Out of Control: Do We Have the Ability to Reverse Church Decline?

As I was enjoying time off over the Christmas period, watching box sets and sipping Negronis, I found myself returning again and again to this question: do we have any power to reverse the numerical decline of the Church? Are there secret levers still left to pull, and silver bullets still to load in our missional rifles, that would enable us to return to ‘the good old days’? Should we just give up, liquidate the assets of the Church, and rebrand ourselves as religious charities rather than churches, dishing out grant funds to secular bodies? Or, in a context of frantic work, parish reform, COVID regulations, and a million and one other things, are we simply running on empty, and lack the time to consider how ‘successful’ our activities might be?

Each of us will resonate with different aspects of that, and perhaps all in the same day. For me, however, and as I wrote Mission in Contemporary Scotland, the touchstone is always what is true. What is real? What is verifiable? What are the hard facts and the ‘God’s honest truth’ rather than hyperbole, over-enthusiasm, or the distortion that comes with hasty despair?

In the book I write:

[R]eality is hard, and its common responses are despair and delusion. The despairing person asks: why bother doing anything? Why set ourselves up for failure when success is impossible? Isn’t it enough that my church will be there to ‘see me out’? The delusional person, meanwhile, carves idols of hope for themselves. The statistics aren’t that bad, are they? Didn’t a Cabinet Minister address our conference? Doesn’t the Queen send a representative to the General Assembly each year? Doesn’t my daily devotional, or my pastor’s teaching, or the latest book on church growth prove that we will soon see exponential growth?

Despair and delusion are powerful, but we must not settle for either. We must learn to see not with the eyes of the cynic, or of the optimist, or even of the realist, but to see ourselves, our Church and our nation with the eyes of Christ. He alone knows the way, for he is the Way.

This book is an attempt to do that, to present the Scottish Church with the depths of our predicament and yet to hope in Christ.

For me, the crux of having an effective approach to mission – by which I mean one that realises God’s vision of healthy, happy people worshipping him in a sustainable world – is realising that, on the one hand, the context of contemporary Scotland is often toxic to faith, but, on the other hand, that God is sovereign, and will one day completely recreate Scotland, ourselves, and our world.

The balance here is crucial. In the book, I recount a whole range of factors that the Church has no control over. Consumerism, the breakdown of community, the individualisation of religion and spirituality, and the dislocation caused by technology have all led – amid other causes – to the loss of Scotland’s faith. We didn’t cause any of that, and have little or no control over any of it. Yet, on the other hand, we have a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving, and has given his Holy Spirit to the Church to heal, and witness, and transform the world in Jesus’ name. 

In practice, that balancing act ends up with this delicate equilibrium: I have no control over anything, and for that reason I will praise and worship and witness and serve without worrying about whether I ‘win’ or ‘fail’. As T.S. Eliot put it in his choruses from The Rock:

All men are ready to invest their money 
But most expect dividends. 
I say to you: Make perfect your will. 
I say: take no thought of the harvest, 
But only of proper sowing. 

This is not a substitute for planning, praying, researching and strategising. On the contrary, all of those form part of making ‘perfect your will’, and what it means to do ‘proper’ sowing, as opposed to improper sowing. Yet it is to view that sowing, that missional activity, in light of a social context in which much of the seed will perish, and in the greater light of a God who has achieved total victory over everything that assails us.

There is much comfort in accepting our lack of control. We didn’t cause the majority of this mess, and we are therefore not the people to blame. The ground of Scottish society is so rocky and threadbare that we need not blame ourselves when so little seed sprouts. We are thankful for the little buds that burst from the dead land, and are grateful that anything grows here at all.

Yet the realisation that we have little or no control over our context means that, paradoxically, we need to work harder, be more ambitious, and focus more attention on the things that are within our control. 

Mission in Contemporary Scotland argues that church disunity – and particularly the Free Church disruption – caused, and continues to cause, a serious impediment to serving and evangelising our nation. Mistrusts, theological misunderstandings rather than actual disagreements, and sheer pettiness sap the ability of the Scottish Church to properly manifest the Body of Christ to Scotland, when Jesus says that it is by our love and unity that the world will see and believe. We can do something about that. We can have more local partnerships in mission. We can have more high-level theological dialogue. We can develop practical, ambitious plans for the granting of redundant church buildings to newer churches, or the partnership of congregations with missional expertise with those that have little missional expertise but do have cash or property. To take another example, at present, the majority of the Scottish Church is still using outdated models of ministry and congregational life that even the majority of middle aged and elderly people find unappealing, let alone anyone else. This needs to change and can be changed, and when it does change we may see some small improvement. 

Above all, however, we need to become a Church that prays. Not just on Sunday mornings when the minister or priest does it for us, not just when we want something or have a bad day, but constantly, at all times. More and more, the Scottish Church needs to learn the intimacy of the Father’s heart, through Christ, in the power of the Spirit. We must see that prayer is not only about listing demands, or a form of spiritual social activism, but is about participating in the life of the Holy Trinity, and experiencing eternal life today. That life, that is free from worry, and struggle, and disappointment, and pain, and is suffused with love and beauty and light and peace. The only control we have in this life is to surrender all control to God, and allow him to fight, and labour, and succeed on our behalf. To the extent that we covet control, and labour and build alone, we labour and build in vain. But to the extent that we surrender all to him, the more he is able to give us, and greener the shoots will grow.

So, do we have the ability to reverse numerical Church decline in Scotland? Yes – in small amounts in some places, but probably not large amounts in all places. That is neither the despairing answer of the pessimist nor the delusional answer of the hyper-optimist, but the true answer, and the one, I believe, that Christ knows. He sees both the total victory of Father, Son and Spirit over sin and death and the difficulty of his victory being recognised by contemporary Scots, yet his work and his Kingdom continue the same.

We need to see with his eyes, think with his mind, and love with his heart, to serve and evangelise the people of Scotland in season and out of season, whatever the harvest may bring. Perfect your will.

2 thoughts on “Out of Control: Do We Have the Ability to Reverse Church Decline?

  1. Thanks for your post Liam. Yes, I think there are levers we still have to pull that would make a substantial difference to the mission of the Church of Scotland in Scotland today.

    There are two levers in particular that at parish (and Presbytery) level, if pulled, would be transformative. They are the lever of management and the lever of governance. In my opinion we don’t have a mission problem, we have a management one.

    Organisations are successful when they are well managed and well governed. We know this to be true, because in contemporary Scotland tens of thousands of well managed and well governed organisations are extraordinarily successful.

    This would mean doing two things at parish level; replacing Kirk Sessions with small boards of trustees, and replacing paid ministers with paid managers. All successful organisations separate service management from service delivery. Where there is not enough money to pay for both, they pay for management and ask volunteers to to do service delivery. Ideally, both would be paid posts, and this is possible in the Church of Scotland depending on the size of parish churches.

    I say that we need well governed and well managed parish churches. But, at the moment we have a governance and management wasteland at parish level. It would not be untrue to say that even properly constituted bad governance and bad management would be an improvement, but obviously that isn’t something to pray for, and wouldn’t be sustainable even in the short term.

    Once we have a 21st century governance and management structure, the board’s of local parish churches then receive devolved funding and set their own goals and targets, and employ the necessary people to achieve these goals.

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    1. Very interesting, James. Would local parish churches still be required to provide “the ordinances of religion” (baptisms, weddings, funerals etc) to quote the Third Article Declaratory, or would they have a choice as to whether they provide all or some of these services?

      Would a privileging of management also mean that you would seek to recruit and ordain more non-stipendiary ministers?

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