On a cool April evening in Edinburgh, Scotland, I stood with a group of onlookers waiting patiently for a glimpse of Prince Charles, who was in the historic city attending a government function at St. Giles Cathedral. While doing my best to keep warm as the temperatures steadily edged downward, I struck up a conversation with a genial, gentle-looking local, who appeared to be in his early forties. There had recently been elections in Scotland and he told me he worked in Edinburgh, for the Scottish electoral commission.
Seeing as we were standing outside a cathedral, it wasn’t surprising that our conversation switched quickly to religious themes. I mentioned the plummeting membership numbers in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and asked him what he thought the reason was[1.In the second half of the twentieth century, church attendance in the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland dropped by well over 50 percent. Between 2010 and 2013 alone, membership dropped by 7.5 percent.].
Religion has played an enormous role in Scotland’s history. Protestants battled against the teachings and authority of the Roman Catholic Church, and the church fought back with a vengeance. Martyrs perished within view of where I was standing. The great reformer, John Knox, born and raised just 40 miles east of Edinburgh—denounced the Queen of Scotland, railed against the unbiblical teachings of the Catholic Church and literally pounded the pulpit just meters away from where I was standing. Knox identified the Roman Catholic papacy as the antichrist of Bible prophecy and advocated that the Bible be the sole rule of faith and practice for Christian believers. Yet today only 50 percent of Scots even identify as Christian. Scotland is now a profoundly secular country.
I asked this stranger why he thought that was. His answer was straight forward.
“The church has stopped being the church.”
I asked him to elaborate.
“In the past, the church upheld the Bible,” he explained. “The church was unapologetic that the Bible was the Word of God and that people were to be guided by its teachings.”
“But now?” I asked him.
He pushed his glasses back up to the bridge of his nose before answering.
“Today, the church is more concerned with social matters. What the Bible says and how the Word of God applies to our lives and how people ought to live… It’s just not what the church majors in now.”
And what he said next really struck me.
“In trying to reach secular people, the church has itself become more secular.”
“But shouldn’t the church be trying to reach the lost?” I countered. “Shouldn’t methods change when society has changed so much?”
“Yes, of course,” he shot back. “No question. But the church no longer has a distinct, biblical voice. In trying to reach the world it has become like the world. It no longer stands for anything. The church has stopped being the church.”
“The church has stopped being the church…”
As we talked it became apparent he was much less interested in seeing Prince Charles than was I. It turned out he was a Christian who attended a church not far from where we were standing. He described it as a church with a biblical focus, not extraordinarily well attended, but passionate about the Bible and fervent in faith in God.
We discussed methodology, and recognized together the challenge of reaching the varied minds of our complex, secular world. This man—whose name I never learned—acknowledged that the church needs to stay relevant in a changing world, but made what I thought was another important point.
“There’s nothing more relevant than the Word of God,” he said. “And when the church deviates from that, and waters down the Bible’s teachings, and abandons the Bible’s plainest statements because it wants to appeal more to the world… Well, look at what has happened in Scotland.”
I made notes about our conversation as soon as he moved along. I didn’t want to forget what he had said to me. I reflected on what he told me, and I had to conclude that he was right. In Scotland, and in many other places, the church has stopped being the church. And when it does that, it consigns itself to irrelevance and impotence.
It’s true that when it comes to sharing the gospel, Scotland is a difficult territory—like the rest of Britain and the rest of Europe. And the rest of the modern world. And… But winning souls isn’t easy work and never has been. It wasn’t easy in the times of the early church, and with the devil at the top of his game, it shouldn’t be expected that it would be today. Yet it ought to be remembered that God hasn’t called the church to numerical success. He has called the church to faithfulness, and He has promised that as His people are faithful, “this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world, for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come” (Matthew 24:14).
E.M. Bounds wrote years ago, “The church is looking for better methods. God is looking for better men.” And while today we’d express that sentiment in slightly different language, Bounds’ words hold true. We live in a world where people are distracted by so many things, many of them good. In much of our world, the Bible isn’t the go-to place for guidance about life. Jesus’ words aren’t the default standard for society. We’re in a serious battle with a skilled enemy for the souls of Earth’s inhabitants.
But if we’re going to see God’s work done, the church cannot stop being the church. The Bible is still the answer to the challenges facing our world. It is as relevant now as it has ever been. The teachings of Jesus still provide the only logical understanding of where we come from, why we are here, and where we are going. There is still power in the Word of God. If the church compromises that, “Well, look at what has happened in Scotland.”
The police controlling the crowd were extremely good-natured and bantered with the locals and tourists who were gathered. Prince Charles soon emerged from an imposing stone building and climbed into a waiting limousine. As the car drove away, Prince Charles looked at me and waved! I’ll remember that.
But what I’ll remember most is the words of the amiable stranger who stood with me in the crowd and said some of the most important words a minister of the gospel might ever reflect on.
“The church has stopped being the church.”