When ‘City Slickers’ Try to Do Mission in the Highlands and Islands . . .

Ten years ago, or so, myself and a brother in the Lord were involved in local open-air work. Having spent a number of months giving it laldy on the streets of Paisley, we embarked upon a greater challenge. We decided to head to the Islands for a week of open-air meetings and street evangelism. I'm not sure we ever verbalised it (or were even aware of it), but, looking back, I'm sure that there was an implicit (and sinfully proud) attitude that somehow the lands of revival had gotten dry and dusty and were in need of a fresh injection of spiritual life (of the pentecostal variety). In hindsight, I think we were operating in folly and not faith!

Similarly, many years later, I moved to the Highlands to teach RME having previously taught in an urban deprivation priority area. The school had high crime-rates, therefore teaching anything, never mind RME, proved a challenge. I found a way though, with stories like the Cross and the Switchblade. The combination of gang culture and conversion connected well with young people. Since it worked well, I used the same resources when I moved to the highlands, only this time they did not go down so well. Why? It's a different context. In the Highlands, it's not the Cross and the Switchblade, it's the Croft and the Tractor!

Both of these situations reveal an important principle, quite simply, culture and context are important. In other words, just because it works in the city does not mean it will work in the rural areas. In fact, it probably won't. Why bring this up? Well, having lived here for almost five years, I can see that it is not just me that makes this mistake. Church planters, missionaries, itinerant ministries will come to the highlands and islands, perhaps even gain access to schools, and host interdenominational events yet time and time again they bring a pre-packaged methodology in the hope that people buy into it. And of course, most of the time, people don't.

Incoming ministries often end up frustrated at the lack of interest from local churches and local people. Some come to the hasty conclusion that the local churches are stuck in a rut and lack relevance. Very often the only churches who facilitate the pre-packaged programme, are the newer churches who have come and set up church in the area — again, very often these newer churches have brought with them pre-packaged assumptions about how to do ministry, consequently many newer churches really struggle to connect locally with the indigenous culture of the Highlands and Islands. Very often, new churches are planted by non-locals, who end up with a church full of non-locals. The only exception to this rule is when a newer approach to church and ministry is pioneered by local people, when this happens, the new approach can be very effective.

Does this mean there is no place for ministries and missionaries to follow a call to the Highlands and Islands? Not at all. There is always a need for workers in the vineyard. However, there are a couple of things to bear in mind if you are considering ministry and the highlands and islands, whether it be on a long-term or short-term capacity.

Humility is important

Many modern approaches to ministry are built on pragmatism. Hence, if something is working elsewhere there is an assumption that this can be exported elsewhere. Consequently incoming ministries tend to land with an implicit arrogance, and an attitude that writes off what is already happening (because it is "out of date") and boasts of being the best thing since sliced bread.

The incoming ministry is often dismayed at the lack of enthusiasm for the new approach. Consequently they think that the disinterest is a result of a deficiency in spirituality, instead of looking at themselves and judging their motives and methods, they judge the people.

A much better way forward would be to take a more humble approach. Ditch the programme and come and get to know the people. Get to know the area. Instead of coming with suggestions, come with questions, do some research before you get here. Speak to those who are already on the ground. Instead of coming and trying sell a box of tricks,  ask local ministers if there is any way that you can serve them. Ask the established ministries what the needs are. This is not to say that you don't have skills to add, but these will flourish more naturally when they are nurtured in the context of relationships and humility.

Context is important

Like it or not, the Highlands and Islands are Presbyterian land. You may disagree with this, but it would be a very short-sighted ministry or missionary who did not respect this. Many ministries see Presbyterianism as an outmoded form of church, they want to come and bring the latest brand of contemporary Christianity– and assume that the unbelieving locals will flock to their programmes or churches because this is "so exciting" and unlike the "boring churches". Of course it doesn't happen. Why? Well, even the local non-church goer will likely feel more loyalty to their historical local Presbyterian church than they do to some peddler of exotic spirituality.

I would suggest that it is important to understand Scottish presbyterian church history. Not only is it important to understand the history, it is important to understand the doctrines and approaches to ministry.  Even if you fully intend to set up a completely different style of church (e.g. Baptist, or contemporary), if you do so with an appreciative understanding and respect for the local presbyterian context, you will have a more effective ministry. Otherwise you are just sowing faction and division.

So, in conclusion, the highlands and islands need labourers but they need labourers who are humble, willing to learn about the culture and context and who are willing to lay aside the pre-packaged programme in order to build relationships with the local community of believers and unbelievers.