Resembling the Pope’s Remarks

During his recent visit to Germany, Pope Benedict XVI visited the Catholic monastery in Erfurt where Martin Luther lived as a monk, the very place where Luther wrestled with God and, in due time, found the doctrine of justification by faith alone to be the solvent for his fears.

On this third trip to his German homeland since becoming pope, Benedict addressed the growth of evangelical and Pentecostal churches that have been drawing sizable numbers of converts from mainline churches, particularly Catholicism and Lutheranism. In the pope’s words:

Faced with a new form of Christianity, which is spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism, sometimes in frightening ways, the mainstream Christian denominations often seem at a loss. This is a form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability. This worldwide phenomenon . . . poses a question to us all: what is this new form of Christianity saying to us, for better and for worse?

About 181,000 Germans left Catholic parishes in 2010. Many protested with their feet the church’s sexual abuse problem. So the pontiff’s explicit response comes at a sensitive time when Germans have sent a loud message to the Roman Curia.

Speaking personally, the pope’s message couldn’t be more timely. I am in Europe interacting with various evangelical church leaders. Last weekend I visited Rome, and now I’m in Germany. As a result, the pope’s comments are hitting my ears from a slightly different angle, especially the suggestion that these (evangelical) groups are lacking “institutional depth, rationality, dogmatic [read doctrinal] content, and stability.” I’m afraid there may be more truth in the pope’s assessment than we are prepared to admit.

Legitimate Critique

Let me tell you about two conversations I had on Wednesday that illustrate the legitimacy of the pope’s critique. The first was with a lady whose church is planting congregations and “conducting missions” in the London area. Naturally, I was delighted to hear about the apparent fruitfulness of its development. She then proceeded to describe their ministry values. “We want revival; this is our purpose. We long to see the entire church roaring in the Spirit like the Lion of Judah.” I thought, Hmmm, that is a new and interesting metaphor . . . roaring in the Spirit. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a metaphor. The dear people in this movement actually roar, growl, and manifest other forms of conspicuous behavior.

The second conversation was with two ministers whom I know from Italy, both of whom are associated with Plymouth Brethren congregations, a movement that is still quite significant throughout Western Europe. As these friends described their experience in working with various assemblies, I couldn’t help but see these churches as moving in a cultic direction. Some regulations were expected, such as head coverings (which I would describe as peculiar, not cultic) and their moratorium against vocational pastors. But the church elders also had rules about whom you could identify with (even ecclesial cousins such as Baptists were off limits), the books you were permitted to read, and thoughts you could think. I immediately thought of Michael Carlson’s recent TGC article, “The Biggest Problem Facing Italian Churches,” in which he described the Mussolini syndrome in church leadership.

Here is the point: your church may not have a Mussolini problem or a critical mass of people roaring like a lion, but there are more than a few so-called evangelical churches in the world that do. And the appropriate question, I think, is “What are you, as a pastor or church leader, going to do about it?” Please allow me to make a few suggestions.

How to Respond

Don’t overlook Europe as a place where God still has some significant work to do. In my experience, the relative difficulty of mission in Western Europe, coupled with a desire to engage the 10/40 window, often cause American churches to slight countries like Italy, France, and Germany. Isn’t our God the Lord of Ezekiel 37, the One who looked upon the valley of dry bones and saw a potential dance floor? Yes! And I believe that God is not only capable but also desiring to do the same again.

There is, at the same time, also a vital work happening in the majority world, including parts of the 10/40 window. We must attend to that as well. It mustn’t be an either/or—Indonesia or Ireland—it must be both. “Go therefore and make disciples of ‘all’ nations,” Jesus said.

When we talk about a “work” of God in these areas, I would like to suggest that leadership development must be a top priority—giving men and women the requisite training and tools to be biblically informed and outreach motivated with the gospel of grace at the leading edge. For instance, I know of three ministers in Italy with superb training who are bereft of any church or ministry. Their home churches have Mussolinis, and there are no resources for even an internship (by the way, if God is calling you to help such people, contact me personally, and I’ll tell you more about it).

Finally, be encouraged. Pope Benedict was compelled to offer his remarks because God is indeed doing great things through evangelicals and Pentecostals around the world. Praise God! If this doesn’t highlight divine grace—that God would use the likes of us—I don’t know what does. But let’s not allow ourselves to be deceived into thinking that we can therefore coast in a current of triumphalism. We must proclaim the gospel, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ, struggling with all his energy that powerfully works within us.

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  • Andrew

    May I add a voice for Latin America to this plea not to overlook the work remaining for God to do? There remains here a significant work for the development of biblically informed leadership within the gospel of grace. Both the papal concern and the problems of the burgeoning ‘evangelical’ movements ring true here also. For that matter the most significant influences upon this reality seem to come from North America. How is the mission going closer to home?

  • David Biel

    I have a friend who has related a similar discipleship mentality. He actually said, “Im not going to teach doctrine, i just want them encountering Jesus and going back and setting their churches on fire!” Im not going to elaborate on that…

    I grew in my love for European Christianity after reading an article by Abraham Kuyper about Europe’s role in nursing authentic Christianity. I only relate that to help others love our neighbors there.

    I agree with you that we should praise God that the world (Catholicism) is taking notice that people are turning to something else. Let us keep praying that un-alloyed truth would be the buttress of that work!

  • Don Sartain

    “institutional depth, rationality, dogmatic [read doctrinal] content, and stability.”

    I think there are definitely some valid points here. While I’m not sure of the necessity for “institutional depth”, the need for rationality and deep doctrinal content is great. Because it is in both of these traits that we find a strong understanding of Christ, upon which we base our stability. Well, on Christ, not just our understanding of Him.

    • jason

      Chris cited a couple of the odd and cult-ish Christian groups that Protestantism has been sprouting off, rightly noting how they typify the lack of “… rationality, dogmatic [read doctrinal] content, and stability,” that the Pope noted. However, he then concluded that the Pope’s comment shows, “God is indeed doing great things through evangelicals and Pentecostals around the world.” What did I miss? I thought the Pope spoke up because your form of Christianity is producing a lot of scary, slightly whacko, churches?

      Of the three biggest forms of Christianity (Catholic, Evangelical/Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox), I would have to say Eastern Orthodox, with all its problems, has the most rationality and true doctrinal content. It is also very stable. Although it has and has had its problems, it never experienced the depths of abuse that created Protestantism out of Catholicism.

      Luther tossed out a lot of orthodox baby with his catholic bathwater.

  • Sohl

    Ok, but…

    I don’t get the sense that the Pope is remarking about the fringe examples given here, but rather the whole Evangelical shebang. It’s not surprising if we can find examples of people practicing devoid of doctrine, stability, etc. But I was expecting a critique of the Pope’s comments in light of the actual HEART of the American/Worldwide Evangelical movement. I didn’t get that, and I feel that it’s worthwhile to reconcile, unless I’m just to throw out the Pope’s words as… sour grapes?

    • Jonathan

      But here in europe (at least in France), these “fringe examples” actually represent the norm, so the Pope’s comments are legit.

      There is the implicit assumption that the average intelligence of most people is very low. Many churches here lean towards mysticism, anti-intellectualism and a disdain for doctrine and rationality. And of course, very little gospel content in the teachings.

      • Sohl

        Really! Wow… If that’s the case then that’s an incredible opportunity I didn’t know existed in Europe… Thanks for the insight.

      • Christopher Heward

        I don’t think that would be the evangelical part of the Church though, surely? Isn’t the issue that in Southern Europe the evangelical part of the Church is in the minority? The majority would be more towards ‘liberal’, where people believe in a general God who for cultural reasons they see as being represented by Jesus, but don’t feel able to be exclusive in saying He is the way. I must stress this is a complete outsider based on stereotypes, so I may well be completely wrong :D

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  • truthmatters

    Isn’t the Pope supposed to be able to utter infallible words? Yikes!

  • andrew price

    Roaring is a new one in the UK

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  • Charles Grinn

    Great to see the picture of the Pope and Don Rickles together getting along nicely.

    • truthmatters


      In regards to the picture of the Pope, that might be Steve Martin

  • Ken

    “Institutional depth”? That kinda gets stuck in my throat.

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  • gv720/ JUsher

    As an Irish Evangelical, who has preached at Churches North and South of the border, could I maybe ask you guys to back off a little? (And any American who doesn’t immediately understand the significance of North/South in Ireland needs to think carefully before setting a mission up here.)
    We don’t need – the last thing that we need – is well meaning Americans transplanting their Church models to Ireland. That’s doing enough damage in the North.
    There’s also a good case for Irish evangelicals to say “physician heal thyself” – after the doctrinal ineptitude of the Elephant Room, Reformed Pastors who use visions to conduct Church discipline, create their own methodologies for getting demons our of people, and who claim that they have seen people levitate in a basement in Seattle. As someone who was raised in the “Plymouth” Brethren, all I can say is I’m thankful for that heritage. I recognise some of the smaller country Churches in your description. I do not recognise many of the other Churches in the United Kingdom.
    As for institutional depth – “multi-site”.
    Could you put your own house in order before you start missions to countries with an evangelical presence?
    I’m sorry to be so blunt – but I feel that your article merited a very direct response. America is not the solution to all our woes. In fact, it is the source of most of the “shallowness”.


    • Tim

      GV720 is right in saying that simply transplanting what works in the States into other cultures is very damaging.

      But ****please do come**** if you’re willing to become as Greeks to save the Greeks. (Or any other country, but I do have a slightly vested interest in Greece!)

      I and many others have been very blessed to have served with and be discipled by American brothers and sisters in the past.

      And let’s face it, vast parts of Europe needs as many gospel workers as can be sent by the church. The need is huge. And we need you guys to come and help.

      • gv720/ JUsher

        Yip, I can agree with that. I don’t want to deter any serious missionaries or evangelists.

        1) I’ll accept help from any quarter. If people are prepared to come to Ireland to work with local Churches, they can come from Azerbijan, Armenia, Australia or America. There are plenty of small works that need support. It doesn’t even need to be a Pastor with a vision. American church members who decide to look for work in Europe can bring a huge benefit to a small local Church.
        2) It is just too easy for Church Planters to set up shop next to existing evangelical Churches, when there are towns just down the road without any evangelical witness. There are huge gaps where we need help, urgently. (Sadly, Ulster’s evangelicals have failed to make any large impact on the Republic of Ireland.)
        3) Don’t come to lecture us on where we’ve gone wrong! American evangelicalism – including Reformed Evangelicalism – does not have its own house in order. (I really don’t need to hear lectures about my father’s and grandfather’s denomination …that’s just rude and offensive, to be honest. I’d take my grandfather’s simplicity and honesty over slick shock jocks any day of the week. Pots, kettles, glass houses etc.)

        Basically, if you don’t have a great vision, if you don’t have all the answers, if you don’t have a tremendous presence in the pulpit or ThDs from three different evangelical seminaries, we do need you in Europe.


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