As we head towards St Andrews Day – its perhaps appropriate to reflect on the state of the Church in Scotland – and given the amount of publicity they have received this week, especially The Church of Scotland. It is drifting into ‘irrelevance and obscurity’. No – this is not another analysis from an ‘outsider’ such as yours truly. This is an article/press release from the former moderator and Principal Clerk, Rev Dr John Chalmers, one of the Kirk’s senior figures.
I have recently been reading two fascinating books on the same theme – both from Kirk Establishment figures – Finlay Macdonald’s From Reform to Renewal and Doug Gay’s Reforming the Kirk – The Future of the Church of Scotland. I hope over the next few weeks to give a proper and serious critique and interaction with these books, particular the latter, but let me introduce this by referring to the publicity that John Chalmers article in Life and Work has created. This was the final one of a revealing series of three.
Change and Decay in All Around I See
The background is that the number of church attenders has fallen by more than 50% in the past 30 years – with the Church of Scotland taking the biggest hit. The Courier reported today that for the first time in the Scottish Government’s Scottish Households Survey the majority of households said they had no religion (51%). In Dundee the figure is 65%. The Church of Scotland in Dundee is in critical decline with hundreds of members being lost every year.
Chalmers analysis is basically correct. The Church of Scotland is drifting into irrelevance and obscurity. Yes it retains the outward façade of a state church (the moderator for example is down in London this week meeting with amongst others the Prime Minister – its one of the perks!), but the reality is that it is in free-fall and possibly terminal decline. I don’t say that with any degree of schaedenfreude, nor a sense of vindication. I have been saying this for years much to the annoyance of my brothers and sisters, who thought it was a bit ‘Jeremiah’ and doomsday. It is no joy for me to have the Kirk Establishment now agreeing with what they for so long vehemently denied. Personally I long for the Church of Scotland to be renewed and revived and I regard its current state as a disaster for the whole church of Christ in Scotland.
A Wake Up Call?
So perhaps now that the Establishment is waking up to, or at last publicly acknowledging what has been obvious for many years, there is some hope? I’m afraid not. Recognising the problem is one thing. The solution offered by Dr Chalmers is another. In fact let me rephrase that. I don’t think Chalmers does really recognize the problem. He sees and admits the decline – but he does not recognize the cause.
Firstly he implies it is tradition that it is the problem.
“This is hard for me to say, because the Church I have been a part of all of my life still speaks to my spiritual needs. That, however, is because I know the ancient narratives, I am familiar with the hymns and songs of the faith, I’ve had a lifetime of engaging with the poetry of our public prayer and I associate sanctuary with buildings as magnificent as our cathedrals and as simple as our country kirks.These are the core diet of my faith. I would rather not see their passing and if I thought they were the recipe for nourishing the faith of a future generation I would put all my efforts into keeping the tradition alive.That would suit me fine and it would see me out.”
You can see where he is going. Buildings, hymns, old traditions don’t connect with the people today. And yes there are far too many people who are just happy to see out our days with the way things are. He offers what at first glance seems a good solution. We need to recalibrate. And return to the faith of Jesus Christ. We need a new way to do spirituality. It’s about our relationship with Jesus Christ.
Furthermore we have a solution literally in our hands – the smartphone. “A whole new generation cannot be separated from their smartphones and tablets. In these there is the power to help to sustain people on their spiritual journey and nourish their inner life.” Basically the Internet and cyber church are the future. They can recalibrate our relationship with Jesus Christ. They will be the salvation of the Church of Scotland.
Does it sound good? To some evangelicals it will sound superb. It uses all the jargon – ‘relationship with Christ’, ‘expressing faith in love’ and the other usual theological phrases. The trouble is what is actually meant by them. In reality they are so meaningless that anyone could sign up to them and understand it in their own way.
The Problem is the Message not the Container
The problem here is simply that John Chalmers analysis of both the problem and the solution is weak and superficial. He is concerned about the container that holds the message – he does not deal with the message that it contains. If the drink is poison, it doesn’t matter whether it comes in a plastic beaker or trendy glass cup.
The difficulty with, and the reason for, the decline of the Church of Scotland is not because they sing hymns or use old church buildings or communicate through preaching. It is because of what is being communicated. Chalmers gives us a classic example:
“A revolution in scientific understanding requires us to be able to speak of a God who is in and yet transcends all of life. People will not embrace old dogmas which may have been understandable in an age of less knowledge. Only a faith which speaks to the deepest needs of human life will be transformative for both individuals and the communities they belong to.”
This is spoken as though it were a new revelation. But this is the message that the vast majority of the Church of Scotland has been teaching for decades. It’s now an old dogma that we should do away with the old dogmas. Ever since the beginning of the 20th Century clerics have been telling us that modern scientific man cannot cope with teachings like the virgin birth, the miracles, the resurrection of Christ, the inspiration of the Bible. They have told us that the only way to reach modern humanity is to change the Bible so that it suits their presuppositions and culture. And the Church of Scotland has largely been doing this – slavishly following wherever the culture leads. This is why the latest row about SSM has come to the fore – not because of new biblical insight or revelation – but simply because the Kirk needs to keep up (regress) with the general culture. It is this theology that has destroyed the backbone of the church and resulted in such a fatalistic decline. Chalmers solution is to do what the church has actually been doing all along! Why repeat the failed mantras and methods?
Where are the Evangelicals?
Robert Murray McCheyne faced a similar situation in his day.
“It is confessed that many of our ministers to not preach the gospel – alas! Because they know it not. Yet they have complete control over their pulpit and may never suffer the truth to be heard there during their whole incumbency.
And yet our church consigns these parishes to their tender mercies for perhaps
fifty years, without a sigh! Should not certain men be ordained as evangelists,
with full power to preach in every pulpit of their district –faithful, judicious, lively preachers, who may go from parish to parish, and thus
carry life into many a dead corner?”.
This is where the current state of evangelicalism in the C of S is not helping. Where are the evangelicals who are challenging the liberals? When I took on Scott McKenna, a C of S minister who denies most of the Gospel basics, not one evangelical spoke up in support. What was even more astonishing was that the very same John Chalmers who is now talking about each finding their own spiritual road and using technology to do so, took over the chairmanship from the then moderator Angus Morrisson, and then he and the C of S Establishment did their utmost to prevent the discussion getting outside the four walls, refusing to release the film of the event and generally attempting to downplay and hide what had happened. When I was told by John Chalmers that we needed to keep this a friendly private discussion (with 250 plus people) and that it would not be filmed etc I reminded him that most of those 250 would have mobile phones and would be tweeting, recording and commenting on the public discussion. You are read about it here.
What is the use of Covenant Fellowship or The Church of Scotland Evangelical Network speaking about SSM if they are not prepared to deal with out and out heresy in their midst? I know good people within the C of S who are seeking to minister faithfully. But the fact is that far too many evangelicals are willing to go along with the liberal establishment, to the extent that now Doug Gay and others are speaking of a convergence of liberal and evangelical occurring – which in reality means that the evangelicals have so watered down the Gospel that it is no longer offensive to the liberals.
What’s wrong with liberal theology and why is it so harmful?
The main problem is that it does not give us Christ. It just allows us to make up our own personal Jesus – one who fits nicely with our preconceptions and cultural prejudices.
Liberal theology also commits the cardinal sin of just being so boring. A preacher who does not preach the Bible is like a comedian who isn’t funny. What’s the point? I wouldn’t go near a church that operated on the moralistic therapeutic deism model – even if it had nice screens and used smart phones! It’s so out of date. And therein lies the problem – it’s not the methods of the C of S that are out of date – it’s the message. Once you move away from the eternal Gospel you inevitably end up with nothing to say to the times. As GK Chesterton opined – if you marry the spirit of this age you end up a widow in the next.
Nothing New Under the Sun
Chalmers talks of the scientific revolution requiring us to speak of a God who is in and yet transcends all of life. Doesn’t he realize that those of us who hold to the Bible have been doing that since before Pentecost?! That is what the Bible teaches. It has nothing to do with a scientific revolution. It is astonishing that this kind of spiritual psychobabble can be printed in Life and Work. Astonishing but also revealing. If the Church of Scotland has not grasped that God is in and yet transcends all of life, then little wonder that it has lost all credibility and is in such steep decline.
I used to hear the complaint that biblical Christians and especially preachers turned the ‘Word became flesh’ into ‘the flesh became word’. It was not true mainly because it set up a false dichotomy between word and flesh. God speaks and the world is created. God speaks and reveals himself to us. God speaks and sends his Son, the Word. God speaks and Christ is risen. God speaks and his word, the bible, is breathed out. God speaks and sends his Holy Spirit. God speaks and the church comes into being. That Church is the body of Christ, the enfleshment of Christ today. That’s why it is important that we meet together, face to face. And that’s why the proposal to have Internet church, online baptisms and salvation by computer are so farcical.
How many friends/members/hits do you have?
The Facebookisation of the Kirk will only accelerate its death. Facebook Members will be as meaningful as Facebook friends. Twitter sermons will have just about as much depth as most twitter debates. Of course this will suit the bureaucrats who can justify their existence by talking about their ‘reach’ and their ‘connection’ into Scotland, as they continue to literally fritter away the legacy of the past. And for some it won’t make much difference – after all they have been operating with hundreds of thousands of ‘paper members’ who in reality do and contribute nothing. Churches with memberships in the hundreds and attendances in the tens are kidding themselves. Changing paper members to computer members won’t change a thing.
When blues singer Robert Johnson allegedly went to the crossroads, he sold his soul to the devil. Perhaps we are at a crossroads today? Which way is the C of S going to go? Chalmers confesses , “Today is that at the intersection of the church and real people, living on real streets, the rubber is not hitting the road”. That’s true. But taking the church off the streets and into the virtual world is not going to help that. We need to be incarnate. We need to be on the streets. We need to be praying, sharing the gospel and caring with people, face to face. The last thing we need is more keyboard warriors, spiritual geeks hiding behind the facelessness of Facebook, playing Sim Church in a virtual world. Yes – use the internet and social media as a tool, but don’t play fantasy church and cause the flesh to become pixels.
John Chalmers speaks of helping people on their ‘spiritual journey’. That is well and good. The key question is journey to where? He clearly thinks that the Church of Scotland is not broad enough and should instead become more of a spiritual smorgasbord than it already is. Maybe as those who profess to be followers of Jesus we might listen to what he says?
Matt. 7:13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
I wonder where the narrow road fits with the broad church?
So where does this leave us?
The Church of Scotland is obscure and irrelevant. It is dying. Not because it is being killed off by outside forces but because it is committing suicide. Changing the containers but drinking the same poison won’t make one whit of difference, unless perhaps having the effect of accelerating the decline as the Kirk in its desperation to appear relevant, becomes even more irrelevant. Is there no hope?
Indeed there is. It was revealing to hear of Chalmer’s spiritual diet that sustained him – buildings, hymns and structures. There was nothing of the Bible (our daily bread) or the Spirit. If the C of S would return to the basics of the Christian faith then we could, in God’s mercy, see renewal. Instead of playing catch-up with the culture, we could challenge and change it by proclaiming the word of God. But the Church seems determined to go a different direction on another path. The Road to Nowhere.
And there is prayer. That’s why this Thursday, Nov 30th, St Andrews day, the Free Church will be holding a day of prayer for Scotland. We are not just praying just for ourselves, but for the whole nation. Lets pray for the Church of Scotland. Lets pray that there would be such a spiritual renewal and reformation in the Kirk that there would be no need for the Free Church to exist.
29th November 2017
The Decline of the Church in Scotland – The Times Report and Response