Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Clydebuilt for the Gospel

An article written for the FIEC website.

Clydebuilt for the Gospel primary image
In 1914 almost a fifth of the world’s shipping fleet had been built on the River Clyde. The term ‘Clydebuilt’ was synonymous with quality and the mark of the preeminent shipbuilders of the time. In Glasgow the banks of the river were lined with dockyards employing tens of thousands – it was here the Lusitania, The Queen Mary, The Queen Elizabeth, the QE2 and 30,000 other ships were built in the 19th and 20th centuries.
an old photo of a Glasgow shipyardYoker in the west of Glasgow was one of the communities that grew to accommodate the vast army of workers drawn to the Clyde, creating a great new mission field for the gospel. Seeing this need was James Crawford, a local man with a burden for the factory workers and their families. Thus in February 1914, along with James Wood, another man with the same concern, ‘Yoker Mission Hall’ was opened (becoming Yoker Evangelical Church in 1979).
Throughout the following century, through two World Wars (the hall surviving a direct hit during the Clydebank Blitz), economic depressions and upturns, three buildings, and the many social changes, the fellowship at Yoker has been a constant witness for Christ in the area. From the very start the church committed itself to a strong programme of outreach activities including Open Airs, Tea Meetings, visits from evangelists and community events.
In 2011 Robbie Brown became its current pastor and continues to share the vision and burden of reaching the community of Yoker with the gospel. Today the shipyards are few and the workers along the Clyde number just a few thousand in total. The loss of these industries has left Yoker with high unemployment and social needs (albeit with pockets of affluence). It’s an area where one local school reported that 75% of its children were in lone-parent families. Robbie’s heart is for YEC to be as mission focused in 2014 as it was in 1914 – holding out the unchangeable truths of the gospel in words and actions that can connect with the Yoker of the 21st century.
Robbie Brown

One hundred years on outreach now includes a community cafĂ©, involvement in local schools, carer and toddlers groups, children’s and youth activities, and regular leafleting of the area. Among recent encouragements is the story of one local family whose son attended the church’s ‘Good News Club’. The son started asking his mum questions about the Bible at home and in response she came to the church to find out more. At that point in her life she was struggling with various issues, but through contact with the church she came to faith. In time her partner found himself in a Christian Rehab centre where he also put his trust in Jesus. Robbie has since had the great joy of marrying the couple and seeing them now serving in church. It’s just one example of the many lives and families transformed by the gospel in Yoker over the past century.
YEC has changed hugely since its beginning and doubtless the next hundred years, if the Lord doesn’t return, will bring its own upheavals and transformations. However the church can be certain of two things: Firstly the unchanging need of the inhabitants of Yoker to find peace with God. Secondly, the need of mission-focused gospel churches like YEC to point them to Christ, who alone can make that peace possible.
Humanly, Yoker’s fame is for its great ships and liners, but eternally its fame will surely be the gospel vision and faithfulness of churches like YEC; God’s own ‘lifeboats’ on the Clyde.
Andy Hunter photo
Andy Hunter - FIEC Scotland Director
Before joining FIEC in November 2013, Andy worked for Greenview Church in Glasgow for nine years, prior to which he trained at Oak Hill College in London. He is married to Jessica and they have three children.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Mini Mega Church?

‘The trouble with the UK is that it tries to be a mini United States’. This was a comment (or words to that effect) spoken by Michael Portillo, former Secretary of State for Defence, on ‘This Week’ a few years back. He was talking about defence cuts and the relentless squeeze on military spending – his point being that the UK had the mentality that it should do everything the US did (a throwback to the time it was a super-power). So despite being much smaller numerically and economically, the UK feels it ought to have everything from Aircraft Carriers to Tank Divisions to a Nuclear capability, with everything in between. According to Portillo this meant that at the outer edges all these things tended to run on a ‘shoe string’. In other words because the ‘jam’ had to be so ‘thinly spread’ no bit of Britain’s defence network was particularly well looked after or resourced.

It was an observation that stuck in my mind as relevant to many churches. The problem can start with the deluge of church blueprint books, conferences and on-line resources – very often emanating from a few very large churches. By dint of their size these churches (the ones we all tend to know about and rightly admire) can run a vast array of ministries – publishing, conferences, training programmes, international ministries, media ministries etc etc. It’s all brilliant stuff, it can provide some great resources, ideas and examples for the wider church – but it can create an unreality especially for smaller churches.

The danger is that Pastors feel the pressure that their 50/100/150 member church should be a ‘mini mega-church’ –i.e. 'we should be doing all these things!' A pressure often stoked by well-meaning members who too have read the books or been to the conferences. The result can be small or medium sized churches swamped with ministries – church programmes stuffed with every imaginable type of activity. All worthy, but the smaller resources overall mean they have to run on a ‘shoe-string’, either involving the same, increasingly worn out, faithful few or just running at the bare minimum of resources and people. 

Is your small/medium church constantly starting new ministries (or feeling it should be) only to be constantly bemoaning the lack of support? If that’s the case maybe the need is to accept that you're not the ‘United States of Church’ – and while trying to do everything is a noble ambition, it probably means doing a lot of things poorly. Better to accept that we can’t fight every battle or meet every need – but in the areas we can, we will do it really well.  

The modern State of Israel, knew its enemies and they weren’t out at sea. It single-mindedly focussed its resources and developed one of the most effective small armies in the world. The UK will soon have two prestige aircraft carriers but its infantry (despite their heroism and sacrifice) couldn’t hold Basra or Helmand. 

What must we do and what can we do best? These are the strategic questions churches need to ask themselves – and resist the pressure (or indeed pride) to do more than the Lord has equipped them for. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Big Mother is watching you...

Copy of letter to my Member of the Scottish Parliament on some concerning proposals. 


Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill – State Guardian Proposal

I am writing to you as a concerned parent and citizen regarding the above - the proposal by which the Scottish Government would appoint a named State Guardian for every child in Scotland, the Guardian being a third party employee of the State. You will doubtless be aware of the many voices already expressing deep concern about this representing a wide spectrum of society including local authorities, legal experts (The Law Society and the Faculty of Advocates), sociologists, faith groups, and Holyrood’s own Finance Committee. Indeed it seems that such proposals may well run contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights which specifically enshrines the right to a private family life.

This would seem to be a classic example of ‘a sledge-hammer being used to crack a nut’. Is it really proportionate and indeed realistic to subject every family in Scotland to this kind of monitoring. If there are genuine and demonstrable reasons to believe a child is at risk then, as already happens, appropriate guardians and monitors (such as Social Workers) should be appointed. In the same way that the Police need reasons to scrutinize the private affairs of citizens so should Child Protection agencies – a carte blanche right for the State to monitor the private life of families would be a massive (and I think rather sinister) move away from the liberties we rightly prize in a democratic and free society.

The problems with the detail of how such Guardians would operate are many: What are the restrictions and limitations on Guardians in monitoring children? What are the safeguards on this role being abused? Will parents get the right to object to the appointment of a particular person as their child’s guardian? What will qualify as an area of concern for a Guardian – e.g. a family’s approach to study, discipline, politics, religion, morality, diet, fashion…? Will a Guardian be open to prosecution or other court action if they are negligent and a child is not protected? What would negligence consist of?

We are constantly told by political parties of their desire to empower parents and yet this proposed legislation will almost inevitably leave parents feeling vulnerable and disempowered. How else are parents to feel when told by their government that, regardless of any actual concerns, an employee of the State will be checking their parenting is up 'to scratch’?

Please let me encourage you to stand against this particular proposal and to vote for its amendment or removal. There are surely far better ways to protect vulnerable children rather than subjecting every family in the country (at doubtless huge bureaucratic expense) to this kind of inspection and potential intrusion.

Yours sincerely, 

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

No Dissent Allowed


Overseas friends, take note - Scotland and England are not the same – that’s not a political point just a statement of the obvious. Scotland has a distinct legal system, education system, sporting identity, its own banknotes, and of course its own parliament – and this year even the possibility of complete independence.

The Scottish church too has a separate identity. There was no ‘British Reformation’ – rather there was an English Reformation and a Scottish Reformation – two events distinct in their timings, personalities, causes, and consequences. Indeed that the Reformation took hold in both England and Scotland was not inevitable – during the English Reformation Scotland was a separate independent country and remained Catholic – a position it might have retained to the present day, as Ireland did for example.

As we know, however, it didn’t and its Reformation proved to be one of the most thorough experienced by any country – going significantly beyond England in its reform of national church practise and structures. Indeed there was a vigour and intensity to the Scottish Reformation that made it much more an issue of conscience than of the politics that often drove the movement elsewhere. So while, to some extent (and of course this generalises) the English Reformation focused on the emancipation of the State from Papal jurisdictions, the Scottish Reformation was not content until the church was emancipated from the State.

From a human perspective it is somewhat surprising that Scotland became such a hotspot of the Protestant Reformation. Geographically Scotland is on the edge of Europe and in the 15th and 16th centuries was not greatly prominent among its nations. Christianity had had little opportunity to infiltrate Scotland under the Romans – their Empire stopped at Hadrian’s Wall. Only in the 6th century did Christianity become established through the missionary work of St Columba. In the following centuries Scotland gradually became a unified nation (the clans recognising ‘one crown’ in the 9th century) and securing political independence in the wars with England under Wallace and Bruce in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Religiously, it was in the 12th century that Scottish Christianity became institutionally Catholic. The previous indigenous Christian communities (the Culdees) were overtaken by the establishment of formal church structures from abroad. Scotland became a nation of Bishops, Abbots, Monasteries and Church courts – all under the jurisdiction of Rome. The Catholic Church prevailed and indeed no other church would have been tolerated. As elsewhere in Europe the church of the day became hugely powerful and wealthy extending its reach into every area of civic and political life. Thus was the religious order in Scotland for about 400 years.

However, by the 16th Century, as across Europe, it was a church unrecognisable from its New Testament beginnings. Centuries of doctrinal additions, the priest-craft that had turned Christian worship into magical ceremonies, the refusal to allow ordinary people access to the Bible, and the inevitable corruption brought by wealth and power – had made it ripe for reform or rejection.

For the ordinary person Scotland was a nation controlled by an establishment elite, convinced of their superior worldview, whose ultimate aim was the retention of their power and the benefits it brought them. If you fitted in, said the ‘right things’ and ‘doffed your cap’ to the approved belief structures then you would get by – even get on. It was a ‘one party state’ in which to live peacefully you had to ‘toe the party line’ – dissent would bring accusations, scrutiny, hostility, perhaps the loss of employment or reputation, even imprisonment or worse – unless your unacceptable ideas were quickly and publicly recanted.

It was the 'ideological straight-jacket' that always seems to accompany one group having all the power. A few years ago I sat with a Bulgarian Pastor; he told me that as a youth in 1970s Bulgaria he was not allowed to go to university because of his Christian beliefs. The response of the Communist authorities to any view that challenged their ideology was to punish it – to exclude and suppress those who differed.

For Evangelicals today the above scenarios are no longer unimaginable – Scotland is governed by a tight political and media elite. An elite who decree the acceptable beliefs of the day – viewpoints on morality, religious practise, education... that are shibboleths on which any hope of public advancement depend. Even today a petition signed by 54,000 Scottish citizens has had their addresses redacted before being submitted to the Scottish Parliament, such is the fear of potential reprisals by public bodies. Dissenters can be isolated and subject to sanction - unless, of course, they quickly admit their foolishness and seek re-acceptance into the ‘club’. 

Scotland in 1514 and Scotland in 2014 are not a million miles apart - the Evangelical faith is hardly on the radar, establishment beliefs seem dominant and secure, and there is no great sense of how things might change. But change came and Scotland became a bastion of evangelical faith – a shining light for the Gospel.

However, the change didn’t just happen – a range of factors and great sacrifices were required to bring it about. It's those factors subsequent blogs will seek to unpack.

1.       Source Material: Much of the historical material I’m drawing on is from ‘Protestantism in Scotland’ (Copyright – 2013 Jawbone Digital), first published in 1878. Being from the Victorian era it is somewhat flowery and romanticised in places and I’m also conscious of the kind of embellishments that a book written very much as a defence of the Reformation can contain. Thus I’ve used it largely as a resource for names, dates and key events rather than for its commentary on them.

2.       Sectarianism: The story of the Reformation is by definition the story of conflict between the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland and those who sought to reform or replace it. The concern/interest of these pieces however, is not so much in the theological faults of Catholicism but in the story of the Reformed Evangelical faith – how it fared and took hold in the face of a prevailing ideology and establishment that was deeply hostile to it. The latter points being the lessons of most relevance to Evangelicals today - who again are a tiny minority in Scotland and finding their beliefs increasingly in conflict with the dominant worldview. So although there are inevitably many references to Catholicism this is not a polemic against it – but a larger reflection on the lessons evangelical Christians might learn from Scottish history.