Blessed are the incompetent?

Competence is not something of which I’m often accused. So this entire blog might be interpreted as resentment.

But competence is a quality highly valued in the Kirk. Between us, we have thousands of years of ministry experience. Judging by the number of Rev Drs and the alphabet soup after many names, the Kirk is also rammed with PhDs and MThs. We have active training and CPD departments. Our ministers are university educated and I suspect professionals are over-represented amongst our elders. A range of Doctors of the Kirk have heavily influenced our decision making right up to the present day.

With such competence, how is it we are (almost) hopelessly lost?

In the last few weeks I’ve been listening to the Psalms and I’ve been struck by the repeated warning not to trust in our own power or abilities. When facing the enormity of our problems and the full weight of the majesty of God, the Kirk’s competence shrivels. But undeterred, we initiate programmes and commission reports. We table motions and repackage funds. We sneer if an uninitiate commissioner suggests stopping to pray, because prayer will interfere with the agenda. Could it be that our very competence hinders us?

And yet, we have little reason for self-confidence.

Our many years of experience and our hoard of certificates have not helped us to avoid the calamity that we face today. Not because experience or intellect are insignificant. But perhaps because great intelligence and impressive CVs are nothing without humility. Our once great missionary church now needs an influx of leaders from oversees to right the ship (but please not those escaping other dying denominations). Yet humility seems lacking in our response to the crisis. Recruitment, committees, commissions, research and training, even injecting money may not save the Kirk unless we excise the hubris.

The Lord owes us nothing for our years of service, for our witness or acquiescence to contemporary Scotland. Our history, although interesting, matters little compared to how we relate to King Jesus today. What would the glorious Lord say to the Kirk if we were the eighth church of Revelation? For a moment forget statistics and secularism, age pyramids and church-going trends, what does Scripture say to God’s people when they face exile and humiliation? Might that be where we should start?

Has something got to give?

I’m never sure whether to post about the present state of the Church of Scotland. My concern is that it sounds critical of other people, when in reality I am part of the problem. As Presbyters, we are the decision makers that create the circumstances we then lament. Similarly, I am one of the people engaged in applying the General Assembly’s ministry reductions and I trust that we’ve done the best job we could under the circumstances.

Having got that out of the way, I want to reflect briefly on the state of ministry in the Kirk. Significant comment has been made regarding the potential impact of the depth of ministry cuts mandated by the General Assembly. This has been met by alternative suggestions for the Kirk to thrive accompanied by solutions to the recruitment crisis/looming retirement chasm.

Let me get to the headline: I have never spoken to so many colleagues seriously questioning their calling. Morale is low. Some ministers have already given notice. Many others are probably browsing employment pages online. Is this a hidden crisis yet to be recognised?

Being a parish ministers is one of the best things I’ve ever done. It’s varied, interesting, rewarding and above all fulfils a sense of God’s leading. But the demands are high and the toll on family life and personal wellbeing can be higher. More significantly, the expectations of the role are changing significantly.

Traditional parish ministry, the only ministry for which most of us were prepared, still features high on the agenda of local congregations. Older members, in particular, would still prefer routine visits from their own minister. However, the present direction of travel is toward a future where parish ministers are replaced by ecclesial regional managers tasked with oversight of multiple communities, while still fiercely guarding the ordinances of religion. Meanwhile those with a more missional perspective encourage church leaders to focus on planting new communities, outreach, discipleship and a shift away from maintenance mode. How are we to balance these varied expectations? Are we equipped for the necessary changes? Can we cope with an inevitable increase in the pressure we already face? Can we afford to keep all the plates spinning? What should we prioritise?

As has been pointed out elsewhere, in promoting current changes, euphemism is applied liberally. ‘Mission Plans’ could justly be called ‘personnel reduction programmes’. ‘Team ministries’ also encourage fewer people to do more, across greater distances. ‘The priesthood of all believers’ also means ‘ministry for free’. These might be genuinely positive developments were they not redeployed as agents of reduction. But everyone sees through the optimistic nomenclature. Are we ready to drop the language of growth and accept the stark reality that the Kirk is nearly the walking dead? And are we ready to admit the corollary, that we are asking churches and ministers to achieve the miraculous.

However, the above is nothing compared to the unspoken culture shift which will be needed to achieve our current goals. As was recently pointed out to me, our broad Kirk has been able to stick together, not by the strength of our belief in Presbyterianism, but because of underlying congregationalism. Neighbouring ministers and congregations have been able to continue along their own furrow, often largely ignoring each other. Perhaps they shared some resources or the odd service but they have been generally autonomous. But the new normal will require ministers to serve multiple churches with varied perspectives. Perhaps this is just urban areas catching up with what rural charges have experienced for many years? But can ministers and congregations survive this restructuring? Will congregations welcome the leadership and preaching of ministers with whom they have little in common? Will battles to appease diverse and theologically divergent congregations be the best use of diminishing time and energy? Will the compromises made for the sake of structural integration reverse church decline? And will churches be in better shape to reach out with the Good News of Jesus? In short, can the Kirk survive becoming more Presbyterian?

No doubt, there will be continued call to put unity above personal conviction, for the sake of the denomination. But that is a big ask and perhaps one with shaky theological foundations. The Kirk is so broad that little unifies us other than the administrative structures by which we are bound. Even if we are able to form a book of creeds to replace the Westminster Confession, will these be any more uniting and normative? And would we really want them to be? In this age of denominational mobility, are denominations really more than local churches in a resource sharing structure? And does church unity predominantly operate at a denominational level or is unity more concerned with local communities within the global Church? Through a variety of theological decisions, the Kirk has already broken unity with the vast majority of world Christians. Should the peace and unity of local churches now be sacrificed on the altar of denominational efficiency? Office holders have pledged allegiance to the structures of the church. But should that usurp the peace and health of the local churches? After all, which exists to serve the other?

I am concerned that our present direction assumes a characteristic ‘Church of Scotland’ style of local church served by cookie cutter ‘churchmen’ (and women). It assumes that ministers and congregations are essentially interchangeable. But that is not the local reality. We are a broad collection of churches, diverse and sometimes divided. Most of us love the Kirk. And we have benefitted from the support of a hard working administrative core. But is our love best expressed by spending her final decades trying to hold together, geographically distinct and often theologically opposed congregations? And should this love for the Kirk come at a cost to effective local mission? And is our primary call as church leaders to perpetuate the superstructure or engage in relational ministry? And if something must give; must fall to the ground to permit new life, what should it be?

Questions inspired by recent commentary on the GA

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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?
  6. 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?
  7. 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?
  8. 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?
  9. 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?
  10. 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?

Martha’s Kitchen

Our cafe, Martha’s Kitchen, has been open for a few weeks and amongst the noise of milk frothing and espresso extraction, we often find ourselves explaining about the two sisters who were friends of Jesus.

The name Martha’s Kitchen is also a constant reminder that Riverside should always focus on knowing Jesus more deeply. But this deepening knowledge is accompanied by and expressed in serving our community, often literally, through serving coffee.

Similar to some other local churches we have tried to develop a cafe that doesn’t feel like a ‘church cafe’. Part of our vision was to avoid embodying the Acorn Antiques approach to hot beverages. Hopefully customers are pleasantly surprised by the ambiance and the quality food and drinks.

Martha’s Kitchen has been a long time in the making. It’s over five years since we decided on the new strategy of developing the church building as a space with hospitality and community at the heart. At the start we used the language of a ‘community centre’ but ‘monastery’ feels more appropriate; we seek to be a place of prayer, work, hospitality, learning and worship. The next step is a regular community meal where the church and the wider community can break bread.

One question to which we have often returned is; isn’t the church supposed to get out of the building? And of course the answer is yes. But the corollary is ‘out to where?’

My previous church was in an area of Edinburgh with a sport centre and various other amenities. We had no church building so we met for coffee every week in the sport’s centre cafe. We met on Sundays in a local day care facility and we conducted outreach mainly through the repurposed manse and the community centre. There were struggles associated with using borrowed spaces but the benefits came through the relationships developed outside of the congregation. We were blown away when staff in the sports centre approached us with prayer requests.

However, the main point is that we met in public spaces. Generally, ‘to get out of the building’ means going to the spaces where the wider community assembles. And if there are few public spaces, the best approach for churches may be to create such space. This may not involve geographical movement. But it can be a huge psychological step. Many churches look at their building as a specialist religious space and haven from the world outside. To open the doors to the community and begin to share the space can be a serious culture change.

In sharing the space, friendships are formed, outreach is informed and active faith is experienced to the benefit of both the follower of Christ and those whom they serve. In fact, in keeping with Jesus’ encounter at the well, Martha’s kitchen also provides the opportunity for those don’t profess to be Jesus’ followers to serve with the Christian community.

Does this sharing of the church building and formation of public space mean losing gospel distinctiveness. No, although it does initiate some unexpected questions and challenges about what appropriate use of the church facilities entails.

For Riverside, although Martha’s kitchen is now at the physical and spiritual centre of church life, Mary activities remain the priority. But Mary’s sister continues to gently open the door to vital questions about the greatest purpose of our lives.

Our Planning Strategy

I recently tried to summarise the approach we took in Perth to develop a new Presbytery Plan. I thought it might be interesting to share our methodology.

What we produced is not perfect nor is it necessarily the only effective approach. But in the interest of collaboration and sharing practice perhaps it will be of use.

I should say this is a personal blog and really I am sharing my interpretation of our planning process. The Perth Presbytery Planning and Development Committee have not endorsed this message. For clarity, the official report of the committee and the convenors presentation can be found here (https://perthpresbytery.org.uk/resources/).

My recollection of the planning process is as follows:

A. Firstly we agreed planning principles with Presbytery. This was given approval long before the GA issued mandatory figures but the principles remained relevant.

Our planning principles were to prioritise churches that displayed evidence of:

1. Growth (including spiritual vibrancy, not only numerically or financial)

2. Sustainability 

3. Innovation 

During the most recent planning process we also kept an eye on areas of population growth, in particular brand new housing developments. Eg One of our two Presbytery Mission Initiatives is a greenfield village development beside Perth to which we had already allocated 0.6 FTE. This allocation was maintained in the new plan proposals. 

B. Our next step was to request specific evidence from every church – we called this a toolkit. I believe a few variants of this document may be in circulation amongst Presbyteries. On receipt of this information, we gave around 2-3 hours per church in review and discussion of the evidence provided. We graded this evidence based upon our planning principles and allowed this to guide our weighting of staff allocations. 

C. We had already initiated the formation of local (geographical) networks and we used these as the building blocks of the plan, although some churches moved network during discussions. 

D. We did not use population as a first level principle – ie Growth, Sustainability and Innovation were given primary weighting in staff allocations. However, population did help us refine our allocations once we had a rough idea of networks and resource requirements.

E. Resource Parity was also not a first level principle – ie we did not simply divide the Presbytery into networked parishes and then allocate based solely on population. However, a level of parity was taken into account as a secondary organising principle.

F. We focussed our resources where there was the greatest potential for further growth. Churches that best evidenced a willingness and ability in mission were given greater resources. We believed this to be a better long term strategy than ensuring absolute parity of resource. Our belief is that growing missional churches will ultimately aid the resourcing of mission across the Presbytery. We recognise that this resonates with Jesus’ parable of the talents.

G. Our proposals mean that nearly every church within our bounds would experience a relative reduction in resources. Those areas that we have prioritised are proposed to received a smaller reduction than others. However, churches that are considered to evidence the greatest potential for further growth are being asked to take on additional responsibility. Eg – Some churches are keeping their present (or close to their present) staff allocation but they are still being asked to take over the pastoral care or development of mission in other locations in the Presbytery.

H. We attempted to honour churches that are likely to continue to experience decline, ie where possible, and within the limitations of the centrally allocated numbers, we have attempted to allow pastoral care and worship to continue into the next plan period. However, some church buildings and congregations have been proposed for closure.

I. We took a relatively gradualist approach, ie often we have proposed linkages rather than going straight to unions. While this may not be the most radical method, we believe it is more achievable.

Perhaps the outline of this process will be helpful. However, it comes with the caveat that our plan has not yet been approved.

What is the Spirit saying to the Church?


Sunguk Kim unsplash.com

In these days of mistrust and ‘fake news’, I’m trying to glean information from a wider range of sources. Previously I was guilty of lazily sticking to my favoured news silos, but recently I’ve been challenged to be less lethargic. Essentially this means engaging with other voices alongside the BBC.

One trend that has caught my attention is people that don’t profess Christian faith speaking favourably about Christianity. For example, Tom Holland’s view of the role of Christianity in Western Civilisation or until recently some of Jordan Peterson’s statements. I say ‘until recently’ because youtube is full of videos indicating that Jordan Peterson may now be a follower of Christ. Incidentally, I recently heard an interview where Jordan Peterson commented that if pastors are making the bible boring, we are doing it wrong!* Guilty as charged, but let’s save that for another day.

In other interviews and podcasts, I’ve heard people who profess to be atheist or agnostic claim that the problems they perceive in society come from the ‘death of God’ or that religious faith might be better for society. Interestingly, one of my geography lecturers said something similar a quarter of a century ago; perhaps this is not a new phenomenon.

Most of these comments come from a philosophical perspective and from people that are conservative about particular cultural changes. These are not, necessarily, people converting to Christian faith. But they appear to lament a perceived void in society which is being filled with other passions and ideologies. What stands out, is that these commentators value faith, theism and sometimes historic Christian belief in contrast with the values and practices of contemporary society.

In the interview mentioned earlier, Peterson also stated that the church may be losing young people because we don’t offer them a challenge; “[the church] demands too little.” I find this particularly significant. The reason being, many voices within the church propose making Christianity more accessible rather than more challenging. For example consider the recent article on Premier about a Taylor Swift tribute at Southwark Cathedral.** It’s the comments rather than the article which suggest that Christians need to make it easier for younger people (and Taylor Swift fans) to enter a church building.

In many mainstream and established churches there appears to be a shift towards making Christian faith less demanding and more similar to the wider culture. Often this is framed as being in the interests of inclusion and justice. But sometimes it’s simply to remove general barriers to people coming in.

This leaves me wondering what the Spirit might be saying to the church today? Should we be making it easier to participate in Christian community by contrasting less with wider society? Or should we be holding on more strongly to our distinctives? And might our answer vary depending on whether we are speaking of cultural practices, ethics and morality or aesthetics? Is it possible that atheists and agnostic cultural critics have more to say to the church than major voices within the church?

And finally, if Jordan Peterson is right that young people seek challenge, might the established churches’ increasing acquiescence to popular culture and beliefs lead to the unintended result of speeding our demise?

*The Jordan B Peterson Podcast, The Spiritual Void and the West with Rav Arora.

**https://premierchristian.news/en/news/article/should-southwark-cathedral-be-hosting-tribute-to-taylor-swift

This house remains a ruin

James Tissot Collection, freebibleimages.com

Recently, we’ve been studying Haggai who reveals God’s frustration that his people in, Post-Exile, Jerusalem have been building homes for themselves rather than rebuilding the Temple. The Jerusalem Temple was, amongst other things, a symbol of the presence of God among his people. It was a central representation of and conduit for the relationship between God and his people. I took the core message to connect strongly with Jesus’ command to prioritise God’s Kingdom.

In the New Testament the Temple building appears to be replaced by people. For Christians, Jesus replaces the Temple, the Christian community (Jesus body) replaces the Temple, and individual Christians also replace the Temple as dwelling places for God’s Spirit. Today the message of Haggai insists that our focus should be on Jesus and the growing people of God.

This makes me wonder about our churches as both physical and institutional structures? Do we see our buildings and governance structures as the symbol and context for God’s presence among us? Is it possible that we have mistake these as the Temple?

Many churches, at heart, present as members clubs rather than missionary movements. Often staff and volunteer activities are centred on keeping the organisation running rather than increasing the spiritual depth and impact of the people of God? Is it possible that God remains frustrated that we are still building our own ‘homes’ because our activities are about the day to day running and preservation of the organisation or the assets?

What if the Spirit is saying stop! Stop building your own homes. Stop trying to save your structures and buildings. Stop trying to save the Kirk. Because while we agonise over how to make structural reforms, another generation of Scotland’s people are drifting further from any Christian community. What if, by continuing to focus on the structures and infrastructure we are doing more harm than good? What if the Kingdom of God would most benefit from our demise as a denomination?

I actually wonder if that is the starting place for all planning.

Should every Church of Scotland start by asking in what way are we benefitting the growth of God’s Kingdom? Or to phrase if differently, what difference would it make to the Kingdom if we were not here? And what about our earlier question, how is God’s Temple being priorised?

How are God’s people growing in number, faith and impact? Is anyone becoming a Christian through our church life? Is God adding to our number. How are people transformed by our worship services and care for our community? How is Jesus’ mission furthered by our church building and administrative structures? What different does it make that we are in our parish?

It might be well argued that churches should be primarily about the worship of God and the teaching and care of the congregation. And this need not be a self-centred approach. Such congregations might be heavily missional through the personal activities of the individual congregation members. But in that context it’s hard to justify all the trappings of a parish church. How do we justify the expense of a building which is used infrequently? How do we justify the expense of a Parish Minister and local church organisational structures, if our church is essentially a small gathering for bible study, prayer and worship. Why not become a self-sustaining house church perhaps renting a space for Sunday gatherings?

This is a circuitous way of saying, the Temple and therefore the Kingdom of God can be built without the current parish church exo-skeleton. Indeed, sometimes maintaining the parish church with its rotas, costs, committees and admin may actually detract from the building of the Temple.

Should we close all our buildings and lose our employees and office holders? No, but we must justify these through their participation in the growth and extension of the Kingdom. Instead of equating our buildings and administrative structures with the Temple, we need to assess them as instruments of mission and Kingdom growth. How do our church buildings, governance and administrative structures support the activity of the Spirit, adding to our number and transforming us into the likeness of Jesus? If they don’t, do we really need them?

Lastly, I believe that the Kingdom of God is growing among us, albeit often unseen and unheard. But perhaps we should ask does God want the Kirk to decline? Does God seek our slow demise because he has something else in mind? What does keeping in step with the Spirit mean for the Kirk today? But that’s a question for another day.

More Bricks, Less Straw?

Bible Pathway Adventures, freebibleimages.com

During lockdown, our local Argos closed. There are still Argos stores in Dundee and the Kinross’ Sainsburys. So if you live in Perth and you want something from Argos, you can travel or you can shop online.

When planning the closure of the Perth Argos, probably no one suggested laying off the Perth employees and asking the Dundee staff to run both stores. If that had happened, I suspect it wouldn’t be long before the Dundee staff resigned or were signed off with stress. But if Argos was a Church of Scotland, would we have done exactly that? Would we have pointed to the third article declaratory and insisted on complete coverage of both regions, with half the resource?

Some may baulk at the comparison of the life of the Kirk in the same sentence as the strategy of a high street retailer. But arguably the Lord’s instructions were similarly decisive when it came to the towns that rejected the Gospel or local churches that stagnated. It’s a good question for every church to ask; ‘does Jesus consider our church fruitful or is he about to shake the dust?’

But to return to the point, our historic constitution states that: “as a national Church representative of the Christian Faith of the Scottish people [the Kirk] acknowledges its distinctive call and duty to bring the ordinances of religion to the people in every parish of Scotland through a territorial ministry.” There is much to consider about the meaning and relevance of this Article today. And as I consider the seismic reduction of ministries ahead, I wonder how are we going to live up to this commitment?

Let’s be real. It will not be possible for us to make the cuts instructed by the General Assembly and continue to focus our attention equally on every part of the resulting parishes, networks, hubs, clusters, mission groupings or mega-presbyteries. It may not be possible for every remaining church to have an in-person sermon each Sunday or to have a moderator or interim-moderator at session meetings. It may not be possible for only Ministers of Word and Sacrament to continue to conduct communion. Weddings, funerals and baptisms may not remain the domain of ‘the meenister’. And these may not be the most radical changes.

Those in leadership, and particularly those engaged in ministries, will need to focus on activities and practices that best advance the Kingdom of God and further the mission of Jesus to his world. But do we know what those activities are?

What will be the most important activities for Church of Scotland Ministers in this brave new world? What are the ordinances of religion today and what should they be? We are certainly unlikely to ‘hatch, match and dispatch’ our way to the Kingdom of God? And how does the preaching of the Word relate to mission if there is seldom anyone new to hear it? How will discipleship happen when, increasingly, participation in the Christian community is one of many leisure options?

The reality is that we don’t know! We don’t know what ministry will look like because we haven’t been this way before. That being the case, it is vital that we allow those in ministries the continued freedom to discern what God asks of them. You may think that goes without saying, but in the new paradigm it is equally possible that a cookie-cutter approach is imposed with the aim of forming an easily interchangeable workforce.

Having said that, although we ministers like to blame external expectations for the demands placed upon us. I wonder if the biggest obstacle to the necessary changes will not be congregations, 121 or Presbytery but the internal compulsion of many parish ministers to attend every event, meet every need, solve every problem and control every outcome.

Discipleship

In response to an earlier post, a colleague reminded me that the future does not rest upon ministers and church staff working harder but upon upon the whole people of God. He also stressed the importance of training so that the tasks of ministry can be shared more widely allowing freedom and space for all of us to exercise our gifts.

Training is vital. Without it, the suggestion of the wider church taking on the tasks of mission and ministry is wishful thinking or even a cost saving, cop-out. But with the right support ‘whole church’ ministry could be incredibly effective. I say this not to be elitist, but to recognise that Jesus trained people to continue his mission. Training is not the opposite of relying on the Holy Spirit, although we must beware of replacing faith with competence.

In the church we have a particular type of training; we call it discipleship. The two terms are not synonymous; discipleship has a particular relational dimension which should make it even more powerful than training. Churches that train without discipleship have missed a vital ingredient of developing followers of Jesus.

Discipleship was key to Jesus’ ministry. It was integral to his announcement of the Kingdom of Heaven’s proximity. Based on his apparent priorities, it was possibly more important to him than his many miracles. And, according to Matthew, discipleship was core to Jesus final instructions to his followers: “as you go, make disciples…” Perhaps it’s too much of a stretch, but might that even qualify discipleship as a sacrament?

However, churches often do discipleship badly. In the UK we have succeeded in forming Christians as church-goers, consumers, activists and theological zealots. But how well do we nurture disciples?

Church-goers are a dying breed, in part, due to the removal of the cultural expectation of Kirk attendance. The few remaining church-goers make occasional visits, often preceding the request for a family ‘Christening’. Church-goers may enjoy the familiar hymns and the historical continuity of attending the church where they were married or held a funeral. But for them, church is an activity devoid of deeper meaning beyond personal sentimentality.

Consumer Christians follow Jesus for the fringe benefits. The purpose of Church is to meet their needs or provide a desired experience. They follow Buddy Jesus, who is way to busy being a dude to demand much. The Christian community provides them with entertainment, friends, child-care, a worship hit or spiritual safety-net but if these wane, so will their allegiance.

Activist Christians are ready to co-opt Jesus and his Kingdom in support of whatever cause is close to their hearts. Their’s is woke Jesus, libertarian Jesus, culturally affirming Jesus, culturally conservative Jesus, environmentalist Jesus etc. To them, Jesus does make demands, in particular that everyone should join him in support of their chosen movement or cause.

The theological zealots perfectly fulfil Phil Collin’s lyric “Jesus he knows me and he knows I’m right“. Queuing to burn their copy of ‘Velvet Elvis’ the zealots form a theological Stasi, too busy thanking God that they are the right sort of Christian to get out the tweezers and remove any stray opthalmological planks.

This list of the product of churches is not exhaustive. We might add the ‘church-hoppers’, the choral-union Christians, the historical re-enactment Christians or the novelty seeking, Prophecy or Mission junkies.

If truth be told, most of us will fall into some of the above categories. Are any of us immune to seeking novelty, co-opting Jesus to our cause, enjoying his community for the sake of its benefits, or thanking God that we are the best sort of Christians? We need the scriptural scalpel in the skilled hands of the Spirit to cut away our baser motivations and sinful self-centredness.

And this is the work of discipleship. Discipleship requires a holistic community commitment to the learning of Scripture and the discipline of prayer. It demands faithfulness to God and each other and valuing both our collective and individual relationship to God. Discipleship requires sacrifice in an age of procured personal fulfilment.

And discipleship is the only future for the church. Only a church based on discipleship will withstand the discomfort or even trials to come. If Jesus is the solid ground and cornerstone, discipleship is the building blocks that will allow us to withstand hostile elements. But it is also the source of flexibility that will allow necessary change to occur. Because discipleship keeps the main thing the main thing. It recognises what can be left behind on the journey.

Discipleship has perhaps never been so vital. In an age of competing identities and the last gasps of institutions nostalgic for Christendom, discipleship forms and reforms Jesus’ followers with common purpose and a shared identity transcending all earthly divisions and intersections.

As we plan and cast vision for 2022. As we formulate mission goals and prepare sermon series. As we consider how to enthuse and entertain the Covid beleaguered congregation. Spare a thought for the unglamorous, unfashionable, donkey-work of discipleship. It is the key to unlocking the riches of God’s kingdom, not just for the Church, but for the whole world.

For you

It’s become a cliche to say, ‘the church is the people.’ But it warrants repeating. The Church is nothing without people!

The Church is not the building or administrative structures, important as these are. Neither is the Kirk the sum of her courts, councils, fora, committees or Presbytery offices.

At this time of celebrating the incarnation, we remember that God became flesh in one human so that through his life, death, resurrection and ascension, by the power of Holy Spirit, we all might embody the presence of God. The people of God; rough around the edges and spiritually impoverished, are a holy community to be cherished and revered. Against them, the gates of hell shall not stand.

The preservation of power structures, the maintenance of national influence, the longevity of valued buildings, even the safekeeping of the ‘Third Article’, should not be achieved by disregarding the holy worth of God’s people. God’s own Son died for them.

This knowledge should be at the heart of our dealings with each other. And this knowledge must be at the heart of our planning and restructuring. But, for the sake of efficient planning, missional success and personal achievement are we sometimes guilty of forgetting the divine value God has placed on each person? Do we too easily behave like the institutions around us, become self-servinging, detached from the people we are charged to support; serving cheese and wine while the hoi polloi self-isolate?

Today, in particular, I want to spare a thought for colleagues under pressure this Christmas. To those, in this precious week, questioning their worth and their life’s work. To those worrying about their future. To those who feel like collateral damage in the attempts to save the Kirk.

You are of infinite worth!

For you Jesus Christ came into the world: for you he lived and showed God’s love; for you he suffered the darkness of Calvary and cried at the last, ‘it is accomplished’; for you he triumphed over death and rose in newness of life; for you he ascended to reign at God’s right hand. All this he did for you.”

The Church’s greatest resource is her people. Through them the power of the Gospel is demonstrated. Through them the Word is remembered. Through them the Spirit is embodied. Without people, there is no future for the Kirk. What benefit will there be in having efficient management of the right barns in the right right places if tonight, God requires lives?