The whole Western world is going through a civilisational moment – as for example the Roman Empire did at the time of Augustine, or Europe did at the time of the Reformation. Scotland is going through a civilisational moment. The question is whether the Free Church just goes with the tide; or seeks to turn it back and is overwhelmed; or learns to surf the cultural waves and seek a renewed Scotland, through a renewed church.
After my recent posts assessing the situation in the Church of Scotland, some have been keen to know how the Free Church is going. Not having been part of it for the past three years – and bearing in mind Thomas Chalmers statement “who cares for the Free Church compared with the Christian good of Scotland” – I thought it would be interesting to take a fresh look at where the Free Church is going. I hope no one would be naïve enough to think that the Free Church is the answer for the dire needs of the Church in Scotland – but perhaps it could be part of the answer?
With the caveat that I was not at the General Assembly of the Free Church, and was only able to watch some of it online, nonetheless on the basis of that, reports of friends and written reports, it appears to me that there was much to give thanks for at the FC assembly. The motto of “a healthy gospel church for every community in Scotland’ is a fine aspiration.
One minister wrote: “I have loved this week. It’s been in person. There has been great fellowship. Friendships have been renewed & made. It’s been forward looking. There is a sense that the church of Jesus, the part of that of which we are, is in the hands of good people, by the grace of God. It’s been harmonious…I cherish our present unity of heart & purpose, our mutual respect, our love for each other. As Paul says: ‘let us strive to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace’.”
It was interesting to observe the new faces, increased diversity and general sense of unity. I found the Missions report of particular encouragement. What really struck me was a comment from Neil MacMillan suggesting that the Free Church had plateaued. There are areas where the church is growing – and it is now significantly engaging in church planting – but there are also areas of decline. Only the Seventh day Adventists and the Free Church of the denominations that were founded pre 1900 are growing in the UK today. See John Hayward’s fascinating research – https://churchmodel.org.uk/2022/05/15/growth-decline-and-extinction-of-uk-churches/
And yet this is not enough. There are some major areas which the Free Church needs to address immediately, if it is to move on from just maintaining itself, to being a major force for the Kingdom of Christ in Scotland. The Free Church will not survive by planting 30 new churches by 2030. Our vision should be much bigger than that. We need to plant new churches, revitalise old ones and even close some. We have to rethink our approach to education, the poor, the culture and other churches. Unless we engage with these issues, I suspect that the plateau will soon turn to decline.
Some of our growth is coming from other churches – especially the Church of Scotland. How many Free Church congregations are seeing growth through conversions – especially from ‘the world’? There is no use training lots of chiefs if there are no Indians.
Neil MacMillian pointed out that in his 12 years in Edinburgh there had been such a fundamental shift in the culture that Edinburgh looks different and sounds different. The question is what are we doing to reach the lost?