Pioneer Ministry and the ‘Crisis of Christianity’ in Scotland

Pioneer Ministry and the ‘Crisis of Christianity’ in Scotland

On Easter Sunday,  the Sunday Herald led with this front page headline:

Why Christianity is in crisis in Scotland.

This was based on the findings of the 2016 Scottish Church Census, which was leaked to the Herald before the due date for publication of 24th April. The paper highlighted the grim reality that the drop in numbers attending church since 2002 amounts to “losing the equivalent of 10 church congregations a month”.

However it also quotes other statistics and voices. The first points out that the Scottish census “still shows a majority of people who would call themselves Christian”. This indicates that our Scottish people continue to maintain a Christian paradigm of sorts and are ripe for new forms of ministry in which (to paraphrase a quote in the Herald from the Bishop of Paisley, John Keenan) we do not ask them to “come to us” but in which we “go out to them”. This continuing adherence to the Christian narrative is, like the grin of the Cheshire cat, fading fast and challenges us to urgent action. So what does this have to do with pioneer ministry?

Pioneers – as in the American West – are those who cross frontiers. I have suggested in previous blogs that today they are also those who cross boundaries (just as God did himself in Jesus Christ), whether such boundaries are scientific, social/cultural, gender-related, or technological. Pioneers also lead the way: where they pioneer, many others usually follow.

Christian pioneer ministries are called to cross boundaries. In response to the disciples’ circumscribed question about the restoration of Israel, Jesus answered (was it a rebuke?) that they were to lift their vision beyond a limited and limiting national identity, and that they were to cross geographical, socio-cultural and historical boundaries in order to be witnesses to Him (Acts 1:6-8). In the following chapters of Acts, they did so, often at a cost to their own lives, as in the cases of James and Stephen.

Since the Pioneer Ministry course began at SSCM only a year ago, I have been surprisingly encouraged by the number of imaginative pioneering missional initiatives now being pursued around our country. These include chaplaincy in shopping malls, airports, high streets and football clubs; food banks from church premises, often accompanied by advocacy and support for the marginalised; coffee shops with a distinctly Christian ethos of care and good service, as well as good coffee; Street Pastors for the most vulnerable on our night-time streets; support for refugees which comes with clear Christian message; and the growing number of Alpha courses now being run in the most unusual places from hotels to prisons. To this list we need to add new initiatives now underway to plant missional communities in our larger urban schemes as well as in smaller towns and more rural parts around Scotland. In my estimation, this is an urgent and essential development. I shall say more about the essentialness of community as mission in my next blog.

Whatever boundaries we are called to cross, we need to move out of our comfort zones of tradition and cultural norms: the ‘way we have always done things’. As a pastor and church-grower I am very aware that change is never easy because it threatens our security and identity. However, with Dr Jim Purves of the Baptist Union (also quoted in the Herald article above), I suggest that our identity and mission is “in the good news that Jesus Christ is alive and that He brings God’s light and life into people’s lives”.

The Certificate of Theology in Higher Education (Pioneer Ministry) now offered through SSCM is a Manchester University-validated course that is designed to equip people for Christian pioneering ministry, both theologically and practically. Our goal – written into our structures of assessment – is to come alongside local churches and Christian organisations to enhance their strategic missional development. The time for pioneering ministries is NOW: Scotland needs it.

Dr Alistair Macindoe
Tutor in Pioneer Ministry