What an American visitor saw

It’s good from time to time to find out how other people from the outside see you. That’s one of the reason why supermarkets pay mystery shoppers and businesses get auditors and consultants in. Very helpfully, American pastor and Bible teacher Kevin DeYoung has shared his experiences of staying in the UK with his family for 7 weeks. The blogpost should make fun and enlightening reading for anyone but I want to highlight and reflect on his observations about UK church life.

One thing it’s good to do is to pay attention to what the visitor says and use this as a prompt for self evaluation. That doesn’t mean you always need to agree with everything. What they see is a perception. However, how they see you is how others are likely to see you too even though they are never asked.

So, here are a couple of observations on preaching with my immediate response and questions following. I’d appreciate the comments and reflections of others so feel free to pitch in.

“For better and worse, I think the preaching in England allows for much less of the man’s personality to come through.” (observation 11)

“I found the preaching to be more reliably expository (I’m comparing reformedish evangelicals in both countries). We talk a lot about expository preaching, but I’m not sure that across the board we’ve been trained to do it very well.” (observation 12)

I’m going to take a punt here that as Kevin’s main links with the UK are through the Gospel Partnerships and Proclamation Trust that most of his experience of preaching and teaching will have been in those types of contexts associated with these groupings. Of course my assumption could be faulty. The reason I say this is that there are tangible differences in terms of preaching approaches and style even within reformed circles. I think you can actually get a good feel for where someone started to train for example evangelical Anglican or evangelical free church. Preachers from small to medium churches with a reasonably contemporary style are more likely to have a bit of freedom (for better or worse) to let their personality come through than say in a larger, more formal setting.

It’s interesting that Kevin leaves open the question whether less personality is a good or a bad thing. I hope that there’s a place for personality, otherwise we might as well hand the scripts out to read! So long as it doesn’t overbear or distract. Is the issue the preaching style or is it that there are cultural expectations about how you should preach? Is there a tendency for preachers to copy their heroes and if we are mass training lots of very young church leaders then do they get the opportunity to develop their own style and to grow and mature as preachers? (Comments welcome).

To what extent do certain gatherings and groups represent and reflect the wider scene. Whilst there have been a lot of challenges to evangelical unity over the past few decades, I also think there’s still a reasonable amount of cross fertilization across the churches so that you don’t have to go to a church from an officially “reformed” labelled grouping to discover people who love expository teaching and reformed theology.

Then on doctrine, Kevin has this to say:

The reformedish evangelicals in the UK are Bible people. Everything is about the Bible–their training, their preaching, their discipleship, their small groups, their internships. I don’t think the fired-up Christian reads as much, and he or she is probably less conversant with systematic theology, but they are constantly in the word.

Again, I wonder if this is descriptive of the whole of reformed evangelicalism? I want to acknowledge a couple of things. First of all, I’ve heard people comment about some of our ministry training schemes that they are doing the Bible bits because the theology colleges will fill in on the systematic theology. Sadly as well I have heard the theology college bit talked about in tones that suggest it’s a necessary evil to get through. Secondly, the point about reading is oh so true. There’s a suspicion of doctrine and it isn’t always seen as practically relevant. I hope though that Kevin is right and we are constantly in the word.

However, there are other more positive signs around. First of all, the main reformed theological colleges Oak Hill and Union place a strong emphasis on the place of Doctrine, ethics, church history, church leadership skills etc. They both offer a rich syllabus. It’s telling that at both these colleges, the Principals are from Systematic backgrounds.

Secondly a lot of work is going on to encourage people to think theologically. This site is an example of that but I don’t think we are alone. For example, I know of other pastors who give time to encouraging people through guided reading programmes. So maybe more is happening on the systematics side than is first apparent.

It’s helpful to hear the thoughts of a visitor. It’s like having a mirror held up to you. I hope others will take time to interact with Kevin’s observations. I’d also encourage local churches to find ways of getting honest feedback from visitors too.