The situation is ‘urgent and critical’ for the Church of Scotland amid declining membership and financial difficulties
The Church of Scotland must “seriously invest in new ventures, pioneering ministry and church planting” if it is to rebound from declining membership and severe financial difficulties that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
That was the stern warning from the Convener, the Very Reverend Dr John Chalmers, at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland on Saturday.
“The situation we face is urgent and critical, and compels all of us to embark on the changes that are being asked of us in all aspects of the life of our Church,” he told the hybrid gathering that will take place. takes place both online and in-person in Edinburgh.
A report presented by Dr Chalmers to the General Assembly revealed a staggering 34% drop in church membership between 2011 and 2021.
According to the Assembly Trustees’ report, membership currently stands at 280,000 – a 4.6% drop from 2020 figures – “with no indication of a reversal in this trend from 2021 congregational data”.
“The statistics presented as part of our report don’t lie. In my lifetime, we’ve gone from a Church of 1.3 million members to less than 300,000,” Dr. Chalmers said.
“Our contact with children and our reach with Millennials and Gen Z are marginal.
“However, from the contacts we have, we know that although they agree with many of our goals, the current form of the church and the concept of membership itself means very little to them. These missing generations are our children and our children’s children.”
The church’s financial situation has also suffered, with income for the congregation down by 15% – £12.4 million – between 2019 and 2020.
“Congregational income did not keep up with inflation even during years when inflation was at very low levels,” the report said.
“Church members and supporters will now be affected by the rising cost of living, which will put pressure on their ability to sustain their giving at a time when church income must increase just to keep up with the pace of rising costs.”
The budgeted deficit for 2023 is £8.717m, but in his address to the General Assembly Dr Chalmers warned of ‘extraordinary financial pressures’ and predicted annual deficits of £7.5m sterling per year over the next five years.
“A church that has shrunk 30% in the last ten years and is painfully involved in reducing the number of buildings and ministries it needs, must recognize that proportionate cuts and savings must be made to all levels,” he said.
“However, no one should think of it as cutting to save as such. It’s cutting to grow.
“The task is and remains to rethink the architecture of the whole system in order to build a Church of Scotland that is relevant and fit for purpose.
“There is no other reason to pull all these levers of change at once and there is no other way to reform our lives than to take these long overdue steps which we pray , will lead to renewal.”
Despite pressure, the General Assembly pledged to create a new Seeds for Growth fund.
The fund was put on hold during the pandemic, but is now launched to invest £20-25m over the next seven years in new church plants and church growth projects.
Dr Chalmers said: “If Millennials and Gen Zers don’t embrace the Church as it is today, then what kind of Christian community will be accessible, relevant and real to them?
“We believe the answer lies in the models of church life that have yet to be fully explored and developed.”
The debate then turned to the financial strain the cost of living crisis is placing on parish ministers, with one saying he had already gone without heating in his parsonage last winter and that he was filled with “fear and anxiety” as he thought about the upcoming winter.
The General Assembly heard how concerns about the cost of living and the upkeep of ‘ill-equipped and expensive to run’ Victorian homes ‘exceeded their capacity to serve’ and even caused some to think seriously about the issue of whether they could continue as ministers.
Following the debate, commissioners voted 227 to 122 in favor of a new scheme to support parish ministers struggling to pay their energy bills at the parsonage.