As I climbed the steps of my former church building, I paused. There was a sense of familiarity; for five years I had entered through these doors almost every Sunday to join others in worship. But this also felt incredibly surreal, because now the fragrant aroma of garlic and herbs was drifting from the building, and inside people had gathered not to worship, but to eat. My former church was now a pizza restaurant.
This one incident encapsulates being a Christian in Scotland today.
Scotland is a country with a rich Christian heritage. It was once known as the “land of the Book” and sent many missionaries to spread the Gospel in other countries. People such as David Livingstone, Mary Slessor, and Eric Liddell originated from Scotland. Church buildings are everywhere in Scotland’s cities, and even city mottos reflect this history.
Edinburgh’s motto, Nisi Dominus Frustra, comes directly from Psalm 127:1, meaning “except the Lord, in vain.” Glasgow’s motto is a prayer, “Lord, let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of Thy word and praising Thy name.”
Despite our faith-filled past, our present is very different. Today, most people of Scotland have no idea what the Bible says, nor any interest in learning. Many church buildings have been repurposed as restaurants and carpet salerooms, while others have been knocked down. As for the city mottos, I’ve lived in Edinburgh for 14 years and never heard its motto mentioned. Glasgow’s is better known, but has been stripped to simply “let Glasgow flourish.”
Over the last thirty years, church attendance in Scotland has more than halved. A study from 2016 showed just 7% of the population attending church and found only around 2% attend evangelical churches, bringing Scotland dangerously close to fitting the definition of a people group unreached with the Gospel.
So, what went wrong? It’s not an easy question to answer. Too often, religion in Scotland has been associated with sectarianism, and the church has regularly been distracted by arguments around same-sex marriage and the appointment of clergy in same-sex relationships, resulting in many church splits.
However, the main cause of the decline in the church is simple in one sense, as elderly churchgoers have died, younger generations haven’t replaced them. In an increasingly secular culture, which highly values inclusion and diversity, Christianity is often seen as old-fashioned, irrelevant, and narrow-minded.
A similar pattern of falling away occurs in the Israelites’ story. They witnessed many miracles as God led them to the Promised Land, but once they arrived, “another generation rose up who did not know the Lord or the works he had done for Israel.” (Judges 2:10)
The result was evil and idolatry.
How easy it is to be influenced by the surrounding culture! We cannot underestimate the importance of passing on our faith to the next generation. Rather than relying on heritage, we should encourage them to know God for themselves.
While, in many ways, the church in Scotland continues to decline, I believe there is cause for hope. All through the Bible we see God’s faithfulness, even when His people are unfaithful. He has the power to bring new life, even from dry bones. (Ezekiel 37:1-14)
When God’s Word is proclaimed and His Spirit is poured out, dry bones can become a mighty army! It is encouraging to remember that although the number of believers in Scotland may be small, we are not powerless. Paul writes of “the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe Him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated Him in the place of honour at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 1:19-20 NLT)
And God is still at work.
“Look, I am about to do something new, even now it is coming. Do you not see it? Indeed, I will make a way in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:19)
Over the last ten years, various Scottish organisations have invested in equipping leaders to begin missional communities or church plants, many in Scotland’s poorer communities. These aim to help with practical needs as well as sharing the Gospel. Churches have experimented with different styles of gatherings and new, creative methods of outreach and community involvement. The results have been impactful, particularly in less affluent communities, where people are perhaps more aware of their need for something beyond what this life offers.
I am part of a church plant which was nearly five years ago, and through community meals and family activities (pre-COVID), as well as provision of food parcels, many people have been impacted and expressed interest in learning about Jesus. One man came to faith through the witness of our church during lockdown, and there are several others waiting eagerly to join our church when we can gather again. They may not yet follow Jesus, but they have found a community where they belong.
Although the church is smaller, in some ways it is stronger. There is no cultural expectation for people to attend church, so those who participate are generally committed and willing to play an active part.
Christian values are so different from those of our culture that we have a real opportunity to live the distinctive lives Jesus describes (Matthew 5:13-16), for even a small amount of salt and light can make a difference.
My prayer for Scotland is these small signs of life and growth will increase, for people to come to realise that without God all their efforts to create a better society are in vain, and in order for Scotland to truly flourish, it must return to the preaching of God’s Word and the praising of His name.
Nations Day 7
Knowing others have faithfully followed Jesus before us and are still continuing to grow in their faith is a treasure indeed!
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