Reflections on My Trip to England
I wasn’t planning on doing a post like this, except that people on both sides of the Atlantic asked if I would write up some of my thoughts after traveling and speaking in England for two weeks. I hesitate to do so, because what do I really know about a country from two weeks of preaching, eating, and meeting dear Christian brothers and sisters? What nudged me to write down a few reflections is my own sense that I would love to hear what a like-minded visitor to the U.S. thought about our church scene. Even if he got a few things wrong, I would still be very interested in learning from his outside perspective. So here goes.
First, some lighter reflections, some of which I tweeted along the way.
1. Americans have very sweet breakfasts; Brits are looking for protein in all its forms. You are more likely to find a massive pile of baked beans at a British breakfast than Fruity Pebbles, icing, or syrup.
2. When Americans say “brilliant” it usually comes with an eye roll. The English really mean it.
3. I hate to say it, but the English sound smarter when they talk. Maybe it’s the accent. Maybe it’s a more interesting vocabulary. Maybe it’s the fact that I didn’t hear “like” like in every other sentence.
4. I think on the whole, Americans are more patriotic, at least openly so.
5. As similar as our two countries are, the fact that England has a monarch (even a titular one) and an establishment religion makes for a very different cultural ethos and tradition.
6. Here’s what I’ve noticed about praying in the States: Baptists have to end every prayer in a time of group prayer with “Amen.” Presbyterian and Reformed folks are more likely to let the prayer dissolve into silence and wait for the next person to pick things up. In England, after corporate prayer ended with “Amen,” followed by everyone present adding another hearty “Amen” (pronounced with “Ahmen,” never with a long “A”).
7. No one had heard of Root Beer or Jello, but they all had Marmite. What a world, what a world!
8. The English call their yards “gardens,” which are roughly the size of an American garden. I have to imagine that no one, on the whole, has such big homes, such big yards, and eats such big meals as Americans.
9. Pay toilets! Shocking. And I didn’t see what I was paying for.
10. A really old building in the States might be from the 19th century. That’s like new construction in England. One man asked when our church was built. I said sometime in the 60′s. He said, “When in the 1600′s?” No, 1960!
11. Sweaters, lots of sweaters. Except they call them jumpers, which is a sweater, not a denim dress or a pajama onesie. In any event, you need some layers because the old buildings are cold enough to keep lettuce chilled.
12. There’s England and then there’s Yorkshire, which everyone from Yorkshire and not from Yorkshire seem happy to acknowledge.
And what about the church situation in England? I’m sure my vantage point was quite limited, but in traveling to half a dozen cities, preaching for four different gospel partnerships, and in meeting hundreds of conservative evangelicals (in free churches and in the Church of England), I saw many encouraging signs of spiritual vitality and gospel health.
1. I was rubbing shoulders with people who are clear on the gospel and want to be clear on the mission of the church. Most of the folks I talked to were concerned that the church not lose its focus on proclamation and disciple making (though this is certainly a reflection and product of having asked me to speak).
2. There was a strong focus on sticking to the text, preaching the text, and handling the text. People were hungry for good, simple, verse-by-verse exposition. No frills, just tell us what the Bible says.
3. Americans have a lot to learn from English evangelicals when it comes to evangelism and training. Probably because the UK is much more of a post-Christian nation, I saw a consistent intentionality about evangelism. I also saw an impressive array of training options for laypeople and those preparing for ministry. We don’t have comparable programs in the U.S.
4. There were dynamic, faithful, word-centered outreaches to college students, business people, and immigrant populations. I left with a number of ideas rattling in my brain about we might more intentionally engage our community.
5. The worship services I attended were warm, simple, straightforward, approachable, and centered on the word.
So, any negatives? That’s harder to say. I can more easily see the negatives in my own context and feel more comfortable pointing them out. But perhaps I can make a few comments along the lines of “challenges” the English church may need to wrestle with in the years ahead.
1. Drawing boundaries – I sensed there was continued confusion about who was on the same team. The MLJ-Stott rift took a generation to heal and seems mostly a thing of the past, but there are still questions about how broadly or how narrowly the lines of evangelicalism should be drawn. Some want to make the tent bigger and bigger (probably not a good idea), while others may harbor regional, class, or denominational suspicions (probably not a good idea). And then you have the charismatic churches which operate in a different orbit altogether. What does it mean in England to be together for the gospel?
2. Theological depth – Our biggest strengths tend to be some of our nagging weaknesses. While the training programs are impressively robust, my sensibilities as a Presbyterian/Reformed pastor make me wish more full-time church workers and pastors could benefit from a seminary education. I sensed that young men and women in England were Bible people (which is most important), but less in tune with old books and any particular theological tradition. In particular, we could all stand to pay more attention to issues of ecclesiology and polity, especially given what a royal mess Anglican governance appears to be (pun intended).
3. Don’t swing the pendulum too far – After attending Evensong at St. Paul’s I understood why the churches I was with were so decidedly low church in feel and in order. While many young American Christians–having grown up in seeker-friendly, tradition-less, megaplexes yearn for creeds, hymns, and liturgy–the reaction in Britain is still against such things. Which is fine, just be careful for the whole baby and bathwater thing. Similarly, I hope the church in England will continue to sound the trumpet for global missions, even as they see the huge need for evangelism in their own backyard.
One Final Thought: Celebrity Pastors
I think I understand Carl Trueman’s critiques of American evangelical celebrity culture after touring (to use a celebrity word!) England for a fortnight (to use a British word!). No one asked to take a picture with me–not once. Actually, the one selfie I took was with two Americans (friends of a friend), and we were razzed by the Brits for doing so. Every introduction I received was in the form of a brief interview. People did not queue up after a talk for me to sign their Bible or get a photo for social media. In fact, several church leaders told me that when they really like someone they make fun of them! The culture struck me as one that would rather chop the head off all the tall poppies than point to the one others are pointing at.
I didn’t have a problem with any of this. I like sarcasm and friendly scorn. I’d rather not get my picture taken. I don’t long to sign things. But at the same time, it felt to me like these were cultural values I was experiencing more than strictly biblical ones. Although the lack of pizzazz was refreshing, there were also times no one came up to me to say anything. During break times, I could wander around looking for the loo without fear of someone interrupting my wandering! I didn’t mind. Everyone was exceedingly kind. I’m simply commenting that the same culture that was wonderfully free of celebritification might seem to others unfriendly or unwelcoming (again, that’s not how I took any of it). I don’t think people from America should assume the British are rude, just like I don’t think they should assume people from the Midwest are too nice, people from the South are fake, people from the Northwest are weird, or people at Christian conferences in the States worship the speakers. As we learn from each other, part of what we will learn is that we do things in different ways and skew toward different dangers.