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.
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.