In this post I’m expressing my thoughts about areas where U.S. churches could learn from European Churches.

My first observation that U.S. churches are less likely to believe that “working together is more important and effective than building your empire”.

It is widely known that the evangelical church in Europe is considerably smaller in size and fewer in number than in America. What is not known is that this can be more of a strength than a weakness from an organizational perspective.  Being smaller and fewer, they realize that they cannot accomplish the vision that God has given them alone and that they need one another.  This encourages humility and an openness to  the power of collaboration rather than seeking to do it all on their own.

There are thousands of smaller churches in the United States as well.  The trend is for these smaller churches to be declining and to eventually shutdown as the membership ages and building costs increase (Death Spiral).

In the U.S. we are smitten with the megachurch.  Ironically, the megachurch is the least collaborative model of church (2015).  It stands apart with a large budget, dozens of paid staff and large ministries.  Megachurches rarely join with other churches because they feel self-sufficient when considering a new ministry or growth.  Some megachurches build their value on the idea that members need to go nowhere else for anything. Their church is the one-stop place for Christian life.

The problem with the megachurch model is that it can’t help but develop a “closed” mentality.

The problem with the megachurch model is that it can’t help but develop a “closed” mentality.  By this I mean a “we” and “they” type of thinking and acting.  It reminds me of the medieval castle where the peasants seek refuge from the world and interact with their like-minded neighbors.  The other challenge is the subtle pride that develops in these environments.   A pride that boasts in the attendance, the number of campuses, the upscale worship, the quantity of baptisms, the size of their ministries and the splendor of their facilities.

Often a megachurch evangelism approach is “Everyone must come and see what God is doing there!”.  To that end, they often host conferences where they can display their ministry successes.  Smaller churches, hoping someday to be like them, flock to attend and learn the secrets of growing a larger church.

The European church knows nothing of this because there are relatively few megachurches there. And their those megachurches might only have three to four thousand attenders.   Most thriving European churches are in the fifty to three hundred range in attendance size. Thus, they are forced to operate with “open” thinking.

They shows in the different questions they ask:

  • How can we help other churches (and even denominations) reach people for Christ?
  • How can we work together with other churches (and denominations) to see God exalted?
  • What strengths do other churches have, which we do not?

This type of collaborative thought happens both at the individual church level, and at the denominational level.

In Norway there is a group of churches that have come together with the vision of placing a Bible in every home in the country. In doing so, not only are they spreading the Gospel, but they are increasing unity in the church throughout the country.

In France, the National Counsel of French Evangelicals brings together multiple denominations to work together. One example is the CAi. A learning community of nine denominations working together to help one another plant new churches.

In France, the ratio of population to evangelical churches is currently one church to 30,000 people. The vision of Cai is to reduce that number to 1:10,000 in ten years. It is a vision that no single denomination can accomplish alone. They realize the need for one another. They see the power that is possible as a unified Body of Christ. But what you see in their meetings is something very rare in the U.S. church.

I have seen Baptists praying for the Assembly of God denomination to plant more churches. I have seen the Brethren, accept tools developed by other denominations. I have seen leaders weep openly for one another, love one another and put action behind their love. I have seen them change their strategies to better support one another, to share their resources and to commit to the success of the whole rather than just their own individual part.

What can the American church learn from this?

They can learn how to collaborate and work beyond their own walls without limiting their effort to expanding the footprint of their church or denomination.
They can choose to learn from others and guard against pride in their size, structure, budgets or talent.

Persistence in church planting.
Across Europe there is a great amount of church planting going on. In virtually every context I hear the same statement. To plan a healthy, sustainable church of at least fifty members takes at least five years. Five years? Most church planters in the U.S. would be disappointed if they don’t have fifty, in attendance, on the day they open their doors.

Knowing that church planting is a long-term commitment, changes the perspective of the European church planter. They cannot begin with a big budget or building. They must start small and grow organically. The quality of spiritual growth is more important than the quantity of people in the room.

Church planting in Europe is not for the faint of heart. Its isn’t cool and is often not accepted or even understood by the general populace. Yet, when it takes root, it produces real fruit.

Consider the church plant in the small town of Loche, France. Loche is a pleasant medieval riverside town, in the Loire valley southeast of Tours. When the new church applied to locate itself in downtown Loche, it was opposed by many on the civic council. It was labeled a “cult” and several leading town members were very vocal in criticism. Only after months of hearings and appeals, was it approved.

Five years later it has outgrown the small meeting area that it had been occupying in the middle of town. So, the church began to look for other accommodations outside the downtown area.
When the city council found out that there was a chance the church would now be leaving, they called a meeting to prevent them from leaving. The same city council now said that this small church was having such a positive impact on the city that they should not be allowed to leave.

This was not just another cool church venue, or a personality-based church. It was a church that had proven itself worthy. That had shown their value to the community, and in doing so had attracted not casual church shoppers, but those who, at best, felt church was unnecessary, if not harmful.

What can the American Church learn from this?

How to plant churches in non-churched and increasingly hostile environments.
How to grow organically and influence the community
How to persevere

Team-based Church is more effective than a personality-driven church.

Because of all the cultural elements I have mentioned, the idea of big church personalities doesn’t fit well in Europe. In fact, the bigger the “religious personality” the less it may be respected. And that attitude is becoming popular in the U.S. as well.

Visiting American pastors are not valued in Europe, just because they have thousands or tens of thousands of members in their church. In fact, in many ways it is seen as a negative. Most Europeans, when they hear about a mega-church, think that the church is all about mega-euros (dollars).

When they hear of the salaries of American pastors, and the budgets of American churches, they question how such a thing could in fact be spiritual. They see today’s American mega-church, and its pastor as being the same as the historical church in Europe.

For over a thousand years, in Europe, churches were linked to power, money, and state power. They were focused on their health rather than the community. When a U.S. mega-church pastor is credited with creation of such an institution it is not seen as a blessing of God, but as something done through individual ego and charisma.

Church growth in Europe doesn’t happen through one speaking to many, but in one on one conversations. It is much more of a distributed model, than a centralized one. Its not about getting someone to come to church on Sunday, but rather to come to share a meal during the week. Thus, it is not dependent, nor can it be done, with a single personality. It can only be done though a team of people dedicated to not just doing church but being the church.

Meals are a big deal in Europe. With all the modernizing and increased pace of life in Europe, meal time stands strong as a time not just for food, but for fellowship. It is a natural place for interaction and it may present the greatest opportunity for engagement by the church. One group that has realized this and has taken advantage of this to become one of the most evangelistic movements in Europe is Alpha.

Alpha began at the Holy Trinity Brampton Church in London. It was formed to engage non-believers in conversations about Jesus through the non-threatening environment of a shared meal. Today Alpha is available in over 169 countries.

They understand the need for a distributed model to allow church teams and church members to engage with others. Alpha is an eleven-week series of videos that can all be downloaded and shared with a gathering for dinner.

Alpha is not a class, it is a conversation. A conversation that happens around tables in a very non-threatening and natural way.

Alpha is in the US as well and is gaining momentum. But in the U.S., Alpha has to fight against the ever-present demand to make it a class, and offer it at the church building where it can get as big as possible. That may work in some situations, but the focus of Alpha is on fellowship.

Asking an unchurched person, that doesn’t even think about church, to give up the little free time they have on a Sunday morning to come to a building with strangers, is a hard sell. On the other hand, being asked to dinner by a church member, so we can get to know one another, is much harder to turn down.

Substance is more important than form.

The only church model that I see that seems to work in many different cultural contexts (both in Europe and around the world) is that of Hillsong. M aybe it’s the music, but the replication of its form and style of worship and engagement, seems to be successful despite the cultural context in which it is established.

Beyond that, the programmatic approaches that were so prevalent in the early 2000s (the Willow way, or the Saddleback way) have not proven to create the same large-scale growth in Europe that they did in the US. I don’t think this is solely because those models are American models.

I think it is also do the focus of that type of approach. A focus on form rather than substance. An approach that is concerned with music type, stage presence, lighting, and video quality, doesn’t always translate into a church that seeks deep spiritual growth, provision of grace beyond what is seen in the culture, and service to a community that draws unbelievers through love in action more than great preaching or teaching.

Many Americans see European culture as similar to American culture. They assume that since Europe is a “western culture” it is similar enough to America that the European church should be similar as well. Europe may be similar in business, and political practice, but in the world of church it is as different from America as churches in Asia. There are two reasons for this.

The first reason is historical. Ask any American to tell you how something came about, or the history of a place or thing, and they will usually start ten to maybe fifteen years ago. Ask the same question to a European, and he or she may start as far back as on hundred years or more.

In the context of the church this is important because no European can separate the historical church with the modern one. For centuries the “church” was fully integrated with the government, or with the monarchy, and ruled with the same power. Along with that power came great wealth and the creation of large cathedrals and state-funded denominations with a vast presence.

Ask a typical American on the street “What is church?” and you will often get a personal answer driven by his or her own positive or negative experiences. Ask a European the same question and you will most often hear about historical wealth and power. For this reason, the European has a different concept of church and doesn’t connect it with a conversation about the person of Jesus.

Most evangelical churches in America would say the same thing about how they engage people, but most of the time the message is “come to my church and meet Jesus”. In Europe it is “I need to be meet or at least have a new interest in meeting Jesus first, then I might come to your church”.

The second reason that is the prevailing culture in the cities and civil square of Europe is not post-modern, it is post-God. Any mention of God or a religious rationale is immediately discarded, and anyone who might offer such a view is easily shunned from public discourse.

This same viewpoint is growing in the US as the press and others label the church as racist, homophobic and narrow-minded. Europe, though, is well beyond this.

Take for example a crisis like a natural disaster, or terrorist attack. In American such a thing often is followed, even if only for a brief time, by an outpouring of religious sentiment. Prayers for the victims, questions of “Where was God in this?” Not so in Europe. Such events are met with sorrow and a desire to help those impacted. But, the prevalent mindset is to consider these events without ever considering God.

Imagine your U.S. church in such a context. Would what your church offers today reach a culture like this? How would it fare if it was appealing to a people who have a jaded view of the history of the church, and a current mindset that doesn’t even consider it relevant?

So, what can the American church learn from the European church in this area?
How to engage more personally, and more deeply.
How a church would present itself to a culture if it didn’t have a nice building, smoke machines, laser lights, rocking music, or cool videos.
How to equip church members to engage others personally and lead them to know Jesus not just get them to visit the church.

Influence trumps personality or role

When a church system is both thin and spread across multiple nations, languages, and cultures, it cannot be centrally managed. Further, leadership cannot be top down. Thus, across all of Europe you have networks developing. Some around areas of focus like human trafficking, and others around church formation or practice. These are led not through structure, but much more through influence. There is both formal and informal attraction that shares experiences, learnings, capabilities, and resources.

In such an environment, denominations seek to renew themselves. To add value in non-traditional ways, and to transcend geographic, national or theological boundaries. The system has become more open as churches gravitate toward those that are of like mind, approach or calling. The result is a growing continental vision for the spread o the Gospel.

One example is NC2P (National Church Planting Two), a collection of leaders from across several different counties and denominations, that are creating a movement. In February of 2019 teams from over 20 countries across Europe will gather in Berlin to work together as they consider church planting at both the national and continental level. Such a gathering is not a conference with speakers each touting their own success. But, rather an interaction of leaders coming together to help and support one another to create a movement of Jesus across all of Europe.

The leaders of this movement do not represent the largest churches, or most established denominations. Their leadership has grown through their influence, and that influence has grown through their eagerness to give themselves away. Again, not in the boxed up, program centered approaches so prevalent in America, but in a personal and service way that puts the calling of Europe above even their own local churches. They are respected not for the title they hold, but for the value they provide. Value of Christ centered life, of service orientated participation, and of prayer centered action.

Or the ELF (European Leadership Forum) which has its roots in providing a conference bringing teaching to Eastern European pastors. From this conference, it has expanded in a very decentralized way to launch both national and topical networks across Europe. These do not sue the US model of church conference that is based on marketing, and creation of an event with big names. But, rather more of a grass roots emergence of like minded participants gathering to exchange ideas, and to learn from one another. In this there is a great focus on individual growth and one on one mentoring.

American culture in business and organization is moving more toward networks, and there is a lot of “movement”-oriented talk in the U.S. church. In Europe, the American chruch will find actual examples of these already established and prospering.

What can the American church learn from this?

How to provide leadership in an increasing decentralized environment.

New converts over church transfers
I live in north Dallas, the land of a thousand churches. Yet, many new churches, or additional church satellite campuses continue to open. The successful ones quickly grow to hundreds or thousands in attendance. However, most of those to come are not new converts, but Christians that either come from another church, or have walked away from their earlier faith and come back.

This is not so in Europe. All the societal factors, voices and culture are devoid, or even anti-God. So, to plant a church means to go against the culture. To engage those in that culture with the truth of the Gospel that just be taken at face value, and not because of any childhood or family religious upbringing. The church must provide an alternative to the pains, and the pleasures of the world. It must produce transformation, not entertainment.

Consider the “refugee crisis” that we in the US hear so much about. In Europe it is not academic it is in many places very real and personal, and as such the church has been forced to respond. I have had many church leaders refer to the refugee situation not as a crisis, but as the largest evangelical opportunity of their lifetime.

Realizing that legal and political decisions will be made by the government, they choose to act at the personal level. In case after case I hear of churches whose members opened their homes (and by extension their church lives) to these refugees. The result is hundreds of immigrants coming to faith in Jesus. Now, you will not hear these stories in the news, as the media in Europe has no interest in reporting on anything religious, but it is happening.

In Marseille, there was a civic center operated by the government which was unable to stay open as it was in an area that was now heavily Muslim. A local church said it would take charge of it, without police protection. Within months of taking over, the center it is thriving. It provides services to all in the community and is a tremendous witness for the love of Jesus.

We hear often of the persecution of the church in places like India and Asia. In Europe I would not say the church is persecuted, but it is openly opposed, and largely ignored. To grow in that environment requires an authentic living faith that attracts not by show, but by offering something that the culture cannot.

As I look at the changing landscape of American I see the same patterns emerging. The growth of the “nones”, as society ignores us, and the ever-increasing potential of legislation that could radically impact how church operates in America today. Instead of the US thinking how we can export our model of church to Europe, we may increasingly need to import the European evangelical ethos to the US, to survive the changing times.

What can the American church learn form this?
How to evangelize in a way that creates disciples, not just church goers.