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Secular Europe Today, Secular America Tomorrow?

Review: Stefan Paas, Church Planting in the Secular West: Lessons from the European Experience (Eerdmans, 2016). Pp. 316. $34

Review by David Goodhew

The contrast between the greater religiosity of the United States compared to Western Europe has often been noted. The big question is whether America is going to grow more like Europe, or might it be the other way round? And what of Anglicanism? How can it resist the corrosive acids of European secularization, and might it have gifts that will speak hope to secular Westerners on both sides of the Atlantic?

Stefan Paas’s book on Europe is a helpful jumping-off point in answering these questions, but not in every detail. Church Planting in the Secular West analyzes the theology and practice of planting churches in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Holland.

A Theology of Church Planting

The strength of Paas’s work is in the way he splices empirical and theological analysis. He rightly critiques David Bosch’s mythical portrait in Transforming Mission of a non-institutional early Church, supposedly corrupted by later becoming institutional. Paas points out that institutions were part of the Church from the start. While there is much good in David Bosch, his work is ripe for serious revision, not least to assist the generations of Anglican ordinands who have been fed Bosch as the last word on missiology.

Paas wisely urges those who favor new forms of church also to seek new forms of unity. Paas shows how Reformation and early modern theologies feed into today’s debates and raises a crucial concern about how contemporary church planting can be warped by consumerism and individualism. His stress on the need for church planters to attain a deeper appreciation of sacraments and ecclesiology will warm the hearts of many. Paas offers a valuable discussion of how to define church in a way that is flexible but not vacuous.

Paas critiques Donald McGavran’s work on church growth, a useful corrective for those from that camp. It was a rare pleasure to see a European academic text offer discussion of Rodney Stark’s idea of Religious Market Theory (also known as rational choice theory). Much discussed in the social sciences, this debate greatly deserves to spread into churches.

This volume would be helped by reflection beyond the evangelical theologies that are the volume’s primary discussion partners. Paas offers little discussion of modern Roman Catholic thought and none of Orthodox ecclesiology and missiology, though many Orthodox congregations have been planted across Europe in recent years. Nor does the book engage with a number of key researchers of empirical data — notably the work of Peter Brierley, Bob Jackson, and John Wolffe on London.

What is happening empirically?

Paas is more problematic in his comments on the facts on the ground. There is useful data, especially the evidence of significant church planting in France — 1,700 new congregations planted between 1970 and 2013. But beyond this, there are significant gaps. Most strikingly, Paas ignores minority ethnic communities, which are a key source of new churches in western Europe. Such churches are a mix of wheat and weeds, but other denominations are in no position to cast stones. This exclusion means that when Paas talks of Europe, he really means white Europe. Yet in many places Europe is now highly diverse. And amid the overhyped fear of Islamization, there are many new churches.

The book’s analysis would be  greatly helped by considering large cities such as London and Rotterdam, where there is striking evidence of church planting and church growth. The number of congregations in London has risen by around 50 percent in the last 40 years. Paas writes of “the secularised, stable and aging populations of Western Europe” (p. 180). This is true of parts of Europe, but the populations of many key European cities are rapidly growing, decidedly youthful and, in cities such as London and Rotterdam, increasingly interested in church.

The volume’s critique of contemporary church planting has value but sometimes strikes an ugly note, not least in likening it to cancer (p. 51). Such language is surely too judgmental. But beyond this, such highly critical metaphors fail to consider the considerable data pointing to the objective benefits that result from joining congregations, including church plants (see the Theos report Religion and Well Being).

Conversely, Paas is too lenient on historic churches and especially established churches. In many cases, their congregations have suffered deep decline, shown limited ability to connect with a changing society, and often shunned the planting of new churches, although the population has rapidly expanded in many parts of Europe. Paas’s statement that many of Europe’s established churches have embraced church planting (p. 242) is simply untrue. There are islands of interest but oceans of indifference. Here are lessons for Anglicanism. The Episcopal Church’s recent interest in church planting, for example, is welcome. But it has to go much further to be a serious phenomenon.

The book could be developed by analysis of what European secularity is, how it varies across Europe, and how it may differ from American secularities. Paas treats secularity as one thing, but it varies from place to place. Discussing western Europe raises the question of how southern and especially eastern Europe compare. Eastern Europe has seen significant church growth since communism fell. This said, Anglicans must beware an overly starry-eyed view of Orthodoxy; while it can be impressive in diaspora communities, it is vulnerable to state capture, as the experience of Russia shows.

All this is a helpful way into discussing secularization in the United States. There is considerable evidence of secularization, especially on the east and west coasts and among the young. But the United States is not Europe, nor should it be forgotten that America has experienced periods of secularization in the past. The growth of churches in key cities such as New York and the way some denominations have proved far more resilient than others is a warning that individual congregations and denominations have real agency. What we do has a serious effect, propelling us toward growth or decline. We can’t just shrug our shoulders fatalistically as if secularization were the law of the Medes and Persians.

Lessons for Anglicans

Near Central London is the church of St Mary’s Paddington. Its foundation stone says this: “The parish was founded in 1865 as a ‘church plant’ from All Saints, Margaret Street in a densely-packed slum district by Fr Richard Temple West.”

Temple West was a passionate ritualist. Anglican church planting may have become largely the preserve of evangelicals in recent decades, but it is in the DNA of all strands of Anglicanism and is much needed today.

The experience of church planting in Europe offers much for Anglicans to ponder. Here are five suggestions.

First, face up to the potency of European secularity, however apparently pious our current context. There is much rhetoric about formation in Anglican circles. But few recognise that all who live in the West are deeply formed by secularity. I often recommend the excellent James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) to be Secular(Eerdmans, 2014) to my students at Cranmer Hall. It gives a succinct and punchy description of what secular culture looks like, how to be deprogrammed from it, and how Christian faith can subvert it. We need to liberate ourselves from our secular formation if we are to be effective salt and light in the western world.

Second, Paas is right to point us toward a theologically rich vision of church planting. Planting has sometimes been characterized by much energy but minimal theology. But it needs as nuanced a grasp of Scripture, tradition, and reason and as high a valuation of episcopacy, sacraments, and unity as any other ministry.

Third, we should take heart. There are many new churches in Europe. The tide of secularity goes out as well as in. In every case, effective church planting combines long-term commitment and a gospel boldness that refuses to be cowed by secularity. For some decades British and North American Anglicanism have planted few new congregations, even as populations have grown fast. But dioceses such as London show that this could change.

Fourth, we in the West could learn much from the wider Anglican Communion. There is much effective church planting going on, often in surprising and difficult places such as Singapore, Congo, and South America. To explore this in detail, see D. Goodhew (ed.), Growth and Decline in the Anglican Communion, 1980 to the Present (Routledge, 2017).

Fifth, Anglicans have gifts to offer in the work of mission amid secularity, as new Anglican churches planted in Europe show. English-medium worship has real agency, especially in diverse contexts, Brexit notwithstanding. The Anglican notion of via media has serious traction in contexts of previous divisions between Catholic and Protestant.

Political thinkers coined the notion of the Anglosphere, meaning areas that are English-speaking or influenced by British culture. A kind of religious Anglosphere is culturally potent, has a global reach, and shows every sign of expanding. An Anglican-shaped gospel speaks cogently into such worlds. This helps explain much of the growth of the Communion and offers a pointer to how churches might be planted elsewhere.



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