Calvinism Personal The Free Church

The Free Church and the Poor

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.

I’m gutted.

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

  1. 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%….






    1. Thank you David, for standing up for those whose voice is not being heard. You spoke powerfully and movingly and we appreciated it.
      I have been a member in the free church for almost 40 yrs. And baptised into it 60 yrs ago .
      We have worshiped in Govan for two years. We know the hard work that is put in, we know the people who value the kindness shown to them. We hear and see the gospel preached and lived out. We have amazing opportunities to share the gospel, but we do not have the man power!!
      Can someone answer the question , if a church planter is a free church minister, why on earth does he not get paid as a free church minister and have to fund raise for most of his salary? when a fellow minister 4 miles up the road, has a manse and guaranteed stipend . This Does not seem right

  1. That’s not fair and you know it. You lost the vote because you didn’t make the case well enough. Your motion was too vague and not specific enough. Please don’t leave for Australia with a Parthian shot.

    1. Ian – I did make the case and I was incredibly specific. Unlike the case for a Church Planting Director. I argued for funding or raising funds for Govan, Charleston and Merkinch for 50%. Instead of leaving the Church planters to raise 90%. How much more specific do you want me to be?! And please don’t accuse you of posting something that I ‘know’ is unfair. I don’t appreciate being accused of dishonesty. Nor do I appreciate being accused of giving ‘barbed insults’ as I leave (a Parthian shot). I was not insulting anyone. I absolutely hate the way that these things get so personalised. I was not permitted to make the case – every accusation made against me I was not allowed to answer. I am really gutted.

      1. David, I have just read your notes on the proposal to the GA, and it is very clear to me. It is indeed shameful that a gathered group of believers at the Assembly cannot see the need for funding this work to a much greater degree. I am not a born and bred Free Church person, having only come into the denomination about 10 years ago, but I am well aware of the Presbyterian system, and it is failing in this instance. We must look at these plants as a Missionfield here in Scotland, and support them as such. Muzzling the Ox was condemned in Scripture, and this cause must be revisited before the next GA.

  2. Seems straight forward.

    If Christian ministry is not already being done in these areas then fund them properly, so they’ve got a chance of ministering the Gospel there for several years.

    If it is being done (genuine biblical ministry), then stay out of the way, and possibly support whoever is doing it.

  3. I’m sad too David.
    We will miss you very much, Australia’s gain is our loss.

  4. Interesting post. I followed your reasoning and agree with all your points on this. Can you tell me what PCA and MTW stand for please?

  5. What is Chris Davidson and the ‘Merkinch Free Church’ doing exactly?

    The Madras Street mission had been going since the 1830s (?) Until recently there was a Sunday school with 28 children, Alcoholics anonymous, Road to Recovery which was a recovery programme for narcotics , a food bank and a well attended service every Sunday at 5 pm. run by a dedicated team of volunteers led by Gavin Sutherland with many years experience. All this has been closed down and replaced by what?

      1. That is not right, Campbell. Please make sure you have your facts correct before commenting about such things.

    1. Campbell,

      Sometimes a work has to be restarted. My understanding is that the Madras Street Mission had 50 children on its books and 70 adults. However the reality was it had dropped to about 8 kids from all over Inverness and 20 adults from all over Inverness. The mission was closed and in line with the basic principles that Twenty Schemes used they tried to make it as local as possible.

      They do bible studies, cafe, launch group meetings plus events. They do a great deal of work in the local community. I knew the old work and thank God for it. I know the new work (my sister and brother-in-law are involved) and thank God for that. A church is being planted….its a good thing…

      1. Road to recovery is still going on, AA is still going, the foodbank has moved to bigger and better premises (still going on), the Thursday community night (which didn’t exist before) has about 30 locals (the Sunday service had only 10/15 locals attending). They Tuesday Cafe attracts many locals which wasn’t on before. The Sunday school, which did have a lot of children attending, was more a drop off for kids so parents could get peace for an hour or so. Very few parents came and when the children reached secondary school, they stopped attending (their choice). I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

        For your information, I was involved in the work for many years. I also lead the road to recovery work and hear about AA. I’ve been in the foodbank many times, so can see how well it’s doing.

        What is happening is Merkinch just now and for the future, is very exciting.

      2. Also, the foodbank, AA and road to recovery used the building as a venue, not for any other reasons. It was available and in a good location. These groups were not part of Madras Street Church.

    2. It would take a very brave man to sign up to 20 Schemes (with the resulting financial backing, primarily from the USA) and not do things the 20 Schemes way. This is the 20 Schemes way.

      1. Sunday services are the end product of people who are converted….if you are going to do evangelism I wouldn’t begin with Sunday services.

  6. While I agree that Church planting is a good thing and share your concern for outreach to the poor, why spend this much money that we don’t currently have (‘non existent pot of gold’ comments from your address yesterday) on Church plants, when we already have existing, struggling churches who are doing a good work in these poor parts already? I know of several Churches who tirelessly work at bringing the gospel (and physical care) to the poor, the elderly, the youth in the community through Cafe, Youth Club, Alcohol Concern, Food and Shelter provision etc etc. Some of these Churches do this work without even being able to support a full time minister, yet due to their burden for the poor and unsaved in the community they faithfully strive to carry out this work despite being stretched in finance, personnel and support from the wider church. Given the costs you associated with beginning and supporting a new work (IE – Manse, Salary, Building, Provisions etc) surely before we look at starting new work we should firstly be supporting those who already have these provisions in place, who are already doing this work – and are needing support? I’m not saying any one area is more important than the other, and I fully appreciate there are poor in every community – but I know that there are hard working churches who feel forgotten about on this issue.

    1. Mike. This is exactly what I was thinking. We must support church planting financially. However, there are churches with existing buildings [including a manse] that need upgrading; a pool of people willing to be involved; ongoing work in the community and an established Christian fellowship that can offer teaching and support to new converts. Many such churches are situated in deprived areas and would benefit greatly from moral and financial support. They could be revitalised by families and singles willing to move from larger, growing congregations to smaller churches who nevertheless have great potential for the gospel.

  7. And we the people in the pews are gutted to. It’s a shameful thing to pay men facing far more difficulty and adversity a fraction of a ministers salaray.
    To add insult to injury, we are proposing to Pay someone a full time salary to co-ordinate and to wax lirical about a job others are actually doing on a pittance!!! This stretches credulity to breaking point.

    I would love to see the Job description!!!
    Wanted, Church Planters!
    Come to ETS and make untold sacrifices for 3-6 years in order to gain a theological education. You too can sit next to your fellow, students safe in the knowledge that they will be safely ensconced in a wee cushy number preaching to the converted in an established congregation, with their new car parked outside their big manse when they are fresh out of Seminary. Oh and by the way, we’l give you five grand to go and live in what is for most people, a no go zone where even the police dont get out their cars unless they have back-up.

    I can just see people lining up now, to be abused and disresped in this way.

    God save us from tightfisted ungenerious Christians. With church friends like this, who needs enemies?

    All sarcasim aside, to be honest I’m ashamed and appualed of this Assembly ‘s decision not to act on these amendments. I’m also immensely proud of the men and women who have made real sacrifices for the Gospel by ivesting their lives in reaching out to the ones sociaity does not value. Jesus did the same with the poor, the blind, the sick, the leppers, the prostitutes and Sinners in General.
    Thank God It’s the sick that need the doctor! And that Jesus came to save sin sick souls.

    I say to the courageous and faithful Church planters, your lives are a fragrant offering to God. To the Free Church Assembly, I say, such decisions, are a stench in the nostrils of God.

    1. Hi Ray – I think to be fair you have got the wrong end of the stick here. All Free Church church planters are paid the same wage as other ministers – including those in the Schemes. The salary for FC ministers is £24,000 plus a manse. The typical annual cost of working in a church plant is around £50,000. My amendment was concerned with how we raise that money. At the moment it is largely the responsibility of the planter (90%). I think it should shift to more 50%…..Don’t forget that the Mission Board help with the fundraising – I just wanted them to commit to that officially and to take some of the burden of the planters.

      1. Ah, indeed I did get the wrong impression. I stand corrected David and withdraw my comment concerning the renumeraction of church planters.

    2. Ray – I recently re-trained as a Church of Scotland minister and am now in my first charge, a well known Urban Priority Area. Certainly not a ‘cushy number preaching to the converted’. That’s not what I, nor indeed others, was called I to the ministry for. Plenty of folk I know who have been happy to be called into similar areas and schemes to preach the Gospel message.

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