalism and we are convinced that Brits have much more to offer the American church at his time than the other way around. Let me explain...
Divided by a Common Faith
As America races towards a very polarized Presidential election this month, one of the most obvious divides is the way in which evangelicals in our two countries approach political issues. Leaders on the religious right in America like Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye and Pat Robertson have been very successful in galvanising many American evangelicals around a very right wing, nationalistic political agenda.
Leaders in the UK, in my opinion, tend to be much more international in their focus, more well read and much less ideological. In addition there seems to be a much greater distance between scholars and the rank and file in the US than in the UK. For example, in my country our brightest and best seem to have much less influence at the grass roots than leaders of the religious right do. One of the major ways leaders on the religious right have succeeded in politicising american evangelicals was to persuade American Christians that people on the other end of the political spectrum aren’t just people they disagree with politically but are cosmic enemies. As a consequence voting for a Democrat has in the last 15 years has become an unthinkable option for many American evangelicals. This fuels America’s culture wars in which both sides demonise the other to gain support for their respective causes.
Please pray for God’s guidance in the American presidential election. In Britain on the other hand one doesn’t have to be right-wing Republican [or the British equivalent] to be considered a born again Christian. Nor is Christian social responsibility restricted to concern for abortion, pornography or gay rights. Evangelicals in the UK work from a much broader view of social responsibility that includes advocacy for the poor, racial reconciliation, forgiving third world debt, the AIDS crisis in Africa and care of creation.
And I have yet to find an evangelical believer in Britain who would ever considering supporting the cause of the gun lobby like most of their American counter-parts do, with passion.
We routinely find fair-traded products for sale in the lobbies of evangelical churches in the UK - but have never seen this in an American church. The right-wing bias tends to influence American evangelicals to see concern for the poor, advocacy for social justice and advocacy for the environment as leftwing issues, not ‘Christian issues.’ I have never heard the biblical concern for social justice mentioned on Christian radio in the US.
UK Missionaries to the US
Clive Calver, CEO for World Relief in the States and former Executive Director of the Evangelical Alliance (EA) in the UK, does a masterful job of biblical preaching about God’s love for the poor. The Holy Spirit uses his preaching to put American evangelicals under deep conviction. It is often the first time evangelicals in my country have ever heard a sermon that makes a biblical case for caring for our poorest neighbours. Many are responding generously with their money and time to help those at the margins. While we appreciate Clive, frankly one missionary from the UK is not nearly enough. We need a host of biblical preachers awakening Christians in the United States to a much more biblical vision for the transformation of our lives and God’s world.
Last February Christine and I had the opportunity to work with SPEAK in the UK. We found this organisation to be comprised of very highly motivated group of young Christians that speak-out on a broad range of social justice, peace and reconciliation and creation care issues. They study issues, formulate biblically based public policy issues, do advocacy and protest government policies. We invited them to consider coming to the US and start chapters of SPEAK on the some 60 Christian college campuses, to expose evangelical college students to a much broader, more biblical Christian world view. They are very interested and we are trying to help them find the resources to become missionaries to America.
In books I have written, I advocate that American evangelicals look to the UK for an alternative to the right-wing advocacy of groups like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. I suggested they consider the Evangelical Alliance (EA). Instead of starting from a locked-in ideological position of the right or the left. The EA studies the urgent political issues. Then they study the scripture and they come down where ever they believe scripture does on the issues. Sometimes they are with the Tories, sometimes they are with the Labour party. For example, they worked with members of Parliament on the conservative side of the house to develop legislation regarding restricting "video nasties" from children. During the same period they worked with members of Parliament from the Labour Party to develop a legislative initiative to secure increased funding to help the disabled. Leadership in the EA is highly regarded by those from all political camps because they not only avoid demonising those with whom they disagree but consciously seek to work in the reconciling spirit of Jesus Christ.
I told Joel Edwards of the EA that a number of Christians in America would like to invite Jerry Falwell to take an early retirement and have Joel come to the US to be a spokesman for American evangelicals reflecting the kind of Christian statesmanship he does in Britain.
I doubt that Joel is going to take time off to help us out in the States. But others might hear God call them to call to share a broader Christian worldview and a more biblically informed view of Social responsibility to engage the complex issues that fill our world.
Reflecting On the Divide
One of the reasons that British and American evangelicals seem to be divided by a common faith are very different understandings of a biblical eschatology. American evangelicals seem pre-occupied with a ‘Left Behind’ image of escape that holds out little hope for any thing in this world getting better. Therefore, working for societal change for a number of American believers seems somewhat pointless. In fact this kind of popular end times eschatology actually convinces many of the American faithful that those on the political left are intent on collectivising them in a one world socialist gulag. This kind of fear mongering of course contributes to the polarization of politics in the United States and heightens the fear of political progressives, Europe and of socialism.
While American evangelicals are caught up in the images and fears of the end-times I find British evangelicals seem to be much more influenced by the hope and impulses of God’s kingdom. As a consequence Brits seem to be much more interested in making a kingdom difference than battling those on the other end of the political divide.
Most British evangelicals recognise that following Christ is not a call to battle in a culture war or intended to promote the aspirations of a nation. Clearly it is a trans-national call to join Jesus in seeking to make a difference in the world that reflects God’s kingdom purposes. My prayer is that many American Christians will join their friends in England and discover how God can use their mustard seeds to make a difference in the world. But for this to happen Christians in my country need to be exposed to a much more compelling vision of God’s loving purposes for a people and a world. Any takers?
I believe this difference in eschatological emphasis is reflected in a difference in the character of the church on either side of the pond. While there are a number of para-church agencies in the US that reach out into the community most churches don’t. Virtually none of the churches we have worked with in the States sponsor ministries into their own local communities. On the other hand rarely have we found a congregation anywhere in the UK that doesn’t have ministries that reach out to those in need in their own neighbourhoods.
Frankly, I believe the reason for this isn’t just because of a different eschatological vision. I believe it is also because the United States is a more selfinterested consumer culture. As a consequence too many churches see their primary mission is meet the needs of members and their kids
American pastors actually tell me that it is someone else’s job to make a difference in the local community. Their responsibility is to their members.
It would be an eye opener for American pastors to visit a cross-section of British churches. They would discover, as we have, that churches in Britain understand that their kingdom vocation isn’t just about extending God’s love to those inside the building but those outside as well. Anyone ready to run pastoral tours for American clerics to visit churches that are finding a spectrum of innovative ways to make a difference in their communities from Cardiff to York?
Exporting the Creative Edge
Frankly, I find much more creativity per square mile in Britain among 20 to 30-year-olds than anywhere else in the world in which we work, including the US. We would love to see this kind of creativity exported to the US. Let me give you just a couple of the examples of the kind of imaginative new expressions of the kingdom of God we have found in the UK.
Russell Rook, a young officer with the Salvation Army, has worked with others to re-invent the national youth division of the Salvation Army. This new expression is called Alove. Essentially Russell and his colleagues plan to train other young leaders to plant intergenerational congregations that are designed to make a difference in their neighbourhoods. One way they plan to do enable these new congregations to become agents of community transformation is to persuade some of the lead chefs in Britain to give-up some of their top soup recipes. Then these congregations will reach out to the unemployed young on the urban fringe in Liverpool and London and train them to be chefs, selling high quality soup to local businesses.
Jonny Baker is at the centre of the Anglican tribe that is encouraging the emerging church movement. He also is employed by the Church Missionary Society (CMS) to reach out to a new generation of leaders. He has a growing reputation in developing new worship styles, using liturgy and has done some of his most creative work in the use of prayer labyrinths.
I remember when Jonny was a part of an emerging church plant within an existing church, Saint Mary’s, Ealing. One Sunday night this group of young Anglicans created an alternative worship experience around the theme Jubilee 2000 - forgiving third world debt. At the centre of this very elegant sanctuary is a huge block and tackle, the sort you would use to support a large engine. However, instead of an engine there was an enormous block of ice supported by chains. The ice represented the cold hearts of Europeans and North Americans unwilling to forgive third world debt. As a part of the liturgy that night these 20 and 30-year-olds brought their candles and placed them under that block of ice. I have never heard this kind of innovative way to bring the world into the sanctuary in the American church. www.emergingchurch.info
Joining British Exporters
Thankfully there are a few Brits who have taken the initiative to help change this ‘balance of trade deficit’ by exporting ‘made in the UK ministries’ to the US. We hope others are inspired to join in exporting the creative edge of what God is doing in the UK to the United States.
I would urge other British Christians to export much more of your passion for the kingdom, your God inspired imagination, your broader Christian world view and your determination to make a difference in our troubled world.