Fresh Expressions and the Church of Scotland

Monday, 24 June, 2013

David Cameron, Convener: Joint Emerging Church Group for the Church of Scotland, discusses why the Church of Scotland is formally joining the the Fresh Expressions partnership, having journeyed alongside Fresh Expressions for a number of years. How will this work out practically and what are the challenges and opportunities which the new partnership will bring?

You can also watch Colin Sinclair, Convener: Mission and Discipleship Council for the Church of Scotland, discussing the move.

Duration: 11:31   | Download Download video (flv) | Download Download video (wmv) | View on YouTube


David Cameron (Convenor, Joint Emerging Church Group): The current state of the Church of Scotland would be similar to many major denominations perhaps in the western world in that we've experienced for the last 30, 40, 50 years significant numerical decline. The presence of the Church still exists across the country but very much when you look at the statistics that's the reality on the ground. Quite shocking when I was sitting at my desk just about six months ago looking at the position of the Emerging Church Group with which I'm involved and looking at our strategy and future vision and I came across the statistics from 2000 and I was shocked at the significant decline in membership just from 2000 alone. We were over 600,000 members then [607,714] and by 2011 we'd dropped to 400,000 [432,343] or so, so that was quite a dramatic figure. I've known of that for 30 years or so now, I've seen the Church be very efficient in managing the decline, very orderly, very civilised, but at the end of the day not hearing anything at all about how to increase and develop new life in the life of the church.

Statistically, if we were to carry on at the present rate of decline – recently I was asked at Conference to look at the Church beyond 2020 and that's where I began, I began with statistics and noticed that by the year 2037 we decline to zero. Now I know in reality that's not the case in that there will always be life left around the place, but it just brought home how soon that decline will shape up to, so really, part of my work with the Emerging Church Group has been to try to begin to dream and imagine as to what might be a new way of turning this whole scenario around and beginning to see some new life beginning to emerge again.

The report that we are going to be presenting to the General Assembly this year is a simple invitation. It's an invitation for every parish church across the length and breadth of Scotland to give consideration to establishing a new expression or experience of church by the year 2020. And that's quite a challenge we recognise, but it will, we believe, given that we operate on a parish system, allow each congregation to look at their own unique, distinctive parish boundaries and see what's appropriate for them by way of a new expression of church.

The question as to whether or not we remain independent doesn't just relate to life as a church in Scotland, it's a hot potato and will be increasingly so over the coming days. But one of the great things about being part of a Christian church is that we have much to learn from our brothers and sisters across many different denominations across the world and one of the things that we've been impressed with over the years is the support that we've had from Fresh Expressions as we've begun to dip our toe in the water and begin to attempt to turn the tide here in Scotland. And so we want to enter into a partnership because we recognise that we need to learn from one another and that whilst independence has its advantages, ultimately learning from one another and journeying with one another has much to teach us all and we've been grateful for the experience thus far in journeying alongside Fresh Expressions, for the support and encouragement they've given us, from what we've been able to learn, from their lessons 'down south' and in other parts of the world and it's our hope that in entering into that partnership we'll be able to glean from and learn from them lessons that will help us in this context as we move forward.

We've recognised the importance of having somebody on the ground here in Scotland who will be the partner person, the link person and so we're about to make an appointment of a Fresh Expressions Development Worker who will be the person that will translate wisdom and insight from all that has been discovered over the years through fresh expressions into the Scottish context and indeed into Scottish culture.

I think the challenge we undoubtedly face in the Church of Scotland is recognising that we cannot carry on as we are and so that's something that's been recognised by many of our members, many of those involved in leadership, and they're seeing it close to home, they're seeing it in their own families as they look to the future of the Church, they look around and they see that for their own children they haven't got that same commitment, calling and engagement with the church and so they're asking questions of their families, why is it and what is it we need to do and need to be in order to provide something by way of a spiritual home for the families that are upcoming, their children and their grandchildren. And that's quite a significant challenge that we face at the moment, is allowing those who are in leadership, who in effect hold the power to change and make transition, helping them to see the need of the hour and helping them to feel there are things they actually can do to encourage that and to foster that. And perhaps one phrase that has come to my mind in how we help facilitate this, it's encouraging those who are in that place to create space for something new to happen that will be different from what their experience of church is, but also in many ways will engage with the generations that are currently absent from our churches in great number.

The church isn't coming new to this issue because for many years now there has been a growing experimentation, a research and development team you might say have been working on the ground, a group of folks who have a heart to do a new thing in this day and age. And they have been able to work within the Church of Scotland. And over the years, going back to perhaps the year 2001 when the Church Without Walls report set before the Church the challenge of becoming a church that is shaped by four key things that are perhaps lost sight of: the gospel, the gifts of the people, the neighbourhood in which it was set and friendship. When the Church began to say well what do we need to do in order to allow these marks to be felt and known, then it began to allow the climate and culture to change and shift and very slowly it gave permission for folks from within the institution to begin to experiment and attempt to look at being church in a slightly different way.

These works are how I would describe them as very fragile and very vulnerable pieces of work and what we have to manage as we move forward, as we seek to create more such works is the expectations of the main institution and the traditional churches because they will be looking very quickly to see such fresh expressions, such new life becoming 'like them'. And as someone recently pointed out it takes 400 years to get many of our churches to where they are today and therefore the need to manage that and to be kind and gentle with that, recognising that they are just like vulnerable children, fully dependent upon adults for nurture and life in the beginning. But as we know with children they have much to teach us and much energy, much passion for living.

If we cannot now begin to embrace the prospect of addressing a long-haul approach to this then we would suffer. If we're just simply going to do the quick fixes and we're looking for quick answers and quick solutions then sadly that's not going to be found. I've often pondered the question how long does it take for a new expression of church to become self-sufficient, to stand on its own. And in many ways it's probably not too dissimilar from that of a teenager coming into that stage and place in life where they still have an eye back on the family home and their roots and the things that were important but only by that stage, 15, 16, 17 years down the road can they begin to contemplate breaking out on their own and standing on their own two feet, taking with them many of the values and insights that have been given along the way but also up for the challenge of embracing the new world that undoubtedly lies out there.

As to how we assess how significant this partnership and indeed our whole strategy and vision for planting a new church would be, I guess I was encouraged recently by some insights that came through to us from Fresh Expressions where they had identified something in the region of 1,000 new expressions of church [in the Church of England] over maybe a ten year period had begun to emerge and come to life and so I think, given our starting point, we have negligible evidence of the new expressions of church happening, it's not going to take an awful lot for us to assess, ten years down the road, what are we now seeing around us. And I guess we're taking a light touch to this rather than trying to impose this mandate as a mandate on the life of the church, we are actually just simply trying to invite congregations. So the evidence should begin to be seen across presbyteries, across congregations where they can begin to point to that new expression of life.

Now there will be failure along the way, there will be things that will last for a few years but equally there will be works beginning to take shape and take root and we hope to, through the work we're doing with the Emerging Church Group, we're hoping in time to provide that ongoing support, reflection, analysis and encouragement.

I think the thing that would excite me down the road would be that alongside the many good, strong existing traditional churches we're beginning to see new expressions of church reaching generations which are presently unreached. Now immediately we might think of young people with regard to that but when a congregation gets its statistical analysis through our work that we're doing with the 2011 census, and discovers that the bulk of the people within their parish are elderly and over 60, my hope would be that that congregation would dare to dream about establishing new churches amongst the elderly in their community, appropriate to the different types of people they're encountering there. Likewise, the challenge of engaging with younger families who are for many of them not engaging with church as we know it, finding a new expression of church for them would be great. But equally there's another whole group of folks who through perhaps personality, history, background, type or whatever just do not find church as we know it and as we present it as the answer to their deepest spiritual needs. And the hope would be that spiritually we could engage with such folks at a level that would capture them and allow their gifts to be released, not just to local church but to wider church and ministry also.


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