Scotland's mission challenge (John Drane)

Monday, 28 October, 2013

John Drane asks what the missional challenge is for Scotland and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in the current fast-changing context.

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John Drane: As I think about my lifetime spent in Scotland - because I came to Scotland first as a student, so I guess 17 or 18 years old and I'll leave you to guess how old I am now - but I've been here a very long time!

And it's as if all the stability, and everything we thought was Scotland, in the last five years - we've taken all the bits and thrown them up in the air and who knows where they're going to fall? This is a really interesting, to people like me, a really interesting challenge and opportunity as we move into the 21st century, thinking not just, 'What is the nation going to be like? What will Scotland look like politically and in other ways?' but, 'What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus in this fast changing context?'

And, as I think about it, a lot of people are in despair because they look at our churches and they say, 'Well, the churches are declining really quite fast, faster than in other parts of the developed world. Churches are declining quite fast, the populations in our churches are increasingly old people, so we should basically just close the thing down, get ready to shut up shop in maybe 20 years' time or whatever'.

On the other hand, we could say, 'Well, the people of Scotland are as interested in the search for meaning and purpose and identity and spirituality as they've ever been - and here is God giving us a fantastic opportunity to ask, right from base line, what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus in this time and in this place?' So actually, secularisation in Scotland's changing culture could give us the opportunity that this place becomes a laboratory to work out the answers to those questions.

A lot of people who've been in churches for their lifetime, their major big challenge is this, 'Why have my children and grandchildren not followed in the footsteps of faith that I faithfully laid out for them in bringing them up?' And for me, as I look at people and engage with people who say 'this challenge is too big, we don't know how to change', then in a sense my question - without I hope being strident and critical - is simply this, 'Do you love your own family enough to want to hand on to them some kind of serviceable faith community that will address the needs of your own children in your own family?' And I think if we can create spaces where it's ok to address that question, talk about what we sometimes think are our failures without piling guilt on each other; recognising that actually the answer to that question is, 'Well, the culture's changed, life is no longer what it once was, being a young person today is nothing like any of us who are older than about 20 or 25. We don't have a clue because life is so different today'.

I think, for many people, that comes as a renewing kind of message as we say, 'Well, what sort of church - or faith community or discipleship community - what would make sense to your own family?' And that can be liberating and I think can also focus our minds on thinking about things like times, places, the nature of worship, what it really means to embed discipleship and faithfulness to the Gospel in everyday life.

If we're looking for a change of mindset in relation to what the church might be, we are talking about conversion actually; we're talking about a new reformation. Scotland has been the homeland of the reformed tradition for 500 years and one of the slogans of the reformation was 'reformed, but always reforming,' and that means there should be movement, there should be change, we should constantly be expecting God to show His new ways forward and we should also expect to be obedient when God opens those doorways to us.

So, in theory, you might say that the reformed tradition should find it much, much easier to move forward than others because we're ticking that box all the time except, well, it's a challenge and seems safer to stick with what we know, what's tried and tested, what's embedded in our institutions. But, at a time when politically - as well as in other ways - institutions are coming under great scrutiny; now is the time to ask those fundamental questions, 'What does it actually mean to be the Church of Jesus Christ in this time and in this place?' And it might be different in Scotland than it will be in other places.

The big challenge for national denominational leaders of course in Scotland, as indeed elsewhere in the Western world, is how to move our institutions in effective change; such that the change is something we're in control of or we're part of, rather than randomly allowing change to come over us.

Change happens anyway, so people who say to me, 'Well, nothing much has changed here'. Actually I look around at many of our churches and I think to myself, 'Everything has changed in the last 20 years'. Twenty years ago, most local churches had significant Sunday schools because they had significant numbers of children. Today the Sunday school is not quite extinct, but is heading in that direction. Our institutions are changing – they once had plenty of money to do what they wanted to do, nowadays it's a different story. So, for me, the question of change isn't a question of will we change/can we change? We are actually changing. The big question is, 'OK, are we going to be the ones who initiate and inaugurate change so that the change we see isn't forced on us by an essentially secular, un-Christian culture, but the change is actually in accordance with the values of God's Kingdom?' And that is the big challenge to us.

If I believed there was no hope for the church in Scotland, or anywhere else, I would really be seriously questioning whether I have wasted my life in being involved in all this stuff. Whereas actually, the message of the Gospel is always this, it's always, 'look to the future, dream who you might be, you can be, who God intends you to be,' and that is one of the big challenges to us. I think at this point of transition and change and challenge, there's a real danger in constantly looking to the past, asking questions like, 'Who is to blame for the mess we now find ourselves in?' raking over the ashes of the past rather than, and this is a Gospel value, looking to the future.

It's an eschatological imperative to use the jargon that Jesus continually says to people he meets, 'OK, that was then, this is now. Who do you imagine you could be under God's guidance in the future?'  And it's that future orientation, that for me is absolutely the centre of the Gospel, not just a strategic way of dealing with change in the church. Who are we becoming, who might we become, who does God intend us to be? There will always be followers of Jesus; whether their churches and institutional structures look anything like what we've got today... your guess is as good as mine!


'the message of the Gospel is always this, it's always, 'look to the future, dream who you might be, you can be, who God intends you to be' and 'Who do you imagine you could be under God's guidance in the future...that for me is absolutely the centre of the Gospel'.

Oh dear. And this is the missional answer for Scotland? Take a look at the churches who are growing through both preaching and embodying the gospel in Scotland, and suggest the same for FX. If you're brave enough.

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