Moderator calls for Church to redefine membership in digital age

Rt Rev John Chalmers has challenged the Church to create 100,000 new members through harnessing the power of the digital age

The Moderator of the General Assembly has challenged Scotland's national church to evolve for the digital age and find 100,000 new members by 2025.

In a radical New Year's message to be published in Life and Work, Rt Rev John Chalmers has called for the Church of Scotland to redefine membership in a way which reflects a growing online Christian audience.

He said: "I am fed up with the Church of Scotland publishing annual statistics which highlight a decline in membership when the truth about the number of people who belong to our faith communities is, in reality, quite different. I want, therefore, to open the New Year with a very serious challenge for the Church of Scotland.

"You've probably heard that the Ministries Council is embarking on a Decade for Ministry in order address the need to recruit people to the ministries of the Church of Scotland. This is an urgent need and I pray that their efforts will be successful; but is this the real priority for the Church?

"Instead, I wonder if we should not be embarking of a Decade of Membership. In fact I wonder if we might not set ourselves a target of achieving 100,000 new members in the next 10 years. That kind of Church renewal would bring with it all the new ministers that the Church of Scotland would ever need and, of course, we would have to make membership recruitment an ongoing priority. The Church has constantly to renew itself.

"Here, however, is the real challenge – it is to redefine membership in a way that allows us to include women and men, young and old who do not fit the post-second world war model of membership with which we are so familiar.

"That pattern does not resonate with the vast majority of those who are 50 and younger and who will never buy into the kind of Church which sits so comfortably with me and my way of expressing my Christian faith.

"It might pain me to say it, but it's time for a radical change and I don't mean a change of hymns, or a visually aided sermon or a new time of day for traditional forms of worship – I mean something much more far reaching than that.

"In the post war years of the 50's and 60's Church membership grew to its peak, but so too did the membership of many other institutions and organisations. I remember when TUC-affiliated unions had over 12 million members – it's half that now. I remember when golf clubs had waiting lists and entry fees – not any more. Our life in community has changed beyond our wildest imagining, but the way in which we define belonging to the Christian community has not changed at all.

"I can be a golfer without belonging to a traditional golf club and I can be a member of a community, Facebook and LinkedIn to name but two, without leaving the comfort of my own home. What comes next for the Church is fraught with difficulties and it will be scoffed at by some, but we cannot dodge the column and avoid a serious discussion about what we mean by "being a member" and about how we add to our membership people who do not connect with what is our existing, traditional pattern of Church.

"I'm looking for a way of including the many hundreds of people who are fully engaged in the practical and project work that our churches are doing throughout Scotland, but whose belonging to the faith community is not necessarily complemented by regular attendance at Sunday worship.

"Of course, I know that we enter the community of faith through baptism, that our confirmation comes through confession of faith within the Christian community and our discipleship is sustained by our communion with one another, but these need to be ordered and shaped around our changing patterns of life. I am not saying that these elements of Christian faith can be fully enjoyed in a virtual context, but our ability to journey in the faith, be fed by the Word, inspired to live as disciples of Christ and actually belong to Church of Scotland; needs to be made possible using the computers, tablets and telephones that are now a near extension of ourselves.

"There is much church already available in cyber space, so I'm not proposing something that is a further extension of that unregulated space; instead I'm proposing a conversation about how these ubiquitous tools can be used to foster the inclusion of those who, while they may well be converted to the Christian faith may never be converted to use its sacred spaces and dedicated places in the same way as I do.

"I want us to explore how people might be able to belong to the Church of Scotland rooted in reality, which can interact with them in the context of an online community, but also be there for them when they need real human contact.

"100,000 new members in the next 10 years – don't tell me it can't be done, instead let's find a way of doing it."

One example of digital innovation within the Church is Sanctuary First, an online resource which includes daily meditations and access to prayers and hymns, all available through an app for mobile devices.

The Very Rev Albert Bogle – who was Moderator of the General Assembly 2012/13 – helped set up the company which produced this modern outlet.

He said: ""We are already establishing a network of worshippers from all around the world who are being nurtured as Christians on a daily basis, through prayer, bible reading, and video podcasts. Many of our users do not attend traditional Sunday Church services.

"I believe we can do a great deal more to develop and understand the significance of engaging the internet as a tool to enhance parish ministry. I would like to think that Sanctuary First is helping to contribute towards a strategy to rekindle faith for many who have felt disconnected from the Church here in Scotland and worldwide."