Are we winning is a question I am regularly asked, it comes in many forms. Are you encouraged as you travel around? Are Baptist churches growing? How would you describe the health of the Baptist Union of Scotland?
Following the national church census earlier this year we are likely to see challenging headlines in the next few months that describe a further significant decline in national Church attendance in Scotland. Compared to 2002 there has been a further loss of around 1/3rd. The overall picture of the church in Scotland is not a good one if we are simply measuring attendance on a Sunday.
Many people have found ways to describe what the church is going through. There are even biblical narratives where we might ask if what we are experiencing today is similar to what has happened in Biblical times?
Is this a pruning of the vine so that new fruit can come forth?
Are these like the days of Moses – waiting for a disobedient generation to die off, a time of developing a new identity of those who are free rather than in bondage to the past?
Is it like the days of Jeremiah, where we enter exile to rediscover God and our relationship with Him? Are we seeking the peace and prosperity of the nation and waiting for the year where things begin to change and we get to go back to a time of former glory?
Statistically, it can be argued that it is almost 60 years now since church attendance last grew numerically in Scotland. A lifetime of decline, surely a cause for prayer and seeking the heart of our Father.
However, other measures paint a different picture.
This year reported Baptisms in our churches were more than double the figure of last year at 322, what is that telling us?
There are many Baptist churches that are investing in future infrastructure. This year over 3 million pounds was invested in new church builds or major redevelopments. Next year I estimate that contracts for £6 million pounds are likely to be signed by our churches as they prepare and respond to growth.
New Baptist congregations have begun this year in all 4 major Scottish cities.
We continue to see a steady flow of ministerial candidates coming to the board of ministry. Where the engagement in continual ministerial development of these younger ministers has been exemplary and we now look to our longer serving ministers, like myself, to share in these high standards.
There continues to be growth in our churches of seeking the peace and prosperity of the nation particularly the peace and prosperity of the poorest in our land. Cinnamon Network estimate that the church invests £93 million a year in time and resources caring for others in Scotland.
Are we winning? It depends what you measure and value.
Many of our churches are facing serious challenges. Financial challenges of underfunded maintenance programs in their church buildings and manses and the increasing pain of the pension deficit contributions looms large.
In order to help churches facing maintenance issues we have changed the terms of our loan fund, to allow churches to borrow with lower admin cost and no interest, to encourage investment in the future. We are also working with partners south of the border to seek alternative resolutions to pension deficit faced by many churches.
There is however, a bigger issue just around the corner of a significant hole in the under 40’s age group in many of our churches. I recently made a comment about churches closing through lack of leadership rather than lack of money. The culture of local church leaders being out at church meetings every night of the week is long gone and a new generation of leaders will not accept invitations to lead in the local church on such terms.
We are hoping to help one another address these issues? This coming year we are looking to appoint a next generation development coordinator. Who will explore with a younger generation, discipleship and leadership development across our Union. We are also creating the opportunity for local church leaders to join learning communities where they can grow plans and skills related to local church leadership.
Finally, whilst I see some innovative projects going on, there continues to be the need to experiment in new forms of church in order that we can all learn lessons for the future. Our intention is to continue funding innovative projects through the Mission Initiative fund in the hope of offering a broader spectrum of missional engagement in Scotland.
Another Old Testament text says “Give me also springs of water” for many years I have prayed this for our Union. Please join me in praying not only for your local church but for the nation’s churches that we would see the life of the Spirit of God bubbling up across the nation, bringing life to His church and the people of Scotland.