Reflections on the Future of Rural Christianity: Does ‘Church’ Need to Change?

Having relocated to the Highlands almost four years ago, the last few years have been a real learning curve in terms of mission and ministry. The rural context presents many challenges which are different, in many ways, to the Missional challenges of the urban church. One of the major differences is the culture, in some ways, certainly on Skye; there is still something of an overarching ‘Christian’ culture. Many people still ‘go to church’ because it is ‘the right thing to do.’ Having said that, the numbers are still in decline.

There seem to be a number of factors which have been detrimental to the Christian landscape in rural areas.

1)      A CHANGING DEMOGRAPHY

Young Christians from the highlands often move way in order to study or find work. If they continue in the faith of their parents they often do so in the city. Therefore rural churches often lack students, young adults and young families.

People relocate to the highlands from all over the world, this has led to an increase in the population but it has also changed the values of the wider culture. While historically, highlanders may have been a kirk going community, many who are relocating here do not share the Christian faith which was historically held by many local people.

Consequently, many churches in the area are made up of an aging congregation. It is not uncommon for several large church buildings in the same area to be the meeting place of a handful of elderly worshippers.

2)      CHURCH SPLITS

The highlands are Presbyterian territory. There are, on Skye, five different Presbyterian denominations: The Church of Scotland; The Free Church; The Free Presbyterian Church; The Associated Presbyterian Church; and the Free Church (Continuing).

Many of these churches are struggling with a decline in numbers; an aging congregation and a lack of funds to sustain a full time minister and maintain the building.

3)      UNSUSTAINABILITY

Presbyterianism sought to have a church in every parish. When there is a split, the dissenting church has also sought to have a church in every parish. Now every parish has several buildings which are falling into disrepair and congregations which reflect the condition of the building. While there are a few notable exceptions, by and large the congregations are struggling. Consequently presbyteries of the various denominations are thinking in terms of re-carving their parishes or encouraging weaker congregations to attend a stronger congregation several miles outside their own village. Other churches take the opposite approach and bus members of their strong churches to bolster up the numbers of the weaker churches.

THE FUTURE

The big question in all of this is ‘what about the future?’ In reality, rural areas are in danger of losing a local testimony in many villages and glens. One solution is to follow the pattern of the cities where people will have to travel several miles from their village to the ‘large successful’ church in the economic centres. Of course – this solution is not the best. It is not really in line with presbyterian vision (church in every parish), and it is not really reflective of rural life. But what alternative is there, when maintaining the buildings and ministries is unsustainable, and the numbers are declining?

CHANGING CONCEPTS OF CHURCH AND MINISTRY

There are many factors which need to be considered but one of the key areas is that there needs to be a shift from maintenance mode to mission mode.  In other words there needs to be a review of priorities – does a church in every parish need to mean a historical building and a traditional minister? 

The combination of lack of resources and changing culture has already led some Presbyterian denominations to develop new approaches to ministry. The Free Church of Scotland has recently created a post for a Rural Worker– this is basically a minister who seeks to support and develop the work in several different parishes (or geographical areas). While it is good to see a development in the concept of ministry within the changing context, it remains to be seen what shape the church will take in the future.

One exception to this is Garioch church. Garioch church is affiliated with the Baptist Union and has developed a unique model of church which is designed to engage missionally with the changing face of the rural context:

Those who belong to garioch church seek together to reach out to those who live in this semi-rural area of Aberdeenshire, which encompasses Inverurie, Kintore, Kemnay, Oldmeldrum, Newmachar, Blackburn, Insch, and the surrounding villages and communities. The vision of gariochchurch is to see a number of groups, which are home-based and focused on local outreach, meeting in this area as a key means by which God can reach out to our neighbours (gariochchurch@home). These groups seek to be a faithful expression of the body of Christ within our local communities. All of the groups receive encouragement, strength, support and a sense of belonging to God’s wider church by meeting together as a single congregation once or twice a month in Inverurie, ‘the heart of the Garioch’ (gariochchurch@central). – See more at: http://www.gariochchurch.org.uk/about/#sthash.C1XyW0CE.dpuf

Of course, Garioch Church is a Baptist church, but this does not mean that the same principles could not be applied to a Presbyterian context. In fact, a Presbyterian approach to this model would perhaps strengthen some of the weaknesses of this model (issues relating to confessionalism; church discipline; and accountability) but equally this model could strengthen some of the weaknesses of Presbyterianism (missional focus rather than institutional focus, ministry of the body rather than the ministry of the minister etc.).

The Regional Model which has been adopted by Garioch could help struggling denominations reprioritise. It could deal with the resource issue overnight—manses/old buildings could be sold and the money could be invested in leadership development and the raising up of small groups of disciples who desire to meet together to reach their neighbours for Christ. The fact that they would be linked with other small communities means they can come together regularly for worship, witness and fellowship.

FURTHER FUTURE CHANGES

Another reason why the Regional Model may be an important way forward is because of the changing political climate. David Robertson (Free Church Minister in Dundee), in his debate with Peter Tatchell, rightly said that in the future it may be illegal for him to express his views. This is a reality. We are increasingly shifting towards a state dominated morality which could declare the public reading of certain passages of scripture (never mind the exposition of them), hate speech. Without meaning to be alarmist, if denominational leaders are not currently preparing for the reality that public expressions of faith could soon be illegal—then they are walking into the secular future blindly. In this sense, the Regional Model, as practiced by Garioch, could in fact be a key means of equipping the church for future faithfulness at a time when the public worship venues may well become the equivalent of the Three Self Church in China, in other words, Churches will be allowed to meet for public worship, but only in a way that is reflective of the beliefs and values of the state. As one Church of Scotland minister rightly observed, ‘when that day comes, even the Free Church will not be free.’
In conclusion, the present scenario is unsustainable; the culture is changing– should we spend all our resources trying to keep the old model from crumbling or should the focus be on developing a new structure for a new season? Church principles are unchanging, be they baptist, catholic or presbyterian — but these principles can be applied in different ways. It seems pointless to try to recreate Christendom– mission from the margins is the new reality.