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Scottish Churches: Connecting for Mission

One of the ways FIEC serves Independent churches is by encouraging them to work together in the great task of reaching the nation for Christ. Rachel Dalby reports back from our recent Scottish Mission Forum, designed to encourage these missional connections in Scotland.

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If you can do it on your own, it’s not big enough. That was the strapline for our Scottish Mission Forum held in Edinburgh at the end of March. The event was attended by 45 church leaders representing more than 20 churches from across Scotland and beyond.

Picking up on the strapline, FIEC Scotland Director Andy Hunter expressed the hope that in bringing people together the event would result in real gospel advances in Scotland being made – such as churches partnering together to support church planting, revitalisations or other strategic gospel projects.

Rural Challenges

Throughout the day time was given for those attending to share about their ministry situations, needs and opportunities. In Scotland with its large rural areas and spread out population, many of the leaders attending had first-hand experience of serving in remote places, where running viable and sustainable churches often felt like a difficult and lonely job.

The population density figures in Scotland make for illuminating reading in this context. There are an average of just eight people per square kilometre in the Highland Council area contrasted with around 3,300 per square kilometre in the Glasgow City Council area.

Even within the more densely populated towns and cities, isolation can exist as the result of cultural and economic differences between neighbourhoods.

Connecting with urban residents

Phyllis Duncan, a Deaconess at Buckhaven Community Church in Fife, said her church served a poor urban community which, at times, felt like a remote island.

She told the Forum: “It’s a very deprived residential area, where people don’t have much hope. In many cases, the residents’ parents and grandparents haven’t had jobs, so people’s expectation is to rely on benefits and hang around the streets.

“Living with crime is a daily reality, and people feel abandoned and unloved. Nobody from outside of the area really wants to come in and help, so the church is crucial in this ‘hard to reach’ place.”

Church-led projects such as Street Pastors, food banks and social get-togethers for the most vulnerable are key ways in which churches such as Buckhaven are connecting with non-Christians. But the going can be tough.

“When we go out as Street Pastors, groups of kids come running towards us because they know they’ll get some sweets and attention,” said Phyllis. “But in return, we often get verbal abuse because the kids have been taught to be aggressive to survive.”

Reaching out to ethnic groups

Scotland’s population is estimated at around 5.37 million – its highest ever. While the country’s birth rate has been falling, immigration from other parts of the UK and the EU have brought year on year population increases. As you would expect, it is key cities like Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness that have seen the most growth.

Around 40% of people in Scotland describe themselves as having ‘no religion’, and some minority religions, including Islam, are rising. Researchers at Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities recently called for communities to be better equipped for Muslims, after predicting that the Muslim population would double in the next decade.

“We’re certainly thinking about how we can better reach out to ethnic groups within the city of Edinburgh,” said Charlotte Chapel’s Associate Pastor, Liam Garvie.

As a city-centre church attracting many students and young professionals, as well as older members, Charlotte Chapel is keen to help churches working in more remote locations. “It may well be that we could share ideas, resources and people to help make the difference in some cases,” he said.

Island outreach

Scotland has 130 inhabited islands. Many of them have long and colourful histories, with some having roots in Viking and Norse invasions.

One of the islanders at the Forum was Tony Wilkinson from Grace Church Orkney – a church plant that had recently joined the FIEC network.

Tony explained that Orkney’s remoteness had brought opportunities, as well as challenges. He said: “Orkney’s a popular tourist destination, especially for travellers seeking spiritual experiences.” But, he pointed out, it wasn’t Christian spirituality they were primarily seeking.

Orkney’s air of mysticism, its ancient ruins (some are thought to date back to around 3,000 BC), burial mounds and standing stones make it an attractive location for wannabe Pagans.

“Several companies are operating in the Pagan events market, offering licensed marriage rituals, vow-renewals and baby naming ceremonies,” said Tony.

“While this may seem daunting to some Christians, it means that seekers are coming to our island – a great opportunity for us to welcome them in and tell them about what we believe.”

Needs and opportunities

Speakers during the one-day Forum included FIEC’s Mission Director, Andy Paterson, and Church Revitalisation Coordinator Phil Walter.

Andy Paterson speaking at the Forum

Talking about church planting, Andy urged leaders to think carefully about where the biggest gospel needs were, and to look for opportunities.

During his session on church revitalisation, Phil outlined the main ways churches could be supported in becoming healthier. In rare cases, helping churches to close well, perhaps moving assets into more viable gospel works, could be the most sensible option.

Overseas connections

The Forum was given an international flavour by a group of pastors from the Avery Baptist Association in North Carolina, USA.

With as many people with Scottish ancestry thought to be living in North America as in Scotland itself, the Association has a particular interest in Scotland.

Team member Chad Cole said that the fellowship of Southern Baptist Churches in Avery and Burke Counties was keen to support Scotland’s evangelical churches and their outreach.

Paul Rees – Senior Pastor at Charlotte Chapel – closed the Forum, giving a challenge to have a ‘gospel ambition’ that prioritises the need to reach Scotland’s lost population before any self-interest.

Commenting on the day, Andy Hunter concluded:

“No one church or group will reach Scotland – it is a task that requires partnership and a big vision. Only by working together can we get close to meeting the country’s gospel need. Please pray that the event will result in new gospel relationships that bear fruit for Christ’s Kingdom in the coming days.”

Rachel Dalby photo
Rachel Dalby - Ministry Support

Rachel’s job with FIEC involves assisting with various Director-led projects and activities. She is a trained editor and journalist and belongs to the Association of Christian Writers. Rachel is married to Russ, and they have a son and a cat.