The Situation in the Highlands
The church in the Highlands is like a company without a marketing strategy. We have a product, but when it comes to delivering this product to potential consumers, we invest little time and effort in thinking about how to reach them effectively. In fact, the non-strategy of most churches is a series of sporadic ‘evangelistic’ jabs including, typically, a welcome sign at the door, an occasional leaflet through the community, the odd event for kids or pensioners, and perhaps a carol service at Christmas. And we wonder why no one is interested.
Imagine if Apple followed the logic of the church. The company develops a brilliant new device only to hide it within company offices confident that – via word of mouth and a rare poster in the village hall – people will eventually queue at the doors, hungry to purchase the unknown device. Apple knows better. A good product is worth hearing about. Therefore, Apple invests time and energy to make sure all potential customers are aware of what a new product is and how to get it.
Yet, in truth, the problem in the Highlands is worse than the comparison with Apple suggests. Whereas Apple has a celebrated reputation among the general populace, the church does not. Attracting interest in the church is like trying to convince people to purchase a Blackberry, or to serve Sunny-D to their children. Most people have concluded that the church is, at best, out of date and, at worst, harmful to one’s health. This means that the road to re-evangelising the Highlands requires more strategic thinking, not less.
Individual Mission Is Good, but Insufficient
One of the exciting developments in the Highland church right now is that people are waking up to the idea of ‘frontlines mission’. An increasing number of Christians are realising that the line between secular life and spiritual life is a mirage and that every Christian is called to see his life, or her life, as a frontline of God’s great mission. This is good and long may it continue. However, as the church wakes up to this truth about a ‘frontline mentality’ the church must also realise that individual attempts at mission will never be sufficient to reach entire villages and neighbourhoods for Christ. There are many reasons for this. One is that no individual Christian is a spiritual James Bond with all of the gifts and gadgets needed to evangelise and disciple a non-believer, start to finish. If discipleship truly is a community project, a team of people is best equipped to reach and train new Christians and to integrate them into the body of Christ.
Thus complementing the usefulness of a frontline mentality is the need for small groups of Christians to pursue mission together. This is the best way to bring the ‘product’ of the gospel to our communities. There is one main reason for this: our product is the transforming power of Jesus. Too many churches in the Highlands have lost sight of this. For many churches, worship services are the product that Christians ought ‘to sell’. In these churches the aim of outreach is usually to bring friends to church in hope that they enjoy the experience and come back. This is a gross error in Christian thinking. The product of the gospel is not a worship service but the power of Jesus to save sinners and to create loving community among otherwise incompatible people. Our villages do not need to see more posters advertising services; they need more evidence of the powerful presence of God in the Highlands. How will they happen? It will occur as small groups of Christians share life, love one another, host block parties, clean up streets, and serve the needy and marginalised wherever they are overlooked.
Rediscovering the New Testament Model of Missional Community
What is required in order to pursue this form of mission in the Highlands? Fundamentally, a revolution in how we think of church. The church in the Highlands is trapped in a Victorian model of ministry. In the 1800s everyone in the Highlands was culturally a Christian. Therefore, the best way to reach the people was to build a big building, host regular services, and to evangelise through sermons preached to large gatherings. But times have changed. In the 21st century, unconverted people do not attend church. Therefore, pursuing the Great Commission in our historical moment requires a different strategy than that of our grandfathers. For us, sharing the gospel will require scattering the church into smaller pockets of community throughout our villages, neighbourhoods, and cities. This does not mean that the old model of church has to altogether be abandoned. Big gatherings are still useful for enabling celebratory worship on Sunday mornings. However, for mission, a new strategy is required. It’s hard to imagine a better one than the original plan implemented by the apostles – small house groups of Christians living out a radical life of missional holiness in the dark and seedy context of a pagan world. This method was effective for the early church. It’s time we try it again in the Highlands.