Identity and Purpose Renewed: The Church of Scotland and Worldwide Mission in the 21st Century

Article excerpt

Introduction

After two centuries of notable missionary endeavour in various parts of the world, it is not obvious at the beginning of the 21st century that mission overseas will continue to be prominent within the life of the Church of Scotland. The bleak outlook for the Church has recently been described by Callum Brown:

   In unprecedented numbers, the British people since the 1960s have
   stopped going to church, have allowed their church membership to
   lapse, have stopped marrying in church and have neglected to
   baptize their children. Meanwhile, their children, the two
   generations who grew to maturity in the last thirty years of the
   20th century, stopped going to Sunday school, stopped entering
   confirmation or communicant classes, and rarely, if ever, stepped
   inside a church to worship in their entire lives. The cycle of
   inter-generational renewal of Christian affiliation, a cycle which
   had for so many centuries tied the people however closely or
   loosely to the churches and to Christian moral benchmarks, was
   permanently disrupted in the "swinging sixties". Since then, a
   formerly religious people have entirely forsaken organized
   Christianity in a sudden plunge into a truly secular
   condition. (1)

Clearly, in such a social/religious context it is not going to be "business as usual" for overseas mission involvement. With the average church congregation uncertain of its own future, the confidence which in earlier years sent its progeny to distant parts of the world in the cause of Christ, is unlikely to be available in abundance.

Nor is it either possible or desirable simply to maintain traditional patterns of missionary service. For many of the traditional mission fields of the Church of Scotland, such as China or India, it would be neither appropriate nor possible to send long-term missionaries. As Andrew Walls has wryly observed: "The missionary no longer answers a lifetime call, and certainly does not get a visa for it. (2) Happily, indigenous movements have taken up the missionary mandate and fulfil it more effectively than could ever be possible for an outsider. Through "reverse mission", such fresh movements of faith begin to have an effect on what was once a "sending" country. The nature of the church-to-church relationships in the missionary task has to be rethought.

Another significant trend is that, in seeking to take account of the intellectual and social movement from "modernity" to "post-modernity", the church has placed a premium upon its local expression by emphasizing the congregation and district associations rather than national or international bodies. (3) At its best, this recovery of the primacy of the local congregation can include a revitalized global vision and praxis; at it worst, it represents a descent into an insular and parochial brand of Christianity that has no place for a commitment which extends to "the ends of the earth". Where there is a vision for the wider world it often finds expression in do-it-yourself, short-term, quick-result ventures rather than the longer-term, large-scale initiatives through which Scottish missions made their impact on the world in earlier years.

How should the mission board of a national church in western Europe respond to such a situation? In the case of the Church of Scotland, the Board of World Mission has had first to recognize that its own character has changed markedly. No longer is it a "church within the church", a close-knit fellowship of career missionaries bound together by the common commitment and common experience of life-long service with the Board. While there remain many who were formed by that ethos, the current reality is that most of those who serve under the Board do so for between four and ten years within a lifetime which includes a variety of forms of service. Board members, elected by the courts of the church, are unlikely to have extensive overseas experience. …