Recently, the website Church Growth Modelling published a post which models the rise and fall of different denominations in the UK (Growth, Decline and Extinction of UK Churches – Church Growth Modelling).
The interpretation offered suggested that most denominations formed before 1900 will disappear by the middle of this Century. The interpretation also suggests that these are predominantly theologically liberal denominations. In the UK growing churches seem to share more conservative/orthodox theology combined with being liturgically contemporary and often charismatic. Denominations that are conservative both theologically and liturgically are declining.
If this data and commentary are accurate it suggests that the death of the Kirk, in the middle of the 21st Century, is inevitable (short of an incredible revival). As a theologically broad and mainly liturgically conservative denomination the Kirk is very unlikely to meet Hayward’s criteria for growth.
A number of questions arise.
- If the Kirk’s impending death is inevitable, what should we be doing meantime? Most of us are working hard to mitigate or at least slow the decline. But is this the best use of our efforts? Do we have a duty now to begin something new. Have we already started that new thing, perhaps unknowingly?
- Is it possible or even desirable for the Kirk to change in order to meet Hayward’s criteria for continued growth? Those on the conservative theological side will most likely think yes. Those providing support for missional change, eg Forge, may agree. But is there any point if that is not the desire of the majority of the CofS? The bulk of the denomination appears theologically liberal and many are more liturgically conservative. The vast majority of the Kirk seems unlikely to desire to change in that way.
- With a background of theological strife and a climate of existential fear, the Kirk is increasingly focussed on practical solutions rather than confessional positions (despite the current debate over the WCF). For example Doug Gay’s recent suggestions for restructuring and innovation (The Kirk in Crisis: Beyond Samson, Solomon & Gideon (ca’ canny Kirk but ca’ awa)) or Liam Jerrold Fraser’s call to attract pioneering outsiders to the Kirk (Without People, the Vision Perishes: Why the Church of Scotland Needs to Change its Recruitment Policy – Mission in Contemporary Scotland). But are these practical solutions possible without the pioneering and missional people to apply them? Fraser points out that such people are generally outside the Kirk. Perhaps over-optimistically, he suggests encouraging them to join us. Gay suggests that they might come from the PCUSA. The point is, who will supply the pioneering, innovative, practitioners to plant churches or change the mission culture in existing ones? And is a significant influx of fresh, missionally minded, ecclesiastically innovative, youthful practitioners, likely without addressing Hayward’s comments on theology and liturgy?
- Cynics may point out that the renewed interest in mission coincides with a drastic reduction in numbers. But perhaps most in the Kirk would agree that our ultimate reason for seeking renewed church vitality is not the salvation of our denomination or our broad and broadly Reformed ecclesiology. And perhaps most would agree that the ultimate purpose of mission is to give praise and glory to God, to grow his kingdom and to transform the lives of those willing to receive the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But if that’s the case and if Hayward’s assessment is accurate, the best thing might be to start the process of dismantling the Kirk and giving our resources to denominations capable of achieving what we cannot?
- Even if that suggestion is a bridge too far, we must seriously consider whether there is general willingness and capability for the change required. For example, at least part of the argument against the radical changes applied in current mission planning is that they will upset people who in turn will reduce financial support. That prediction seems likely but it does not suggest confidence that the majority in the Kirk would be willing to sacrifice their ecclesial preferences and provision for the sake of the lost. If that’s the case, what hope is there that the Kirk will change?
- In every Presbytery there are likely multiple, individual, local churches which are growing and which meet Hayward’s criteria. But these are not reflective of the denomination as a whole. What needs to happen so that these churches are the norm? And is there a denomination wide desire for these churches to be the norm in the Kirk?
- Another question relates to our self-awareness as a denomination. Are we capable of recognising (in both senses) the kind of churches that are likely to persist and grow this century? My current charge is a former New Charge (NCD). One of the potential weaknesses of NCD was the expectation of becoming a ‘full status’ charge, normally within 10-15 years. The problem, from my perspective, was that we asked people to innovate and then we dictated the outcomes based on a centralised view of what constituted a church. In fairness, Riverside may still not meet many Kirk members view of a ‘proper’ church. However, where the local church is given freedom to identify appropriate goals and church structures perhaps new life can be supported. I have seen this in practice both in my previous charge, a church defibrillation, in Gracemount, Edinburgh where Liberton Kirk gave support and great freedom to their linked charge. And today in Bertha Park, a church plant on the edge of Perth which as a Presbytery Mission Initiative has similar freedom. Are we capable of such wholesale organisational cultural change so that currently anomalous situations become the mainstream? Are we capable of allowing, supporting and administering diverse Christian communities?
- As a further example of this question. I regularly hear comments about Messy Churches that are ‘doing well’ but they’re not proper churches or they’re not growing the traditional church which set them up. This may reveal institutional and theological arrogance which assumes that we know the marks of a ‘real church’. A great SBETs article by the late David Wright suggested that mission should be an additional mark of the church (https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/sbet/25-2_132.pdf). What if it is the primary marker? Could it be more important, today, that people engage with bible stories, even through play, than that a ‘sermon’ is preached or sacraments administered? And does Wright’s article allow for the possibility that the marks of the church can change or their relative importance can change over time? And with regard to sacrifice, shouldn’t we regularly ask dying churches with healthy Messy Churches if they’re willing to close the 11am service and roll up their sleeves to play in the sand pit, if it means people meet Jesus? Full disclosure, I’ve only been to one or two Messy Church events and I didn’t really like them. But am I willing to sacrifice my preferences so that those outside the church might hear the story of Jesus, even if it’s only for 3 minutes?
- And are we the best people to be addressing our predicament. Who should be advising us? For example, previously in the Kirk when the GA wanted a youth perspective we turned to the Youth Assembly. That presupposed that the Youth Assembly were typical of Scottish young people. But were the Youth Assembly even reflective of young people in the Kirk, let alone young people in Scotland? Similarly, why do we imagine that we are best placed to consider how to reach those outside the Kirk, whether the unchurched, the not-yet Christians or the Pioneer leaders we wish to join us?
- Admittedly, these are the questions of an idealist not a pragmatist. And we are not starting from an ideal place. Nor will we achieve such a situation, this side of Eternity. But the question remains, to what should we be devoting our time at this juncture? What are we trying to preserve? To what end are we restructuring? Will even our best efforts result in churches that are fit for 2041 and beyond? What is God calling us Kirk ministers, leaders and congregations to do with the 20 years we have left?