Reflections on the ‘Transforming Scotland - Tim Keller Event’ (Edinburgh, 25 Oct 18).
Over 100 church and ministry leaders attended the latest ‘Transforming Scotland’ gathering in Edinburgh. The ‘big draw’ on this occasion was the presence of Tim Keller – whose analysis of the cultural and spiritual challenges facing the contemporary church is always worth hearing.
Dr Keller did not disappoint, he expertly described the huge shifts that have turned Christianity from being the definer of Western culture into now being its very antithesis in many areas. Thus Christianity has to contend with a domineering worldview that sees the very ideas of divine authority, redemption, and self-sacrifice as fundamentally oppressive.
Thinking hard about the future
Regarding where this clash of worldviews would lead, Dr Keller was reluctant to predict but outlined some key areas the church needs to think hard about. This included: (1) Discipling people in a digital age, both in terms of the overwhelming input of non-Christian views people now receive, but also in overcoming the corrosive effects of social media in diminishing empathy and in relentlessly promoting self. (2) How we effectively share the Gospel with a generation who increasingly have no concept of or agreement with the Biblical presentation of God and sin. (3) The extent to which Western governments might seek to penalise Bible-believing Christians?
However, the gathering was more than a lecture; its intention was that leaders from across Scotland would be able to consider these challenges together and to think collectively about how they might be met. It’s a vision enabled by the generosity of the Maclellan Foundation and its wider work supporting Gospel work in Scotland. Among other things it funded Barna research in 2015, a helpful survey of current attitudes to Christianity and the state of the Scottish church.
A rare gatheringThe Transforming Scotland gatherings are in themselves rare occasions – pulling together leaders from a wide range of evangelical constituencies along with para-church representatives (who often work across those constituencies). Thus there were leaders from more conservative groupings along with those from charismatic and more open evangelical circles. While some might be uneasy at the very notion of this; it is to the credit of Transforming Scotland that they have this heart and are able to bring together leaders who may otherwise have very little contact or knowledge of each other.
The closing section of the gathering was given over to discussion around tables – both to chat about the implications of Dr Keller’s analysis but also how Scottish churches might be more collegiate in meeting the challenges. The limited time meant that any conclusions were roughly formed and sometimes lacked the benefit of a fuller explanation.
However, with the benefit of more time to consider the event and its call for those present to seek greater unity, here are some further reflections…
1. Scottish Tribalism: Dr Keller highlighted what he perceived to be a high level of tribalism among Scottish Christians. Bearing in mind his wide-ranging global experience that is an observation we need to take seriously. At some levels there has been a lessening of congregational tribalism – for example, the Regional Gospel Partnerships established in recent years have brought together leaders from a range of denominational and non-denominational churches. Likewise CLAN (Churches Linked Across the Nation) has brought together people from different churches. However, the churches being brought together in both these examples are typically of ‘a type’ – sharing a similar ecclesiastical personality and theological flavour. Thus ‘tribalism’ (where it exists) tends to be between these groupings rather than individual churches.
2. Loving our Neighbours: among those tribes there are some significant issues of difference – not least, the emphasis given to certain aspects of the Gospel. Additionally there are also some real practical obstacles to joint fellowship (let’s be real). These mean that partnerships are not always going to be straightforward or even that feasible at times – that is a shame, but it should not be an excuse for never doing anything or indeed for a lack of love and respect. As someone has said, ‘We may not be able to live in the same house but we can be good neighbours’.
In this regard the work of Transforming Scotland & Maclellan is to be welcomed – if nothing else it brings the ‘neighbours’ together and in doing so helps break down points of unnecessary suspicion and division.
3. Speaking Well of Each Other: bringing people together and putting a human face on differences is almost always a helpful thing. It means that having met others personally we are less likely to be dismissive or unkind about them elsewhere. So even where significant differences exist, and formal or structural partnerships are not possible we can at least ‘speak well of each other’. We ought to be cheerleaders for the growth of the Gospel anywhere (Paul was prepared to give thanks for Gospel work even when it was fuelled by low motives, Php 1:15-17).
Evangelical Christians in Scotland are a tiny minority and we must resist the temptation to become more obsessed about our factional interests than the cause of Christ across the nation. So wherever in Scotland we see Christ being preached and people are coming to saving faith we should bless it.
4. Brothers not Brands: one practical outworking of loving each other is to resist competitiveness. This can work in two ways: firstly, we must avoid a ‘brand building’ mentality. That is, seeking to expand our church networks or planting regardless of the gospel work of others. We see this in some of our cities – new churches being planted in areas already (relatively) well-served by Bible-believing churches when other much more gospel needy areas are by-passed. Conversely, we must avoid insecure or jealous reactions to the planting of new churches. In a time of such overwhelming gospel our first reaction should be to give thanks for the good efforts of others.
5. All shapes & sizes
Integrity means each will rightly hold onto their convictions, and if we value the pursuit of Biblical truth we can’t simply homogenise and give-up those beliefs. However, humility equally accepts that no church grouping is without error and blind-spots. No one church grouping is going to reach Scotland on its own – we need, to borrow the Dunkirk analogy, ships and boats of all shapes and sizes for this rescue mission. As Dr Keller noted, God in His wisdom has used a surprising array of Christians and churches to extend His Kingdom over the centuries – and praise be to Him that He does.