The Free Church General Assembly – Has the Free Church Plateaued?
After my recent posts assessing the situation in the Church of Scotland, some have been keen to know how the Free Church is going. Not having been part of it for the past three years – and bearing in mind Thomas Chalmers statement “who cares for the Free Church compared with the Christian good of Scotland” – I thought it would be interesting to take a fresh look at where the Free Church is going. I hope no one would be naïve enough to think that the Free Church is the answer for the dire needs of the Church in Scotland – but perhaps it could be part of the answer?
With the caveat that I was not at the General Assembly of the Free Church, and was only able to watch some of it online, nonetheless on the basis of that, reports of friends and written reports, it appears to me that there was much to give thanks for at the FC assembly. The motto of “a healthy gospel church for every community in Scotland’ is a fine aspiration.
One minister wrote: “I have loved this week. It’s been in person. There has been great fellowship. Friendships have been renewed & made. It’s been forward looking. There is a sense that the church of Jesus, the part of that of which we are, is in the hands of good people, by the grace of God. It’s been harmonious…I cherish our present unity of heart & purpose, our mutual respect, our love for each other. As Paul says: ‘let us strive to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace’.”
It was interesting to observe the new faces, increased diversity and general sense of unity. I found the Missions report of particular encouragement. What really struck me was a comment from Neil MacMillan suggesting that the Free Church had plateaued. There are areas where the church is growing – and it is now significantly engaging in church planting – but there are also areas of decline. Only the Seventh day Adventists and the Free Church of the denominations that were founded pre 1900 are growing in the UK today. See John Hayward’s fascinating research – https://churchmodel.org.uk/2022/05/15/growth-decline-and-extinction-of-uk-churches/
And yet this is not enough. There are some major areas which the Free Church needs to address immediately, if it is to move on from just maintaining itself, to being a major force for the Kingdom of Christ in Scotland. The Free Church will not survive by planting 30 new churches by 2030. Our vision should be much bigger than that. We need to plant new churches, revitalise old ones and even close some. We have to rethink our approach to education, the poor, the culture and other churches. Unless we engage with these issues, I suspect that the plateau will soon turn to decline.
Some of our growth is coming from other churches – especially the Church of Scotland. How many Free Church congregations are seeing growth through conversions – especially from ‘the world’? There is no use training lots of chiefs if there are no Indians.
Neil MacMillian pointed out that in his 12 years in Edinburgh there had been such a fundamental shift in the culture that Edinburgh looks different and sounds different. The question is what are we doing to reach the lost? (Do we really believe they are lost?) And what are we doing trying to understand the changes in the culture and how we can proclaim the Gospel in that changed culture?Christian
There was a fascinating discussion about education. A proposal was made to fund a full-time worker/researcher with the organisation Christian Vision for Education in Scotland. Whilst the Assembly recognised the importance of education – it pulled back from funding this work. The argument was made that we needed to have a focus, avoid the tyranny of good ideas, and question whether we could afford to do this on our own. These were all valid points. However, I think that the Assembly made a mistake. Sometimes there is a tyranny of inertia and fear as well.
The Free Church spends almost £700,000 per year running Edinburgh Theological Seminary. That is an enormous sum for a small denomination. Yet we can’t afford £30,000 to spend on wider education? Whatever happened to Knox’s vision that where you have a church, there you have a school?
A few years ago, I was involved with relations with the Vrijgemacht (Liberated) church in the Netherlands. In 1945 both they and the Free Church had about 20,000 people each. BY 2000, the Free Church had 10,000 – the Liberated, 140,000. What was the difference? It was not because they were any better at evangelism. Rather it was because they took education seriously and had their own schools. As a result, they largely kept their young people.
GK Chesterton said that unless you change the thinking of a nation, you are unlikely to be able to evangelise its people. Our children (and all the children of Scotland) are being taught an alien and anti-Christian religion – that of ‘progressive’ paganism. Not only will we lose many of our own children, but we will find it far more difficult to evangelise pagans who don’t think rationally, biblically or realistically. The point was made that we could not afford to do this. The real question is can we afford not to?! Education and the Poor
Engaging with the Poor –
The Free Church has a proud history of helping the poor. Whether it was the Breadalbane providing grain during the potato famine; Chalmers with his churches for the poor in Scotland’s rapidly expanding cities; or Thomas Guthrie’s Ragged Schools; the Church worked on the assumption that mercy ministry was an essential part of the Gospel provision. Whilst we like that history – I suspect it is now not much more than a glorious memory. At the Assembly I heard barely a word about the Free Church church plants in Merkinch and Charleston – or the work of Twenty Schemes. We speak about what we are passionate about. The Free Church and the Poor
The Ecumenical movement is a good idea. But it only works if churches are agreed on what the basics are. I remember one time visiting a manse in Inverness, seeking to co-operate on an evangelistic mission. The only problem was that we could not agree on what the Gospel was. How can two walk together, except they be agreed? But equally I have seen churches that do agree on the Gospel who seem to see each other, if not as enemies, at least as competitors – competing for the same pool of the declining number of believers. It’s a sign of decay when as the number of Christians decreases, the number of Christian organisations and churches increases. We need to find a way where there is genuine co-operation and sacrificial serving of others within the bible believing churches in Scotland. The Free Church should reach out to FIEC, Chalmers Church, the Didasko Fellowship, and those within the Baptists, United Free and Church of Scotland who share the same vision. Perhaps we do need a read ‘general’ assembly where co-operation, prayer and practical planning can occur.
A Civilisational Moment and a Gospel Opportunity
The outgoing Principal Clerk to the General Assembly, Rev Dr George Whyte, speaking on his retirement last week, stated: “Asking what God wants to do now and how does he want to do it demands the application of heart and mind, it needs rigour and honesty, teaching, preaching and prayer and it needs us sometimes to be quiet and listen.” That is something the Free Church needs to take to heart. And I would add to that that we need to listen to what God is saying through his word, Spirit, Church and providence. The whole Western world is going through a civilisational moment – as for example the Roman Empire did at the time of Augustine, or Europe did at the time of the Reformation. Scotland is going through a civilisational moment. The question is whether the Free Church just goes with the tide; or seeks to turn it back and is overwhelmed; or learns to surf the cultural waves and seek a renewed Scotland, through a renewed church.
This was from the 2015 Assembly where I was moderator.
Thomas Manton and Ian Hamilton on Why the Church of Scotland Went Wrong