November 3, 2014

How Can the Church Respond to 21st Century Scotland? (1)

Scotland is changing. The Scotland of 30 years ago is not the Scotland of today. The death of manufacturing and the coal-mining industry, coupled with the rise in new technologies, have changed our employment landscape forever. We are now, more than ever, a multicultural nation with people flocking to our shores from every continent on the globe. Statisticians put Christianity at just under the 2.5% mark (although I suspect the figure for evangelical Christians to be much smaller than this). The church holds about as much relevance to our generation as a Commodore 64 (look it up). Most churches look like museums on their way to becoming full blown mausoleums. They represent the values of a bygone era and about the only use they do serve in many schemes, ironically, is for burying the dead.

The question is how do we respond to these changes in our society? And make no mistake, we have to respond. Even no response says something about us as a local church. Many local churches must change, or they will die. That is simple spiritual mathematics. In the following series of posts, I want us to explore how we can think about moving forward as we embrace the reality of modern Scotland (and even the UK).

Churches have historically responded in three main ways to their cultural climate:

Separatism. These are those who deliberately set themselves apart as distinct from the culture around them. Perhaps they feared that any adaptation would lead to compromise of gospel truths. For these churches it was more important to maintain their identity than it was to be relevant. Traditionally, these churches would have been theologically conservative and would have favoured ‘event’ led evangelism. They would have viewed the culture around them as‘worldly’ and in need of complete redemption.

Integrationism. These churches sought to immerse themselves in the culture around them and strove for ways to be ‘relevant’. They longed to fit in and be seen as ‘normal’ or not ‘quirky’ or ‘outdated’. Relevance mattered to them more than maintaining traditions and being separate. These churches were usually tagged ‘seeker sensitive’ or, more recently, ‘emergent’. They tended to view the culture around them uncritically and sought to imbibe as much of it as possible in order to attract unbelievers.

Transformationalism. They took the appreciative, yet critical, approach to culture. So they sought to be relevant but not at the expense of biblical purity, doctrine, and truth. They wanted to be positive about their surrounding culture but they also wanted to remain biblically distinct in terms of personal holiness. These churches are the ones who, I believe, will make the most impact in society going forward.

I think that the key to engaging with our culture is to seek to understand it as much as possible. Obviously, that is easier said than done. In Niddrie, we now have people from around the globe; even the local Catholic church has updated its sign to include Polish speakers. We need to work harder than ever before at understanding our communities. We must, where possible, applaud the positives and seek to look for understandable ways in which we can bring about the message of redemption in Jesus Christ.

Of course, we recognise that all culture is corrupted by sin, particularly much of church culture and human traditions. The gospel exposes this in quite obvious ways once we understand our contexts better. The starting point in all this is to recognise our own cultural blind spots and leanings. Have we swung too much toward separatism? Maybe we came from a narrow, separatist community and we have swung completely the other way to uncritical integrationism?

Our ultimate goal should be the redemption of souls of every stripe. By understanding ourselves and our weaknesses, by listening carefully to people we learn how to connect – how to bridge the gap between their worldview and the gospel. We must affirm what is good and challenge what is evil. Even if we were to take the four Gospels, we see that each has a different perspective and shape. They bring the same gospel message to different people groups. Each Gospel quite distinctive, yet the same truth and light: Jesus Christ is held forth.

What does the gospel look like in our areas? How well do we know our area and its makeup? Our church leaders may know, but do we? What’s the name of the local shopkeeper? Who runs the chemist down the road? What’s going on in the local hairdresser’s life? If you want a new vision and new direction for your church, then you need to know what is going on outside your doors. If we don’t understand our area, how do we expect them to understand us?

In our next post we will begin to look at how we implement a vision for reaching the lost in our local churches.

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