The Blessing of Decline

O Lord

In the hour of our deepest need

When death and life combine

Incline our hearts to welcome

The blessing of decline.

Sometimes people ask me why I wrote Mission in Contemporary Scotland. One reason – which is rather funny – is  because I applied for a job that required publications in mission, and – being quick off the mark – managed to get a book deal just before the interview. In the end I didn’t get the job… but I did get the book!

The main reason, however, was because of something that came to me a couple of years before this. 

Back in the time when people were not talking much about church decline and church reform – remember that? – I had a strong sense that I had to say something about the winter that was coming, and to make the Church prepare before it was too late. Feeling this way over many months, I eventually wrote, over three days, a piece of writing called The Blessing of Decline. Parts of this work found their way into Mission in Contemporary Scotland, but, in the end, I decided not to publish it in the form it was written, as it stood to high a chance of being misunderstood.

What I want to do in this post, however, is to try and distil the argument of The Blessing of Decline into a form that might be more readily considered and accepted by readers. I do this with some trepidation, however. I am aware of the uncertainty, anxiety and hurt that is present in my denomination at the moment, as well as further afield in the Church. Numerical decline, financial shortfalls, and parish reorganisation are leaving many people in a fragile place, and I have no desire to add to their pain. Yet I do believe that God is saying something to us through these difficult days, and that – if we can hear it – we might make sense of the times we are living through, and find the resilience and hope to begin again, and dream afresh.

What is the Blessing of Decline?

As we pick through the ruins of the Church that was, it is natural to think that decline can only ever be bad. Who wants to fail? Who wants to suffer? Who wants to die? Yet we are a people who are marked by our belief that after death comes resurrection; that the vine is cut back to bear more fruit; that those whom the Lord loves he rebukes and disciplines, that they might know yet greater joy. Ours is the faith of the ‘nevertheless’, that despite all the world’s darkness, and despite all the world’s sin, nevertheless, there will be light, and love, and life in the end. 

I want to suggest, then, that this time of decline is not only sad, and not only disastrous, but is also spiritually and theologically significant. That if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, we may discern God in the whirlwind. That in the midst of our woes come blessings, blessings that, if we receive them, will liberate us from what has been, and convert us to the future that God is bringing to birth.

These are some of the blessings that I believe God is giving to us at this time:

The glory of the Church has departed… so now we can glory in God

When congregations were full, and the Church was socially and politicly important, we could delight in our worldly success, and put our trust in ourselves. Yet now that our congregations are shrinking, and we are met with social and political indifference, we are forced to turn to the only one in the universe who is deserving of our trust, and pride, and delight: the Living God. While the loss of the Church’s glory, like any loss, can be hard to accept, for those with the eyes to see, it enables them to see God all the more clearly, and to turn to him in faith and hope and love, knowing that the power and the glory belong to him alone.

Church membership is declining… so now we can rediscover discipleship

The notion that, in decades and centuries past, the churches were full of devout Christians earnestly serving their Lord is a myth. Christian nominalism was widespread across the Scottish denominations, and particularly marked in the Church of Scotland. People became members of churches in the same way as they became members of bowling clubs, albeit often taking their bowling more seriously than their faith! While it is natural to feel bad about declining numbers, therefore, we should see it for what is: membership is declining, which means we can rediscover discipleship. Rather than the Church being a social club or a badge of respectability, it can become again what God created it to be: the Body of Christ, whose members seek to become more and more like him, and who serve and witness in his name. That is true membership, and the decline in our numbers makes it easier to achieve than when our churches were full.

We don’t have enough ministers… so now all must minister

Traditionally, congregations up and down the country have felt that, without a minister, they can’t do anything. Who can teach us? Who can lead us? Who can tell us what to do? While good leadership and teaching is important, in a time when ministers and other leaders can be hard to come by, God is saying to the Church – you can minister! All Christians, no matter their education, training or official position in the Church are called by Christ to witness and serve in his name. This can happen in the context of worship leading, through the discovery of gifts that were obscured when the ‘professional’ Christian was ‘down the front’. Yet, very often, it will take place in the course of everyday life, when, knowing the ministerial cavalry are not coming over the hills, Christians realise that Christ is calling them to serve him where they are, whether in their community, work or relationships. This is not a threat to church leaders, but a cause for rejoicing, for the role of church members is not to support the ministry of their leaders, but the role of the leaders to support the ministry of members.

Our churches are falling apart… so now we will be a Church without walls

Centuries of sectarian schism have littered Scotland with beautiful, yet redundant, churches. While schism corralled Christians into ever-smaller units, their desire to outbuild their rivals only grew greater, with small sects occupying imposing edifices. Yet now that numbers have dipped even more, and now that the money is gone, our sanctuaries are crumbling, and many mourn buildings that – while built to the glory of God – often took the place of the Almighty in the affections and imaginations of their members. Yet now, God has thrown down the temple, that he might raise it up again. The closure of churches makes it clear that it is the people who are the Church, and not any building. The end of churchgoing means that worship must now go out to our neighbours, meeting in places and spaces that are intuitive and winsome to 21st century Scots. This means not only church plants in community centres and school halls, but creative liturgies and experiences in the home and in nature, the whole of society and creation becoming the theatre of God’s glory.

The state has ceased to support us… so politics can no longer harm our unity

Almost all the schisms of the Scottish Church came from the imposition of the state and the powers that be into the life of the Church. Whether it be the king imposing bishops, or land owners imposing ministers, or Christians resenting the religious coercion of the law, the Church has been divided again and again by the lure of power, and the prospect of using force to ensure that our tradition dominates everyone else’s. Yet God has called time on our power plays, and with the temptation of power taken away from us we are free to discover the only power, and the only King that matters: Jesus Christ, our brother, our Lord and our God. We are one people, for we share one Lord, one faith, and one baptism, and it is the love and unity that Christians have for each other, and their sharing of the charisms and gifts of the Spirit, that will allow the Church to fully manifest the image of Christ to Scotland, and be the Church he calls us to be.

These, then, are the blessings of decline. Yet they cannot be received unless we accept reality: that what has gone before cannot be again, that what we have been before we cannot be again. Yet while all around us is death, and fear, and uncertainty, nevertheless, Christ is Lord, and after the pain of Good Friday, and the sadness of Holy Saturday, comes the joy of Easter Day.

When times are difficult, and when words begin to fail, it is often time for poetry, and so that is where we shall end:

I looked –

And saw the brown-green water

Fetid and dark and deep.

I looked –

And saw the heap of text

Massed and jagged and bleak.

I looked –

And saw the antique fountain

Cracked and leaking and broke.

But then – God spoke

And the depths were pierced with lilies,

And the words untangled to sing,

And from the fractured fountain flowed

The water of life again.

O Lord

In the hour of our deepest need

When death and life combine

Incline our hearts to welcome

the blessing of decline.

11 thoughts on “The Blessing of Decline

  1. Liam, at the risk of sounding banal, this is genuinely fantastic. Never did I sense you becoming maudlin or sentimental in your book (Mission…). Nor do you do so here. Just to hear something refreshingly hopeful, biblically rooted, and missionally honest is helpful indeed amid a growing sense of desperation among local churches too busy with eyes on their quicksand rather than the outstretched arm well within reach of a Saviour, risen and glorified. Thanks for being the lifter of our heads and helping us observe properly our surroundings.

    Shalom, R


  2. What wonderful thoughts – all so true and so comforting. Thank you very much for putting decline into such great perspective. I completely agree with all that has been said. 🙏

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s very kind of you! I’ll have a think about whether I want to share the original. It is a bit ‘raw’, and – much like Jeremiah – has some hard things to say. I’ll get in touch if I choose to share it with folk 🙂


  3. Dear Liam,Thank you for this helpful piece of thinking and writing. Is it ok to share it locally and put on our local church website? Or are there are copyright considerations?


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