By Andrew Giffen (Free Church of Scotland CEO)
Our vision as a denomination is of “A Healthy Gospel Church for Every Community in Scotland”.
Throughout this past year, David Meredith, Neil MacMillan, Sarah Robinson and I have been attending Healthy Church Gatherings hosted by each of our Presbyteries. We have been talking about the vision and the ways that the central denomination seeks to support the health of local congregations.
We started in Blackwood & Kirkmuirhill in March 2023 with the Glasgow & Argyll Presbytery gathering. Then it was North Uist, North Harris and Stornoway for gatherings in April, followed by the Inverness Lochaber & Ross Presbytery gathering in Smithton in May. There was a break for the summer, but September was busy with a gathering in Edinburgh on the 2nd, and then Portree on 26th, Kyle on 27th, Aultbea on 28th, and then the Northern Presbytery gathering in Dornoch on 30th September.
What a privilege it has been to meet all the different people we have met and the congregations we have visited. At each of the gatherings nearly every congregation in the Presbytery had at least one representative present. People often spoke in the feedback of enjoying the chance to gather with others from their region. Thank you to those who hosted us in their homes and buildings. I hope our visits have been as much of a blessing to the people we have met as they have been to us.
As we travelled around, it was good to hear of all the ministry and mission taking place, but it was also important to hear the challenges and struggles of congregations that have seen numbers decline following COVID or have been vacant for a long period. We have been in many lovely buildings but have also been in buildings that people are finding it hard to heat or maintain. It was good to be real with one another in our group conversations and sharing of ideas. It was good as well to be reminded that God is powerfully at work despite our weakness and that we have the treasure of the Gospel in what sometimes feels like jars of clay.
One of the memories that will stick with me is the joyful unaccompanied singing of Psalm 67 at the end of our gatherings. “God be merciful and bless us; shine upon us with your face, that the earth may know your actions and all lands your saving grace.” That is what we long and pray for as we pursue the vison for Healthy Gospel Churches.
There were two main sessions in our Presbytery gatherings. In the first session we explored what it means to be a healthy church. We have found that people in the Free Church are positive and enthusiastic about the vision, but they are sometimes unclear what a healthy church looks like, and what part they can play in growing spiritual health.
There are of course many different models or lists of characteristics that could be used, but in our discussion on what makes healthy Christians and healthy churches we looked at seven areas: Healthy preaching, healthy worship, healthy prayer, healthy mission, healthy discipleship, healthy relationships, and healthy leadership. Churches with Jesus Christ and the Gospel at the very centre will want to be growing in health in all these areas.
We talked about how we can prepare our hearts to listen and what makes good faithful preaching that helps us to understand what a passage says and how it applies to us today. We talked about corporate worship on a Sunday but also worship as the whole of our lives. We discussed the importance and place of prayer. We shared with one another ideas for mission and outreach through our congregations, and also how we can become more intentional in our own evangelism. We thought about discipleship when there is less biblical literacy, and a Christian worldview and theological understanding cannot be assumed. We recognised the importance and challenges of maintaining healthy relationships in the church so that we might indeed be known for our love for one another. And we talked together about what healthy servant leadership looks like and the benefit of good leadership and clear communication in congregations and the denomination so that God’s people are released for service in the church and in the world.
The first session had two excellent video clips. The first by Calum Iain Macleod telling the story of how the Healthy Church Vision has begun to impact the Ferintosh Congregation. The second by James Ross the minister of Buccleuch, talking about how they have benefited as a congregation from the Healthy Church vision.
Much of the material and discussion guides from the first session will be made available on our website in the coming months. The gatherings were a first step in what we hope will be continued conversations and discussions within local congregations and leadership teams. Even just asking “Which is the weakest of the seven areas in my life or the life of our congregation?” can be a good first step in growing health. Particularly when combined with prayer asking for God’s help in that area.
The second session focused on the health of our denomination and what the Presbyteries and Boards and central staff team are trying to do to support health in our congregations. David Meredith spoke about the normal lifecycle of church health and of the help that can be given with development. He also outlined the four-year Minister-in-Training model and mentioned some of the congregations throughout Scotland that new ministers have moved to, recognising that the provision of ministers is one of our biggest needs as a denomination.
Neil MacMillan shared progress on the 30×30 church planting goals, naming over 14 new congregations and reminding us why church planting is healthy and needed. He spoke though of the importance of partnering with others outside the denomination if we are to turn the tide on church closures in Scotland. He also talked passionately about mobilising every member of the Free Church for mission and healthy spiritual growth.
Sarah Robinson then shared some of the ways the communications team have been telling the stories of what God is doing among us, and pointed people to the website, social media accounts, the Record and the Healthy Gospel Church podcast. She also encouraged people to sign up for the weekly prayer points if they haven’t already.
The second session finished with a video by Thomas Davis, minister of the Carloway congregation, talking about the people and financial resources that are needed for the Healthy Gospel Church vision, and encouraging us all to pray and play our part.
If you missed the chance to attend a gathering, do seek out others who were there and find out what happened. More discussion resources will be made available in the year ahead but do please start, or continue, a conversation about healthy Christians, healthy congregations, and a healthy denomination. Choose again to be intentional about spiritual health in 2024, that together we might see “A Healthy Gospel Church for Every Community in Scotland”.