What all churches can learn from the scottish census

What All Churches Can Learn from Scotland's Census

Published this week, Scotland's Census 2022 reveals that the majority of people now say they have "no religion". What are the implications for us?

It’s official: Scotland is a ‘non-religious’ nation. For the first time in census history, not only do the majority of Scots not identify as ‘Christian’, but just over half (51.1%) describe themselves as having ‘no religion’ whatsoever. Only 39% would call themselves ‘Christian’ even in the most nominal sense.

In many ways, this isn’t a surprise. The decline in Christian identification has been sliding for decades, with a previous 11% decline between 2001 and 2011 to 54%. So, the drop below 50% was widely expected, albeit a 15% drop in just 11 years is pretty sobering.

Filling this gap is ‘unbelief’. While other faith groups have seen some growth (e.g. Muslims from 1.4% to 2.2%), the great change has simply been Scots dispensing with even the veneer of Christianity. These census results are simply recognising what has long been the hidden reality of Scottish society: that the vast majority of Scots don’t have any Christian faith and haven’t had for the best part of a century. So the 2022* Census isn’t so much a ‘reality check’, it’s just reality.

Why does this matter?

The results are a moment for Bible-believing Christians in Scotland to pause and to reflect on the spiritual state of their nation. For the rest of the UK (heading in a similar direction) there are also lessons to learn. Here are four such observations…

1. The folly of abandoning the Bible

The collapse of Christian affiliation is seen most catastrophically in those sections of the church where biblical authority has been systematically abandoned. For well over a century, some of the nation’s largest denominations have been inventing their own form of Christianity – one they hoped would make the church more theologically, morally and socially relevant to society. The result has been disastrous for them. The cliff-edge falls in their membership have been like witnessing a giant sinkhole suddenly appearing, but then realising that the ground underneath had been getting washed away for years. This widespread rejection of the Bible as God’s Word meant that when Christianity was no longer socially required, the gospel imperatives that might have upheld it had long since been taken away.

The challenge for evangelicals, however, should not be to gloat but to mourn. It is also a clear reminder of the need to resist the continued pressure to seek ‘relevance’ and ‘respectability’ by modifying or sidelining biblical teachings. That path has been tried – and the results are there for all to see.

2. A helpful clarity

It might be sad that people no longer want to associate themselves with Christianity (even in the most nominal sense), but we can at least be thankful for their honesty. In fact, it’s a good thing for people to realise that just being born in Britain or having your name on a church roll somewhere doesn’t make you a Christian. It’s an opportunity to bring the gospel to people as something new and fresh; to clear away the clutter of Christendom and explain what true New Testament faith in Christ actually looks like.

3. The battle ahead

The secularists and humanists have been quick to celebrate the census figures. For them, this is a triumph: they are the majority now. The figures, they state, are just another milestone in the welcome decline of Christianity; a ‘watershed moment’ in the journey towards a better, freer and more tolerant society.

Conveniently overlooked is the reality that biblical Christianity has been marginalised in Scotland for several generations now, so the current malaise in Scottish society (e.g. the mental health crisis, ethical confusion, political polarisation, record drug deaths, etc.) can hardly be laid at its door. But such is the aversion in some quarters to all things ‘Christian’, these figures will almost certainly be used to justify further restrictions on biblical faith and practices (e.g. a ‘Conversion Practices’ law). The battle for freedom of speech and religion is only likely to intensify.

Christians will need to be ready to continue contending for such freedoms graciously and winsomely. The ‘shoe is now on the other foot’, so we should also be careful to defend the rights of others to similar freedoms – especially those with whom we might strongly disagree.

4. Straws in the wind

You will not see it in the macro-figures of institutional church decline but look closely and you might just see something is quietly stirring in Scotland: A proliferation of new churches started by internationals; indigenous church planting; previously dying churches recovering; people returning to church; ones and twos coming to faith. Small, fragile, embryonic growth, but being replicated in towns and cities across the country.

Just maybe, a generation who have now experienced firsthand the rootlessness and meaninglessness of a godless society are being moved to reconsider that which was lost? After all, the gospel shines all the more brightly when the background is dark.

Pressing on

In the medium term, the big cultural falls in Christian identification are likely to continue to mask such growth, and thus the headlines will likely get worse before they get better. But seeds are being sown, the alternatives to Christianity are being found wanting, and – above all – God is Sovereign. So, we work on and pray: “Lord, have mercy on us and revive us again.”

*The 2021 Census was postponed in Scotland until 2022 due to Covid.

Most Scots have no religion - census, BBC News

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