Monday, October 03, 2011

Church Planting in Europe

The Good
We visited the Wesleyan church here in Munich yesterday, under the leadership of Ken and Marilyn Blake.  In my view, they are doing a wonderful job.  Unlike the UM English speaking church we attended a week ago, there was a genuinely inviting feel and a massive sense of fellowship with the WC here.  There were times of open praise and prayer and pretty much everyone there was engaged in worship.  This is a healthy Christian community.

The Fears
I'll confess that I have always been nervous about Wesleyan church plants in Germany and England. "Brainerd Indian School" was a long time ago, but the picture of Wesleyan missionaries pushing Native American women to wear buns stands out to me as an example of what can happen when Christians go into another culture without a full awareness of their own cultural assumptions.

Now imagine coming into a context like Germany or England where, while they may not be able to see their own assumptions, they can spot Christian cultural assumptions you have (that you are not aware of) a kilometer away.  In fact, they've had mainstream biblical and theological scholarship in high school, things we don't really teach in our Wesleyan schools to any significant degree at all.  We run the risk of seeming uneducated or appealing to the uneducated.  We can end up looking like a cult and attracting individuals attracted to cults.

This is not to mention the fact that the international versions of a church tend to turn out more conservative and can be a couple decades behind the mother church.  So the UM church in Germany is probably just about like College Wesleyan--just about right for me.  The forces of sociology can tend to make these European versions of Wesleyanism be more fundamentalist than many of us are comfortable with.

Now it seems to me that the Blakes have exactly the right tone, and I can't imagine that when David Wright was in England, that he gave off these vibes either.  But then again, the few plants we've started in Western Europe have not been very successful in attracting Europeans either.

What would I do?
It seems to me that planting churches in western Europe is much as planting in the US will increasingly become.  Here I'm speaking of planting in post-Christian territory.  I'm certainly no expert, but I offer some of my musings:

1. I would focus on fellowship.
I have come to consider our neo-evangelical preoccupation with introspective landmark events part of our cultural assumptions. Confessions of faith are significant but they are not necessarily the threshold of salvation.  And in burnt over ground, you need to be massively careful about this one "waypoint," as Bob Whitesel calls it.  The key is to get people into the flow of salvation, get them moving in the right direction.  The "pray the sinner's prayer" fad seems cultish and a cultural blind spot in a post-Christian environment.

Get people together for food and friendship.  Worship together.  Show them your joy and your praise of God.  Baptize them when their ready and if they were baptized as a child (which they probably were), then do whatever they feel comfortable with (confirmation, rebaptism).  Our aversion to infant baptism is also a cultural bias, in my opinion.  We tend to use an Acts model in our global work.  A post-Christian environment is a different bird than the pagan Roman empire.  The journey model fits it better.

People want fellowship.  Children want friends.  The possibilities are endless.

2. It should focus on needs.
People have needs of all kinds.  Meet their needs with sincerity.  Be with them and pray with them when they are sick or when their loved ones are facing crisis.  Feed or equip them when they are hungry.  Help them find housing.  The Blakes are involved in tutoring, just like College Wesleyan is at its nearby Elementary School.

3. It should be highly aware.
This is what I fear is the biggest potential missing piece in any western European venture.  We are a denomination of the heart but, to be honest, not a very theologically educated one.  We've been able to ignore mainstream biblical and theological discussions that have gone on for well over a century and satisfy our people with easy answers.  Now the new atheism is out there.  It's in our faces and the kind of ignorant gliding along we've done may not suffice.  If we're going into these areas, we need more than our pietism, we need some knowledge too.

In the category of assumption, any European mission should be able to appreciate the good in the Catholicism, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, etc of these countries while addressing their weaknesses.  Start with the familiar and bring it alive. Supply what was missing in the old rather than simply import our old frontier revivalism and baptistified Americanism.

We might get by with our assumptions that Catholic is all bad in the States.  We might get by with our aversions to high church ritual at home.  We might pretend that we are the mainstream biblical scholars and that everyone else is whacko in the States.  But in Europe we're not preaching to the choir any more.  Our best bet is to take what's left of their empty shells and fill it with living tissue.  And we're probably going to need a far more traditionally educated set of church planters here to gain traction among normal people in these places, not the usual church growth practitioner but the very rare pastor theologian.

I want to make it very clear that I am not talking about any current Wesleyan church plants in Europe or England.  I'm expressing the nervousness I've always felt about us planting churches in post-Christian Europe, especially given our history as a warm-hearted but not so educated denomination.  I'm presenting the musings I've made about this issue from time to time, wondering what in the world I would do if I were given the task.

I think we'd better think it through, though, because we may be talking about what the US is becoming, a post-Christian country where people are immune to the same old rhetoric we've been using.

1 comment:

Robert said...

I'm nervous enough trying to rebuild some of the churches we have over here, never mind setting up new ones! I think you're on the right lines though; we're a pretty dysfunctional community, and if we can't sort that out and find ways to function in a contemporary environment we'll fade away like the Cheshire cat.