Each New Year I foolishly like to try and think ahead by making some predictions (not prophecies) about the coming year for the Church. This was a prediction for this year:
9) The Church will reach out amongst the poor. It seems to me that it is often the case that the richer and more middle-class the church, the more they talk about helping the poor. However, the real need is not the kind of patronising charity that this often precedes, but rather the planting of real gospel churches amongst the poor…because the Gospel frees, empowers and does not patronise. That is why the work of 20 Schemes is so vital. My own convictions on this have grown stronger over the past few months and I am delighted that St Peter’s will be starting a new church plant in the Charleston housing estate in Dundee. Ten ‘Prophecies’ for Society/Culture in 2017
Well, how is it going? Of course every contemporary church will talk about the poor, and want to have mercy ministries. But what do we mean by that and what are we doing? I would argue that the Free Church, because of its theology and history, has a great opportunity and responsibility to reach out with the Good News to the poor.
What does the Bible say?
From a theological perspective, of course we accept what the Bible says about our responsibility to minister to the poor.
Lev. 19:10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God.
Psa. 82:3 Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
Is. 61:1 The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good newsd to the poor.e
He has sent me to bind upf the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedomg for the captivesh
and release from darkness the prisoners…
Gal. 2:10 All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.
Calvinism and the Poor
Not many people realise this, but our Reformed theology has a radical outlook for the poor. In a fascinating article on the Gospel Coalition website in October last year, Matthew Tuninga showed how radical Calvin’s teaching was on this issue. Calvin restored the diaconate as a ministry primarily for the poor. He argued that the State had a responsibility to care for the poor:
‘God takes a more special care of the poor than of others, since they are most exposed to injuries and violence…. David, therefore, particularly mentions that the king will be the defender of those who can only be safe under the protection of the magistrate.’
Calvin’s great concern here was not charity but justice. Who is going to bring justice to the poor? The rich rarely need the protection of the government, but the poor do. In this day and age when the State is often seen as the shield for the powerful and wealthy, we need to remind our politicians it should be the other way round. God is the protector of the poor and it is the responsibility of the government, as the servant of God, to reflect that. Calvin preached that it is ‘praiseworthy for a good prince to relieve his subjects’ poverty.’ Therefore, according to Calvin, governments should provide hospitals, poor houses and schools. They have a duty and responsibility to do so – and preachers have a responsibility to remind them of that. God is the judge on the side of the poor. He argued that a ‘just and well-regulated government will be distinguished for maintaining the rights of the poor and afflicted.’ Perhaps this should be above the desk of every politician in the land?
A just and well-regulated government will be distinguished for maintaining the rights of the poor and afflicted.’ – Calvin
But it’s not just the State. The church also has to reflect the justice and mercy of God. This is why we have deacons, and it is something also for individual Christians. Calvin again, on the responsibility of the Church and the individual Christian: ‘Except that we endeavour to relieve the necessities of our brethren and to offer them assistance, there will not be in us but one part of true conversion.’ This is not talking about middle-class Christians assuaging their guilt by doing the occasional shift at the local soup kitchen. It’s not about putting a few quid into the latest chic poverty charity. It’s not about putting an emoji on your Facebook page. This is something much more radical. And for that we turn to our history.
The Free Church and the Poor
Think of the arch-Tory Thomas Chalmers, setting up the St John’s experiment in Glasgow and reinstating the office of deacon as servant to the poor. Think of the Free Church, despite its desperate need to build churches, manses and schools, buying grain from Russia in order to help the poor in danger of starvation in the West Highlands during the potato famine. Think of Hugh Miller arguing passionately the cause of the displaced crofters of Sutherland. So I just simply ask – when our Deacons’ Courts spend all their time talking about buildings, church finances and the colour of manse curtains, are they really following the tradition of the Free Church? How many of our Deacons’ Courts have benevolent funds? How many have a real awareness of the needs of the poor in their own area? And what are we seeking to do? The trouble is that there are no easy answers. It’s easy to talk, but how do we act?
One thing is that we cannot just act on our own – we need the assistance and help of our brothers and sisters. I would like to highly commend the work of the Trussel Trust, whose Scottish leader, Ewan Gurr, has been a recent columnist in The Record. CAP (Christians Against Poverty) is probably the best debt organisation in the UK – can our churches work with others in supporting and helping them?
What about 20 Schemes– the innovative and radical project led by Mez McConnell? Scotland’s schemes need the Gospel and for that they need Gospel churches. It is to be hoped that they will be used to plant Presbyterian as well as Baptist churches – denominations are not the significant factor here. I realise that church planting is the new cool and that you get double bonus points if you are doing it amongst the poor, but such realism/cynicism should not stop us appreciating the need for the tremendous work of 20 Schemes.
But we must not forget that the Free Church is already working amongst the poor – not only in the housing schemes but throughout the land. In fact, we already have more than twenty churches working amongst the poor and being the churches of the poor. Think of Norman Mackay’s innovative work in Govan, or the Capstone centre working in Milnafua and Alness. There is the revitalised church in the Kilmallie housing estate, or the longstanding work in the Ferry in Inverness. We have had or currently have churches in Livingston, East Kilbride, Drumchapel, Paisley, Kilwinning, Kirkcaldy, Leith, Govanhill, Brora, Burghead, Fearn and the many churches in Skye, Lewis and the Highlands, and other places, none of which would fit what many would consider the standard evangelical model in the UK today. What do I mean by that?
The Standard Evangelical Model?
It’s a model that has come from the successful churches and ministries based in city centres and through the wonderful university work of UCCF. The idea has become that if only we can reach the city centres (and it’s usually the middle classes in the city centres, not the poor, that are being spoken of) or the suburbs, then there will be a kind of trickle-down spiritual effect to everyone else. It’s what we might term Thatcherite spirituality – the notion that if the rich get richer, then this will trickle down to the poor.
This is now applied in spiritual terms by some of the groups who want to come and do outreach in Scotland. They all want to come to Edinburgh, Glasgow and perhaps St Andrews. The justification is that in reaching the centres of influence, they will then reach everyone else in Scotland. A number of years ago I was approached by a man who wanted to plant a church in one of Scotland’s cities and he asked for my support and the support of the Free Church. When it was suggested that he go to an area of the city where there was not a good evangelical church, he simply answered no; his intention was to go to the city centre – draw people from different churches who shared his particular ecclesiastical and theological viewpoints, and then church-plant in the schemes and suburbs. I said we could not help because I didn’t believe that would happen. He was in effect asking us to enable him to start a church by taking people from other churches.
many of our evangelical churches are aimed at the 5%, not the 95% – whatever our good intentions.
Which brings me back to Thomas Chalmers. In a series of packed-out lectures in London in 1838 he argued for the National Establishment and Extension of churches, because he suggested that if this did not happen, the richer areas would have plenty of churches, but the poorer would not. His argument has largely been proven by the state of the churches today in the UK. I would suggest that many of our evangelical churches are aimed at the 5%, not the 95% – whatever our good intentions. That is a problem that needs to be addressed in the evangelical church in the UK today. We are not going to have a national establishment which funds and extends churches, but the Free Church as a national Presbyterian church must seek to avoid the ‘network’ or independency route, and we must work together to plant and revitalise churches in areas of great need. The best thing for the poor is that churches are planted in communities. This has become even more urgent because of the on-going collapse within the Church of Scotland. They have in the past been good at having churches in urban priority areas, and many evangelicals have faithfully served, and continue to serve, in these churches. But the decline in the Kirk and the difficulty in getting ministers means that these urban areas are increasingly being neglected. Who will fill the gap?
This month the Free Church will ordain Andrew Robertson to the new church plant of Charleston in Dundee. Charleston is an urban deprived area in Dundee (a scheme). Together with 20 Schemes, FIEC, and other denominations and organisations, may it be that we will see not just one, or tens, but hundreds of churches established. What else do we exist for?
The above article is in the September edition of The Record – of which I am now the editor.
You can subscribe to the magazine – please contact the Free Church Offices (15 North Bank St, Edinburgh, EH1 2LS – 0131 226 5286 – firstname.lastname@example.org) or email Sharon@freechurch.org. Annual subscription is £27. Overseas rates available from the offices. Cheques payable to ‘Free Church of Scotland’.
This lets you know what we have in this month – Hopefully we will be developing an online edition soon.
Welcome to the September Record
Our society is obsessed with questions of identity. Sometimes the church too struggles with that. Who are we? Why are we here? What is our purpose? This month’s Record helps us see something of the answer to that question…
We are a church that cares for the poor (p.4-5) and works with the young (p.6 and 7). We have buildings in communities that serve as a home for the church and a witness to those communities (p.8-9).
We are a people who have a testimony (Murdo Murchison, p.10-11).
We are a church that trains people to proclaim the Word of God (p.12-13 – Robin Sydserff, who begins a new series on this, is not a Free Church minister, but he, his congregation and the Bonar Trust are great friends of ours and have contributed much to us).
We are a church which believes in the preaching of the Word and appoints men for that purpose. (p.14-15).
We are a church that engages with the culture (p.16) and seeks to help our children (p.17).
We are a church that has the encouragement of a growing number of young people (p.18-19).
We are part of the wider evangelical church and share with our brothers and sisters in their work (p.20-21 – Simon McCrossan of Evangelical Alliance writes for us this month). We are a church that listens to the word of God (p.22-23).
We are a church that recognises the role and responsibilities of women as well as men (p.24).
We are a church that likes to engage with people who don’t always agree with us (p.26-27).
We are a church that engages in worldwide mission (p.28-29).
We are a church that recognises the importance of Gaelic for some of our people and communities (p.30).
We are a church that prays (p.31).
We are a church that seeks to help those faced with particular issues – such as childlessness and infertility (p.32).
All of this just gives a flavour. But what a privilege it is to be part of the Church of Jesus Christ. We are sinful. We are flawed. We struggle in so many ways. But Christ is our head. We are his church – it is not ours. We are thankful to be part of the whole body of Christ, throughout all ages, throughout all the world. May the Lord use what you read in this month’s Record to strengthen and build up his church. As usual, please feel free to write and let me know of any suggestions, changes, and constructive criticisms you may have – they are all helpful.