Why is the Church of Scotland “Exodus” only large congregations?

1 in Chirst

A conversation yesterday about the “exodus” from the Church of Scotland got me thinking.   There’s a strong pattern of Exodus emerging across Scotland:

In Edinburgh:
St Catherine’s Argyle – no figures on attendance, but 700 affiliated folks, and a reported income of £200,000.
Holyrood Abbey – reported as a 200-strong congregation, reported givings to central funds of £215,000.
New Restalrig – a group of about 100 left to form a new congregation, previous givings to central funds = £115,000.

In Glasgow:
The Tron – the figure of 500 worshippers has been banded about, reported to be remitting £300,000 prior to the Exodus.

In Aberdeen:
Gilcomston South – a congregation of 350.
Hilton High – a congregation of 500.

In Dundee
Logie & St. Johns – no small congregation
Broughty Ferry – a growing congregation of 120+

In Falkirk-ish:
Larbert Old – no reported numbers, but giving £110,000 to central funds, so probably about the 100-120 mark too.

In South Lanarkshire:
Kirkmuirhill – a congregation of 130 or so.

In Stornoway:
Stornoway High Church – a congregation of 250.

These 11 congregations have a lot in common: all have left the Kirk over the same issue; all are Evangelical and on the more Reformed end of the theological spectrum; all have excellent and stable leadership.   They are (mostly) urban.   Few, if any, have been able to keep buildings.   But there’s a final factor: all are in excess of 100 people; meaning all are comfortably financially self-supporting.  Some have joined other denominations, some are going it alone – but in every case, they are doing it together.   Their fellowship’s self-identity has been preserved.

A few other congregations have emerged from the Exodus too: Grace Community Church, Kyle; and Highland International Church, Inverness.   I understand these congregations have grown from people exiting more than one congregation – people banding together, from similar backgrounds, to form viable fellowships, and support a shared vision for effective ministry.

Certainly families, ones or twos, have made their own personal exodus elsewhere – but in terms of organised groups making an exit, it’s only these congregations able to support a paid full time ministry, as well as rent space, etc.   

Across Scotland, especially outside our urban areas, there are smaller, less financially secure congregations, who share the Evangelical, Reformed character of those larger Exodites.      For them, leaving the Kirk means a completely uncertain future.  The options are stay and put up with the compromise; start a new fellowship, but probably be small, and unlikely to have a paid, full time ministry; or join another fellowship en mass.

As far as I can tell, this third option only happened with one whole congregation (Kilmuir, Skye).   Doing so implies a fellowship who have a long-standing shared identity have simply lost that, subsumed into another body, their history and contributions forgotten to human history.   Pastorally, I’m coming to understand the psychological strain that presents – and I realise how easy it is for people not facing that choice to be harsh in their judgement.  

It looks to me as if Reformed Evangelicals do want out of the Kirk, but are only able to do it in any meaningful way if their congregation is able to preserve a shared identity.

Which brings us back to the irksome issue of Christian Unity.   How do we express the truth that we are all one in Christ Jesus?   One hard truth is that in the Free Church we already struggle with this when we link two dwindling congregations under one ministry.   People don’t always pull together – and that’s when we come from the same background!

I’m growing more persuaded that Christian Unity in these circumstances isn’t about organisational change, leadership strategy, or the best laid plans o’ mice an’ men; but about gracious attitudes to fellowship in local settings.   Table fellowship.   Or, as I’d prefer we call it: dinner.

Outside your immediate congregation, what local Christians have you shared a meal with recently?

Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.

In the last few days, I have been unable to find the words to respond to the news spewing from Iraq.   Jonah maybe has it.

It is not the first time in history that Nineveh has been the scene of atrocity and scandal.   The prophet Jonah, his tomb said to have been destroyed just days ago, was sent to that great city.   The word of the LORD came to him, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”

God’s sight was absolute: their deeds have come up before me.
God’s verdict was just: their deeds are evil.
God’s call to righteous Jonah was terrifying: Arise, go, call out against it.

Some find it comforting, in a world plunged into the darkness of sin and murder, to know there is a God who sees, who judges, and who will, on the great day, call out finally against the wicked.

So terrible was this knowledge, however, that Jonah rose and fled from the presence of the Lord.   Instead of heading north and east, he headed to the coast, to sail away into the West – abandoning his mission.   Some suggest he feared the people of Nineveh would repent, be spared, and still crush his homeland in Israel.   I think he just feared.

It is a fearful, terrible, thing to fall into the hands of the living God.   (Hebrews 10:31)

The reality of God’s judgement is the most terrible message to bear, and ministers of the word can never carry it flippantly, and without tears.

“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”

But tonight, I find myself preparing to preach from Psalm 36.   These words have echoed in my ears all week, as we learned them at our Holiday Club:

Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mountains of God;
your judgments are like the great deep;
man and beast you save, O LORD.

They are words strangely like the end of Jonah’s story.   He had gone to that great city.   He had called out against it.   And they repented!   Judgement didn’t fall from the skies, like angels bearing death on fire-tipped wings.   Jonah was deeply unhappy.   But in this disappointment, God spoke to Jonah a second time:

“Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

The pivotal verse of Jonah is at the end of chapter two.   Jonah, repentant, in the belly of a huge fish, had remembered, “Salvation belongs to the LORD!”   Salvation for failed preachers like Jonah.   Salvation for the brutal, murderous people of Nineveh.

“Salvation belongs to the LORD!”

I can’t humanly reconcile the crying demands of judgement, with these incredible words.   I certainly don’t know if justice and mercy can meet in Nineveh at this time.   If my heart were laid open, I don’t even know if I want it to… so little do I grasp the words of Hebrews 10.

But I know somewhere God did bring justice and mercy together.   At the cross, the guilt, the shame, of all the great evil was fully and finally punished in Jesus, in a cry to utter anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”   The last drop of sin-earned wrath was poured out.   And salvation flowed like rivers.

I don’t know about Nineveh tonight.   I desperately hope someone will arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before God.   Will death fall on fire-tipped wings, bringing ruin to these men?

But I do know about my God.   Salvation belongs to him.   And I long to sing Psalm 36 – of the vast, incredible love of God.