Is the Free Church the Answer?
(The Church in Scotland in 2015 – part 3)
In my two previous posts (see links below) I looked at why the Church of Scotland is in decline and some of the problems with the notion of a Post-Presbyterian Scotland. But what about the Free Church? I am a Free Church minister (and have been so for 29 years!) and I am, despite numerous letdowns and pains, a loyal ‘Free Churchman’. Therefore it seems legitimate for Christians in other denominations, who perceive themselves to be under attack, by some of the articles I write, to ask what about the Free Church? Am I really seeking to build up my own denomination by knocking down others? I really hope that is not the case. In some sense one is harder on one’s own family. But I do think it is time for us to take an overview of where the Free Church is.
There is no doubt that the Free Church of Scotland is on the up. And it’s not primarily because of ex-Church of Scotland people coming to us. There have been significant changes that the Lord seems to be blessing. The following is a brief overview, (the history of the Free Church in the 20th Century remains to be written) but lets summarise the past four decades in the church. One caveat – this is personal and through my eyes and will not necessarily correspond with other peoples experience.
The 1980’s were a good time for a young person to come into the Free Church. There was a buzz about the young people, Highways and Byways missions were on going, church planting happened, and the youth camps were growing and developing. A number of young men came into the ministry who are now effectively the main leaders in today’s church. Going through the Free Church College was exciting and for me, being the youngest minister in the church (in Brora), in what was then the most exciting Presbytery (the Northern) in the denomination, it seemed as though the only way was up.
And then came the 1990’s. Whilst I enjoyed moving to St Peters in Dundee and gradually seeing a dying congregation revived, the 1990’s was a dreadful decade in the denomination that almost killed us. A declining church struggled with internal infighting over discipline, the future direction of the church, money and how we coped with a changing ecclesiastical and civil culture in Scotland. This resulted in the split of 2000 and the forming of the Free Church (Continuing)- yet another Presbyterian church claiming to be the true heirs of the Scottish Reformation! Despite the dire warnings of a third of the Church leaving, we lost less than 10%, although we did lose 26 ministers. Whilst it was painful, and we lost some good people, overall it turned out that much of it was ‘blessed subtraction’ – we lost a number of people who were significant hindrances to the development and growth of the church. As a result the dam was broken and the church actually advanced 20 years in two.
The 2000’s were a decade of re-building and some renewal. We had major issues to deal with – the most important in a structural sense were worship, the college, mission and finance. We began to face up to all of these, with a number of leaders and thinkers stepping up to the mark. At a personal level I felt that if the Church had not reformed and renewed by my 25th year in the ministry (2011) then it would have been over. However things did change. Dramatically. Not just with the stunning decision over worship but also in a more realistic attitude to who we were and what needed to be done. The worship decision was stunning not only because of the result (which no-one expected), but the way it was done and the fact, that despite all the direst predictions, there was not another split in the church.
And so to the current decade. We are half way through and in many ways things are looking up. Membership is increasing, some churches are growing, new church plants are again happening, new churches are coming in, the college (now Edinburgh Theological Seminary) has moved from the point of closure to wandering where to put all the new students, the youth conference is packed out, churches are developing new ministries and much, much more. There is a sense of excitement, encouragement and renewal. This was captured well by one of our missionaries from South America, who having just been on furlough here makes the following observations:
“Finally, a wee word of encouragement: having visited so many congregations of the FCS and talked to so many people, we are deeply encouraged ourselves after having seen the overall change in mood that we have sensed all over it. There is a sense of renewed passion for the Gospel, a sense of joy for the growth seen (small in some places, spectacular in others, yet still expected in others… but it is expected, not only wished for!), and a very beautiful sense of unity in diversity (which was an open question the last time we visited) and which has made of the FCS a welcoming church for our brethren who have had to leave their own churches for different reasons in a necessarily painful process, but who can feel welcomed and embraced in a church where they can heal and go on serving and worshipping God in a nurturing environment. “
Have we arrived? Some of us have been working hard for decades to see this kind of change and we are thankful…but…(and you knew there had to be a ‘but’), we have only just begun. I want to look at some problems and possibilities. Again a caveat. I don’t mean to offend people and I don’t want you to read between the lines..there is no in-between! And I also reluctantly admit that each of these problems I identify, are mine as an individual as well as the church as a community.
- We are too Proud – Sinful pride is always a killer. I once saw a documentary that spoke about the Free Church in Lewis as being ‘the last stronghold of the pure Gospel’. It is a title that sometimes we are too keen to take seriously. Whilst it is right to be thankful for what the Lord has given us, it is sinful to take the glory to ourselves. Pride takes deep root in our hearts and is hard to root out.
- We are too Parochial – After a century of being the ‘Wee Frees’, often derided as a bunch of ignorant Highlanders, it is difficult to move from a defensive mindset to a more open one. It is very easy to be become focused on our own small ecclesiastical world and not see the bigger picture. Whilst we need to beware of the ‘tyranny of the visionary’, we need also to realize that without vision the people perish.
- We are too Petty – Being parochial can in turn lead to a pettiness that is not healthy. People become obsessed about relatively trivial things. As one minister said, “I have seen people weep over the movement of a communion table. I have never seen them weep over the lost”. Sometimes the pettiness, and the resultant grudges astonish me. I have seen people passionate about exclusive psalmody, women wearing hats, times of services, pulpits, ‘the traditions’ or the latest ecclesiastical fads, but not noticed that same passion for Christ. There is something wrong when people can argue about posture in prayer and the timing of the prayer meeting, but then seldom if ever actually go to it. I am now at a stage in life that when I see someone being upset about the movement of a pulpit, I don’t believe them. There are almost always underlying issues and reasons (which even they may not be aware of), which indicate that a principle of ‘transference’ is in operation. Most issues are actually personal, not doctrinal, and this means that people sometimes transfer their angst about personal issues (which are too sore to discuss) on to ecclesiastical issues, which have the advantage of enabling you to feel passionate about the holy, whilst not letting anything get to close to your real situation.
- We are too Political – Presbyterianism is perfect for amateur politicians. With our church courts, committees, agendas, strategies, and organisations – it is far too easy for things to become too political. The 1990’s were a severe warning to us how dangerous it is to play politics with Christ’s Church. Although things are a lot healthier I am not convinced that we have got rid of that political spirit altogether. It means that we are far too easily blocked from doing things, changing things and moving on for the Gospel. Every church needs and has structures and procedures, but even more we need Spirit filled men and women who can use and fill those structures and procedures for the glory of Christ, not politicians who will misuse them for their own glory.
- We are Poor – Although in many ways we are rich. The Lord has richly blessed us. We have been given a rich heritage, we have a fount of rich bible teaching, we a rich resource in our wonderful people….and yet I cannot help but feel that the words of Christ to the church in Laodicea are applicable to us: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so that you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so that you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so that you can see. 19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. 20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.
Maybe it’s a bit harsh to say we are ‘poor’ – but how else can you describe the decline in the evening service, the half-hearted approach to evangelism, the ‘me, me and my tribe’ attitude, and above all the lack of interest in corporate prayer. The latter is always a sure sign of spiritual declension. And lest people think that I am lashing out in frustration against others I just simply add mea culpa, ‘I am the chief of sinners’!
But I don’t want to leave it there. Christ not only challenged the seven churches, he also commended them for what they had, and their faithfulness. There is the paradox of being a sinner in a sinful church in a sinful world. We are full of contradictions of grace and mercy!
1) Presbyterian – We should be encouraged that we are Presbyterian, in the best biblical sense of the world. We are not in a state of chaotic anarchy. We are not a denomination dominated by one or two mega-celebrities or personalities. The weak are supported by the strong and there is a collective responsibility that is biblical and healthy. May the Lord grant that we would be able to develop a more biblical contemporary Presbyterianism fit for 21st Century Scotland. This means more freedom for the local church, along with more willing sacrifice and co-operation for the area, national and international church. Because we are Presbyterian I would encourage all those who share our view of theology, ecclesiology and vision to come and join with us. I still can’t get my head round people who are Presbyterians thinking that Presbyterianism works better if there are lots of Presbyterian denominations!
2) Prophetic – I believe in prophecy. The proclaiming of Gods Word to the generation we now live in. Glasgow’s old motto “Let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of the Word’, must surely be ours. We want the whole of Scotland to flourish and in order for that to happen we must proclaim his Word, his Good News. That is the Raison ‘d’etre of the Free Church. We proclaim that word in and to the Church, but we must also proclaim that word in and to the world.
3) Persuasive – We must be persuasive evangelists, giving people reasons to believe. There has been a tendency in some Reformed circles to think that the Arminians and the Pentecostals are the best at going out with the Gospel, and then when people are converted the Reformed are to come in and ‘teach them the way of God more perfectly’. Is that really the case? Should good theology not lead to better evangelism? Sometimes you hear people speak of evangelism and mission as almost optional extras. “We want a pastor/church that will look after our own people, then, with what we have left, we can do out and fulfill the Great Commission”. The only problem is that the ‘then’ never comes. A church devoted to a maintenance mentality will never move beyond that. We need to realize that we have a great message, with great communities of Gods people that illustrate and embody it. Why then are we so reluctant and lacking confidence?
4) Pastoral – Evangelism and communicating the Good news should never be set against pastoral care, as though it was either one or the other. Surely it should be both/and! We are to make disciples. Disciples are sheep who need taught, fed and watered. The best witness to the love of God is the love we have for one another. Church is not a lecture, or a golf club, or a political party. We are a family. A dysfunctional family, but a family nonetheless. Therefore pastoral care is essential to the overall well being of the Church. Woe to the shepherds who do not take care of all the flock! However we need to move away from the model of the one-man shepherd, the Protestant Pope and the perception that pastoral care is something that is done to us, rather than by us. Elders are called to be ‘under-shepherds’ of the one Great Shepherd, but the sheep are also to care for one another. We don’t believe in two tier Christianity.
5) Practical – I have always found the Free Church to be practical. There can too often be an unthinking pietism/quietism within the Christian Church. But I have generally found in the Free Church that when you ask people to step in and do practical things, many are more than happy to do so. However there is one concern I have here – as our society changes I fear that those changes get reflected in the community of the church. There is a danger we could become more individualistic, more middle class (in the sense of paying people to do things for this rather than mucking in ourselves) and less ‘committed’.
Whilst much of the practical work has been done in quiet, through families and secular agencies, increasingly we are finding the need for the church to engage in more and more mercy ministries – especially as the State is increasingly unable to plug the gaps. It’s a bit like the beginnings of the Free Church in 1843, when Thomas Chalmers revived the role of Deacon, as the church became more aware of its need to serve the poor. Are we heading back that direction again? Whether its projects like the Capstone café in Alness, or Road to Recovery, or CAP, or Bethany, or the Smithton family worker….there are good things happening. May it just be a beginning…
Conclusion: I have no idea what to expect for the Free Church, but I do have great expectations. The Lord is clearly at work in our midst and I believe that God has brought us to Scotland for such a time as this. The Free Church is not THE answer but we can be part of the solution. We must work with other churches (the notion of being THE national church in a Christian Scotland – is one that is not applicable in todays Scotland) and we must be prepared to become less, so that He might become greater. And for that above all I think we need prayer. If we have been hurt and wounded by the Church, we pray that the Lord would give us the ability to pray ‘forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors’. If we are in a dead and dying congregation, we need to fervently pray for renewal and revival. If we feel that we have grown lukewarm or cold pray that the Lord would warm us up and grant us passion. If we recognize ourselves in the above analysis we need to repent, and come to the Christ who is knocking at the door and who wants to come in and dine with us! Lord renew your work…and may that renewal being in us!
The two earlier articles are here:
Ten Reasons why the Church of Scotland is in decline –
Post Presbyterian Scotland – https://theweeflea.wordpress.com/2015/03/27/post-presbyterian-scotland/