Friday, October 14, 2011

Guest Post: The American Church - From The Outside Looking In: An English Perspective

A few months ago I asked my friend Christopher Dryden if he would be willing to pen a guest post for me on the topic of the church in America as seen from outside of the U.S. I think we have a real tendency to assume that in America we do church right, perhaps even the only proper way and in doing so miss a lot of our blind spots and tend to be more concerned with exporting American style church than the Gospel to all people and nations and cultures. I really appreciate what he has written and I hope it causes my fellow Christians in America to think about our outsized influence on the church. FYI, I also am a fan of Family Guy and Simpsons. Don't tell anyone.

Christopher regularly blogs at Life With Da Man CD which is always a worthwhile read (except when he writes about soccer, I don't understand what he is talking about in those posts)

The American Church - From The Outside Looking In: An English Perspective

Personal Context

America has influenced me hugely. Childhood memories are around US programmes on television from He-Man and Thundercats to A-Team and Knight Rider. (Am I still following Christ if I confess to having watched Family Guy and The Simpsons?) I loved super heroes and comics which were all products of the US. I am still a fan of pro-wrestling WWE-style.

I also confess to being one who has been known to occasionally visit McDonald's which was made in the States. The biggest influence on my educational development came from Sesame Street. I loved studying American politics at A-level (the stage before degree level). I still find US politics and aspects of its history fascinating. My identity as a black man was heavily influenced by the vestiges of the Civil Rights movement over in the US and the two big figures in the movement - Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

I didn't know there was a British gospel scene for years, all the music on gospel was from across the pond. My heroes in music are mostly American from gospel people like Andrae Crouch, Steve Green, John P Kee, Keith Green, Fred Hammond, Jon Gibson and the Gaither Vocal Band (which has surely got to be a good running definition for the term 'eclectic taste') to the soul men Marvin Gaye and especially Stevie Wonder. Even some of the books I read were American!

Yet for all the Americana I've immersed myself in from the time I was conscious, I am only too aware that I am not American. I've never been to America. I would like to go there at some point only because of its huge influence on my life. I am an outsider though. Despite all the blogs I subscribe to and the like I am just a stranger who is peering into a little of what goes on over the pond, and I hope my views are considered in that light.

Initial View: Thank God For The Church In America

First, it would be easy for me to be critical, cynical and brutal about the state of the Church in America. There's a lot wrong and the blogosphere and Christian TV can appear to be designed to expose and highlight all those wrongs. Yet in the spirit of Christian brotherhood I am compelled to praise and thank God for the church in America.

There are the faithful on those shores whose pursuit of Christ and commitment to holiness while expressing life in God's Kingdom is a delight, a pleasure, an honour and a blessing to witness. Whether in good times or bad, they have displayed an unwavering faith and a real transparency and vulnerability for the edification of the saints worldwide. It has certainly been edifying to me in my Christian walk and I can say without hesitation a very large slice of what I know and love about Jesus has come direct from those faithful Americans.

What reading the New Testament reassures me is that pursuing Christ together is not about the perfect gathering with everything hunky-dory, slick and working in the altogether. Mistakes are inevitable and issues are always there to be addressed. So when I look at the church in America as I look at the church anywhere else I'm not looking for perfection. In that sense there are a number of expressions of faith in Christ in the ministries of those in the States that have done much to enable others to know and love God more. I am forever grateful for that and trust that those faithful will continue in it.

By 'those' I'm not necessaily referring to those in mainstream popular American Christianity. I'm as much talking about those passionate to live out the truths in the light of Christ and His New Covenant. Whether that's reinforcing a megachurch perspective or within the house church movement the American Church should be grateful for those faithful who don't subscribe to a party line, but are fully persuaded on the importance of really knowing Christ, really being church and really go about making disciples. There is much that is beautiful, lovely and worthy of praise to be seen in Christ through His Church in the US.

Further Reflections: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

As I mentioned, however, it would be easy to be critical of the things those purporting to do things in Jesus' name actually do. Sometimes it appears as though there is little to no difference between the church and society in America. With the simplicity and ease with which people are talking about Jesus all over the media, I could be forgiven for thinking America is a 'Christian country'.

At times however the church seems to bless and endorse the gross iniquities of the culture, whether that be church life = The American Dream; the health/wealth gospel; the pushing of the gospel as a power trip not too dissimilar from the British Empire expansion; and a Christian indoctrination that had little to do with Jesus and more to do with the power of oppressors reinforcing their values.

The amount of American Christian TV in England can be weird and the disturbing extremes of Christianity portrayed does not do the church any favours. There is also the dependence on structures that reflect the world rather than the Kingdom and has turned faith into a self-help trip that solves your personal problem as if Jesus is a technique to help you get a good home, good family, good health and a good mind.

However let me share some of my views on some American expressions of church

Charismaniacs: These tend to appear on TV most and would appear to suggest that life in faith is about speaking in tongues whilst asking people to 'sow a seed into the ministry'. If can be off-putting and also reminds me of an issue that Paul was addressing to the church in Corinth about those who thought they were part of the super-spiritual elite because of things like the tongue speaking deal.

And yet the passion with which they pursue the power of the Spirit and their openness to believe that if Jesus healed then, he can heal today is something that convicts me. I am blessed by their focus on faith and the Spirit and that has been hugely helpful.

The Religious Right: As I said I am interested in US politics and found the rise of the religious right and the politicising of faith fascinating and sad. I believe whether we like it or not we are political and the stance our faith causes us to have inevitably means we'll engage with the authorities of our day. Sometimes rather than being the prophetic voice to the nation the Church has been silent on the issues that matter. So in that sense how the Religious Right has attempted to speak out on some issues like abortion has been commendable.

Where it's been sad is seeing the Right and subsequently those who have reacted to it become arguably more politicised that centred on Jesus. So the issues have mattered more than Jesus and some extreme actions have done more to discredit Christ than remind people of the man who submitted Himself to authorities. What has also been unhelpful is mixing faith with other ideological agendas whether that's been a patriotic war-mongering objective or a liberal virtual humanist drive.

The Reformed: Undoubtedly the American influence that was pertinent most to me was the Reformed/New Reformed movement with characters like Piper, Driscoll and Mahaney - and blogs like Challies and TeamPyro. Their devotion to doctrine albeit one that can be viewed as very dogmatic in areas was wonderful.

Yet some of the things they talked about and the manner in which they conveyed it can sometimes come across as smug and arrogant. As well as that, there is a rather unhealthy obsession with formal academia as if Jesus died to save men to seminary. That and the importance of text knowledge leads to a feeling as if they have all the answers and talk of things like humility are not always matched by a humble and gracious attitude. As ever these are not traits of everyone in the movement and I remain ever grateful for their insights into faith, the Word and growing in knowing Jesus.

Emerging Church: My exposure to the folks like Piper took root in 2006 and it was also in that year that I started working for the YMCA. The trend at the time influencing a lot of the local, regional and national organisation came from the Emerging Church. My introduction to them had come from a heavily critical approach from the Reformed group who saw their questioning of everything and subservience to the postmodern perspective as a recipe for trouble. I was very tentative and cautious about embracing anything emerging or especially emergent as I was lead to believe that they were virtually embracing heresy.

My boss at the time, however, was a big fan of the works of emerging folk like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, going as far as making A Generous Orthodoxy a key textbook for doing the job. I never did get round to reading the book, but as with other areas of this American influence, it was unwise to rule out everything that emerging and emergnt folks had to say.

Their critique of the way things are regularly done in church and in traditions struck a chord with me. Though I thought some of the issues were just about following fads and trends, I did appreciate their call to review why we do what we do and recalibrate whether it fit in not with a slavish eye on the first century church, but with the heart of who Jesus is and the church he describes throughout scripture.

Although I'm hardly a poster boy for all things emerging, at least they exposed my proud and ignorant mind that did need to acknowledge the other streams of the Christian faith that enrich my understanding of faith in life and action.

Organic/Simple Church Movement: It was a mix of some new reformed stuff and emerging stuff that lead me to my favourite blogs at the moment. With that I came across regular writers who were not big name writers or superstar Christian personalities but simple participants who asked questions of 'institutional' church and bravely lived out the answers that those questions lead to. For some it was about reforming institutional church, for others it was about leaving institutional church to model a different expression of church.

Though not exclusively house based church, they featured prominently. The preferable reference was simple or organic church. I continue to find this branch of American Christianity most intriguing exactly because it is not as high profile as the other brands in the country and for its interest in ensuring that church as the called out ones is literally an assembly of all-participatory, communal existence.

Of course as with the other strands, it's not perfect and it can appear as though they cut themselves off from the 'mainstream' who misunderstands or ridicules them. For all that, I love reading their storie and seeing how they grow.

Overall Reflections: Concerns and Thanksgiving

I get the impression the church in Americal as a whole remains far too culturally attached and that compromise has a bearing on the sort of Christianity that's pumped out there such as the health/wealth gospel and popularity of megachurches.

It is still in a great position to influence world Christianity in a way that is distinct from being power centres - as Christendom ended up being. The American church can still be more in line with the alien, pilgrim tendencies of true Kingdom of God values. So while I remain really concerned for aspects of the church in America, I am also overwhelmingly grateful for what the church in America continues to be for the edification of the worldwide body.

For His Name's Sake


James said...

Thanks for this post Arthur and Chris for writing it.

Is it okay that I read it in an 'English' accent?


Anonymous said...

Arthur, please share with Chris our gratitude for sharing his perceptions...and they are VERY perceptive. No surprises, no impulse to "set him straight" about anything. I will share this around and pray that reflection and introspection produce some serious "face time" with Father as we seek the Kingdom in our part of the globe.

Ur Man CD said...

Ha! You probably read it whilst drinking tea and eating scones as well whilst your imitation Big Ben clock chimed on the hour!

Jolly good show.

Aussie John said...


Sounds a lot like the church scene in this country. Actually, that was my big disappointment in visiting the USA.

Thanks Arthur and CD

Alan Knox said...

Awesome, awesome, awesome post! Yes, three times awesome! I love reading different people's perspectives, and I greatly respect my man CD. :)