Mission in Contemporary Scotland was published on 8th October 2021. Since then, I’ve spoken at a number of conferences and events about the Book, as well as engaging in a fair bit of – not always pleasant! – online discussion.
I’ve been surprised at the range of people who have engaged with the Book, and grateful for the insights I’ve gained into the state of the Scottish Church, and what God might be doing with us in this day and age.
In what follows, I lay out the 5 most important insights I’ve gained since launch day, and some of the unresolved issues I think the Scottish Church still needs to think through.
Number One: People finally understand how bad the situation is
I’ve been sitting on national Church committees for a long time now, and have had to endure many meetings where those in charge seemed frustratingly complacent about the challenges facing us, and the need to change course before it was too late. Well if nothing else, in most places, complacency is no more. Few if any Church leaders now think we can go on as we are, and there is now a refreshing openness to church planting, fresh expressions, and the importance of contextually-relevant worship.
Number Two: Scottish Christians are getting more Conservative
Over the past decade, a number of Scottish denominations have been riven with disagreement over same-sex relationships. While this suggests to some conservative commentators that the Church will continue to liberalise, my experience over the past year is the opposite. More and more Christians are realising that if we are to fulfil our part in God’s mission to Scotland we must deepen our trust in God, take God’s Word seriously, and cease to be embarrassed by the distinctive features of our faith. The reasons for this shift towards orthodoxy are explored in Chapter Six of the Book. I see this process continuing in years to come, even if it is only because traditional denominations have come to realise that what they are currently believing and doing does not appear to be working.
Number Three: Because God is almighty, some people are still disinterested in context
Readers of Mission in Contemporary Scotland will know the importance I attach to properly understanding national and local context. The reason for this is simple, and explained by our Lord himself: the seed of the Word may remain the same, but the soil it falls upon is changeable. Our ‘soil’ of our Scottish context is often toxic to faith, and therefore understanding it, and the kind of fertiliser we might need to add to it, is crucial if we are to see meaningful growth.
What I have discovered, however, is that, even now, many Christians are still largely disinterested in context. Because God is all powerful, and because the Gospel is unchanging, they do not think we need to understand our changed society. All we need is more faith, more devotion, more commitment, and revival will come.
Those who have read the Book will know that I too believe that God is all-powerful, and will also know from it and from blog posts on this page that commitment and personal faith are key to producing the people who will create the authentic, passionate, and creative Church cultures we need in contemporary Scotland. Yet I do not believe that faith and passion and hope alone will lead to revival. If we truly love Scotland and its communities then we must also understand them, including why they are largely indifferent to Christ. Yet when we understand them, and shape our church cultures in appropriate ways, there will also be a much greater chance of them understanding us, and the Lord we serve. Otherwise, we will be like bright, shining flames that burn in the night, yet never kindle light in others.
Number Four: There continue to be different views about how Scotland should be evangelised
While there is a growing acceptance, even in traditional denominations, that more Scots need to come to faith, there is not much agreement about how this should be done. I detect three faultiness in approaches to evangelism. The first concerns whether evangelism is primarily something that individuals do or something that congregations as a whole do. The second is whether the local church is the only thing necessary for evangelism, or whether evangelism might also involve regional or national initiatives that engage wider public consciousness. The third is whether conventional congregations – and I include most church plants in this – are best placed to reach Scots, or whether more experimental and interactive fresh expressions are needed. Denominations and networks take different approaches towards these things, and what the Scottish Church needs are more detailed studies and analyses into what works and what doesn’t. We need to know, and we need to know now.
Number Five: People are confused about the difference between ministry and mission
People occasionally say that I should have said more in the book about Sunday worship, family devotions, discipleship, and related issues. While all of these are important, they are important parts of ministry rather than mission per se. This distinction between ministry and mission is not one that is paramount in people’s minds, and one which some would even reject. Yet human beings were not created to do mission, but to worship the Father, love God and neighbour, and witness to each other about God’s goodness, and these things will continue in the new creation long after mission is ended. There is much the Church does that is not purely ‘missional’, and without appreciating this and nurturing these things, we will actually harm mission.
This issue is not purely academic but one that has significant practical effects. Right now, the Church of Scotland is cutting 40% of ministry posts using – ostensibly – the Five Marks of Mission as a guide. The Marks are a good summary of mission, but not a good summary of all that the Church should be doing. The confusion between ministry and mission is so serious, and the literature on their relationship so small, that this will form the subject matter of my next book.
These are just some of the things that I have discerned in the year since the Book was published, and there is much else I could have selected. What I want to end on, however, is the strong sense of hope I have. Up and down Scotland, men and women are faithfully seeking to serve Christ, and do their best to witness to him in their congregations and daily lives. Even if our plans do not work out as we wish, God uses all things for our good, failure as well as victory, and even in days such as these, Christ is still building his Church, and blessing our neighbours in love.
May we remain faithful to him in season and out of season, and look for the green shoots that speak of the harvest to come.
2 thoughts on “One Year On: What I’ve Learned Since Mission in Contemporary Scotland was Launched”
Thanks Liam. In the book you are clear about the context, but also quite specific about why you think Scotland and it’s people need salvation in Christ; break down of traditional community, sense of identity, loneliness etc etc
To what extent do you think this is a post-modern feature of Scottish society? And do you think that mission (fresh expressions etc) should take a post- modern approach? Or should we persevere with a modernist witness?
Hi James. Sorry for the delay in getting back to you – missed your comment!
I think the terms ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ always need unpacking, as they can mean lots of different things. The way I tend to think of these words is that ‘modern’ relates to an approach to truth in which truth is defined and articulated by institutions, whether it be the Church, the government, community leaders etc. It therefore tends to be more ‘top down’, and less democratic. I understand ‘postmodern’ to mean the way in which truth is more contested and fluid. Rather than a cluster of authoritative institutions, truth is ‘up for debate’ between institutions, groups, family units, and lots of empowered individuals. That last part is important, as postmodernity – if it means anything – is what happens when the world explained in Chapter 4 of the book comes to be. In short, if individuals have the economic and legal freedom to form their own worldviews then they will.
All of that is a problem for the Church, or at least traditional forms of Church. I note in Chapter 8 of the book that fresh expressions represent a more de-centralised and egalitarian approach to Christian life, and there is no doubt that this will be attractive to some of those who have been shaped by our contemporary culture. Yet as Chapter 6 notes, the folk who are most likely to engage with religion will be traditional, and people who actually LIKE top-down, authoritative religion.
For that reason, as ever, we probably need both in order to reach as many different kinds of people as possible. What I would not like to see, however, is worshipping communities becoming so egalitarian that they cease to teach what Jesus commands. From my point of view, Christ is a King who commands. HOW his commands are transmitted, heard, and enforced – if at all – are up for grabs, but if a Christian community is not teaching people to obey Christ then I am not sure they are a Christian community.
What do you think about all of this?