In the early 1980’s I was studying history and politics at the University of Edinburgh. I had been attending Morningside Baptist Church, and indeed had been baptised there – but, through reading the Bible, I became what is called ‘Reformed’ – even though I did not know what that was! I became to look for a church that taught this biblical theology but also practised. Then I came across The Disruption in my historical studies and was fascinated by a Church which was theologically sound and passionately cared for the Poor. I heard one lecture in which it was argued that the West of Scotland and especially the Highlands, did not have an Irish style starvation with the potato famine, because the Church bought a ship of grain from Russia. Most of all I was so impressed by Chalmers views of church planting for the poor. Here was a church that was both biblical and passionate about the poor.
I was thrilled.
So I went along to Buccleuch in 1982 – and the rest, as they say, is history. Today as I prepare to leave the Church after 33 years service as a minister I attended the General Assembly. It has been a poignant day.
The Moderator’s address from Donald G MacDonald was one of the best I have ever heard. A good start. Then it was good to spend most of the day discussing the Mission Board report. I proposed the following amendment to the report – seeking to make ministry amongst the poor a priority and suggesting that we work with Twenty Schemes to do that.
The General Assembly are encouraged by the partnership between Twenty Schemes and the Free Church plants in Merkinch and Charleston. They instruct the Mission Board to develop a more formal partnership with Twenty Schemes and prioritise the work amongst the poorest. The Assembly instruct the Mission Board to provide at least 50% funding for the Church plants in Merkinch, Charleston and Govan and any further church plants in such areas.
I found it hard to speak about this because for me this is so important. This is the Free Church – a biblical church which is passionate about the poor. Here is my speech – or at least the notes of it. Because of the pressures of time I had to shorten some of it. It does some contain some straight talk and ‘frank’ discussion which I knew some would struggle with…
Fathers and Brothers – It’s been a while. Thank you moderator for your address…always beware a man who says he is a bear with little brain and then makes a joke about Kant before citing David Hume. Today is Robert Murray McCheyne’s birthday 21st May 1813 (206) – Every year in November on the anniversary of his ordination to St Peters, Robert Murray McCheyne preached on Isaiah 61:1-3 – “Is. 61:1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,”
The Free Church was born with a heart for the poor –
it was a church of the poor….whether it was Chalmers in St Johns in Glasgow, or Guthrie in Edinburgh with his ragged schools – or Hugh Miller advocating for the poor in the Highlands cleared of the lands, or Alexander Duff fighting for the poor in India…. This was not something that we did as a hobby. It was not virtue signalling. It was our very heart because it is the heart of the Lord. Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Let us come forward to the present day.
Poverty is relative but it is real. In many of our housing schemes and rural communities, there is real poverty of spirit – broken and dysfunctional families – as the poor pay the price for middle-class bourgeois morality being imposed by the elites on the whole of society. Please read Loki’s Poverty Safari which Mez McConnell did a three-part series review of in The Record. Drugs and alcohol abuse. Unemployment – the working class becoming the benefits class. Perhaps above all mental health issues. These are also very violent places. And largely we stayed out of them, apart from the occasional foray, or the gathering of Gaelic speaking islanders in some of the Glasgow estates. There were notable exceptions – I was once told that the three worst areas in the Highlands for poverty and the associated problems were the Ferry in Inverness, Milnafua in Alness and Brora. I was proud that the Free Church had significant work in all three. Recently we have seen Norman Mackay going to Govan, Andy Robertson to Charleston in Dundee (I have to declare a personal interest here – he is my son and I am very proud of him), Chris Davidson to the Ferry in Inverness.
But here is the problem. We have sent them out into the most difficult of situations. They don’t drive in and leave. They don’t do hit and run. They are long term. They cannot grow by gathering people from other churches or becoming the ‘hip and happening’ place in their area. They can only grow by conversion…and then when people are converted there is a long process of discipleship. This is hard work. This is messy work. This is in many ways thankless work. This is long term work. This is not perceived to be influential – influencing the gatekeepers. And we have sent our men into these situations with £5,000 – we wish them well and leave them to fundraise and largely support themselves. They need £50,000. We give them £5,000. Given the job description, I think to add to it that you have to fundraise almost your whole support is an added pressure that is not helpful and conducive to church planting. I once had a conversation with Mez McConnel in which he stated that he was not sure that Free Church plants would need Twenty Schemes because we were Presbyterians. Well in my view our Presbyterianism has failed. He should have been right. Most of all I am utterly ashamed that myself and my own church have not been able to offer the kind of support in different ways that Charleston, our daughter church needs. I am thankful that Twenty Schemes have been.
It should be a matter of shame to this Assembly that Americans give more to church planting amongst the poor than this Assembly does. Now I appreciate and am very grateful for the support of the Americans, and I have worked in bringing American missionaries to Scotland but there is a downside. Firstly our church planters have to spend a significant time fundraising. It’s around $50,000 per year from US churches. That’s a drop in the ocean for many of these churches. And raising American support comes with another cost as well. Although there are Americans who are culturally sensitive and biblically sacrificial and been a fine example to me, I find that the general culture often operates on the ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune”. We’ll give you $5,000 – can we send over a mission team? Also, it’s not wise to be dependent on American workers – we have had some excellent ones – but they usually go home…and our work is long term. Plus the connections that we have with the US are far more likely to see some of our best ministers going there than there is coming to us. I can think of four Free Church men in the US at the moment.
Spiritual Trickle Down Theory
Furthermore, the American churches in the PCA have been greatly influenced by what I call spiritual trickle down theory. They believe that if we only the reach the wealthy and influential then there will a trickle-down effect to the poor. When I was the team leader for MTW Scotland it was MTW’s policy that because they were largely middle class they should reach the middle class. As a result of this attitude, it’s relatively easy to get money and people for church planting in Edinburgh and St Andrews – the cultural and media centres. But what about Cowdenbeath, Charleston, Ferguslie Park, Merkinch, Govan, …? Everyone seems to think if you evangelise the wealthy and powerful you will then be able to reach the poor. But what if its the other way round?
I am not suggesting we return to the old days of being the last Stalinist centralist organization in the UK. When I moved to Livingston to help John Mackay with the Church plant – we calculated that the Livingston Church plant would cost £1 million then to get going – salary, manse, building. Largely centrally funded. That’s the equivalent of about £4 million today. That is an unworkable system. But we have gone from Stalinist style economics to almost a complete American free market capitalism. What does that mean? It means that if you have money you can get money. It means a de facto bias towards the wealthy, not the poor. It means the millionaire’s tithe is, in reality, valued more than the widow’s mite.
Thomas Chalmers Prophecy
Thomas Chalmers foresaw that this would happen and I’m certain he would be appalled at our current practice. In his six lectures to the House of Lords in 1838, he warned that if everything was left to individual voluntary giving, the middle-class suburbs in our towns and cities would have an abundance of churches, and the poor would be left out. In Dundee we have 70,000 people living in our schemes – these schemes need radical Gospel churches, not charity. With the collapse of the Church of Scotland and its drift into and toleration of a Gospel which is no Gospel at all, we cannot rely on the C of S to reach housing schemes – although we should support and encourage every evangelical C of S, including their new moderator, and others. Co-operation not competition with other biblical churches is our mantra.
Charity or Love?
We have also gone to a charity mentality – we think that people in housing schemes need food banks and soup kitchens more than the Gospel. It’s easier for us to offer the charity of this world, rather than the charity/love of Christ as described in 1 Corinthians 13.
So what practically can be done?
Simply what I state in the amendment. The Mission Board fund these church plants not at 10% but at least at 50%. “We can’t afford it” goes up the cry. But apparently, we can afford the £50,000 per year to appoint a church planting co-ordinator! Perhaps we need to think about priorities? Look at where else we are spending money and yet we struggle to raise £15,000 on outreach amongst the poor. I accept we generally don’t have the money and we need to raise it. It should be the Mission Board that goes out to raise this funding, not the front line troops. How can they do it? Here’s an idea from our history. McCheyne had a sermon once a year where the collection went towards provision for Gaelic schools amongst the poor in the Highlands. Why don’t we have a ‘Schemes’ day in all our churches – where the collection goes to support these three congregations and hopefully others that will start?
Brothers – we need to repent….we are rearranging deckchairs on a sinking ship….its time to man the life rafts.
I started with McCheyne…let me finish with him.
Ah! Why am I such a stranger to the poor of my native town? I have passed their doors thousands of times. I have admired the huge black piles of building, with their lofty chimneys breaking the sun’s rays.
Why have I never ventured within? How dwelleth the love of God in me? How cordial is the welcome even of the poorest and most loathsome to the voice of Christian sympathy!
What imbedded masses of human beings are huddled together, unvisited by friend or minister! ‘No man careth for our souls’ is written over every forehead.
Awake, my soul! Why should I give hours and days any longer to the vain world, when there is such a world of misery at my very door?
Lord, put Thine own strength in me. Confirm every good resolution. Forgive my past long life of uselessness and folly.”
The Assembly rejected this plea. They also rejected a further amendment I put, asking them not to appoint a fully funded church planting coordinator until we started funding our actual church planters in the poorest housing estates. I was going to comment on the reasons given but to be honest I don’t think it would be profitable and so we’ll leave it there. I made my case. I lost. All I know is that when the Free Church Assembly was asked to fund church plants in our poorest housing areas, they said no.
The Three Presbyterians – the Free Church and Twenty Schemes.
Footnote: For those who have asked…here is the text of my motion and speech re the Church Planting Director. This was not so important and could easily have been granted by the Missions Board because in practice in my amendment if they could have raised the funding externally they could have appointed.
The following will be proposed regarding the Proposed Deliverance of the stated Board/Committee:
Replace Deliverance (B)2: with
- The General Assembly note the need for ongoing discussions between the Board and the Board of Trustees regarding the appointment of the Church Planting Director. The General Assembly continue the remit in the following terms: The General Assembly, recognising the need to have a dedicated worker to support the work of church planting, but also aware of the lack of funding and personnel for church planters, postpone the creation of the post of Church Planting Director until such time as a suitable person and funding is identified. They ordain that the Board should report to the 2020 Assembly with concrete proposals on how the post would be funded. However, in the event that suitable external funding becomes available, they authorize the Commission of Assembly to approve such a post providing that funding is identified from external sources and not from the current budget.
This is clearly tied in with my previous motion.
- Firstly I want to stress how important church planting is…some think we are doing too much…I think we are doing too little…the Moderator mentioned the ten churches in ten years. That was my motion and it was passed – and I was told it would not and could not be enacted. It’s great to see it happening. My concern here is that this impetus could stall because we get the methodology wrong…Too many chiefs and not enough Indians.
- We don’t have the money. We can’t fund our church planters but we can fund someone to train the planters we don’t have?
- We don’t have the personnel. We have a situation where we are struggling to get someone for Helensburgh. We have 14 Free Church students in ETS. How many will go into this church planting work? Should they? Should experience not be a pre-requisite? Church planting should not be what you do if you can’t get a job anywhere else.
Look at the description – someone with a passion for mission and church planting…proven fundraising ability….pastoral experience…and the requisite leadership qualities for the post. I can think of three people in the Free Church who fulfill this requirement – but they are all doing valuable work that we would not want to remove them from – especially when we have so few frontline troops as it is.
I am reminded of a meeting I attended in Central Europe with an American mission organization. They talked about their leaders in different countries becoming leaders of a ‘church planting network’. Someone asked – but how many of us have actually planted any churches? It was only a couple. Here was a room full of people who had tried to plant churches and not succeeded – being told they were going to be enablers of church planting networks. Our greatest need is not for a Church Planting Director, although it would be nice and I don’t in principle oppose it. Our greatest need is for Church planters. And their greatest need is for funding and support. Mez McConnel once told me that he didn’t think Free Church guys would not need Twenty Schemes because we were Presbyterians and had wider support. That has not turned out to be the case. Can I say how ashamed I feel that we (and I mean St Peters as well as the wider Free Church) have offered so little support my own son in Charleston. He and Chris Davidson have had to go to Twenty Schemes for support. I think our Presbyterianism has failed.
It could argue that a Church Planting Director would provide that support and raise funding. But we have a Mission Director who is doing a great job, Sarah as a full time administrator, we have a full time Missions Centre trainer in ETS. Do we need a Church Planting Director if there is so little for them to direct?
Is the Holy Spirit really saying…set apart for me Paul or Barnabas…to be Church Planting Director? Or is he saying – set apart for me….to go into all Scotland and plant new churches…
My amendment does not kill the idea….but it does insist that the funding come from elsewhere. We cannot say to a church planter go and we will support you 10% and you have to raise the rest or lose your job and then say to a Director – we will fund you 100%….