On Sunday May 8th a national church census is taking place. Across Scotland as many churches as possible will be counting the number of people who are in church that day. St Andrew Blackadder will be taking part.
This will be the fourth such census. Previous ones were conducted in 1984, 1994 and 2002. You don’t need to have second sight to know what the headlines are going to be. Overall there will be significantly fewer people in church in 2016 than there were in 2002.
For about 1600 years the church enjoyed a secure position at the centre of western society. From the time of Constantine until the middle of the last century Christendom reigned. Christianity was the official religion of countries like Scotland. While not everyone believed, and certainly not everyone attended church, the church enjoyed a secure position.
Christendom has been waning for two generations and has now almost completely gone. In the last fifty years the church has increasingly been pushed to the margins. Sundays are more about sport and shopping than they are about worship. Weddings are as likely to be held in a hotel as they are in a church. And with all of this church attendance has plummeted.
For people, who were accustomed to the church being at the centre, this has been distressing. We wonder what has happened and fear that God has forgotten us. We scan history for signs that might help us understand. We hear about the impact of Billy Graham visit to Scotland in the 1950’s, the revival that occurred at the time of the Wesleys, and the reformation that transformed Scotland at the time of John Knox. We hear, and we pray that God might do something like this again.
The mistake we make is that we don’t go far enough back in history. Billy Graham, the Wesleys and Knox all lived within Christendom. The life of the church might have been at a low ebb, but the place of the church wasn’t under threat. When they spoke they were speaking to people who still assumed that the church had something important to say.
That’s not the case today. And there was another time in history when this was true – just after Jesus resurrection, the time when the church was born.
The book of Acts in the New Testament describes the birth and growth of the church. It began as a small ragtag group of followers of Jesus – just 120 of them. They were not just small in number, they were also nobodies. They had little education and status. They owned no buildings and had no organisation. Worse still their leader, Jesus, had just been executed by the authorities.
Incredibly, that group of 120 people has grown, now numbers 2 .2 billion people and there’s no sign of that growth stopping. It accounts for 31% of the world’s population and is by far the largest religion.
The first Christians lived in a world like ours - a world where most people had no real idea about Jesus and had no interest in finding out. They could never have imagined a world where the church had a secure position at the centre of national life. They were clinging onto the outer margins so they could bear witness to Jesus. And it was from these margins, as an insignificant minority, that the church mushroomed and changed the world.
Many people believe that the clues for the church today lie in those first days. Being a minority on the margins could be the very thing the church needs to regain its vitality. Maybe as we reflect on how the first Christians bore witness to Jesus and served their communities we will discover what God is calling the church to be like today.
So for the next three months we’re going to be looking at the first half of Acts on Sunday mornings. As we read the exciting story of the church taking root and growing we will be asking God to speak to us about how he wants us to bear witness and serve. We won’t expect to find a blueprint to copy but maybe there will be clues which will help us find our way.
To see other messages from Neil, click on the appropriate month in the table below.
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