Can the ageing Scottish church be saved? Andy Hunter calls for a new generation of young bi-vocational pastors to lead the charge.
Much of the Scottish church is dying of old age. According to 2016 figures, 42% of Scottish church-goers are over 65 years old.1 By contrast, the proportion of the Scottish population over 65 is only 18%.2 This means that overall the church in Scotland is more than twice as elderly as the nation.
One church I visited recently had 18 members and the following age profile: 4x 90s; 4x 80s; 8x 60s; 2x under 60 but nobody under 50. This situation is replicated in many places. It represents a demographic time-bomb that will close scores of churches in the next decade.
Let’s be honest, in some instances those closures will be overdue. The community the church used to serve and witness to is simply no longer there. In some cases it’s been physically demolished, in others the church has become so fossilised culturally that it’s no longer accessible to anyone outside itself. Sadly, some churches have just lost any concern or vision to reach those around them.
However, many aging churches are in places where there is still a community to be reached – where if there wasn’t a church you’d want to start one. The congregation still yearns to reach out and see people saved. Where there is an openness to make changes, uncomfortable changes, these churches can once again be places of gospel growth.
Vision, energy and a future
The problem is: how? The buzzword is revitalisation – and much great work is being done to help churches through that process. But it doesn’t take long to see that at the heart of any successful revitalisation is the issue of leadership. That is, leadership with vision, energy and a future.
None of that is to disparage the extraordinary service and sacrifice of many who lead aging churches. But vision (a plan and goals for gospel growth, beyond just maintenance), energy (leading from the front, enthusing others, getting things done), and a future (here is something we can potentially get behind for the next 5,10, 20 years). These are three things, even with the best will in the world, aging churches generally struggle to provide.
Good news, bad news
So while there are doubtless exceptions, successful revitalisations typically happen where there is leadership with those three characteristics. This means we need younger well-trained leaders who can be deployed into valuable but aging churches.
Here’s the good news: there are many such leaders coming out of colleges and training programmes every year. Leaders with gospel vision, energy and who have (God willing) prime years of life to offer.
Here’s the bad news: they eat, have families, need homes – and thus require a level of financial support that smaller aging churches often can’t provide.
But there is an opportunity here – as there are few churches without any income (indeed smaller churches often accrue substantial reserves precisely because of their low overheads). Often the income of a church with low overheads (e.g. no staff) is usually less than its potential – after all people generally give what is needed and not for what isn’t. Thus even a small church should be able to muster some support – a part-time salary for example.
For younger leaders/potential pastors this could be supplemented by bi-vocational working. Actually bi-vocational ministry has a number of benefits besides just meeting financial needs. Local employment can help embed someone in their community, establish contacts and create extra gospel opportunities. This can be a good use of time especially when the congregational needs of the church are relatively small.
The hope, of course, would be that the church will grow and over time meet more of the pastor’s financial needs – allowing him to attend to the correspondingly increasing ministry needs.
So we need many more people ready and able to enter ministry on that basis – as otherwise many current churches simply won’t survive for anyone to work in regardless of finance. Obviously some jobs lend themselves to a bi-vocational pastorate more than others and some jobs will pay highly for even part-time work. But for those whose main options will be less well-paid work, churches need to consider asymmetrical remuneration – e.g. paying relatively highly for two days’ work, on the basis that the pastor’s bi-vocational income won’t provide an equal share of what they need to live on.
There is a real need for smaller aging churches to solicit these discussions and be ready to take some risks here if their future is not simply to be one of continued decline.
Wider church back-up
There is another important consideration in all this – one which is often more of a problem than finance. That is, the wider ministry support given to pastors in such situations.
It can be that in churches where there has been a long period of decline there is no longer a good working model of leadership – or where the model has become dysfunctional. The fear (and experience) of many is that sending younger pastors into such situations is to ‘throw them to lions’ re: ministry pressures.
The problem is compounded by the scarcity of assistant pastor positions where younger pastors can ‘cut their teeth’ and prepare for solo pastorates. This result is, whether we like it or not, many younger/newer pastors will need to go solo from the start and in more challenging churches – if they are (a) to find positions and (b) meet the great need of revitalising smaller aging churches.
So here’s the radical bit. Could established pastors and larger churches support newer pastors serving in smaller churches? Perhaps adopting them as ‘remote assistant pastors’ – giving them pastoral and ongoing training support in the way a mother-church would to its Church Planters? This would help prevent newer pastors being left to ‘sink or swim’, make the option of going to smaller aging churches more attractive, and increase the likelihood of such ministries succeeding.
The statistics are clear, the next two decades will be a tipping point for much of the Scottish Church. A whole raft of congregations are set to disappear and leave whole communities without any gospel witness. However, there is an opportunity to see many smaller aging churches turned around and start growing again.
That can only happen if (a) there is a willingness by those churches to change, to spend and take risks, (b) younger pastors are prepared to choose bi-vocational working options, and (c) the wider church gives those leaders the back-up they would otherwise miss out on.
The clock is ticking!
1. Brierly, Growth Amidst Decline - Future First (April 2017, Issue 50)