The Absent Church: Local Mission, Schemes, Rural Areas & Chalmers & McConnell

I just listened to this message from Mez McConnell (20 Schemes) which was delivered to a bunch of Free Church lecturers, pastors and students.

It is excellent.

Having grown up in some of the shadiest schemes in Scotland, I identify with a lot of what Mez says.

In a nutshell he claims that evangelical church planters and churches have neglected the schemes and have focused on building city churches which meet in the cultural epicentres which primarily draw in professionals and middle class people.

He argues that the schemes, which do have a parish presence, often end up with churches which are too culturally removed because of their affluence and lack of engagement with the community.

He further argues that many schemes, if they do have a church presence, either have declining conservative churches who are wondering why no one comes anymore, liberal churches which do all sorts of social stuff but don't preach the gospel, or some sort of para-church social action which meets social needs but fails to reach out with the gospel.

Mez provides a powerful argument for the presence of local churches in housing schemes — however, I think Mez's message has an even broader application than housing schemes — as essential as that application is. 

Mez's challenge, (which is drawn from Free Church founder Thomas Chalmers), is ultimately that local communities — especially overlooked communities – need an active and engaged local gospel preaching church.  It's not just housing schemes that are lacking the presence of a live gospel-preaching local church, many rural villages and townships are also lacking an active gospel-centred local church. In otherwords, the schemes on the outskirts of the major urban centres are one part of the mission field which is is being neglected, but the rural villages in the Highlands and western Isles are another.

Mez argues that schemes have an advantage over the city churches because they are community — so the church does not have to try and create community. This is also true for the rural areas.

Of course, someone might point out that the highlands and Islands are different from the schemes because they are full of churches. And yes, that is true — kind of.

The church has had a historical presence in the Highlands and Islands, and some churches are still large and thriving. However — decline is a reality and it is the small glens and villages which are being hit the hardest. Many have church buildings but no minister, some only have services once a month. Others have been closed down and the church has been linked to a larger parish or church several miles away.  

However, this is a problem — and it is the problem that Mez raised at ETS. What is the problem? Certain areas are being marginalised and overlooked as the church moves towards survival mode and building in the areas with a higher population — in rural areas this is usually the larger towns.

Mez rattled some cages at ETS, and I feel the reverberations of that clang here in the rural area of Skye.  As part of his cage rattling, he reminded the Free Church guys of their heritage. Chalmers. He challenged the folks who heard him to go and read Chalmers — so I did.

Here is what he says:  

"When the people are too distant from church, it is of no earthly consequence ,to be told that there is superfluous accommodation twenty miles off from them."


In otherwords — redirecting folks to a parish many miles away is in insuffiscient substitute for a local church.

Chalmers then goes on to show how he witnessed church extention in his own day — church extention which was largely financed by the people. What motivated them? Chalmers explains:

"With the great majority of our subscribers it is not even the good of the nation which is present to their thoughts, but the good of their own little vicinity, all whose wants and whose statistics have been thoroughly ascertained. It is not for Church Extension in Scotland that their liberality is drawn out, but for a church in their own destitute village, or in the city district of some few plebeian streets, teeming with the families of a heretofore neglected population. In other words, it is not any seducing or sublime generalization which operates on the fancies of these men; it is a near and besetting reality at their very doors, which has operated so powerfully on their senses; and what they give is given under the impression of a practical acknowledged specific and homefelt necessity, that forces itself on their distinct and daily observation.

In other words, people were moved to financially support the extension of local churches — not because they responded to some grand global vision about world-wide evangelisation — no. They responded because they saw the need on their own door step. It was for the "good of their own little vicinity" and seeing the "reality at their very doors" that became the catylist for supporting the cause of local church planting. In otherwords, the people saw the vision for local mission.

I'm glad Mez was invited to rattle some cages, and I'm glad he had enough compassion and courage to clang the cage and create a clatter that was loud enough to be heard in the Highlands. What we now need is the reverberations of that challenge to launch us into action — local mission in the most overlooked places of Scotalnd — whether or not it is the side-lined schemes or the rejected rural areas matters not — both need an active local witness in the form of local churches.

In many ways the rural glens and villages may have an advantage over the schemes – there are still resources here. There are still buildings, handfulls of loyal people and potential denominational support.

On the other hand, dying hyper-conservative or liberal ecclesiastical enclaves will not cut it, their days are numbered — consequently, perhaps "re-planting", "re-juvenation"  or "re-building" (any buzz word will do) needs to be the priority in the days which lie ahead. In other words — by using what is already here, we have an opportunity to re-connect with the community — and not just by burying their dead, marrying folks and baptising their kids– this already happens. Instead there is a need for workers to get behind the small declining almost non-existant churches and help put the church back on the missional map. To help the community see, once again, that the church is there for them — and more importantly that the gospel is for them.

 Thomas Chalmers Source