Mark Driscoll v the British church

Friday, 13 January 2012

"You don't have one young guy who can preach the Bible that anybody's listening to on this earth."

"I go too far sometimes; almost every other pastor I know doesn't go far enough."

"What you're doing ain't working so you need to do something else."

These are the words of Mark Driscoll, addressed to Christians in the UK. The latest controversy involving He Who Must Not Be Named comes as he has a book to promote - quelle surprise - and is therefore on the global interview circuit. The above quote was recorded as part of an interview for the February issue of Christianity magazine, which is available to listen to in part here (from 34 minutes in).

It's predictable that people - especially those who have dedicated their lives to ministry - were upset when Christian Today broke the story yesterday with a piece entitled: "Mark Driscoll takes aim at the cowards in the British church". I've refrained from writing a post about Driscoll's new book, Real Marriage, because it has inspired so many posts and debates that at present I feel I have nothing to add, especially since I certainly have no plans to buy the book. Some people have said that Driscoll's comments about UK Christianity are best ignored lest we give him the oxygen of publicity. But as Krish Kandiah said yesterday, how can we move forward and see change without engagement, especially on an issue which has made those working in the church feel very hurt?

“Let’s just say this: right now, name for me the one young, good Bible teacher that is known across Great Britain. You don’t have one – that’s the problem. There are a bunch of cowards who aren’t telling the truth.”

It is, according to Driscoll, a "full-blown crisis".

Let's look at this carefully. The problem for us is not that the church is full of "cowards", but the problem affecting the way Driscoll sees it is that he doesn't know any "big names", which he feels we need to have - and which he feels must be male and under 40 - in order to reach out to unchurched men. I believe that to a certain extent, people are able to relate easily to and feel comfortable with those of their own age and gender, so yes, of course it's important that we see the younger generation "stepping up" into ministry, whether they happen to be men or women (and I know he wouldn't agree with me on that point). But effective ministry does not mean "being like Mark Driscoll" or "being famous".

As a nation, we are extremely uncomfortable with personality cults surrounding leaders and "celebrity pastors". It has been said that being British is characterised by "social dis-ease", and there is certainly a lot of "dis-ease" about "big name preachers". It's not that we don't have them. I can think of so many church leaders and Bible teachers who are well known and well respected on an international level - and they're not preaching "vaguely spiritual self-help", as Driscoll also believes. I just don't think we elevate them to such a place that they own private jets and people talk about being their "fan". We're the same with our politicians. A US-style election would never work here because most of the electorate would feel too embarrassed by the rhetoric to watch any of it, save for whatever they could see through the slits of their fingers with hands clamped over their eyes.

I know a few people who feel uncomfortable at that moment when a guest speaker who's also an author comes to your church and mentions his or her latest book and the fact you can purchase a copy after the service. For some, it's pretty much the first step on a slippery slope that culminates in demanding money with menaces in return for "blessings" on some obscure religious cable channel. It's just not cricket.

And so we do have groups of pastors who work together for common goals and hold events together. We do have plenty of conferences every year with a full programme of excellent UK-based speakers. We do have internationally-known Bible teachers and evangelists. And you could never say that Christian initiatives in the UK aren't "working". I could name you plenty of excellent "young" preachers. They just tend not to get branded, like the so-called "Reformed Big Dogs" - John Piper, Al Mohler et al - a term that makes me cringe. Just because they don't have 10 satellite set-ups from their original megachurch doesn't mean they're not doing great work in their communities. And it is often the those who shy away from the limelight and the accolades who have had a major impact on people's lives.

I'm being really facetious, but what I'm trying to illustrate is that talking about UK Christian - and certainly UK evangelical - culture on the same terms as the culture in the US, means there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the way things are - and it doesn't mean that we're "in the wrong" or have a problem. Around half of Americans attend church on a Sunday, compared to around 10 per cent of Brits. Britain IS a more secular country. There are plus points though - we have a negligible number of fundamentalists, for a start - and no dominionists making bids to run the government. Around 60 per cent of these churchgoing Brits are Anglican. Yes, that's right - 60 per cent attend churches that put sissy, limp-wristed excuses for men in dresses on a Sunday and let women lead a church. The Church of England, like every group of churches, has its issues, but it's our issue-filled group of churches, and it works for many very faithful people.

Those attending churches of the sort Driscoll would see as the "right sort" probably make up 10 per cent of that 10 per cent of British people who go to church regularly. And there we have the reason why there is no UK equivalent of the "Big Dogs". In his blog post hitting back at his UK critics and lampooning Justin Brierley, who interviewed him for Christianity, Driscoll made reference to anti-Christian attitudes from the public and in the media "that can cause preachers and teachers to whisper their beliefs rather than proclaim them".

It is true that the media here tends to use the word "evangelical" as an insult or something to be suspicious of (and I really dislike this fact), but it is no small part down to the way US "evangelical" culture has become stereotyped as narrow-minded, as steeped in excess, as populated by pastors who end up spectacularly falling from grace. In no way is this right, but since Driscoll's remarks were made public yesterday I've seen several people say things to the effect that "this is why I'm happy we don't have more input from American Christians over here". In making these comments about the church in Britain, Driscoll has once again assured that many Christians here will have a negative view of the church in the US, which is unfair and sad.

I feel that his post yesterday has only made the situation worse. He goes into more detail about what he sees are the problems facing British Christians, but has nothing good to say about his interview with Brierley, who he brands "cowardly" and a "liberal" (once again, he needs to think about the fact that this is a term with different connotations in the UK than in the US), apparently thanks to him being married to a minister and saying that he believes the doctrine of penal substitution "can be expressed in an unhelpful way".

Ruth Dickinson of Christianity has commented in a statement published today that:

"Justin’s interview with Mark Driscoll was robust and fair, and I utterly reject the claim that it was adversarial, disrespectful or subjective [nb: as he has claimed on his blog]. We took great care to ensure that his quotes were in context, and gave him the opportunity to talk about his new book, as well as his life and theology."

I'm sure plenty of people are now awaiting the publication of the full interview with interest, but doubt that Driscoll's latest attempt to engage with Britain has won him many sympathisers.
Further reading:

James Ogley: "An open invitation to Mark Driscoll"
Kouya Chronicle: "Driscoll, Kandiah and Cultural Assumptions"
Gurdur's blog: "A blog post for American Christians and Mark Driscoll"
Christian Vision For Men - working specifically and successfully to reach men in the UK (without espousing potentially damaging views on gender).

Image via Mars Hill Church on Flickr.


Tracie said...

Interesting post!

My husband heard Driscoll speak a few years ago at an event and really liked him, even downloaded a stack of podcasts afterwards.

From what I've heard from him it isn't so much what he says that causes friction, but how he says it.

But it's good to have a bit of debate and good to raise the profile of church-going and Christianity in UK.

Ralph Turner said...

Just read this, so VERY late to this debate Hannah!

Driscoll is outspoken, but refreshing as well in that he makes you think... most well known preachers in the US stay very safe in what they say.

I like his doctrine and what he says usually makes a lot of sense (to me). He certainly isn't in the 'private jet' club of megaministers (inferred by your article?), but he does get it wrong too. Especially as he is brave enough (in my view) to speak out and give what can be a controversial view.

We need the challenge of the outspoken. Even if we choose to disagree.

Hannah Mudge said...

No worries Ralph, I still get the comment notifications! I did mention the 'private jet' type pastors as some of the 'big names' in the US are characterised by that lifestyle but I know Driscoll is probably not the type to go in for his own aircraft! That probably wasn't clear. I do agree that we need outspoken people to say challenging things and that often, leaders are happier to 'play it safe', but I have found some of the things he has said and written in the past too probelmatic.


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