Service or Evangelism? The Focus of Mission in the Scottish Church

“God doesn’t care about bums on seats on a Sunday morning.”

“The Church is only part of God’s Kingdom. He’s far more active elsewhere.”

“God prefers for one hungry person to be fed than ten to come to faith.”

While I was on placement during my ministry training, or doing the rounds on pulpit supply, I would often hear comments like these. Back then, I had only just begun my theology studies, and despite feeling that these comments didn’t fully express what Scripture taught, I would usually say “Yea, quite right, the Church needs to live in the real world and serve real people” and put it out of my mind.

But I couldn’t shake a nagging sense of doubt about comments like these. And that sense of doubt only increased over the years, despite serving in soup kitchens, priority areas, hospitals, and a wide range of other contexts where ‘real needs’ were being met by good and committed Christians.

That is why Chapter 7 of Mission in Contemporary Scotland is devoted to service: the ways in which the Scottish Church expresses God’s love through acts of kindness and healing. After examining – and celebrating! – a wide variety of ways in which the Scottish Church serves its neighbours, however, I turn to what might be called the limits of service, times when service alone is not enough, and God asks us for more.

In doing that, I examine three inter-related beliefs, very common in the Scottish Church:

• That Christian mission refers only, or primarily, to service.

• That service, worship and evangelism should not be mixed.

• That even if it means the Church dies, it is imperative that Christians focus their resources on serving their neighbours, challenging unjust social structures and caring for creation.

When these beliefs are taken to their logical conclusion, some will argue that we should stop spending money on congregational life, buildings, and forms of evangelism, and move it to what our non-Christian neighbours actually care about.

While it is not always a popular view, I argue in Mission in Contemporary Scotland that while one of the Church’s commissions is to love and serve our neighbours in practical ways, this love and service is not incompatible with our other great commission, to share the Gospel. Indeed, it is precisely because we are called to share God’s love, as opposed to our own love, that it is important that we are honest about our faith, and be willing to share it when appropriate. It is when service and witness are combined that God’s love is most keenly felt, for then not only our neighbours’ material and emotional needs, but their spiritual needs, are met as well.

But what do you think? Should the Church disinvest from all forms of evangelism – or even worship? – and spend it all on service? Or should we do the opposite, leave service to the state and secular charities and simply proclaim the Gospel? These – and many other issues! – are explored further in the book. 

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