Easter Sunday morning and the Sunday Herald’s front page proclaims, “Why Christianity is in crisis in Scotland”. The sub-headline, “Easter Sunday shock leaves clergy reeling as new figures reveal church attendance at all-time low”. What a way to greet the day on which Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus!
But here’s the thing: the Scottish Church Census summary is entitled “GROWTH amidst Decline!”, and while there are undeniable challenges in church attendance figures, the report highlighted some incredibly positive things happening in Scotland that speak of church growth and new life in the Church. The report highlights growth, the media coverage proclaims decline. Admittedly, the Sunday Herald article does find some space to talk about new church initiatives and growth, but it’s a long way down the article, as it doesn’t fit the headline. The BBC online coverage the same day was as doom-laden: “Dramatic drop in church attendance in Scotland” was the headline. Again, growth gets a mention, but much further into the article, and it’s very qualified, “The census also revealed growth among some denominations in some parts of Scotland”.
As I travel around Scotland and speak with church leaders and congregations, I fear that this same imbalance is affecting our view of Christ’s Church in Scotland. Visiting a church in Inverness recently, I was greatly encouraged to hear that their new, modern building was full to overflowing on a Sunday morning, mainly with children and young families, and that they are going to have to extend or plant a new church to accommodate demand. I spoke enthusiastically with the group, telling them I could take them to every city in Scotland and show them other churches experiencing similar growth. Incredibly, they were surprised by this, because, they said, all you hear is that the church is in decline. It was astonishing. Here was a church bucking the trends – growing, full to overflowing, packed with children and young people. Yet despite the growth and new life they were presently experiencing their outlook for the church was rather pessimistic. Why? Because they were listening to the media headlines of decline, rather than celebrating and proclaiming heaven’s headlines of growth and new life in Christ that was their reality of church!
I’m not talking about avoiding reality. I’m not saying we should disregard or refuse to face the challenge and opportunity of statistics that speak of the decline of church attendance. But these statistics do not tell the whole story. There is, as the report itself proclaims, growth amidst decline. Amidst the challenges, let’s be attentive to heaven’s headlines, and let’s celebrate and encourage one another as leaders with the stories of growth and new life that are present in every part of our nation. Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thess 5:11). It seems to me that as leaders, we need to do more of this – both for ourselves and for those we lead – so that heaven’s headlines are not drowned out by the media headlines that do not give God glory for the things he is doing amongst us.
Finally, in an attempt to address the imbalance, I list below some of the key statistics of church growth and new life that the Scottish Church Census so helpfully highlights.
Adrian Armstrong is Head of Bible Engagement for the Scottish Bible Society and is part of the leadership team of Bellevue Chapel, Edinburgh.