Free Church St Peters The Church in Scotland

Out of the Ashes – The Fall and Rise of the Church in Scotland – Article in Australian Presbyterian

This article has just been published in the Australian Presbyterian.

Out of the Ashes – The Fall and Rise of the Church in Scotland 


New College and Edinburgh Theological Seminary
I suppose that for many Australian Presbyterians Scotland, or at least the Presbyterian Church in Scotland is considered to be the motherland! If that is true, then the cry that comes out from Scotland is ‘your mother is very ill!’ Although we were once known as the land of the people of the book, it is doubtful whether the majority of the population now know even what that book is, never mind what it contains, or the Lord of whom it speaks. In the past decade Scotland has secularised faster than any other nation in history. I am sure that there are lessons that you can learn from us, especially in how not to do things. I offer the following observations in the hope that it will stimulate you to pray for us, to work with us and not to go down the same route we have gone.

If you’re seen the British sitcom Dad’s Army, then you will know the dour Scottish character Private Fraser whose favourite phrase was “doomed, doomed, you’re all doomed!”

This is positively optimistic compared with the reaction to the most recent survey of religious belief in Scotland.    Some Christians were discouraged and some of the more militant atheistic secularists could hardly contain their glee.   The headline is that “Almost half of adults in Scotland do not identify with any religion, according to official figures.” The latest Scottish Household Survey (SHS), had 47% of people describing their ‘faith’ as none’. The proportion has increased from 40% in 2009.

27.8% identified themselves as Church of Scotland, 14.5% as Roman Catholic, 1.4% as Muslim, other Christian as 7.7%, Buddhist (0.3%), Sikh (0.1%), Jewish (0.1%), Hindu (0.3%), Pagan (0.1%), and other religion (0.5%).

“There has also been a corresponding decrease in the proportion reporting ‘Church of Scotland’, from 34% to 28%.”

One always has to be careful about figures. The sample size is not massive, 1,000 households. For every 1,000 people there is only one pagan, one Jew, 14 Muslims and 470 ‘no faith’ (incidentally this latter description is false – most of this group will have great faith – just not faith in God or gods!).    So what does this all mean? Is the church on the way out? Is Scotland progressing into an atheistic secularist nirvana, or regressing into a pagan mess?

Although the majority of people in Scotland (just) would still claim some kind of Christian faith, the fact is that the number of those attending church and engaging in any kind of Christian practice is declining. The Church reached a numerical peak in the 1950’s and it has been downhill ever since. Rather than that decline bottoming out (as for example in London), in Scotland it seems to be accelerating. The Church of Scotland has dropped below 400,000 members (it is doubtful whether more than 100,000 actually attend church each Sunday – meaning that less than 1% of Scotland’s population are actually in the Church of Scotland on any given Sunday) and is continuing to lose 20,000 members each year. It is facing a major financial crisis and above all a ministerial one, with only a handful of the required 30-40 ministers being trained each year. The picture is of a declining church in a declining culture. The Catholic Church is still struggling to recover from the child abuse scandals, and there is not much evidence that other Protestant churches are making much of an impact.

As a result of the new moralistic philosophy of secular humanism being adopted by the metro-elites and governors of our culture, and the lack of a coherent and strong ‘salt and light’ Christian church, our culture has become increasingly confused. Overall there has been a general dumbing down as politicians and others offer the ‘bread and circus’s’ mentality. Things that would have been unthinkable a decade ago (such as same sex ‘marriage’) have now become the norm of the new morality. Things that are unthinkable just now; infanticide, involuntary euthanasia, polygamy, paedophilia could easily become the new ‘norm/human right’ in a world where the rich and powerful determine what the moral values are. We are a society that has ‘equality’ as its mantra, but yet we are becoming more unequal. In one of the richest societies in the world we have tens of thousands who are relying on food banks. We say we value education yet we are dumbing down. Our politicians say they want to support ‘the family’ but are unable to define what that actually is, and as a result many of their actions end up undermining the family. That is the environment which the Church in Scotland finds itself.

Although overall the Church in Scotland is in decline, it is not all bad news. I see three areas where there is encouragement and renewal. Firstly in the independent evangelical churches associated with FIEC (the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches) – e.g. Charlotte Chapel in Edinburgh and the work of Twenty Schemes in Niddrie and elsewhere are beacons of light. Secondly there are other biblical churches who have Christ and his Word at the centre of their lives and message who are seeing growth and development – some will be in the Church of Scotland, others associated with CLAN (Christians Linked Across the Nation) or other charismatic and ex-Brethren networks and some in the Baptist and Episcopalian churches. And how can anyone who believes in a Sovereign God exclude the possibility of him yet working in and through the Catholic Church?

We are also seeing the first signs of a renewed and reinvigorated Presbyterianism in Scotland in my own denomination, the Free Church. New churches are being planted, people are being converted, membership increasing, The Free Church College has been relaunched as Edinburgh Theological Seminary, and there is a new leadership rising.    I was at the presbytery meeting last night where the issues being discussed were problems of space for growing churches, where to put the many new ministers coming in and where should we plant new churches! Changed days!

I came to my current church (St Peters in Dundee in 1992) when the attendance was in single figures.   Now there are over 250 (many of them young people), we have planted a new church in St Andrews, have another one in Montrose and hope to start another one in Dundee next year. Like the denomination, we still have many problems, because by definition we are sinful, and we dwell amongst a sinful people. But it is so encouraging to be part of the Lord’s work in these exciting and challenging days. I hope that in this globalised world our Australian Presbyterian brothers and sisters will be able to work with us in the cause of the gospel not only here and in Australia, but elsewhere in the world.

In a hostile and increasingly militant secularist environment, traditional, liberal, nominal Christianity cannot survive. But those churches that have deep roots in the gospel will I believe see growth and renewal.   So we have a paradox, an increasingly atheistic secularist culture, marked by a rapid decline in Churchianity, along with an increasingly alive and growing biblical Christianity.   It is the latter that turned the Roman empire upside down and indeed turned Scotland upside down before. All we can pray is ‘Lord, do it again’!
David Robertson

Minister of St Peters Free Chruch



  1. “So we have a paradox, an increasingly atheistic secularist culture, marked by a rapid decline in Churchianity, along with an increasingly alive and growing biblical Christianity. ”

    I dont think that this really is a paradox though. I once wrote here that people across society are seeking more ideological purity in the things that they believe in and only want to share that ideological space with others that agree with them. You see it in political parties (see SNP or Corbyinites/Momentum) and a growth in narrow focus membership charities (animal welfare etc.). The decline of the Church of Scotland reflects a change in broader society where the more sterner instructions/guidelines/whatever of the Bible are not seen as relevant or perhaps lacking in basic humanity. So the Church of Scotland seeks to soften the message which isnt making it more attractive so the number of people who are attracted to the church decline. Furthermore, for those who value the sterner instructions/guidelines/whatever of the Bible, there are better options such as your Church. Its not a paradox. Its a change in what people believe and who is helping meet the needs of those believers.

    The future will be an increase of people coming to your type of Christian belief, a continued increase in humanists and increases membership amongst other smaller groups. The larger groups will continue to decline and the largest group will be the nones/atheists.

    1. Douglas,

      What you say about the largest group being the “nones/atheists” seems not to be inconsistent with the David talks of with “an increasingly atheistic secularist culture”.

      And historically was that demographic not the case in 1st century Greco / Roman culture? A few hundered years before Constantine became emperor, converted to Christianity and Christianity being the adopted religion of the Roman Empire?

      So what you say about the largest group is not without precedent. However it would be naïve to ignore history and predict that similar cannot happen again.

      1. Oh my prediction was just the culmination of where we are heading at the moment. What happens next could be anything including a new iteration of Christianity or some other belief or spiritual “awakening”.

  2. David Robertson writes…………”It is the latter that turned the Roman empire upside down and indeed turned Scotland upside down before. All we can pray is ‘Lord, do it again’!” What does that even mean David, do you know the history of “Christianity,” in the Roman Empire?

      1. I am surprised that you included my comment after our last exchange. I am aware of Acts 17 as you can probably imagine. You will probably also know that different people have different interpretations of the scriptures in the absence of infallibility. In historical context, the Roman world was hardly turned upside down in 80ad. Certainly the Gospel was making inroads all over the known world, but the empire of Rome was of course very much in place and Israel found that out to their cost just ten years prior. One other note David, I was surprised at how touchy you were in our last exchange given that I hear you debate atheists. If Christians cannot honestly debate each other without reverting to name calling then I am sure that only makes the atheist smile. The reason that I commented on your thread was because it came up in “my” timeline. Not sure how we became “friends,” but I am sure it was because one of my Scottish brothers or sisters in Christ sent me a recommendation. I respect all of my brothers and sisters in Christ but I also challenge as I myself have been and continually am challenged to have a teachable spirit. Once that is gone then I am sure you would agree that we are done or finished on our learning journey in Christ. You dont have to publish this comment, just wanted to relay these thoughts to you. I have a small blog myself and there are times when I have shut people down because they have reverted to name calling or have become abusive, but I have never shut someone down because I disagree with their ideas or interpretation of the Scriptures. Take care brother.

  3. The church in each and every generation has to own and live the gospel for themselves. God is on the throne and His goals will be accomplished. However, each is responsible for the part we play in living for the Lord in the generation in which we live. Therefore we will not be over enthusiastic in the good times or too pessimistic in the tough times because God the Holy Spirit is building the Church whom Jesus one day will present to His Father without a single member of His elect missing. It also helps to remember that around the world the Church of Jesus Christ in the last century has grown at its fastest rate since the 1st century AD.

  4. Yes, I agree that “nominal Christianity” can’t survive in the current environment and only “biblical Christianity” can survive. So we can choose to say “wur doomed” or to consider history.

    Is this not similar in a sense to Hitler’s “positive Christianity” versus the confessional church with figures like Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany? Or going back further to the history of Israel with apostasy and ending up in exile with only the “remnant” surviving?

    In the infant church of the first century did not Paul talk about having become the “scum of the earth”. Is it any surprise therefore that “religion” (predominantly meaning Christianity in today’s western context) is frequently regarded at best as belief in a fairy tale and at worst perpetuating evil?

    1. Great comment Adam. Boy, nominal Christianity, now there is a subject. But, as for the confessing church and the remnant, you are exactly right. Tozer wrote a piece called ” The Terrible Doctrine of the Remnant,” and it is a very profound and sobering piece, well worth the read. Wilberforce wrote a book called ” Real Christianity.” Whitfield wrote a circular letter in which he condemned almost all of the clergy that existed in his time in the Church of England claiming that almost none of them knew anything of the ” new birth.” For that he was banned from their pulpits, just as well since the crowd that turned up to hear him preach would not have fitted in any church. Wilberforce’s book prophesied what would happen to Christianity if religious folks continued to lead it. He, of course, was called an ” enthusiast,” which was a derogatory term from nominal Christians to genuine saints. So it would seem, that in every age, it is the remnant that holds the line. It looks like our age is shaping up to be no different than in ages past, but perhaps the nominal Christian world have went further than ever before in their apostacy given issues like gay marriage and gay ministers. A new dividing line of our age perhaps? In ages past it might have been infant baptism of transubstantiation, our age seems to be “falling away,” like no other age in Western history.

      1. “Appolus”

        Thank you and thank God.

        And what you say is true – “nothing new under the sun” with the historical figures you talk of. Now correct me if I am wrong, wasn’t it Whitfield that said to those who liked to be in control due to them knowing Latin from the bible and others not, that in his transtlation that he would make a plough boy more knowledgeable about the bible than they?

        I love that.

        I was reading Acts 14:42-52 today. I love this – Paul being talked abusively against and pushing back with you “do not consider yourself worthy of eternal life” (v46). It’s like a comedian “owning” a heckler. Then when persecution comes protesting against it and walking away from oppressors filled with joy and the Holy Spirit. Life is too short to be miserable at the hands of others. There is too much joy to be had in the Lord to be bothering with any of that nonsense. Hell mend ’em! Dare I say it – maybe a little persecution towards the church in the west may no do it any harm – at least in the long term – and may be necessary for lights to shine?

  5. “Sterner”, “better options such as your church” “not relevant” “lacking basic humanity” You need to get out more Douglas. This is a misrepresentation of the Good News of Jesus. Do you really not know what it is after all your discussion with David. Matthew Parris does, even though he does not believe.
    The Bible is full of “basic humanity”. That points to the need for Salvation. It can’t save itself .
    Whereas softening the message isn’t making (CoS) more attractive. Why is that? Nothing more than humanism dressed up, perhaps?

    David’s series on Revelation puts all of this into context.

    1. “Nothing more than humanism dressed up, perhaps?”

      You remind me Geoff of a speech I once heard where the Church of Scotland was accused, in jest by the speaker at any rate, of having an atheist wing. So perhaps dressed up humanism isnt too far away.

      I think my words are fair because there are different understandings of Christianity and different messages given in different ways. For example, in the US there are fantastic networks of Sanctuary Churches who help immigrants/asylum seekers (I recently had to leave my native country as I am married to an immigrant who was told to leave by the government despite living in this country for her entire adult live. Theresa May is apparently a Christian but her Home Office was brutal to vulnerable people and so is her government) and although I have only looked at about two dozen of these churches, all of those I have looked at are not Biblical in the way the David would define it. They tend to be pro LGBT for example. So are they Christian? Is their good news, the good news of helping very vulnerable people a misrepresentation? Or is the lack of evangelical churches involved also good news? And their support for Trump and the Republicans good news?

      I have read a lot of what David writes but none of the Revelation stuff meant anything much to me because I am not a believer and the starting point for those articles needed to have a level of credulity that I do not have.

  6. Hello Douglas,
    This is not in any way to be construed as being patronising, but my heart goes out to you.
    Social, good works is not the Good news of Jesus, but has replaced it
    But you seem to to be making a comparison that between evangelical churches who do not engage with society with and those who help the vulnerable and week.
    In the UK and worldwide there are numerous evangelicals at an individual or church level who devote their lives to such causes on an apolitical level as an outworking of their faith, as do many humanists. So, good works do not define the good News Of Jesus or a Christian.
    Red or blue in the States does not define a Christian. Jesus Kingdom is not of this world, so it is not aligned to the State or a political party. However, we are to live peacebly within a State, rather than live in anarchy.
    I don’t know whether May is a Christian or not, and you may see this as a cop out, but I could not be a politician.
    If I understand you correctly, it must be heart rending to have to leave Scotland with your wife as country of birth would in law, as domicile, should carry some weight. But here I’m surmising.
    Someone said “I believe so that I understand”, so your point about not reading David’s Revelation series is wise.
    If you want to listen to what Christianity is could I suggest listening to Sinclair Ferguson on Union with Chrst. No doubt David would be able to point you in the right direction.He too modest to suggest listening to himself, but you probably go back far enough together to be reluctant to listen to him!
    Better still it’s better to be there in person, if you could make it. The truth of the Good News of Union with Christ is so sublime, would that you would even want it to be true.
    Hope this makes some semblance of sense as it’s late and this is from my phone
    But as I started it had to be finished.
    Yours in Christ.

    1. Hello Geoff

      “Social, good works is not the Good news of Jesus, but has replaced it”

      (Perhaps. The good works that Christians often claim they do as they are inspired to do it by Jesus/God are often used to sell Christianity and Christian belief. David occasionally does it on this blog.)

      Whilst being Red or Blue does not define a Christian its clear that for certain, vocal, influential and condescendingly righteous Christians one colour is better than then other and many churches want to be free to campaign and preach from the pulpit about one the benefits of one colour. Living peaceably in a State is laudable but at what point does that become acquiescence to the harm that the state does to other people?

      I think that politicians of faith are compromised. David gets vexed that politicians of faith are assessed by the electorate on that faith yet also gets vexed if that assessment isn’t favourable. And if they are elected, they cannot stick to their faith as government policies, party policies or local electorates get in the way.

      I have been to Church many times throughout my childhood and even as an adult at university in Edinburgh. The problem is that I believe evolution is how life developed on this planet and that as a consequence there was no Adam or Eve (or special first human – no such thing – for a soul to be put in) so that there was no sin for Jesus to atone for. Associated to that I don’t then believe the Crucifixion had any special significance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: