Full House – The Fairytale of Ecclesiastical Bingo, The Church of Scotland and the Million-Member Free Church.

I have taken a break for several months from commenting on the situation of the Church in Scotland in general and the Church of Scotland in particular. But the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Rev John Chalmers, has, together with the news that the Church has voted to allow those in unbiblical relationships to be ministers, finally prompted a response. Oh, how we need wisdom, grace, love and mercy from the Lord. Lord, have pity and revive your work. Rebuild the walls of fallen Jerusalem!

Rev John Chalmers, Moderator of the Church of Scotland, is a good spokesman for the Church of Scotland. He is personable, warm and says some interesting things. In that vein, in the next edition of Life and Work he has made what has been termed as a ‘radical New Year’s message’. He wants the church to find 100,000 new members in the next decade. What can we say to that? Fantastic. 10,000 new Christians per year in Scotland would be a tremendous boost to us all. How encouraging for the whole Church if the Church of Scotland was to do that. I long and pray for that and I would rejoice if it came through the Church of Scotland. It won’t be easy. This year Church of Scotland membership fell below 400,00 for the first time and seems to be in free-fall. To reverse the 20,000 members per year deficit and turn it into a surplus of 10,000 would be enough of a miracle to cause even the most cynical secularist to doubt!

The Moderator is fed up with statistics (otherwise known as facts) that highlight decline, so he wants to change that. He asserts that the “truth about the number of people who belong to our faith communities is quite different”. Indeed it is, but not in the way he suggests. However it is worth quoting him more extensively: “The real challenge is to redefine membership in a way that allows us to include women and men, young and old who do not fit the post-Second World War model of membership with which we are so familiar. That pattern does not resonate with the vast majority of those who are 50 and younger and who will never buy into the kind of church that sits so comfortably with me and my way of expressing my Christian faith.
“It might pain me to say it, but it’s time for a radical change and I don’t mean a change of hymns, or a visually-aided sermon or a new time of day for traditional forms of worship. I mean something much more far reaching than that.”
He said: “I want us to explore how people might be able to belong to the Church of Scotland rooted in reality, which can interact with them in the context of an online community, but also be there for them when they need real human contact.”

Rev Chalmers thinks that because 1.7 million Scots in the 2011 census associated themselves with the Church of Scotland its an opportunity to bring them into the membership of the church. That’s why he wants to ‘redefine’ membership so that those who are not currently members can be counted as such. Social media, Facebook and twitter could be used to help this process. He was supported in this by former Moderator, Rev Albert Bogle, who stated, “there are a huge number out there who need to be nurtured and strengthened in their faith.”

So what’s wrong with all of this? If the Moderators call was a clarion call to evangelism, to reach out with the Good News of Jesus Christ to those who are without Christ and without hope in the world, then it would a welcome call indeed. However this is not about evangelism. It’s about numbers, statistics and a somewhat desperate attempt to preserve the role of the national Church in a Christendom that no longer exists. There is a game that church leaders like to play in our committees, press releases and minds. Its called fantasy church. It’s where we talk about church as we would like it to be, as it was in the past, or as we hope it will be. You know the kind of thing – ‘we have 150 people attending our church….if they were all here, and it wasn’t the holidays, and we include all the children and animals’. I’m afraid the Moderator is playing this game. And his figures don’t add up. It’s sleight of hand. It reminds me of a government announcement that £2 billion extra is going to be spent on roads, when it turns out that its not new money at all, but something that was announced the previous year. The problem is NOT that Church of Scotland membership criteria is too strict and thus putting Christians off from joining. It is rather that it is far too lax and as a result the Church is full of non-believers! I heard the Moderator mislead the nation on BBC Radio Scotland this morning by implying that that membership and attendance at church were synonymous in the Kirk. They are not. Already the vast majority of C of S members do not regularly attend services on a Sunday. It would be interesting to know the exact figures but I would doubt that 100,000 of the 400,000 members will actually be in church this Sunday.

This is seen in so many ways. One minister told me of a church near his town which has a membership of 2,000 and yet when he went to the morning service there were barely 20 there. Another told me of how her congregation had 1,000 members but she was lucky if over 100 of them turned up – and 80% of those who did were women aged over 70. Her church is literally dying. People say these are extremes and that many churches are not like that. Really? Whilst it is true that there are fine, bible teaching and believing growing Churches of Scotland, I’m afraid they are the exception rather than the rule. Last week I met an atheist who told me that his father was an elder in the Kirk, but who never believed! A story that is not unusual.

Instead of the fanciful notion of Albert Bogle and John Chalmers that there are lots of closet Christians out there who really do belong to the Church of Scotland and just need to be ‘outed’, is it not the case that there are in fact just as likely to be as many, if not more, non-believers who are already in the Kirk? Such people need to be converted, not replicated. Telling people that they are Christians when they don’t know Christ is a mark of a false teacher, not a faithful servant of the Gospel. Of course there are those who are ‘on a journey’ and there are others who are legalists and hypocrites…and all of us are at best sinners – which is why our relationship with Jesus Christ is far more important than whether we have a certificate of membership or not. I’m sure Albert is right in saying that there are people out there who need to be nurtured and strengthened in their faith – but I’m even more certain that the main problem both within and out with the church is that most people do not have a saving faith in Jesus Christ. When the Son of Man comes will he find faith in Scotland?

The call to have a type of social media membership is horrendous. I have over 2500 ‘friends’ on Facebook. Does that mean I have 2500 friends?! I would count myself blessed to have 1% of that number! The Church of Scotland needs to purge its membership roll and get back to basics. 10,000 committed, radical loving and serving Christians are far more likely to turn Scotland upside down, than one million social media ‘members’ of the Church. Paper members look good on paper. They ain’t no good for reality.

The Free Church can play that game too. Do you know that we have one million members? Apart from our actual membership of 5,500 and attendance of over 13,000….there are lots of others. Those whose relatives were once Free Church, those who attend schools where there are some Free Church children are surely part of our ‘community’…why, my postman, newsagent and shop server are part of the wider community of which we are part and thus ‘belong’. If we play this game we can get to the million figure quite soon! It’s of course all non-sense and yet the C of S seriously plays this game. One parish minister told me that for the purpose of statistics what the C of S administration do is basically take a parish population of say 10,000, remove the Catholics (say 2000) and then count the rest as Church of Scotland – so lo and behold there are 8,000 of our ‘people’….its magic!

The Moderator spoke of a ‘Church of Scotland rooted in reality’. Absolutely. That is so what is needed. This game of fantasy church does not help. It is at best delusional and at worst deceptive. And it’s not just the Church of Scotland that needs to wake up to reality. The Free Church and the rest of the Church in Scotland have to do as well. That might scare us. Reality often does. But then we are also people who believe in the real Jesus and the real Gospel – not the paper one. God has the power to bring light into the darkness – but it is so much harder when we even deny the existence of the darkness.

What the church needs is more new Christians, not more paper or online members. And for that we need a clear proclamation of the Good News. Ironically just after I heard the Moderator on the radio this morning, I heard another former Moderator give a thought for the day in which he spoke about the Church of Scotland having ‘a clear voice’ on climate change. I’m afraid important as climate change is, that is not what the Church most needs to be clear on. Nor is it even issues like sexuality on which the church needs to be clear. Although it would help if they were. As an example of ‘clearness’ consider how the C of S has voted to uphold the traditional biblical view that marriage is between a man and a woman and that those in same sex sexual relationships cannot be ministers, whilst at the same time announcing that they will allow those in same sex relationships to be ministers! How ironic that today news came that the majority of Church of Scotland presbyteries (27 so far) have voted to accept this fantasy surrealness of the mixed economy! Its almost as though the C of S has a death wish.

No, the real issue, the crunch issue, the eternal issue, is whether the church upholds, teaches and practices the truth of which it is the pillar and foundation. The reality is that without a real faith in the real Christ, without a Church centered on him and his Word, then we are lost. John Chalmers commented, ““It’s time to go on the attack, and the best form of attack is not to attack the secularists, I’m not interested in that. The best form of attack is to grow the church.” And again like so much he says we say amen, and then ask ‘what do you mean?’ How do you grow the church by having members, elders and ministers who don’t believe? How do you grow the church by contradicting the Word that the head of that Church has given for that growth? How do you grow His Church by ignoring Him? How do you grow the Church by refusing to engage in spiritual warfare?

Instead of playing ecclesiastical bingo and fantasy church, lets be really radical, face up to reality and follow Christ as head of the Church and listen to what he says in his Word. Then, and only then, will we know reformation, renewal and revival. There really are two contrasting visions here. The one pretends that Christendom still exists and plays at virtual church. The other vision is of that Full House, when all God’s people are brought in, a number too great to count, and the Bride of Christ is perfected. Even so come soon Lord Jesus.

David Robertson

See also – http://www.christiantoday.com/article/church.of.scotland.will.online.outreach.help.ailing.attendance.figures/43897.htm

10 thoughts on “Full House – The Fairytale of Ecclesiastical Bingo, The Church of Scotland and the Million-Member Free Church.

  1. This is a thinly veiled accusation of “wrong” and of being a “false teacher, not a faithful servant of the Gospel” to Rev John Chalmers. Interesting that it should coincide with a recent posting about “tribalism” on David’s home facebook page. Stating that the Free Church can “play this game” is of course an admission that there is the potential for wrong and false teaching in the Free church, yet portrays the Free Church as an ambassador of truth to Rev John Chalmer’s “wrong”.

    It is of course adversarial and does not consider any wrongs in the Free church of which there not doubt are many as there are in any human institution. It is easy to point out issues in other discriminations and individuals and not as easy to do with ones own denomination and oneself.

    When the woman accused of of adultery was about to be stoned, Jesus said for he who is without sin to cast the first stone and the woman was spared.

    If you find this comment irritating David, may I suggest i love and respect that you surrender your thoughts and feelings to Jesus and consider viewing things differently?

    1. Oh dear Adam – you use the story of the woman caught in adultery to criticise me for criticising. Ironic isn;t it! You use the story about casting stones, to cast stones….oh what a tangled web we weave when we get caught in this post-moren morass of many words and meaninglessness!

      And no it is not a thinly veiled accusation – it is a completely open one. And if you think it is tribalism to preach the Bible, uphold the teachings of Jesus and challenge the whole church to do so – then so be it.

      As for your adversarial comment about being adversarial what more can one say? Except that I am not claiming the Free Church is spotless etc and I more often critique my own church…..

      Perhaps next time before you comment – you should relax, take a deep breath, read what is actually being said, and then read your reply….you would at least avoid the self-contradictions!

      1. I actually agree with many of Adam’s points. David, when someone points out that we are not to cast stones (particularly at our brothers and sisters) it is no defence whatsover to say “but you’re doing it too if you point it out to me”. This form of whataboutery does no one any favours. It is a regular sidestepping tactic of yours on this issue of your regular writing against other Christians, which the press loves. You attack another Christian, then if called out on it, you reply that whoever is calling you out must also be attacking you. Even if this argument were valid, you are essentially saying “well you did it too” rather than actually show willingness to consider the truth of the comment.

        Adam is not throwing a stone at you. He is laying a hand of restraint on your arm and suggesting you perhaps should hold off the (regular and repeated) assaults on other Christians, and his reminder to us all, myself included, to examine our own motives is timely and to be thanked rather than mocked and patronised.

      2. Monk – you miss the point entirely. When someone complains in public that it is wrong for me to publicly criticise other Christians mu justification is not ‘well you do it too’. My justification is simply that I think it is in some circumstances ok to criticise other Christians in public – a point with which those who are complaining about me, obviously agree, because they too are doing it! That should be obvious. So yes I do regard your comments as a) illogical, b) mocking and patronising. And I do question your motives. If you as an intelligent person cannot see the blindingly obvious and instead choose to make an illogical point in order to attack me, can it be because your motives are somewhat mixed?!

        On the wider level I regard this protective hedge you want placed around everyone who calls themselves ‘Christian’ (except yours truly!) as unbiblical and indeed unchristian. If the devil comes as an angel of light then do we have to treat him as an angel? If a ‘Christiian’ comes as a false teacher should we be ‘restrained’, if a Christian denies Christ and attacks his Word should we be silent because they profess to be Christian? What would Jesus do?

      3. David, while this is a publicly viewable forum, Adam was addressing you directly, not blogging about (against) you. These are very different situations. Another side step.

        You did not address the issue of your mocking and patronising tone to Adam. Instead, you just said “no, you are mocking and patronising”. Another side step. Can you honestly not see the pattern?

        I have never said anything about protective hedges, but like Adam, I agree that we need to avoid the temptations of casting stones and blogging loudly about the specs of dust in the eyes of other Christians. If that is what you mean by protective hedges then yes, you are within my protective hedge too.

        There are many other ways of dealing with difference in the Church, which are much more biblical, much more loving and much more effective. Jesus is never quoted as accusing others of being illogical and he knows my motives intimately. I was not mocking or patronising you. I was asking you to stop doing it to another Christian. Self defence or ” you’re doing it too” is not an excuse for sin.

  2. David, having read your article I would have to agree and say that the ‘National’ Church needs to be called to account and explain it’s position as far as the stance it is taking on what we are agreed are non-Biblical teachings. Having come from a Church of Scotland Presbyterian background I find that the whole overall ‘Church’ is in a shambles. Controlled by a head office with numerous committees it hands down instructions for Presbyteries to follow, and pity help them if they don’t. At Assembly many of the dissenting voices are quietened as strategic and important issues are fudged as in the whole same sex marriage and ordination argument that is raging at the moment. Churches are being closed and congregations ordered to merge with others, often far outwith the geographical area. We know that times are hard but there seems to be no rhyme nor reason to some of their decisions.
    I have met on my travels a trainee minister, passed as fit by the Board of Minstry who did not believe in Original Sin, another who did not believe in the place or power of the Holy Spirit.
    Many elders of the church, who have a huge responsbility, if they have been taught properly for the spiritual oversight of the congregation and yet many only turn up when they are on the rota to hand out the hymn books etc. They would be horrified if they were expected to visit people in their own homes and pray with them.
    There is also I have found a huge cultural divide between the North and South or the Highlands and Islands and the Central Belt regarding the whole issue of belief and faith and what membership etc of the Church means.
    Where therefore does the fault lie for the state of the nation? Let’s be honest and admit that in a lot of churches the fault lies with the leadership and who pulls the strings. In trying to be relational we very often fall into the trap of becoming more like the world rather than being the model we hope and pray the world would become.
    I believe the answer lies and I quote you directly here “No, the real issue, the crunch issue, the eternal issue, is whether the church upholds, teaches and practices the truth of which it is the pillar and foundation. The reality is that without a real faith in the real Christ, without a Church centered on him and his Word, then we are lost.”
    Everyone of us has our faults, flaws and frailties so none of us are perfect. We are all sinners saved by grace. We are called to be disciples of the Risen Christ and follow His teaching so if we can try and do that, sticking to the real Biblical teachings instead of the altered images that we have made and stop trying to assimilate into society, but rather show society that there is another way then and only then will we start to make a difference. May God bless you as you continue to strive to carry out what He has set for you to do.

  3. Thank you for a great reply to these comments from the moderator. I regard membership of a church as symbolic, a recognition of when someone accepts Jesus as Lord of their life. It is never perfect, I became a church member after I and my church at that time believed I came to a saving faith in Jesus. Some years later I was not convinced either of us were correct at that time, and I do wish more churches would follow the Bible with offering baptisms for new believers, but that is another matter! I don’t see it as important. It is far more important to actually be a member of the church (i.e. be saved), and actually to be joined together with other believers. It is very possible, even in the good churches, to be a member on paper and have practically no connection with other people in the church. And then there are those who have no access to church in the conventional sense, perhaps in prison, retirement home, living in a difficult country, or in a rural area. The constant pressure to be a member of a church, and the subtle implications for their salvation are not helpful. Yet, saying all that, I agree, it should be a mark that someone is a believer.
    I left the CoS about a year and a half ago. At one of the last Session meetings before I resigned, we discussed membership of our church. We might wonder what lies behind statements such as those made by the Moderator, but from that meeting I believe there are two things. The first is that there is no concern for souls. The discussion was (and always was) initiated by a need for greater numbers (it makes us look ‘viable’), and more money in the collection plate. There was never a desire to see people saved. And that leads me to my second point; because they would see everyone as saved whether they know it or not anyway. So why not invite someone who wants to be involved to be a member? In the end I couldn’t be a part of a ‘church’ that basically wasn’t – i.e. was not a collection of fellow believers (I recognise that every church should have none believers – hopefully seekers!). I think that is the problem with the CoS, basically filled with people who do not have a relationship with Jesus. Again that is a general statement, there are CoS churches that I would have no hesitation in joining. Although, I doubt I would join officially, I wouldn’t want the CoS, or any other denomination, to use my membership as a sign of my support for them. But that is a much bigger question, why do we want to see ‘members’ anyway. Isn’t it more important that people are saved and committed to the church anyway?

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