Announcement: For the next couple of months, this blog will turn into a travel blog. But not a pure travel blog.
About the same time that I decided to go on a two and a half month from to the U.S.A., I resolved that I would visit as many churches as I can while here.
I also decided to write about it.
I’m not sure that I could tell you the full extent of my motivations for embarking on this mission, or what I plan to learn or discover. Perhaps the best answer is simply, “Something.” I’ve always loved visiting churches because I want to observe the state of the wider Church, see what I’m missing every weekend around the block, see what other churches have that mine lacks, and vice versa – and of course, learn something new about God. These things all apply to my present pilgrimage, but there are also some specific reasons why I am interested in seeing the American church. Here is an incomplete attempt at outlining four of them:
- America is different to Australia. At least, so I’m told. Over the years I have come to understand that the U.S.A. just isn’t the same secular country as Australia. Both conceived as offshoots from Great Britain, Australia was a convict dump afterthought founded with no particular vision in mind, while America was a dream – a dream wedded to principles and ideologies deeply held by its Christian instigators. The outcome is that, while it has no official religion, it is still socially a deeply religious country, whose currency still has printed the words, “In God we trust,” and which has never had a non-churchgoing head of state. While it has also come along with some of the world’s most anti-Christian phenomena, the fact remains that the church is large and in many ways powerful in America. In other words, you can’t understand America’s culture without understanding her Church.
- Many people consider the American church to be a church in crisis. Theocracy kills Christianity. If that’s not theoretically apparent, just look at the current state of Europe. And while America has no established church, it has a history that has at many times and places resembled a sort of social theocracy. There are a great deal of Americans who consider being a good American to be the same thing as being a good Christian, and vice versa. The problem with a country having a blurry (or absent) distinction between its national community and its religious community is, when the people in that country change, the religion has an identity crisis. When Americans no longer believe in a resurrected Jesus, an infallible Bible, an atoning sacrifice, or (especially) a life lived for Christ, where does that leave American Christianity? Has it shrunk, or has it changed? Depending on where you go, it’s done both of these. As people have drifted away from relationship with Christ himself, some have accordingly removed the title of “Christian,” but many have held onto the Christian identity that they associate with their culture, which has left the place of the church confused. We see some churches (either consciously or unconsciously) adjusting their doctrine according to the wind of the culture, other churches have shrunk or closed shop, while some continue to grow or even explode. It is a complex place. But the point is, America’s nominally Christian identity has hindered its church.
- America has influenced the world hugely in all areas of life, including Christianity. America is one of the most powerful countries in the world, and has had huge economic success. It is no secret that The U.S.A has been a key player in shaping the world as it is today, from the military to the arts – to the Church. Given the size of the church in America, and probably a bunch of other factors, the U.S. is, at this point, at the centre of the global stage for the church. I’m not saying it’s necessarily doing the most or the best work, though it could be; I’m just saying it is having some of the most influence. While it doesn’t seem to have produced the most influential theologians in the world, at the less academic level, it has produced most of the preachers and writers that at least Western Christians engage with. I’ll certainly bet that most of the material in Australian Christian book stores (i.e. Koorong) was produced in America. And let’s not forget that the Pentecostal movement and denomination itself, of which my church is a part, began in America, among countless other significant movements. Overall, that means that, for better or worse, the U.S. is currently leading the way for the church – we are constantly being taught, directly or indirectly, by American preachers and writers. We are getting our worldviews from them, our interpretive lenses from them, our idioms and language from them, as well as our church models and ministry strategies. In other words, you can’t understand today’s church if you don’t understand America’s Church.
- American Christians love Hillsong. The number one demographic that enrolls at Hillsong College in Sydney (the Bible college of the church I go to) is students who have come from the U.S.A. just to study there. Hillsong College is full of Americans who are unambiguously pumped to be there. Hillsong College wasn’t their backup because their prestigious American seminary plans failed. Hillsong College was their eagerly anticipated Plan A. At Hillsong we frequently have guest speakers from very successful American churches, and time and time again they say how influenced and inspired they are by the work Hillsong is doing. Some of them even say that Hillsong is literally the best church in the world. Australians are not excited about Hillsong, but Americans come here and act as if they’ve found the promised land. They talk about how excited and privileged they feel to be a part of what’s going on here. If they ever want to leave, it’s because they want to go back to their home church, take what they’ve learnt from Hillsong and use it to change their church for the better. And I have no idea what it is they’re talking about.
These four points land me on two things:
First, I want to understand the state of this church that is influencing me and my friends so profoundly. I want to understand the context of their preaching and their ministry work. I want to meet the congregations and learn about how they think and how they interpret what the preachers are saying. I want to see how different churches are dealing with America’s fading nominal Christian identity. I want to see the famous churches that are really making a difference, as well as the shrinking ones nobody has heard of, and I want to see the infamous ones that are often criticised by other Christians, and make up my mind based on genuine first-hand experience. I want to go to the churches being led by these world-renowned preachers, and meet the unbroadcastable congregations they actually lead, so that I might see the fruit that these ministries are having. I want to understand these churches so that I can better understand my own church, and its place in the Christian world. And if that’s not interesting to you, as a sheer cultural experience – one path through which to traverse and observe America – the Church provide quite an expedition. And let’s face it; I can’t wait to hear the soulful gospel choirs in some churches of that one particular ethnic persuasion.
And second, I want to know what it is that Hillsong has that the American church lacks. I want to understand why Americans, who are surrounded by megachurches in their own country, are so excited about little old Hillsong Church (and maybe why Australian’s aren’t).
And perhaps, if I’m attentive to him, God will show me something new about himself.
So here I go. What’s my methodology? Wing it, and be observant. Learn as much as I can about each church I go to. Meet the people. Share a meal with them after the service if I can. Ask the right questions, and listen well.
Be a blessing to each church, and allow each church to bless me.
Stay tuned for my upcoming review of the church led by “America’s Pastor” himself…