LOUISVILLE — Persistent membership losses. Struggles to keep young people in the church. Simmering controversies over homosexuality that threaten church unity. Restructure of the national offices.
Yes, it’s the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). But it’s also the Church of Scotland, two visiting officials of the PC(USA)’s “mother church” told the Presbyterian News Service during an Oct. 24 visit to the Presbyterian Center here.
“There are parallels all over the place,” said Angus Morrison, pastor of St. Columba Old Parish Church in Stornoway and convenor of the Church of Scotland Mission and Discipleship Council.
“We see so many common strands that we’re hoping we can spark each other,” agreed Douglas A. O. Nicol, who is secretary of the Mission and Discipleship Council.
Their visit is the result of conversations they had with Tom Taylor, PC(USA)’s deputy executive director for mission, when he was in Scotland last spring. At that time, Taylor was struck by the similarities between the two churches.
“We’re here for useful interactive work,” said Nicol. “Personal contact is essential. Until you know your colleagues, Web sites and resources have their limits.”
On their weeklong trip, the Scottish leaders visited the Billy Graham Training Center in Asheville, N.C.; the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association international headquarters and library in Charlotte; Greenville, S.C., where they attended the installation of Richard Gibbons, a Scot, as pastor of First Church; the town of Pendleton, S.C., which has a “twinning” relationship with Morrison’s town of Stornoway; and Princeton Theological Seminary, where President Iain Torrance, also a Scot, is a longtime colleague of the pair.
Like the PC(USA), the Church of Scotland is struggling to overcome years of membership losses. Both denominations are losing members at about the same clip. In both countries, Nicol believes, “a lot of that is that the society has changed from ‘membership’ to ‘loyalty.’ Membership in all organizations is in free-fall, not just the church.
“Many of our churches are reporting increased attendance and participation,” he said. “We just have to turn round the concept of ‘church’ to realize this.”
Morrison said the challenge of mission in the Church of Scotland “remains to go out and make disciples.” One of their council’s most exciting projects, they agreed, is “a faith-sharing project to help people with personal evangelism.”
“Our faith is communicated person-to-person,” Nicol said, “so we’re trying to help folk be confident enough in their faith to go out and share it.” The council has developed a book and a resource packet, including a CD, to help congregations equip their members for personal faith-sharing.
“It’s also important that they … share their doubts,” Nicol added. “We all have them, so faith-sharing that includes our doubts has integrity for people.”
Trying to retain young people in the church is another challenge both denominations face. “Our young people have a deep interest in spiritual matters, but it’s very challenging to be a young Christian in Scotland today,” conceded Morrison. “But there’s a growing ’emerging church’ movement in our denomination,” he added, “a fellowship that’s growing around emerging models for youth that won’t necessarily take traditional congregational forms.”
The Scottish church isn’t even taking younger children for granted.
The church recently sponsored its first “Children’s Assembly,” which drew 120 kids aged 10-12. “They gathered for worship and fun … we learned very much from them about how they feel about their place in the church,” Morrison said. “Their ideas were … sensible and creative. They simply desire to be fully included.”
Morrison added: “It’s so ironic — we try so much to make our children into adults, when, as Jesus said, we should be learning how to be more childlike in our faith.”
Another “hot” issue is interfaith relations, Nicol said. “We struggle with the whole question of dialogue versus conversion,” he said.
“The number of Muslims in Scotland is growing and so is their confidence. There’s also a huge influx of emigrants from Eastern Europe,” according to Nicol. The emigration is good for Scotland, both agreed, because population that had been declining is growing again and the age demographic in Scotland is trending younger. “We feel there is much promise for multi-faith cooperation and understanding,” Nicol said.
He also said he’s “quietly hopeful” that the bitter debates in the PC(USA) over homosexuality will not be replicated in the Church of Scotland. A study group working on the issue made its report to this year’s General Assembly. “They insisted that we need to seek unity in our diversity and the Assembly went with it,” he said. “The report was not a fudge, as some have suggested,” Morrison added. “It made absolutely clear the range of viewpoints that exist in our church, but stressed the need to talk together, not apart. Schism is the answer to nothing.”