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The Free Church General Assembly – Has the Free Church Plateaued?

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 –

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.

Evangelism –

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

Education –

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

Ecumenism –

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









  1. “Learns to surf the cultural waves and seek a renewed Scotland, through a renewed church.”

    What comes to mind for me David is a meeting we were both at in the former International Christian College in Glasgow, Scotland off the back of a visit made by Brain McLaren who was promoting the “Emergent Church” and ideas not dissimilar to the one which you advocate here. I recall offering that isn’t this always what the church has aimed to do and that being met with enthusiastic affirmation from you. So, it seems not only teaching may be part of it but teaching as Jesus did “with authority” and doing it in service not out of the liking for status or popularity. And with that having powerful resonance.

    Of course when Jesus taught in religious establishments it initially won him favour, with his listeners but eventually there were those that took offence to his teaching and wanted to throw him off a cliff, eventually him getting up the noses of the highest authorities in the religious world of the time and them plotting successfully for his death.

    So, if someone or a group of people is to “surf the cultural waves and seek a renewed Scotland” then wiht nothing being new under the sun, may I aske, what do you think will likely be the response will be from established religion, and powerful figures within, including the Free Church of Scotland?

    1. Not sure Adam….but Brian McLaren is actually the wrong model….the C of S establishment would love him – as he ticks all their progressive boxes.

      1. I agree that there are concerns about Brian McLaren. when I asked him about truth when he visited, he quoted Romans 14 and anything causing your brother distress not being loving towards him. OK so Jesus preaching in the synagogue about a prophet being without honour among his own people and that being taken offence to with a desire to throw him off a cliff – was that causing distress?

        So yes – he is “progressive” or what I like sometimes to call “regressive”. But the Emergent Church movement supported by the former principle of the International Christian College Richard Tiplady did seem to be saying something not dissimilar to what you have with “cultural waves” and renewal. So it’s not beyond reason to draw a comparison.

        In Rose Dowsetts book on Global Mission dated 2011 Richard writes “existing forms of Christian worship and community do not attract outsiders (and may even repel them). There should be no offence except the cross of Christ.” So in that light he says central to the “emerging church” is “we model ourselves on the example of Jesus by going among people and embodying the life of the Spirit in their midst.”

        So – again, isn’t that what the (authentic representation of) church has always aimed to?

        So – would it be beyond reason to suggest that whatever institution is involved, there is a need to on one hand discern between “distress” for example for Paul, the “offence” being circumcisers taking offence to him preaching about circumcision of the heart and calling them “mutilators of the flesh” and perhaps there being a need to listen to such important voices within church institutions rather than dismiss them as unloving? And on the other hand to “surf” be able to communicate the gospel message in ways that resonate with a changing culture and the passion for such not be held back by certain elements in churches that might be comfortable wiht things the way they are, even if they are ineffectual?

  2. I see no future for any church unless the Bible is placed fair and square, centre stage. Without a keen focus on the Word, unpolluted by post-modern interpretation and the ignoble designs of higher criticism, the church becomes little more than a directionless sociological institution.

    The real elephant in the room is the obvious truth that many of the clergy no longer believe in the God of the Bible; they question the Gospel, deny the authority of scripture and appear hell-bent on creating another god, made in the image of man. Marcionism revisited with post-modern updates, so to speak.

    I really do believe that we are witnessing the advent of the apostate church and the need to remain faithful to His Word, is as crucial now as it has ever been for Bible believing Christians.

  3. So true on many levels. What is a concern is when an evangelical church change’s and becomes legalistic and changes from a fellowship of love and compassion in a Biblical sense to one that is totally blind to the concern of other Christian brothers about concerns they perceive are not only wrong but decisive of a caring and believing fellowship the Church of Christ on both sides of the debate suffers. I think that is another nail in the coffin that we have to explain and lovingly and truthfully embrace and help .
    Yours in Christ

  4. How does a church remain ‘loving and compassionate’ but also stay true to its moral values?

    In so many spheres of life, it feels like society is happy to take on the parts of the Christian message that don’t threaten – reconciliation and love, for example. No one can argue these are good things. But, to talk about our sin, our failure, when we fall short, that’s a whole other matter. Then there’s the fact that our moral code is becoming so blurred – genders are fluid, whites are sub-consciously racist, men can compete as women in sport etc. This is having such a detrimental effect on young people’s mental health as it infiltrates every sphere of our society.

    It was interesting to watch one of the discussions on ‘Premier Unbelievable Conference’. A black man spoke up from the audience during Question Time. He thanked the white people (teachers, pastors etc) who had impacted his life for good. And he pointed out to the speakers, that at no point had any of them actually said, we are all sinners, we all need rescuing from our sin. Everyone wants to point the finger at the government, the church, their parents etc and say, ‘It’s their fault’, ‘They’re doing/ did a rubbish job’ – and that’s not to say that these organisations/ people haven’t done wrong.

    I believe as Christians we need to get back to being loving, Bible-based communities and not get distracted.
    We need to be kind and welcoming communities but firm on the Gospel, what we believe. It is good news!
    We need to be a people who are working hard to love and forgive each other despite our failings.
    We need solid Bible-based teaching to young and old, to encourage our families in living out their faith in their communities.
    As best we can, to be a light, in our jobs, and in our interactions to our communities around us.

  5. David,

    Thank you for the article.


    1. ETS costs 700K per year to run.
    Are they seeking out people who may give charitable contributions? Are they going after people who esteem the church highly enough to include ETS in their will? Are student tuition fees high enough? Do they have people with business degrees running the show?

    2. It would be great to return to the Knox idea of a school and church in every parish. However, the cost of starting even one FC school is prohibitive if you are collecting funds from only one denomination. Christian schools in the States collect money from multiple denominations. We are simply not big enough to run FC schools. We cannot even break even running ETS.

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