Predictions and trajectories: What will the Church in Scotland look like in 30 years?

This article first appeared in Christian Today earlier this week.

The fourth Scottish Church Census is a thorough piece of work, as you would expect from the excellent Peter Brierley organisation. Supported by all Scotland’s major Churches, it gives an accurate big picture of what many of us feared was the case in Church in Scotland today.

The headline news is that it is declining rapidly. As someone who has been saying this for years I feel more than a little vindicated to have the information that proves it. Given that the Church in Scotland has declined 50 per cent in the past 30 years, down to 389,500, I thought I might use my prophetic gifts to look forward to the next 30.

The Church in Scotland is facing sharp decline.Reuters

So what will the Church look like in 2047? It is impossible to foresee with any certainty, but the current trajectory suggests the following.

1. Barring revival and renewal the decline will be sharper than anticipated in the report. Whenever these reports come out people cling on to statistics that offer comfort. But saying that there are 2.9 million Christians is meaningless when only 12 per cent of them even bother attending church. The figures err on the side of optimism. We are told that over seven per cent of the population attend church on a Sunday – but that does not square with the reality that many of us experience.

2. Pentecostal congregations will not be the revival of the Church in Scotland. They have tripled since 2002, but from a small starting base. However, the most significant factor here is that these are largely ethnic churches, with some 80 Nigerian churches being started. They have not shown that they can reach out beyond their own constituency and indeed some are already experiencing second-generation drop off.

3. The Catholic Church will The growth or stabilisation of the Catholic church has largely been due to Polish and other immigrants. They are a welcome addition to the Church but again it’s questionable both whether this will continue or be effective in stopping the general decline.

4. Although very optimistic sounds are being made about the number of children involved (52,000 under 15) the fact is that most of these are only very loosely connected with the Church, meeting in its buildings. The demographic is against the Church – 42 per cent of attenders are over 65. Fifty-nine per cent of ministers are over 59.

5. The Church in Scotland in 2047 will not consist of Messy Church, or other midweek meetings, or internet church. These are good but they are essentially sticking-plaster measures which do not deal with the root causes of the problem.

6. The responses so far to the report indicate that most Church leaders are not prepared to face the roots of the problem – although the Roman Catholic leadership seem to be more realistic than most. Bishop David Chillingworth of the Scottish Episcopal Church for example stated: ‘Institutional patterns of religion may not hold the loyalty which they held in the past. But people everywhere are on a journeys of spiritual exploration and yearn for spiritual experience.’ It was ironic that on the week this report was leaked to the press another one was also leaked – the Church of Scotland General Assembly is to be asked to receive a report which will allow Church of Scotland ministers to perform same sex marriages. While this will run well with the ‘liberals’ it is likely to lead to further decline and a further haemorrhaging of evangelicals. He who marries the spirit of the age will inevitably be a widow in the next.

7. I cannot foresee a renewal in the Church of Scotland – too much has been lost already. It will be around in 2047 but a mere civic rump of what it is today. The key to the Catholic Church will be whether it gets good leadership – the archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, Leo Cushley, seems to be providing that at the moment.

8. In 2047 the three groups that are growing the most in Scotland today – the FIEC churches (with key churches such as Charlotte Chapel in Edinburgh), the CLAN churches (Christians Linked Across the Nation – largely charismatic churches from many denominations – and my own denomination, the Free Church of Scotland, will I believe continue to grow. As regards the Free Church we acknowledged 20 years ago that we were dying and we reckoned it would take many years to turn it around. But the Lord has enabled and we are now a growing and vibrant denomination with a number of new church plants. If we reach ‘critical mass’, which I think is about 200 churches (double our current number), then who knows what could happen? However it could of course fall flat.

9. It may be that the Lord will surprise us, as he often does, with renewal and revival. Maybe the Lord will renew the Church of Scotland or use Elim or the Brethren or a completely new group. We don’t know.

10. If there is to be a vibrant Church in Scotland in 2047 then it will be one which returns to biblical theology, has vibrant mercy and creative ministries, its own comprehensive education system and has church planting at its core.

If we want to return to the attendance of the time I began my ministry, 30 years ago, we would need to plant 7,000 churches with an average attendance of 100 each. Time to begin breaking up the ground, sowing the seed and pleading with the Lord to send the rain!

David Robertson is Associate Director of Solas CPC in Dundee. Follow him on Twitter @TheWeeFlea

The Rise of Scotland’s Radical Preachers – The Daily Mail

Losing our Religion – Signs of the Times Part 2 of John Macleods series in The Daily Mail.


8 thoughts on “Predictions and trajectories: What will the Church in Scotland look like in 30 years?

  1. Is this straight from David,or published on his behalf? If the former, does that signify a wonderful recovery in a positive answer to prayer? If the latter, what is David’s current situation, please?

    1. Brian although I am not replying to people – or on social media…I will post my FB statement here which answers your questions – “I know that you can’t pin notes or I would, but as some of you may be aware, I am currently in Ninewells hospital. I am very grateful for peoples prayerful concern. I will (try!) not to post on FB whilst recuperating (which I seem to be!) and I won’t be responding to messages etc. Please don’t get me wrong I am very grateful for them but am not in a position to respond. I am grateful also for my familys privacy being respected. The Free Church website has up a couple of (accurate!) statements re my health condition and if you want to know more you can go there. There are a number of preset posts that will be going up from my blog….so please don’t accuse me of backsliding or sudden healing!…if you see posts appearing after my having promised not to have them. Once again I am reminded both of our own mortality and of the Lords immortality brought to us through Christ. I (as we all are) are entirely in his hands!)..”

      1. Thanks, David. Please be assured that my enquiry was for no other reason than that I might continue to pray as intelligently as possible. Blessings, and shalom.

  2. Having spoken to a number of Polish people here in London their reason for attending RC churches is social – its where they meet up. Many of them have little or no time for the denomination!

  3. David writes………….”10. If there is to be a vibrant Church in Scotland in 2047 then it will be one which returns to biblical theology” Amen, below I have posted some theology in the study of a vibrant church that was so vibrant that it had to be reigned in. It is hard to imagine what our services would look like if we followed the commands of Paul below and we heard two or three psalms being spoken, two or three words spoken by unknown tongues and interpreted. Two or three prophecies and so on. These are for the edification of the Body and if we in our finite wisdom deem that we do not need this kind of edification then the Body begins to starve and would be emaciated. I think this report describes such a church in Scotland.

    Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular. And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret? But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.
    (1Co 12:27-31)

    If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad? But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth. How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying. If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret. But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God. Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge. If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace. For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints. Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church. What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only? If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord. But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant. Wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues. Let all things be done decently and in order.
    (1Co 14:23-40)

  4. So, Apollus,
    What is “biblical theology”? What is, within that overall “biblical theology”, the theology of the “church”, not just what takes place at meetings, important though that is? What about all of the other of Pau’s epistles, written to churches of mostly first generation believers, who were already starting to get it wrong in their beliefs, theology, and practice: Paul, seeking to rein in excess, the swing of the pendullum between law and licence. between grace, gifting and pride, between the Giver and the gifts/gifting, between a desire for the Giver and a desire for the gfits, between strength, power and weakness, between the present age and the age to come.

    There is a present debate within “Acts 29” international group of churches about charismatic gifts, seemingly stimulated by Sam Storms recently published book. This is a link to an article by Andrew Wilson who is aware of what “bible theology” is and which seems to be largely cessationist by its protagonists:
    http://thinktheology.co.uk/blog/article/acts_29_debates_spiritual_gifts

    This seems to be a never-ending topic in itself, but, in itself, is it the root cause of decline and will it lead to revival and renewal, that David points to, to a sovereign movement of God?

    In his time of illness and need and testing, trials and temptation, what does David and his family, part of God’s church, called -out – ones, need most and throughout it what does the church family to which they belong, learn about themselves,”the secrets of their hearts revealed”, faith and God, not necessarily in that order? What is God’s agenda?

    O Lord, show us your mercy,

    In this internet age, it seems to me that it is as if the “curtain in the Temple” is being reconstructed through interaction distraction, setting up a barrier , removing us from the manifest presence of God. May you, David, and your family through these times realise communion with God, though I know that physical pain, can be a great distraction from communion.

  5. Dear David, I don’t know you personally but would like to wish you a good recovery and God’s presence and guidance.

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