John 15 teaches us that if we abide in him we will bear much fruit, and yet for over 50 years the church in Scotland has been in sharp decline. With a focus on membership, Sunday service attendance and baptismal statistics, the picture painted by statisticians is overwhelmingly gloomy. The recent church census conducted by Peter Brierley in 2016 has demonstrated that all traditional denominations in Scotland are in decline, with a small trace of church growth being seen in new forms of church and ethnic minority congregations. There is no doubt in my mind that these stories are overwhelmingly debilitating and faith-sapping for our churches. Trying harder or seeking to discover the latest trending programme will not resolve the underlying issues.
The problem with these numbers is that they only tell a particular story. Ten years ago, very few of our churches were committed to the local community in the way I observe today. Church buildings are open to the public, ministers are spending more time with as yet unbelievers. I hear stories of small groups that have adopted a missional stance and are engaging with local schools, artists, musicians, prostitutes, prisoners, bikers, joggers, and so the list could go on.
I hear of churches developing fresh gatherings for prayer that often last several days at a time. There are new ways of approaching the discipleship of young leaders and putting space aside to think about the long term future of the church rather than always focusing on the immediate.
Thankfully, decline is beginning to disturb our equilibrium. We have been forced, in many cases, into a journey of self-emptying, a humbling journey. Arrested by the imminent death of the established church, we travel towards a new place of Christ-like reliance and creativity that embraces the journey celebrated in Baptism of dying to self and rising in an expression of new life in God’s Kingdom.
Abiding in Christ should cause us to re-evaluate our practices and priorities. To consider what has been lost from our Baptist faith and practice in the last 50 years that we need to recapture. To measure the fruitfulness of the discipleship of each and every believer; our commitment to see everyone in our churches faithful in witness and global outreach; and the counter cultural lifestyle that is always present where Jesus is declared as Lord.