Interview with Doug McClintic who is a member of Global Mission, a mission that provides opportunities to reformed churches all over the world.
Where did the idea of church planting come from?
It depends on what you mean by church planting. In Europe and in North America we don’t need to establish the church. So, in the classic sense, church planting is where you didn’t have any church and you plant the church there. In some places, like in the Balkans or in Turkey there are frontiers of church planting, but usually in Europe, there are churches wherever we go. Church planting is about starting new congregations. Throughout the West, the number of congregations in relation to the population has been dramatically declining. Around 1900, in the USA, there were 26 churches per 10,000 people. By 2000, there were only 8 churches per 10,000 people.
In the USA, there are more religious people than in Europe. They also have a great influence on politics, even the vice president was a priest under Trump.
Well, one should not confuse civil religion and Christian nationalism with church attendance and church involvement. They are not necessarily people who are gathered in Christian communities for the purpose of growing and making disciples. There are many people who wave a religious flag – this is true in Europe as well -, but the churches serve a community or our gatherings of people. In the last 100 years, we’ve seen a decline in the latter, both in the USA and in Europe. In Debrecen, which seems to be a very religious community, the number of churches per 10,000 people is like 4, so it’s half of the concentration of congregations per population in the USA.
Here, in Hungary, in the communist era, people were told not to go to church on Sundays. So we have this explanation for the decline, but what is the case in Western Europe and in the USA?
I think, there are a couple of factors. One is the Enlightenment, which created a kind of secularizing impulse throughout Europe and throughout the West. So, it became an alternative to becoming a religious person. Before that, even that was decided which religion you were a part of. Another reason is urbanization. People started to move to the cities, and life became organized around the city center, around one’s job. Perhaps, an ethnic group or a certain group of people moved into the city together, rather than the village church which was the center of rural life. So, the appearance of urbanization and industrialization is a big factor. Last, but not least, the information age adds a new level of speed to all of those factors, and it gives less of a center to life that is found in a parish in a congregation. You can see this in the Netherlands, which was devastated in WWII. Following the war, enlightenment theology had taken over in the state church particularly. The distinctions between a person of faith and a person without faith began to blur to the point now that 50% of people in the Netherlands identify themselves as decidedly not religious. They are not just lazy about religion, it is like “Well, I am baptized but I definitely don’t go to church.” So, those factors in the West actually accelerated secularization. I think the persecution in the East made it very difficult to be a Christian. However, the Christian churches in the East did not become liberalized, they maintained a kind of Christian orthodoxy and faithfulness. In fact, it became a social force, a change itself: the Catholic movement Solidarity in Poland, the reformed movement in Timisoara and throughout Hungary. It is like, Christian orthodoxy and libration were wedded in many ways. It is very interesting, and I don’t know if it has been documented very well. We could write volumes and volumes about it, and why it has happened. Our hope is that church planting doesn’t establish the church, but it gives a new laboratory, a new model for how a person could move forward. It might be more attached to the developing world’s model than to the pre-industrial model. Establishing new communities could be a part of that renewal strategy.
What is your method? How do you do it?
When we established this partnership in Hungary, it was the invitation of the University Chaplaincy. They had just received the university building back from the state, and somehow they heard about me and my interest in these kinds of things. I was in a post in a very large American church where my responsibility was church planting locally, nationally and globally. The church paid me to work on these kinds of things. So, we met in 2008 and we had conversations with officials in both denominations, the reformed denominations in the USA and here, and – with the university – we helped them to establish two new communities on the two subsidiary campuses. Recalled it the B (Böszörményi) campus and the K (Kassai) campus because no one in America knows how to pronounce these words. It was our first experiment with starting new communities. The university experience is the core, and the new people who have come to faith come through relationships. We would have a grill party, a pub night, a Harry Potter trivia, so different kinds of things for people to socialize. The church created a space that was really open for people with faith and for people who did not have faith, it was kind of a fun environment, but also worship was there, a proclamation of the Gospel was there, Bible studies and places to discuss were there, doubts and questions could be argued. There were very creative people, they just put out some posters, but no confrontation was there ever between people. It was more of an invitation. I think church planting is like digging a well where people can come and drink. It is not about building a wall and staying inside. We rather say that you can come to the fountain and experience God here.
It seems to be working.
Yes, I think so. These campuses are growing. People graduated and many of them stayed in Debrecen, and a new church has been created in the community that we helped to sponsor, and one of the local churches allowed them to be in their parish and provided them with people and funding and space and it grew out to be the Lord’s Meadow Church. It is about a third of the people who came from the Nagyerdő Church, a third from the graduates of the university and about a third of people who are brand new to this thing. Some people who are interested or connected in some way, maybe some told them that they could come and see, and they chose to come. This is one of the things a new church can provide, this ‘come and see’ attitude, while in an established church – well, you can have that, too -, but it is less likely to receive this kind of an invitation. In an old church, people are already pre-decided in many ways. However, I think even those churches can reach into the lives of secular people through relationships and hospitality. Secularization is real here in Hungary. Even though we are twice or three times as religious as the Netherlanders, or the Scottish, we are still in a minority of the population. People who are actively attending the church, who are actively connected and actively involved are in a minority. I say that as if attendance was the goal, but it isn’t. It is the community, our public witness to Jesus Christ, our unity around common values, our families, relationships, goodness, and all of the things a church provides.
Comparing the USA and Hungary, what is easier and what is more difficult here when you are church planting?
People here are more honest about where they come from. I think, Christianity in America has a cultural layer to it, a sort of trendiness, so people can easily identify with it and yet not really understand what they’re doing and saying. We have music, we re-centered secular culture in Christianity to such an extent that it’s just an option, it’s like choosing your musical style. Then, I think the political appeal, particularly right now on the right wing of our society, is a factor. People who are connected with right-wing ideas can be easily involved. Some of these ideas are unhealthy, you also have a little bit of that in Hungary, but most people are pretty clear about who they are. While it is more confused in America. They say that they are religious because they are Americans, and Americans love Jesus. Sometimes faith doesn’t have much to do with reality. The pandemic created a lot of division and animosity within our churches. It caused a lot of problems, much more than I saw in Europe. In America, the pandemic was a socially divisive issue, and it kept in our churches as well. The recovery of the congregations has been slower than here which is interesting.
Some say that even the Catholic Churches in the USA are protestant.
Among very-very traditional Catholics, there’s a fear of Protestantation. In many masses that I’ve attended, it is very difficult to see the difference. There might be a devotion to Mary at some point in the service, and they are very similar to a protestant service.
What are the things that you can learn here and maybe adopt in the USA?
We took a group of five Hungarians in the USA. Every other year we have a learning exchange, so Americans come here and we meet each other, and we have discussions about various topics, and the same is true in the USA. I think Americans can learn a sense of history. Our history is so short, we have a very fluid view of history, and we tend to shape our short history to go with the group that we want to go with. It gets difficult if your city – like Debrecen – has a history going back 800 years. There is a rootedness to the Reformed Church that provides a way to navigate through the waves and changes of the decades. Americans tend to identify themselves by the decade they were born in, they evaluate history by the decade. In the Western world, pop culture has influence everywhere, and the information age is powerful. The internet, music and pop culture have impacted all of us. In a sense, it brings people together in a different way, we also have to look at the possibilities and opportunities that come with technology and the speed of communication. On the other hand, we should slow down and make decisions a bit more carefully. That’s been my job as an American church official. So, I say to people to slow down, let’s think it through, let’s see if we have some things connected, and let’s find the people who can really help you. I think this is one of the things that the congregation here is really teaching us. I’ve learned many things from my colleagues here. They are very progressive in their thinking, but they also know it has to work.
Do you work with refugees in the USA?
It is not my particular role to work with refugees. But in the Reformed Church, we have some projects. On our southern border, we have a person who is a mission associate like me. She tries to create awareness and provide resources in our southern border crisis. It’s a very hot political topic, but also there is a lot of humanitarian need at the border. I think, there is a real sense among Christians that if we can help solve some economic disparities between the South ad the North, then we wouldn’t be in this crisis. But there are huge systemic, economic and social forces against us. So, providing temporary aid, and helping people to connect with people who are related to one another are the things we do.
Do you work with minorities like Native Americans?
Yes, absolutely. Our associate general secretary had a large meeting in Oklahoma with some of our historic Native American congregations. We’re a very small denomination, the most that we’ve ever had is about three or four congregations in the United States. The denomination has started something in that reservation. Like in my hometown, there’s a Methodist presence, but there are no other denominations. There might be a Presbyterian or Lutheran presence on various tribal lands. So, it was a very good meeting. Our denomination was going through a huge change. We started as an immigrant denomination of Dutch people, and then we became a truly American denomination. Our general secretary, who is the head of our communion, was born in Nicaragua, the head of our global mission was born in Bangalore, and the head of our seminary was born in Indonesia, so we’re becoming the Reformed Church in the Americas. In our denomination, there are at least two languages, English and Spanish. We’ve increased Portuguese and Brazilian connections. We’re becoming a less Euro-centric denomination, even though we originated in Europe. Our immigrant ancestors came in two big waves, one was in the colonial period, and one was in the expansion period. We haven’t been called the Dutch Reformed Church since 1864. It’s harder and harder to find a Vanderlaan or Van Dyke as a leader in the church. My own name is for example a Scottish name. So, it has become very American. We are in the US and Canada, and now we’re moving to South America, the Caribbean, and Central America.
Which countries have successful stories regarding church planting?
Quiet work has been done in the Dominican Republic. There is a denomination that has grown up there. In Chiapas Mexico, among the Mayan tribes, our work started 150 years ago, and in the Yucatan peninsula, our mission presence has just been completed officially. So, what started as a local denomination has just become an American denomination. So, this Americanness has become sort of fluid.
How the social issues are affecting the church?
Tremendously. Our Euro-centric way of doing things was to make statements. I think that trend has started to drop off. Statements sometimes are just drawn lines in the sand. Helping people, trying to really listen to each other, and connecting with one another even though we may have different opinions about things is something we’re working on. I think the US is a particular political culture. Every person has their vote, opinion and idea. That was the ideal. We’re trained to argue with one another. For example, in college, we had vigorous debates, and then we’d go out for pizza, so we were friends. However, over the past 10 years, people have got much more vitriolic, they’ve taken themselves way more seriously in terms of their opinion. Everyone seems to believe that they are a broadcaster, and when you have access to potentially millions of people when you send a tweet, your opinion seems to count. People get very agitated and very excited about their opinion. And, of course, there is disinformation and all the phenomena that are globally affecting us. The US can be a difficult thing right now.
Your region still faces economic issues, car companies have moved to Mexico and China.
Yes. I am from Michigan which is known for its steel production. We’ve sent iron ore to Pittsburg and Cleveland, and they’d make steel and they’d send it back to us and we’d make it into cars. We had a whole system on these enormous lakes, and when relations were normalized with China in the 70s, they could just float steel right across to California, so our car companies moved to the Pacific coast and left us very devastated. It was my job for 10 years to plant churches in the Rust Belt, because many of our churches have disappeared, and many people left.
How did you manage to keep the communities?
Well, we didn’t. In many cases, many of them just evaporated as their communities developed. In Dearborn, Detroit, for example, there is a large Arabic-speaking community outside of the Middle East. All of our documents in Michigan are in three languages: English, Spanish and Arabic. A church that started as a Baptist Church or Reformed Church in that area is now completely surrounded by Muslims. It doesn’t have much chance to reach out to its neighborhood. So, many of these churches have closed. We tried to go back and reoriented it, then huge economic disasters occurred in Detroit. Some parts of Detroit became open farmlands, and some of it is just heaps of garbage, while some of it was renewed as a modern city. One of our projects was to buy a house in a neighborhood in Detroit where probably 50% of the people live in a house that doesn’t belong to them. They just break in and move into the house, and nobody cares about it. Many of these houses don’t have heating or electricity. So, we bought a house and we turned on the electricity and we had heating, so people would come in winter and we’d give them a meal. The pastors there would have meetings and Bible studies every day. They also had different kinds of training about how to fix your house. So, the church became a resource for just the basics of life. The relationship between poverty and the state in the US is very different than in Europe. It’s very limited in the US. Each state is different, for example, in California, rich people give a lot of aid to the poor, while this is not the case in for example Michigan. So, some of our work is to help people to access the system.
Here, in Hungary, this is what we can see, that the church is doing the job of the state. They are giving aid, they are taking care of the old, and it is not so usual in a secular state.
Yes, it’s a frontier. It’s something that I don’t know whether it will work or not. I can point to many places where it works well. The largest Aid Organization in the United States is Catholic Charities. Without them, the state cannot operate its system. Much aid would go away without them. I think it can work if the church has social consciousness. However, if the church is trying to get converts through its efforts, well, that’s both bad religion and bad public assistance. It has to be carefully thought through. I think, there are remarkable examples of really great things where the government and the church are cooperating, and there’re also examples where there’s just not enough of the church or of the state. Certainly, the church does well when it has the public good in mind. I always try to remind people that we are not creating communities only for ourselves, but this is a public witness to the love of God and the mercy of Jesus Christ. We do have a public responsibility.
What do you think about the church plants in the eastern part of Europe, in the orthodox areas? Some years ago, a young priest said that it was the biggest mistake that Hungarian priests hadn’t delivered the message of God to the Romanians for example, so Protestantism stopped at the Carpathian Mountains.
We have one project that we worked with in Romania, and it emerged out of a community development project for young people. Many of the people who were served by the Youth Ministry really became believers of Jesus Christ and they tried to find a place in the church. And because of their social and economic condition and their language, they didn’t find a place in various churches, for example, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Greek Orthodox Churches. So, this youth minister started a church there and we helped them do it, and they’ve got a good relationship with all of the churches around. When there is a need that is not being met at other churches, it makes sense to start something completely new and completely different. We’re not going to run out of the need. If we are less than four churches per 10,000 people, these churches have to get really big before there is no need for new churches. We try to work with the ecumenical offices and we try to be as sensitive as possible when we start a new church. We don’t say that well, we’re going to start a new church there, we just kind of come alongside churches that need our help.
Can you give an example of what kind of help you mean?
There’s an exchange of ideas. When you are starting something new, there are not a lot of people who know what you are going through. Yes, you have a minister of the congregation, but all the other congregations are a hundred years old, and their experience is quite different. That’s one of the things that I think we can do and that has really worked. People that have done this in the US are identifying with people who are doing it here, they are comparing notes. When you’re working on a new project, the feeling that you are the only one who has these particular sets of issues and problems is one of the hardest things to overcome. So, that is the main things we have helped provide is the sense of “you’re okay” and “other people have done this” so “you’re seen, you’re connected, you’re encouraged”. I think emotional support is one of the most important things. A European father told me that you could provide any kind of material support to us and that’s great, but having the emotional support to go through the newness of this with people who have already done it is more important. I think you don’t always get that in a local community. Maybe you’re the only new church in town. So, we provide this sort of fellowship of connection and shared experiences. It is a very difficult thing when you’re starting a new congregation because you have very few people, and sometimes it feels very vulnerable. So, this is about the common experience, the common know-how. I have worked with hundreds of new churches over the last 30 years, and sometimes somebody just needs to hear that well, that’s normal and you’re going to be okay.
What kind of future do you predict for the Protestant Church?
I think, Protestantism – just like anything else – will change, as it has already changed. Our great hope is in one church, one Lord, one faith, and one baptism revealing itself finally in the kingdom of God coming to the whole world. Our theology is the Theology of Resurrection and of Hope. I’m very hopeful for the future. I think, we’re going to face some very difficult times, well, we’re facing very difficult times. I think Protestantism itself has to figure out what its denominations exist for. You have the Pope, and then the Metropolitan, and then the Protestants had their prints and their protector. We’re no longer in the Middle Ages, we’re in societies that themselves are struggling with what authority means, what this church looks like in a democracy, in a free society. That’s going to require a lot of thinking, practical theology and a lot of struggle for our churches to maintain their focus on Jesus in His core message, and they really need to be a servant to these societies and to be a sign of love to people from all walks of life.
What kind of criticism have you heard about the Protestant Church during your career?
A lot of poignant criticism is aimed at us. They say that we’re concerned only with the other world, with saving souls and going to heaven. I don’t think that’s fair or true. I think we have to do everything that we can to show that we’re living out of our faith, in real life, in real time, we have families and workplaces. I think, one thing that we are guilty of and we’ve been charged with – especially in the US – is anti-intellectualism. That we’re not really integrating science into religion, and we’re not thinking about the realities of life. The Church – Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal – is the most successful organization in human history. There has never been a group of people this large. So, we have some stewardship, we have some responsibility to the world. I think we have to be more concerned about the climate, stewarding the planet, justice, and alleviation of poverty and war. However, we are not the UN, we are a church, so we have to keep our core mission. I’ve tried to be a reformer as much as a recruiter to the faith because we’re under constant scrutiny by the world.
Why do you think people left the Reformed Church or why did they join?
I’ve seen people who left the Reformed Church because they thought that it was too rigid or too concerned with certain theological questions, and they were looking for something more free-floating. And I’ve also seen people who as they’ve matured, may have come to know Christ in a free church or in some other kind of church. When we read the Bible, there is a lot that is hard to understand or has to be thought through, and they’ve seen us do that in some amazing ways. I think the Reformed Faith has tried to see the Bible as a whole and to see how it creates a coherent theology. I think people are looking for that. We’ve seen that in South America, where there are many Pentecostal churches. Many people there left Catholicism or pagan lifestyles and religions, and now they’re saying that they need something more comprehensive, so they’re coming to us.
Where are the people coming from and where are they going to?
On a global scale, more people have become Christians in the last 100 years than ever were Christians before. There’s a huge expansion of Christianity, even though there’s a decline in the West. As Western Christians we really need to embrace the southern global Christians, we need to learn from them, we need these kinds of exchanges, but we also need south and north exchanges. There’re many things that we can learn from the vitality of Africa, South America, and South East Asia. People are coming to Christ as they have learned it from their parents, but there is also converting to Christ as they begin to see some of the hollowness of complete secularism. They are looking for the light of the world, and we can see that people are hoping for meaning and for a way to center their lives. And when people are leaving it is often because there have been hurts or abuse or difficulties. It is acceptable not to be a religious person, so it is very easy to go from irreligious to spiritual, or from religious to irreligious. It is something we have never seen before in human history. It is an interesting dilemma for the 21st and 22nd-century church.
Is it true that more members of the Protestant Church and Reformed Church are depressed because they cannot confess their sins like Catholic people?
I’ve never thought of it that way. I’ve never seen research about it, but it could be true. Mental health issues are one of the 21st century’s biggest problems. Urbanization, industrialization, and the information age changed the chemistry of our brains. I think mental health and faith can work together. We need to have a consistent theology of mental health that says prayer is good, confessing your sins is good, but also you might need some therapy or attention to your needs. In America, Protestantism is more open to mental health issues than Catholicism, I think. We have to have a holistic view of mental health and depression, especially in this altered state that we live in. This is a new world for us mentally. It’s a new frontier.
– Sándor N. Nagy –
Picture: Reformed Church in America