Reflections on the Church in Great Britain
In light of my friend Mark Driscoll's recent comments about pastoral ministry in Great Britain, I wanted to share a few of my own reflections on the diverse ministries that have prospered, or floundered, there. Between 1972 and 1996, I spent nine full years there, scattered over that range of years; and since then, I have been in the UK between two and six times every year. I am neither boasting nor complaining; I'm merely establishing that my knowledge of the country is not entirely superficial. I have no reason to doubt Mark's sincere concern for the gospel in the UK and for young ministers there. Nevertheless, you might be interested in hearing another perspective.
(1) Mark correctly observes the low state of genuine Christian confessionalism in the UK. Still, it varies considerably (as it does in the United States, though with lower figures over there). There's a ring around London in which close to 10 percent of the people go to church, many of them evangelicals; the percentage in Northern Ireland is higher, though falling. By contrast, in Yorkshire the percentage that goes to church once a month or more is 0.9 percent; evangelicals account for only 0.4 percent. Both figures are still falling. This is comparable to the state of affairs in, say, Japan.
(2) The phenomenon of the state church colors much of what is going on. Whether we like it or not, in England itself (the situation is different in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) the Church of England is the source of most heterodoxy and of much of the orthodoxy, as well as of everything in between. It has produced men like Don Cupitt and men like Dick Lucas. Exactly what courage looks like for the most orthodox evangelicals in that world is a bit different from what courage looks like in the leadership of the independent churches: their temptations are different, their sufferings are different. Although I have found cowardice in both circles, I have found remarkable courage in both circles, and the proportion of each has not been very different from what I've found on this side of the Atlantic.
(3) As for young men with both courage and national reach: I suppose I'd start with Richard Cunningham, currently director of UCCF. He has preached fearlessly in most of the universities and colleges in the UK, and is training others to do so; he has been lampooned in the press, faced court cases over the UCCF stance on homosexuality, and attracted newspaper headlines. Then there's Vaughan Roberts, rector of St Ebbe's, Oxford, in constant demand for his Bible teaching around the country. I could name many more. In Scotland one thinks of men like Willie Philip (and he's not the only one). Similar names could be mentioned in Wales and Northern Ireland.
(4) More important yet, the last few years in England have seen the invention and growth of the regional Gospel Partnerships. In my view, these are among the most exciting things going on in England at the moment. They bring together Church of England ministers and Independent ministers who are passionate about the gospel, who see the decline, and who are crossing many kinds of denominational and cultural divides to plant churches (regardless of whether the new churches turn out to be Anglican or Free), and raise up a new generation of preachers. They are broadly Reformed. They are annoying the mere traditionalists on both sides of the denominational divide; they are certainly angering some bishops; but they press on. In the North West Partnership, for example, they've planted about 30 churches in the last eight years, and the pace is accelerating. That may seem a day of small things, but compared with what was there ten years ago, this is pretty significant, especially as their efforts are beginning to multiply. Elsewhere, one church in London has about 17 plants currently underway, all led by young men. The minister at St Helen's-Bishopsgate, William Taylor, was formerly an officer in the British Army: there is not a wimpy bone in his body. The amount of flak he takes on is remarkable.
(5) But there is a bigger issue. We must not equate courage with success, or even youth with success. We must avoid ever leaving the impression that these equations are valid. I have spent too much time in places like Japan, or in parts of the Muslim world, where courage is not measured on the world stage, where a single convert is reckoned a mighty trophy of grace. I am grateful beyond words for the multiplication of churches in Acts 29, but I am no less grateful for Baptist ministers like my Dad, men who labored very hard and saw very little fruit for decades in French Canada, many of whom went to prison (their sentences totaled eight years between 1950 and 1952). I find no ground for concluding that the missionaries in Japan in the 20th century were less godly, less courageous, less faithful, than the missionaries in (what became) South Korea, with its congregations of tens of thousands. At the final Great Assize, God will take into account not only all that was and is, but also what might have been under different circumstances (Matt 11:20ff). Just as the widow who gave her mite may be reckoned to have given more than many multi-millionaires, so, I suspect, some ministers in Japan, or Yorkshire, will receive greater praise on that last day than those who served faithfully in a corner of the world where there was more fruit. Moreover, the measure of faithful service is sometimes explicitly tied in Scripture not to the quantity of fruit, measured in numbers, but to such virtues as self-control, measured by the use of one's tongue (James 3:1-6).
(6) Even where some ministries are wavering, it takes rare discernment to sort out when there should be sharp rebuke and when there should be encouragement. Probably there needs to be more of whichever of these two polarities we are least comfortable with! But I would not want to forget that the Jesus who can denounce hypocritical religious leaders in Matthew 22 is also the one of whom it is said, "He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory. In his name the nations will put their hope" (Matt 12:19-21)---in fulfillment of one of the suffering servant passages. My read is that in some of the most challenging places of the world for gospel advance, godly encouragement is part of the great need of the day.