Reflections on a visit to Easter Ross and Inverness-shire
Kiltarlity Free Church
I was brought up and educated in that most underrated area of the Scottish Highlands, Easter Ross. My first charge was in the village of Brora, Sutherland Shire, where our son and first daughter were born. My wife is from the island of Lewis. I have a great love and affection for the Highlands and have greatly benefited from being associated with its people, studying its history and living in its culture.
The Last Stronghold of the Pure Gospel?
For some time it has been obvious to me, and to others, that the image of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland as the last bastion of Christianity in the United Kingdom is at best an illusion. Although there are still many fine churches and Christians, the fact is that the church has declined phenomenally over the past four decades. It is in a seemingly terminal decline and needs a real awakening.
The Darnell Prophecy
When I was in Brora I became aware of an infamous ‘prophecy’ by Jean Darnell, which stated that the fires of revival would spread from Orkney through the north-east to the rest of the United Kingdom. Often I was visited by the latest itinerant charismatic apostle/prophet/preacher through whom God was going to do great things, and through whom the prophecy was going to be fulfilled. Needless to say it never happened. Instead what we have ended up with is an increasing number of churches or Christian organisations with a declining number of Christians. When I was in Brora there were two churches and now there are five. Of course not all of this is down to the endless proliferation of independent charismatic churches, or the Starbucks like chain churches (although they usually can’t be bothered with the rural areas because they have bought into the ‘God has called us to reach the influencers in the city centres first’ mentality). The continual splitting of Presbyterian churches and the constant downgrading and degrading of the Church of Scotland are also to blame.
So what is the answer? Should we return to the somewhat idealistic notion of the godly Highlands with the narrow sect like, legalistic mentality of the Free Presbyterians and the Free Church Continuing (and the remnant of that view within the Free Church)? Believe that the only game in town is the parish church, even as we watch it decline in to endless linkages that are little more than a social network for religious types who run clubs for children and old people? Or wait for the next great revival whether it be of the new charismatic type, or the old brethren style Gospel Hall revivalism? I would like to suggest an alternative.
This past weekend I was at an induction and a communion in two different Free churches. Both of them were instructive, stimulating and encouraging.
Rosskeen Free Church – on Friday night I was at the induction of Calum Macmillan (Honda) to the charge of Rosskeen. I don’t like inductions because I often find them boring, unrealistic and disconnected. To be honest this one did not promise to be much better. But it was! The attendance was good, but not spectacular. A couple of hundred people gathered. In the old days (about 25 years ago!) there would have been twice the number. The service was short, the singing hearty and the preaching by Roddy Barvas, passionate and clear. The speeches afterwards were warm and humorous. I don’t know what Daniel Patterson had had before the induction, but whatever it was, his congregation need to keep him away from it! He spoke about Honda’s library having been burned in a fire and all two books having been lost – which was a real shame because he hadn’t finished colouring in one! His jokes were even worse than that! “Some people are like slinkies – they are useless and make you smile when they fall downstairs”. But bad jokes notwithstanding, it was an encouraging time. The reception afterwards in the Capstone cafe of the church was a real pointer to the future for that congregation.
Like all congregations it has its problems. Not least the presence of a legalism and church unreality that threatened to kill the whole church. People want their traditions, and their family customs, more than they want the prosperity of the gospel. Minor issues become major points of principle. Personalities, and clashes thereof, dominate and wear out. More than a hint of that was given in the account of proceedings read out by the Presbytery. So none of us were left with a rosy-eyed view that this was the best congregation in the North with the best Minister! But I did find the whole thing hopeful.
Your Young Men will Dream Dreams
Calum Honda is typical of a new generation of young men in the Free Church, who are enormously gifted, passionate and determined to glorify Christ in the preaching of his word. The potential is wonderful, but perhaps they will permit a word of caution from someone who has now entered his fourth decade of ministry?! They need to ensure, that in correcting the excesses of some of the old legalism, they do not swing too far the other way, and end up with a broad evangelicalism which misses out on the holiness of God, the sinfulness of man, and our utter dependence on the Holy Spirit to see any fruit at all. Pride and over reliance on self and the resultant despair are the continual besetting sins of us all, but especially those of us who just know that we are the next Spurgeon/Kennedy/Keller!
Kiltarlity Free Church – on Sunday I preached at the communion service at this rural Inverness-shire Church. It was, for me, a lovely experience. The outside of the church is as traditional as you could expect; the inside, as contemporary as you would want. The minister, Joe Barnard, an American who has managed to challenge the stereotype that Americans cannot really minister in the Highlands, has done a wonderful job. (For evidence of some of that click this earlier blog – Here ) I was really impressed both with his family, and his spiritual family. A real mix of locals, incomers, Free Church, Free Presbyterian, Church of Scotland, Anglican and various other assorted Christian and non-Christian backgrounds, new converts, old Christians, and seekers. There were a variety of ages and social backgrounds as well. I thought the praise led by John Wilson, was some of the best that I have heard. I loved the fact that there was a young American pastor being guided and supported by an older Free Church elder (James Fraser, chairman of our Board of Trustees) with the praise being led by a young local man trained in London! (It is also essential to remember that the church is not just about the minister or elders – or key personalities – that view has been a curse in the Highlands! It is the whole body…I was really impressed with the sound man (Paul – I think) and others in the fellowship who are clearly on board members of the body).
Evangelising the Highlands
We held an open event at 4 pm in the afternoon, which was attended by people from all over the area. We were looking at how we can evangelise the Highlands. It was wonderful to see the interest. I found it to be a stimulating and encouraging day. For me it was special to meet someone who had been at school with me, and who is now a Christian. I find each time I go back to the Highlands I meet up with people who, when I knew them in the past, had very little interest in Christianity, but are now believers. The sowing of seed decades ago has resulted in new life today.
Kiltarlity also has its problems, but I would challenge any believer to go there, and not be encouraged by what is happening. It is also a church that I would be more than happy to take any nonbeliever to, as I would the Capstone Centre in Rosskeen.
Pointers to Renewal
I think that both Kiltarlity and Rosskeen give pointers to the renewal and reformation of the church in the Highlands. I don’t mean because they are Free Church, although belonging to a denomination, which takes the word of God seriously, and which is seeking to bring it into contemporary Scotland can only be helpful. I mean because they are seeking to be biblical churches in the midst of a compromised church and confused culture.
Biblical Churches of any Denomination
I was encouraged by meeting Pete Rennie, pastor of a new Baptist church plant in Inverness. He is clearly on the same wavelength. And there are others in different denominations. I think what all three churches show is that churches need real, biblical, godly leadership; that they need to be open, without rejecting the best of the past and that they need to be focused on Christ, Word-based and community centered, with the community of the church reaching out into the local community.
The View from the Kiltarlity Free Church Manse…
May the Beauty of the Lord….
Both congregations are in beautiful settings, but both need the beauty of the Lord to shine upon them (real revival), otherwise they will just be spiritual wastelands in a beautiful physical setting. Unless there is a real and radical shift in the mentality of most of our congregations they will wither and die. But when that shift occurs, it opens up great possibilities. I don’t believe that either of the two churches I visited are the finished product, any more than St Peters is. But what I saw this weekend indicated that they have made a beginning. It is the sound of a breeze in the balsam trees! Maybe revival, the extraordinary work of the Spirit of God, will come through the ordinary means of grace – prayer, the Word, the sacraments and the church of Christ! Change and renewal in all around I see…O thou who changest not, abide with me!