Thursday, December 24, 2015

Last Minute Plea – Why not going to church this Christmas is like having a Reception without a Wedding.

Christmas Eve afternoon and the remainder of my day will be structured around the Christmas Eve service at my home church. For others Christingles, Family Carol services and Watchnights will be complemented tomorrow by a Christmas Day morning service. These times to pause, and reflect on the story behind the tinsel and glitter, give substance to what otherwise could easily become a rather superficial binge of materialism and self-indulgence.

Indeed the relentless march over recent decades of the Christ-less Christmas is, I’m sure, one reason that the December festivities are wearing increasingly thin for many in our society. You see, if Christmas is just another excuse for a party it’s fated to just feel like more of the same in our affluent Western society. Other than the present giving will the next 48 hours be that much different from any other weekend of heavy drinking and eating too much? In the West of Scotland Christmas is just one of numerous excuses throughout the year for a bit of self-indulgence.  

Without Christ and hollowed out of its spiritual truth Christmas just becomes a Reception without a Wedding. And like all celebrations without something to actually celebrate it quickly becomes jaded and even burdensome.

So this Christmas go to church and ponder – ponder the thought that in the depths of darkness a light began to shine. Ponder the thought that in a world of taking - God gave us the most precious thing He had. Ponder the thought that in the dreary succession of human failures something broke the cycle. Ponder the thought that in Bethlehem 2000 years ago something so profound happened that your life now can be different.

Then you’ll have a real reason for the lights, the gifts and the celebrations.

How silently, how silently,
The wondrous Gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Long and Winding Road (into vocational Christian Ministry).

An article written for the Pathways Conference website. For more info and to book a place go to: http://www.pathwaysconference.org/home.html

I guess there are some folks who in a moment of ‘blinding light’ just know that their future should be some form of vocational Christian ministry. For most, however, certainly the great majority of people I met at Bible College, that point of clarity came at the end of a long and winding road of prayer, discussions, reflections, doubts and encouragements, followed by more prayer, discussions…etc

Personally the impulse to serve God vocationally was in my heart throughout my 20s and early 30s. I was heavily involved in Christian service to the point that my church life had almost become the equivalent of a second job. Yet despite the desire and the practical engagement I never quite felt confident enough to put myself forward. I was anxious that to do so would be presumptuous or that I might end up in a situation that God didn’t want me to be in. I had encouragements in the sense of being asked to be involved in church leadership and felt that my contributions were generally seen as positive – but there never seemed to be that ‘clincher moment’ when the doubts vanished and becoming a vocational Christian worker just became the clear-cut thing that I should do.

So what made the difference between then and now, between working for Strathclyde Passenger Transport and working for the church, between constantly hesitating and making those first concrete steps towards full-time vocational ministry?

I was challenged
If there was a key moment it came when a church pastor I knew who took me out for lunch. As he listened to my ruminations he challenged me. I remember his words clearly, ‘Andy, sorting out transport in the West of Scotland is an important and needed task but there are doubtless many able to do it – there are few, however, ready and willing to do full-time Christian ministry, the need is huge and life is short.’. It was a moment of challenge that cut through a lot of ‘the fog’ I had felt up to then about my future. 

I was confirmed
The next crucial step was getting feedback from mature and experienced church leaders. Friends will generally be nice to you and tend to say things that affirm you – so getting some objective and impartial guidance is essential. Your own church leaders must be the first ‘port of call’ for this. They know you best and are the people who will have seen your ministry work first-hand. For myself and my wife it was a meeting with our elders to tell them what was on our heart and to hear what they thought about it. This primary input of my local church leaders was also added to and helped by speaking to other Christian workers and learning from their experiences of vocational ministry. All of which combined to broaden my understanding about the realities of vocational ministry and my suitability for it.

I was counselled
Stepping out of a secure/pensioned job, at the age of 33 with a wife, child and another on the way was a big challenge. I was convinced that if the rest of my life was going to be vocational ministry I needed to invest in some training at the outset. But where to go, how to pay for it and, especially as someone from an Independent church, where would I end up? 

For example when I first figured out how much I’d need to raise to go to Bible College – I felt sick and honestly thought that was the end of that idea! But actually, I wasn’t the first person to have faced these challenges. So with a big intake of faith and with the encouragement and advice of others, who had faced those challenges and been down that road before me, it did work out – it was possible.

So wherever you are on that ‘long and winding road’ book your space at the Pathways Conference for…

·         CHALLENGE – what needs done?
·         CONFIRMATION – should you do it?
·         COUNSEL – how you can do it?

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Lord's Prayer and NSS Hypocrisy

Why the National Secular Society and not Cinema is the real enemy of freedom.

After a week of feeling hugely tongue-tied and depressed, Christians (myself included) have at last got a news story they can get excited about. The banning of a Church of England advert in which the Lord’s Prayer is recited has got us all back hitting the keyboards.

It is a story that I confess to being conflicted about. On the one hand my initial reaction was to be outraged at this seemingly petty, draconian and highly partial censorship. If anything encapsulated the suffocating PC culture of contemporary Western society then surely this was it. However, further reflection has tempered that indignation and now I’m not so sure that either Digital Cinema Media (the agency who decided not to allow its screening) were so wrong, or that Christian’s are targeting their protest in the right place.

Firstly Christians can’t have it both ways. Some have argued that the advert is so innocuous that it’s ridiculous to ban it. After all the Lord’s Prayer is so absorbed into our culture through school assemblies, national ceremonies, and Cliff Richard records that it’s like banning an advert for including a Shakespeare quotation. Well if that is the case its prohibition is hardly a great loss for the Gospel – anaemic and toothless dittys aren’t going to change anyone. Alternatively, others argue that it’s brimming with radical punch and counter-cultural challenge (the problem of course is that without ‘a preacher’ most people just won’t get how subversive and challenging it is). But if it is such theological dynamite why are we surprised that a secular cinema chain doesn’t want it (especially just now)?

As Christians we should have some sympathy with DCM – they are in an invidious position. Could they really accept a Church of England advert and then decline one from the Church of Scientology or the Mormons (and these are the groups with the big marketing bucks). Do Christians want to take their kids to see Frozen 2 and sit through promos extolling the virtues of Islam or listening to prayers offered to Hare Krishna? 

Rather Christians should reflect on the comments from the National Secular Society President Terry Sanderson who said...
"The Church of England is arrogant to imagine it has an automatic right to foist its opinions upon a captive audience who have paid good money for a completely different experience”
"The Church does not hesitate to ban things that it deems inappropriate from its own church halls - things like yoga. The cinema chains are simply exercising the same right."

And actually he has a point – and it is exactly the point that Christians need to quote back relentlessly again the NSS and its allies in order to expose their hypocrisy in this area and to make the case for genuine equality. After all where was the NSS spokesman speaking up for the rights of the Asher’s bakery when they refused an order to make a cake with a pro-Same Sex marriage statement on it? Well surprise surprise the NSS were in the vanguard of those condemning Ashers and insisting that businesses should not have any rights to decline such orders.

Surely, to be fair, the right of one business not to promote views about prayer that some might find offensive – should be extended to another business not wanting to promote views on marriage that some others might offensive.  This isn’t after-all an issue of legality, both prayer and same-sex marriage are legal, it’s an issue about the discretion of businesses not to associate themselves with third party beliefs. Neither DCM or Ashers are refusing to provide services to Christians or Gay people – they just don’t want to promote their causes.

The fact that the NSS support DCM while condemning Ashers simply reveals that its pronouncements are not at all about equality or fairness – but about waging a vendetta against Christianity wherever its sees an opportunity.

So Christians should leave off DCM and actually defend its rights on this matter. Instead they should be holding the NSS to account and using its own words concerning DCM and the ‘Lord’s Prayer advert’ in order to fight for genuine freedoms and equality in the UK today. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Transgender: The New Frontier of a Changing Culture

‘Back to the Future' day has passed with lots of discussion not just about how well the film predicted 2015, but also about the changes we can look forward to in another 25 years’ time. While much was made of the technological changes the biggest surprises for Marty, fast forwarding from the 1980’s, would surely have been the social ones. For without doubt the biggest single cultural change has been the new (First) world order regarding sexuality. In just two decades homosexuality has moved from the margins of society to having mainstream cultural recognition and indeed celebration. The move to legal civil partnerships and then to same-sex marriage has been remarkable – for it to have happened in such a small space of time is really quite astonishing.

It is a reminder that culturally anything really is possible and that the societal norms of 2040 may be staggeringly removed from those we assume at the present time. So are there any clues as to where we might be heading next? I suspect that one good indicator of forthcoming cultural change would be to see what movie and television projects are currently being pitched to media companies. After all the current slew of programmes and films generating debate and shaping popular thinking must have started life, in some cases, several years ago.

Transgender the new frontier
What is clear is that with homosexuality firmly established in the mainstream the new frontier for culture re-shapers is now gender itself. Recent months have seen a succession of stories and programmes in the media concerning transgender. BBC 5-Live interviewed an 11 year old girl starting high school as a boy, Louis Theroux has been looking at transgender kids, Channel 4 have a series of documentaries running on the subject, a new transgender sitcom ‘Boy meets Girl’ has been commissioned by BBC2, transgender is now an ‘East Enders’ storyline, and Hollywood A-lister Eddie Redmayne starred in this year’s release ‘The Danish Girl’, the story of an early pioneer of transgender surgery.

The approach to the issue is the same in all these presentations – to be supportive, to show the bravery of those involved (which many of them undoubtedly are), to render churlish and ignorant any voices of opposition, to win the sympathy of the viewer and to make it mainstream. It is no surprise then that ‘transphobia’ is becoming the latest addition to popular vocabulary or that, as Germaine Greer has shown, it’s the latest flashpoint in the debate over free speech.

The New Me
Transgender feelings aren’t a new phenomenon but the advance of modern surgery and hormone treatments have made it possible to turn such desires into a reality (of sorts). However, lying behind the medical issue is a much deeper philosophical issue concerning the nature of humanness itself. It is the notion that sexuality and in this case physicality are ‘plastic’ aspects of personhood. That is, ‘I’ am not to be defined by my gender when it comes either to relationships or who ‘I’ actually am. So my physicality is arbitrary – just a random imposition of biology which may or may not suit me and, like a set of clothes that I may find hideous, ought to be changeable.

So on current trends it is entirely feasible that by 2040 many children will routinely dress and attend school in a gender different from their biology. Gender based language and pronouns may be phased out in public life. Names may increasingly be unisex as giving a child a ‘gender specific’ name will be frowned upon or seen as constraining them. Switching gender identity between certain situations or phases of life might become commonplace.

Responding to a Cultural Tsunami
For Bible-believing Christians this is another wave of the tsunami of cultural change experienced over recent decades. More and more churches are having to adjust to and work out how to interact with transgender situations. But how should we respond? A question that might, understandably, fill us with a sense of dread and/or weariness. After all we look back at the campaigns against Civil Partnerships and Same Sex Marriage and see how they were swept aside. Like the boy crying ‘wolf’ we feel our protestations have worn thin in the ears of those around us – especially as, for the time being at least, society has not collapsed into chaos despite having ignored us.

Well there are various ways we could go. One would be to demand legislation to prohibit people from making transgender changes, at the very least to lobby against any moves to accommodate transgender people in mainstream society. The two-fold problem with this approach is in trying to impose a Christian worldview on a non-Christian society. Secondly, and precisely because of the first reason, it just won’t ‘wash’ with a fragmented neo-pagan society of competing interests.

We could of course do nothing, say nothing and just resign ourselves to further inexorable moral confusion. That, however, would be an abdication of our responsibility to be ‘salt and light’ in the world, to seek the lost, and to hold out the 'word of life' in a floundering and confused generation. So how do we stand for Biblical truth without presenting ourselves as being oppressive towards transgender people or anyone else? 

Let me suggest we firstly have to recognise that there are those around us who genuinely struggle with their gender. For such their gender is an issue of confusion and sometimes real pain and unhappiness. We have to accept that science and the government have given such people the option to radically alter their physicality and to live in an outwardly changed gender. However, that people have those options should not be our first point of concern.

There is an alternative
Rather than a ‘slam it and ban it’ approach we need to lovingly but also boldly make the case that there is another way someone can go in such situations. As Christians we want to say that there is an alternative to fear and self-loathing, to injections in the stomach, drastic surgery, relationship trauma, family distress, ongoing physical and mental health problems and many of the other not untypical consequences of pursuing gender change.

That alternative, of course, is the Gospel. The Gospel that reveals the God who made each person – who made them male and who made them female. The God who didn’t make a mistake when He did that. The Gospel that explains that we live in a fallen world and because of that there is no aspect of our humanness that isn’t messed up to a greater or lesser degree. The Gospel that shows that God is nonetheless committed to recovering this world and restoring men and women to being what He intended them to be – good and glorious, happy in their own skins and able to enjoy Him for ever. The Gospel that doesn’t oppress anyone, but offers men and women a way to find their true and most satisfying identity in Jesus Christ whether in 1989, 2015 or 2040.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Against Martha-ism

‘Pastors, don’t be a Martha’, was the call to pastors at the first Scottish FIEC Pastoral Retreat held in August this year.

Recognising that so often in ministry the first casualty of busyness is the pastor’s own quality time with the Lord, this new venture was a chance for pastors and ministry workers to take some time out for spiritual refreshment. For pastors constantly ‘giving out’ there is an ever present danger of becoming dry and professional in ministry. So taking time to focus on their own soul and be ‘recharged’ in their love for the Lord is not a luxury for pastors, but crucial if they are to be spiritually fruitful.

In all nine pastors gathered along with Richard Underwood (FIEC Pastoral Ministries Director) and myself for 24 hours of fellowship, Biblical encouragement and private devotional time.

After each meal the group gathered together for some devotional thoughts from Richard and me. Richard unpacked some of the lessons from the story of Mary and Martha, and encouraged the group with Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3, ‘that Christ may dwell in your hearts’. I reflected on Psalm 32 and the importance of confession and blessings of forgiveness. Each of these times included discussion and group prayer.

Otherwise the Retreat was unprogrammed in order to give the majority of the time for private prayer, reading and personal reflection. Held in the Faith Mission College in Edinburgh those attending were able to use the college facilities including the library, study rooms, the adjacent bookshop and cafĂ©, along with the student lounge and private bedrooms. A nearby park also offered somewhere to go a walk and ‘smell the roses’.

Having a group together also gave the chance for pastors to chat, share wisdom and pray for each other. The opportunity to be able to share and speak privately with fellow pastors is one way ‘group Retreats’ can be a particular blessing.   

The benefit of FIEC organising a Retreat like this is in helping pastors to do something they want to do but often struggle to schedule or keep to. The reality for many pastors is that dates marked off as ‘Quiet Days’ often aren’t taken because other workload feels more pressing at the time. Further because the pastor is often the only one involved in such diary commitments it’s all too easy to cancel or postpone them. It can also be a struggle to find somewhere suitable for such times (home or church office are rarely ‘distraction free’). Hence the value of being able to book something in advance with others that is set-up especially for that purpose.

All attending have been hugely positive about the Retreat and have expressed their hope that it could be become a regular event in the Scottish FIEC calendar.  

So please give thanks for the blessing and encouragement experienced by all those attending. Pray that its positive effects will be ongoing in the lives of the pastors and their churches. Pray that personal devotional time will be a regular and kept part of pastor’s schedules in all our fellowships.


Sunday, September 20, 2015

PERGAMUM - A REAL CHURCH

Introduction to sermon on Pergamum (Revelation 2:12-17). These were real churches - not mythical. In another time they could have been any of our churches....


It’s fair to say that Pergamum Evangelical Church, or PEC as its members refer to it, has had a bit of a rollercoaster ride since it was founded back in the 60’s. It began during the first great church planting movement which saw churches established in all the surrounding provinces. There had been a lot of talk at the time concerning how strategically important PEC would be – being in the regional capital and on the doorstep of government offices and the political ‘movers & shakers’.

Since then it has kept going – solid and stable. Not a household name like Ephesus with its reputation for strong Biblical training, it doesn't have the dynamism of Sardis with its endless ministry initiatives, and certainly doesn’t have the resources of Laodicea which was now planning its fifth extension in 20 years.

PEC’s building is just on the edge of the city centre but in comparison with the Diana Shrines and the glitzy Zeusian Temple it was always going to struggle to be noticed. The city feast days were always awkward – the congregation feeling as if they were only people in the whole city not joining the celebrations at the ‘Temple of Rome & Augustus’. Indeed it was over that very issue that PEC faced its toughest challenge.

Although not a large fellowship enough money had been pledged to employ one of the founding members as a Community Worker. Antipas gave up his job as an Administrator in the Pro-counsel’s office and started building up relationships with local groups. Over a few years he became well known and his work helping in local schools was gladly accepted. Not everyone was a fan though and maliciously, although it was never proved, Antipas was publically asked to take part in one of ceremonies pledging allegiance to Caesar as Lord.

Well of course Antipas made his apologies and declined. But that wasn’t enough, next thing there were calls for an enquiry: What is this man doing in schools, what is he telling folks in the town, who do these Christians think they are in snubbing Caesar and not complying with our ‘Roman values’?

Things started to get really nasty. Letters in the papers, questions raised in the city council. Antipas was pulled in for questioning. After several weeks an ultimatum was delivered – come to the Pledge Ceremony, tone down your ‘Jesus propaganda’ (as they now called it), and we’ll all move on. Of course, Antipas couldn’t agree to that, it would have totally undermined his Gospel convictions and ministry.

Things then went from bad to worse, the church building vandalised and its members harassed in the streets. More accusations were made against Antipas: he was an intolerant fanatic, he was radicalising young people in the city against Rome, and furthermore Christians were clearly a threat to the very stability and security of society. Antipas was advised to leave - but he had always hated bullies so refused.

Nobody is quite sure what happened, or least nobody will admit to knowing, but Antipas’ body was found hanged in a local park. Friends said they thought he’d been beaten – but the Coroner’s report made no mention of that. The authorities immediately called it suicide and closed the case. Those who knew Antipas - knew taking his own life would have been totally against everything he believed.

An uneasy peace descended – the fuss about PEC fizzled out. PEC continued to meet as it had always done, although the numbers dropped considerably for a period.

Of late though things feel different in PEC and not everyone is comfortable with some of the changes. Copies of a new book by T.R. Nicolas have been circulating and a few folks have been reading it together in their Small Group. Well produced, with bite sized chapters and heart-warming anecdotes the book: ‘Change or Die - Getting Ready for Church in the Second Century’, is having quite an impact.  Indeed there are increasing calls for a more relaxed and open line to be taken with local Temples and there are moves to start having an inter-faith prayer forum for the city. 

The elders don’t seem quite sure how to respond, especially as they face an increasing number of pastoral issues – there seems to be a big increase in the number of members visiting the Temple prostitutes.

I wonder what Jesus would make of it all? 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

CERTIFICATE IN INDEPENDENT CHURCH MINISTRY

New FIEC partnership with Edinburgh Theological Seminary to strengthen those serving in Independent Churches. 



Friday, June 19, 2015

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE SCOTTISH CHURCH?

An abridged version of this article has been published in Evangelicals Now (July 2015).


WHAT HAPPENDED TO THE SCOTTISH CHURCH?
Christian identification in Scotland has now fallen below that in England.

From being one of the great bastions of evangelical Christianity (‘the land of the Bible’), Scotland has now overtaken England in seeing a decline in Christian identification.

According to recent figures 50.6% of the Scottish population now have no religious affiliation whatsoever, in England the figure is 43.7%. Correspondingly levels of Christian identification are now lower in Scotland than in England - 44.6% opposed to 48.5%[1].  

Some estimates now put the number of conservative evangelicals in Scotland as low as 50,000 – a tiny minority of around 1% of the total population. Its white indigenous population, who in the past were the recipients of unparalleled gospel witness and blessing, are now among the most unreached and gospel resistance people groups in the world today.

Scotland hasn’t just caught up with England in its rejection of Christianity but has surpassed it. Why? What happened in Scotland to cause this accelerated falling away from its historic faith? As one church pastor who had worked in England in the 1990s and then in Scotland in 2000s put it, ‘When I was in England, Scotland was 10 years behind England’s decline, but now it’s 10 years behind England’s growth’.

Culturally Scotland has changed rapidly in recent decades. It’s once white and Presbyterian dominated culture has given way to an increasingly multi-ethnic, politically liberal and secularised society. That, however, doesn’t explain why the decline in Christian identification, which for some time lagged behind England, has so significantly overtaken it. After all most of the wider cultural changes experienced in Scotland are ubiquitous throughout the UK. There are, however, a number of factors that may explain why the Scottish church was particularly vulnerable to experiencing such a contraction.

IMMIGRATION
Scotland has an enviable record of absorbing immigrants with goodwill and generosity. People from around the world have settled in Scotland and found a home without many of the tensions and indeed conflicts that have arisen in other parts of the UK. Interestingly, however, most of Scotland’s post-war immigration has been from Asia and in particular from Muslim communities.

In contrast, England along with similar Asian immigration also received large numbers of people from Christian (often evangelically Christian) cultures, especially in its Afro-Caribbean communities. So that while Scotland has an Afro-Caribbean population of under 1%, the equivalent population in England is 3.5%.

This meant the Scottish church did not receive the same ‘shot in the arm’ from immigration in the way the English church did, nor has it benefitted from the evangelical energy and convictions often brought by such ‘newcomers’. In many churches it is those from immigrant backgrounds who have acted as ‘a brake’ on the theological liberalism that has been so destructive to Gospel growth elsewhere.

None of which is to be negative about the immigration Scotland has had, which as noted has largely been a great civic success. But it is a significant way by which evangelical Christianity has been boosted and its decline offset in England in contrast to Scotland.


SECTARIANISM
‘Too many Protestants, too many Catholics, and not enough Christians’, was the rueful observation of one commentator on the west of Scotland. Another comedian described Glasgow as ‘Belfast lite’. The deep sectarian divisions in Scotland, exemplified by the worst of the Celtic and Rangers rivalry, undoubtedly had the effect of ‘poisoning the well’ of Christianity for many Scots.

Sectarianism meant that in a rapidly secularising culture ‘Christianity’ could be presented as not just irrelevant but as a real social menace – the cause of hatreds and division. The bigotry of many on both sides was ‘grist to the secular mill’ – in that, it could be claimed that the sooner all Christian affiliations were jettisoned the better Scottish society would be. The tragedy, however, was that few of its Saturday afternoon activists ever actually set foot in a church or chapel on Sunday morning.

Sectarianism has been a blight on Scottish society and its demise is something to be celebrated. The cost for the Scottish Church, however, was to be regarded by many as part of a past that Scotland was all the better to leave behind.

MARXIST POLITICS
Potentially dangerous ground this! It’s no secret that Scotland is a ‘left of centre’ nation when it comes to politics. That in itself need be of no great consequence when it comes to the church – after all godly men and women of all political persuasions attend churches and are equally passionate about the Gospel. However, there is perhaps a significance in some of the strands of hard left politics that have been influential in Scotland.

Scottish Socialism like its English counterpart emerged as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, the development of urban Britain and the gathering together of massed labour. As a movement it contained both those who saw Socialism as an essentially Christian response to the inequalities of society (Christian Socialists), and those saw religion as part of the problem (‘the opiate of the people’).

The industrial make-up of many Scottish cities and towns resulted in Socialist politics becoming a dominant force in many parts of Scotland. A Socialism that in many instances was of the radical Marxist variety. In the 1920’s Glasgow was famously called ‘Red Clydeside’ and in commenting, on that period of near revolutionary ferment in the city, the ‘International Socialist Group’ notes: ‘Clydeside threw up a generation of working class intellectuals versed in Marxism whose impact would be felt in the British working class for years to come[2]’.

The strength of such politics can be seen in that Scotland has returned two of the only three Parliamentary seats ever won by the Communist Party in Britain. Even as recently as 2003 the Marxist ‘Scottish Socialist Party’ had six candidates elected to the Scottish Parliament.

The significance of this for the Scottish church is the proportionately greater influence that strong Marxist thinking has had north of the border. As far back as the 1890s Socialist Sunday Schools were being organised in Glasgow[3]. These classes, which spread across the country and were open to all ages, sought to provide a secular alternative to their Christian counterparts. A socialist, and pointedly divine free ‘10 Commandments’ was even produced to accompany these classes[4].

It is not that such Marxist politics have been absent in England (you only need to think of its northern industrial cities like Liverpool) – or that Scotland hasn’t had Christian Socialists. It is that anti-religious political ideas have had a proportionately greater foothold in Scottish society than in the UK as a whole.


PRESBYTERIAN FRAGMENTATION
As with political parties the general public have little time for fractious churches. Disputes and splits (even when unavoidable) are almost always damaging to the reputation of the church and drain huge amounts of time and energy away from its ability to focus on mission.

Sadly the history of Presbyterianism in Scotland has involved a succession of disputes and splits – with each offshoot claiming to be the true ongoing ‘custodian of the truth’. Of course other church groupings, such as the Brethren or Pentecostalism, have taken such factionalism to even greater extremes. The difference in this case however, is that Presbyterianism has prided itself in being ‘national face’ of the church in Scotland.

The Scottish people have consequently been onlookers to a ‘national church system’ marked by successive divisions for over a century. The physical expression of that, which is impossible to miss, is the multiplicity of Presbyterian churches vying against each other in even the smallest Scottish towns. Contrastingly its national counterpart in England has shown, for better or worse, a quite remarkable capacity to hold itself together.

In more recent times, of course, the tensions underlying that English unity have become clearer and seem increasingly stretched. However, even if England should yet see the ‘national face’ of its church breaking-up – it has had the advantage, until now, of Christianity being less tainted by such ‘national level’ church schism than has Scotland.

One further point is that for all its virtues Presbyterianism tends, by its very structure, to ‘flatten out’ the beliefs and energy of the church as whole – if not to the lowest common denominator, certainly to that which is tolerable to what might be a very theologically diverse grouping. In contrast Episcopalianism, for all its faults, does allow an evangelical bishop much more scope to lead and influence the churches he oversees in a positive and Biblically rooted direction. That is, the national church in England has had more potential, at least from time to time, to buck the trend of liberalism than has been the case in its Scottish counterpart. 

LACK OF INDEPENDENT CHURCHES
Historically Scotland has had a smaller constituency of Independent churches relative to England. The dominance of Reformed Presbyterianism, and a more theologically conservative culture across denominations in general, meant there was less space (or perhaps need) for large numbers of autonomous evangelical churches. Whereas some Independent chapels in England can trace their origins back to the 17th Century, the first tangible Congregationalist (Independent) churches don’t register in Scotland until the 18th Century. Indeed it wasn’t until the early 19th Century before such churches became established in any noticeable numbers in Scotland[5].

The significance of this is that larger institutions (including church denominations) have a tendency to become less effective over time. The pull in all such bodies, religious or otherwise, is to become inward looking, self-protective and attractive to people looking for security rather than challenge.

Now of course within Scottish denominations there are many praiseworthy exceptions to this – men and women who stand out in their passion and vision to evangelise and impact the nation for Christ. However, the sociological fact remains that large organisational structures as a whole tend towards atrophy.

For Scotland the dominance of such groupings meant smaller numbers of independent ‘entrepreneurial’ churches and leaders. The church historian Rodney Stark in examining the high level of Christian identification in the USA, argues that it was the lack of establishment Christianity in the ‘New World’ that instilled the need for churches to be much more driven in seeking growth[6]. The argument being, that in such an environment a local church will ‘stand or fall’ (and its pastor be paid or unpaid) on the basis of the people reached and gathered. Thus the spiritual impetus across all churches to evangelise is augmented in Independent churches with a pressing pragmatic edge.

In other words, the Scottish Church has not had England’s historical advantage in having the same level of self-starting, culturally flexible and missionally-urgent churches that a larger Independent constituency provides.

REFLECTIONS & REASONS TO BE HOPEFUL
All the above are suggestions (speculations) on why Scotland’s ‘fall from faith’ has been so severe. Some are doubtless more significant than others and all of them fit into the larger context of an overall decline in Christian affiliation throughout the British Isles. Nonetheless together, they may give some insights into why a country until recently so apparently strong in its Christian identification has so quickly crumbled in the face of secular challenge. There are however, signs that many of the weaknesses are being addressed and reasons for renewed hope.

Immigration patterns into Scotland are changing with increasing numbers now coming from ‘Christian backgrounds’. The sharp rise in the numbers of ethnically diverse churches being a clear sign of that.

Sectarianism is slowly being squeezed out of Scottish life so that it no longer divides it in the way it once did. This a change that is good for civic society but is also freeing the church from many of its past toxic associations.

The second largest Presbyterian denomination the ‘Free Church of Scotland’ is growing and giving Presbyterianism a clear national voice again in Scotland for the Gospel.

Finally, the number of Independent churches is growing – some coming out of denominations, some new Church Plants, others being founded by the Scotland’s new immigrant communities. Each one, along with existing Independent churches, having the grassroots flexibility, impetus and necessity to adapt itself to the task of engaging the great unreached Mission Field that Scotland has now become.




[1] http://www.brin.ac.uk/news/2014/the-british-election-study-2015-religious-affiliation/
[2] http://internationalsocialist.org.uk/index.php/2012/09/the-real-red-clydeside/
[3] http://www.nls.uk/learning-zone/politics-and-society/labour-history
[4] http://gdl.cdlr.strath.ac.uk/redclyde/redcly079.htm
[5] http://hamilton.urc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/A-Scottish-Congregationalism-edited.pdf
[6] Stark R, The Triumph of Christianity, (Harper One), Ch.20


Friday, May 29, 2015

FIEC PASTORAL OVERNIGHT RETREAT

24th-25th August 2015
Faith Mission Bible College Edinburgh 
A lightly programmed 24 hours for pastors to be refreshed and have time-out for personal prayer and devotions.
So often in the busyness of ministry we struggle to set aside meaningful time for spiritual reflection and to simply enjoy the Lord’s presence. 
Such times are, however, vital if we are to remain fresh in ministry and walk close to the Lord.  Without them ministry quickly becomes dry and burdensome. 
To help pastors schedule such important times and use them well, FIEC is facilitating an overnight pastoral retreat. The great advantage of booking one of the limited number of spaces is…
  • It’s in the diary (you’re committed!).
  • You have somewhere quiet and set aside to go.
  • There will be a light programme of devotional thoughts and prayer to help you focus and be encouraged.
  • Trusted friends and experienced pastors will be around should you want to chat or pray with someone.
  • There will be plenty of private time and space for you to rest, read, pray and reflect.

PROGRAMME
12pm              Lunch
1pm                 Afternoon Devotion (led by Richard Underwood, FIEC Pastoral Director).
1.45pm      Quiet Time (pray, read, walk, chat, rest...)
6pm                 Dinner
7pm                 Evening Devotion (including prayer groups)
8pm                 Fellowship Time

8.30am      Breakfast
9.30am      Morning Devotion (including prayer groups)
10.15am        Quiet Time
12pm              Lunch – Depart 
Registration
  • FIEC Pastor/Pastors' Network Member (£42.00)
  • Non FIEC Pastor/Pastors' Network Member (£49.00)
  • BOOK YOUR SPACE HERE