Does Skye Need “another” Church?: Thinking about Mission and the Future of Highland Churches

“The last thing Skye needs is another church.” If I had a quid for every time I’ve heard this statement I’d . . .okay, maybe not be rich, but I’d probably have enough money for lunch at the Aros. “Skye is the last place we’d think of planting a church,” said the representative of a fledgling church-planting movement.   It’s a popular sentiment, and I’ve heard it numerous times over the five years that I’ve lived on Skye. I remember once bumping into the elderly rector of the local Anglican Church one day, “Have you heard that they are building another church in Portree – just what we need another church!” Upon further questioning, I got to the truth – there wasn’t another church coming into Portree – it’s just that one of the existing churches were looking to build a permanent church building rather than continuing to rent a local facility as their centre for worship.

But is the sentiment justified? Is it true that Skye, and even Portree, does not need another church?

First let me say that this is a really important question. Further it relates to a question that I have been asking myself for the last few years – what will church in the Highlands look like in the next 10 or 20 years? What will church on Skye look like in the next 10 or 20 years?

To answer our question, let’s look at the population figures. It is estimated that Skye has approximately 10,000 people and Portree houses around 2,491 of the overall population. Within Portree there are eight protestant churches (not including Roman Catholic Churches and the Quakers). Five of these churches are Presbyterian, one Episcopalian, one Pentecostal and one ‘contemporary’ (as in Hillsongs/Abundant Life Bradford style). Now let’s say each of those eight churches receives regularly 100 members or adherents (a generous estimation) that would mean that 800 people in Portree are connected to a historically protestant church. It would also mean that almost 1700 people are not connected to a church that is historically protestant. In theory this means (presuming that all of these churches are preaching the gospel)  — more generosity — less than half the island have been reached with the gospel.

The reality is, most of these churches have less than 100 people attending. In fact, some of them do not have more than fifty, and some are probably lucky if they get more than 20.

So, whilst Portree may have “a lot of churches” the reality is that a good number of these churches are very thin on the ground (and this is true for many other churches outwith Portree. My estimation, based on personal observations, is that there are probably less than 500 regular attending adults across the eight churches in Portree. So in reality this means there are about 2000 people in Portree who are not involved in a gospel preaching church.

So, with 2000 unreached people can we really say that Portree does not need another church? What about the other 8000 scattered throughout the island where many of the churches are even more fragmented and attendance is even lower – can we really say that Skye does not need another church? On the contrary – Skye needs more churches. Skye, like many other areas in the Highlands needs churches to be planted. And here are several reasons why I think this is the case.

  1. People remain unreached.

I’ve already covered this one in what I’ve written above, but it is the most important reason. There may be several churches scattered here and there but by and large the majority of the population do not go to church.

  1. The Culture has changed . . . but the churches have not.

Many people who do still go to church are elderly. Consequently they have witnessed dramatic changes to their communities and churches over the last few decades. They have seen their Island go from a church-going community to a non-church going community. However – whilst there are still faithful members and adherents – these members and adherents are still attending a church which is set up for a church-going community. This means most “parishes” have a church building, a minister and a manse – well, they don’t –and this is the problem. Denominations are struggling to keep these things going. And where they can’t, they end up linking with a stronger parish – so people need to travel to the nearest building, minister and manse.

So, the parish system begins to crumble, and we find ourselves in a situation where large parish churches are also functioning as gathered churches. That is, they are no longer just a local church (they are still that) but they are also the central hub that takes in members and adherents from further afield.

What’s the problem? Well, 1) We are observing the disintegration of local churches and 2) There is no local mission. Whether a local people are trying to keep the local church afloat, or whether people abandon ship and head to healthier church down the road, the impact is the same, the church continues to maintain the church-going model. This model of church which seeks to gather and attract may survive as long as there are enough members and adherents to pay for the essentials (ministers, manse, upkeep of building) but is not effective in terms of mission. And this is why we need new church plants.

  1. Church Plants- by their very nature are missional

Church plants, by and large, can’t afford the luxury of being complacent. They are born to grow. They are birthed out of vision. Established churches, by and large, are in maintenance mode, church-plants are in mission mode.

Further, church plants are adaptable. They have no baggage. They have no “we’ve always done it this way” – they are pioneers. They are ground-breakers.

How can it happen?

Church planting can either happen through the existing denominations and churches – or it will happen through new churches coming into the area. In order for the former to happen, there needs to be a major paradigm shift within the local churches. Churches need help to rediscover – or perhaps even discover what it means to be church. To use a modern cliché – we need to see that “Christians don’t go to church, they are the church.” Every Christian should see himself or herself as a missionary, and every local church should see itself as a missionary training centre.

In the Highlands, folk turn up for church, listen to a sermon and at the end of the benediction run straight out the door – smile and shake the minister’s hand – and that’s them for another week. This is not church.

This is church . . .

42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe[d] came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

But how do we do that? Well – in addition to redirecting handfuls of Christians from areas where the church is on its last legs, it is important to set up small groups. Call them house-groups, cell-groups, life-groups – whatever – as long as Christians are meeting in homes, cafes, community-centres., or even old church buildings – the important thing is that local Christians meet together to discover what it is to be church.

These Christians can meet together, laugh together, pray together and think about how to reach their neighbors together. This approach costs less, but it costs more. It is not as resource heavy – it lifts the burden of trying to maintain a minister, a manse and a building. But it is costly in terms of personal investment. People will need to learn how to be open and vulnerable – not easy for reserved people in a rural context, who above all desire to guard their privacy zealously.

I’m no prophet, but I reckon this is where Christianity in the Highlands will go in the future. Sadly, I do think that rather than change and adapt, many lamp stands will be removed. Some churches will rather die than change. And they will.

Where the Presbyterian churches fail to pick up the mantle and mission – new churches that have already come in to the area will pick it up and run with it. Others will move to the area and as the old churches die out, new churches will take their place.

So the future of church in the Highlands will probably include several strong churches in the economic centres that draw in not only local people but people from further afield. However, the ones which will be “successful” missionally, will be the churches that empower Christians to be the church in their local areas, consequently there needs to be a commitment to local small-groups and local evangelism.

So, contrary to popular opinion, I would argue that Skye not only needs more churches but it needs a new approach to church. It needs small bands of missional communities in every town, village and glen who gather with one heart and one purpose – to glorify God and reach the lost.