Change is Death

This month, we’re sharing reflections from a group of pastors from the US and the Church of Scotland who recently met to talk about being the faithful church in a culture that is becoming more diverse and more secularized. We invite you to offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here. If you like what you read, subscribe to our blog (enter your email on the right sidebar) and receive an email when there is a new blog article. This reflection is reposted with permission from Robert’s own blog, Lighthouse/Searchlight Church


By Robert Austell

For three days in lovely Kirkcaldy, Scotland, 12 PCUSA pastors and 12 Church of Scotland pastors met with authors and practical theologians, Diana Butler Bass and Douglas Gay, to talk, think, and share about changes in church and culture. Three days is a lot of content, especially with two theologians and 24 pastors, but here is my biggest takeaway…

Change is Death

We talked about whether what we are seeing in Scotland and U.S. culture is “secularization” or “transformation,” but I think we agreed it was change. We talked about the process of groups undergoing change and I recognized much of the stages of grief, not unlike what one might experience as one approaches death, not least of which is the realization that “this is the end of _____ as we’ve known it” (or more short-sighted, just “this is the end of ____.”)

St. Andrew's Cathedral

The ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral, one of the key sites where John Knox preached to incite the Protestant Reformation in Scotland. Thanks to a friend for sharing this unique photo vantage point with me – it is taken from the 3rd floor men’s room of the St. Andrews Ph.D. building overlooking the cathedral ruins.

We also talked about what was on the other side of institutional/structural death, including whether to call that “new life, revival, awakening, or transformation.” And we recognized that, like it or not, we and our churches and our neighbors and communities are facing the change.

We talked about institutional failure and innovation out of community; we talked about letting go, carrying (some things) with, and letting come… all parts of the journey, not TO death, but THROUGH death. We also touched on the extreme resistance to that reality of death (of something).

Today I’d like to highlight one observation I had in response to this thought-provoking content. Tomorrow I will share three examples from life in the Presbyterian Church (USA) that illustrate three different approaches to the reality that change is death.


Even as we think in the mist of crisis about institutions failing, new visions being envisioned and lived out in fresh expressions of community, and a transformation on the other side of the change-which-is-death, I believe there are underlying questions we must ask ourselves. And perhaps these are the “bits of tradition we carry with us” that Diana Butler Bass mentioned, though I don’t think “bits of tradition” quite gets at the root importance of these questions. 

As those created, loved, redeemed, called, and sent by God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit…

  1. Who are we?
  2. Why are we here?
  3. What are we doing and why?
  4. To whom is our allegiance?

I am drawn to questions like those because institutions are just place-holders, structures that have for a time sustained us in asking and answering questions like those.

New visions, if they are anything more than clever human novelties, are fresh understandings of old, old questions.

And communal innovation and transformation (whether of church or culture) is new life at work answering those kinds of questions, eventually in search of new place-holders and structures to sustain the asking, answering, and living out of questions like those.

Or so it seems to me. Our stimulating discussion of the transformation process and even historic realities like the Great Awakenings leaned toward the WHAT, WHEN and the HOW… good points, important points. But we must also take notice of the WHY (and the One the biblical witness recognizes as the WHO behind the WHY).

Said another way

Of course change is death. Everything we make and touch is dying, encased in the only structures and shells we humans know to construct to house what is from God. But we should also not be surprised to find God at work, bringing life from death and hope from ashes. That’s the good and hopeful Word to which we cling in faith.

Robert Austell is the pastor of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. He blogs regularly at Lighthouse/Searchlight Church.

Dinnaefaschyersel? (Part I)

This month, we’re sharing reflections from a group of pastors from the US and the Church of Scotland who recently met to talk about being the faithful church in a culture that is becoming more diverse and more secularized. We invite you to offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here. If you like what you read, subscribe to our blog (enter your email on the right sidebar) and receive an email when there is a new blog article. 

By Lori Raible

Scotland’s national identity is so deeply rooted in the history of the Reformation, that it is nearly impossible to untangle the two. Except for the fact, most folks in Scotland already have.

Within ONE generation, a profound emptying of the pews has crippled the Church of Scotland’s ability to maintain its cultural, societal, and spiritual significance. With 37% of her citizens claiming no religion at all, church membership has declined from 1.3 million in 1957 to just 400,000 today. Not to mention, claiming membership doesn’t always equate to going to church. Attendance numbers in Scotland are said to be around 3%.

Secularization. Decline. Mass Exodus. Call it what you will, but it’s a grim diagnosis. As townspeople bustle passed the bowing stone kirks with their stretched steeples, folks wonder ‘if the future has a church at all?[1]

The truth is this: The Church of Scotland as they had known it, is done.

And another truth: Our US churches face the same diagnosis.

The Holy-rollers, Evangelicals, Catholics, Mainliners, the Mega-Jesus-and-me churches… all of them. In the U.S. 20% claim no religious affiliation.[2] The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has lost 20% of its members over the past decade, and 100,000 last year alone.

Some will say,                     ‘No kidding, I’m exhausted from the dying.’

Others will say,                  ‘Not us, we have an endowment.’

A few will say,                     ‘Not my church, I’m like Jesus. I’ll fix it!’

And a few more,                 ‘Yep, stinks for you, I’ll be retired by then.’

Many will shove our fingers in our ears and shout, ‘LALALALALA’… lest we hear the truth. Many more out of fear, will polarize and politicize the Church … lest we face the messy work of transformation.

Oh wait, we are already doing that.

The Church just ISN’T going to look the way it has in the past.


So, twelve US pastors hopped the pond, and gathered with twelve pastors from the Church of Scotland to face the truth together, with an ounce of hope, and a pound of honesty.

The Scots are authentic, unpretentious, hardworking, and tenacious. All this, softened with the warmth of radical hospitality and good old-fashioned humor. The first Sunday of our visit, I teetered within the tall wooden pulpit of The Wellesley Church of Methil Parish, where Rev. Gillian Paterson, assured me they could handle the thick twang of my southern accent.

‘Dinnaefaschyersel,’ she said.

‘I’m sorry, WHAT?’


‘And also with You?’ I asked.

“Dinnaefaschyersel, Don’t get yourself all worked up, it will be okay,’ Gillian assured me with a laugh. Friend for life.

Low on jobs, the social issues impacting the good people of Methil take their toll, but they are the real deal. Tired of dwelling on a long-term diagnosis, Wellesley Church is humble and bold enough to step into the future with God’s purpose at heart.

As the product of two congregations who were forced to yoke, Wellesley has something new growing from the fertile ground of what used to be.[3] With hospitality that can only come from a well-seasoned bunch, gaggles of children from the community are showing up on Wednesday evenings, and young families are peeking into worship on Sundays. With bold leadership, intentional planning, and faith, they hope to build a functional community space to support their rebirth.

Besides meetings, programming, teaching, and preaching, Gillian is trusted to provide extensive pastoral care to a community with the complex needs that accompany a very depressed economy. Within her parish (the physical geography surrounding her church), she officiated 73 funerals, countless weddings, and served as a chaplain within the public schools last year alone.

Yes, she is tired.

No, she is not weary.


But, Dinnaefaschyersel?


Rooted by the sanctity of worship and fellowship within communities we visited, our group began navigating the trajectory of western religion with American writer and theologian, Diana Butler Bass, and Rev. Doug Gay from The University of Glasgow.

By mid-week, The Scots shared several other peculiar words. Ignoring a theme that seemed to develop, I kept a list:

Dither:                   Acting confused or unsure.

Bizzim:                   A cheeky girl.

Bletherer:               A chatty person

Hadyerwiish:        Hush it.

I simply could not contain my enthusiasm for our new Scottish friends, the camaraderie of my American colleagues, and of course the important conversation we had been invited into on behalf of The Church.

However, on the second day, Diana Butler Bass, shared a couple of compelling and haunting slides. Numbers projecting our demise. Graphs mapping the polarization of religion. Charts proving just how stupid we can be when we take a good thing for granted, and refuse to budge.



Then there was a photo of a goat.

…with sharp arrows hanging all over it.

No more blethering. We just stared quietly.


It was one thing to visit the realities of Gillian’s Parrish. I could even conceptualize the impact this ‘decline’ has had on our American Christianity at large. But no way was I ready to acknowledge the implications these cultural shifts were having within the intimacy of my own ministry.

How American of me.

I cried.


I cried because I love our denomination for all it does well. Presbyterianism is grounded in the Gospel as expressed by Word and Sacrament. The integrity of our creeds comes to life through creativity expressed in community and mission. The roots are deep.

I cried for Wellesley church, because now in I love them, and I want them to flourish in a new life they had not imagined.

I cried for the members of my church in Charlotte who know little of these worries.

I cried for my colleagues in ministry who are brave enough to help congregations die well.

I cried because instead of paying attention to what is happening to all of us, we are busy fighting, dividing, ignoring, and clenching to whatever we can with hierarchy and antiquated models of power and exclusivity.

I cried because I have children who love the Church, and know of God’s love through their baptisms of belonging.

I cried because what we practice as pastors is often sacred beyond a chart or statistic. Who am I really… without the Church?




[1] Rev. Doug Gay. Book info.

[2] Pew Research Center., October 9, 2012.

[3] Butler Bass, Diana. In conversation re: letting go and letting come.



Lori Archer Raible is an associate pastor at Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. A graduate from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, Lori is passionate about connecting people to one another through faith and community. Married to Rob, they have two children Joe (8) and Maeve (7). Currently her vocational work includes work with the NEXT community and the TRENT National Conference, which is being created in support of pastors in their first 7 years of ministry. Most of her free time is spent running both literally as a spiritual discipline and metaphorically to and from carpool lines. Deep within her is a writer vying for those precious minutes. 

Growth on the Edges

This month, we’re sharing reflections from a group of pastors from the US and the Church of Scotland who recently met to talk about being the faithful church in a culture that is becoming more diverse and more secularized. We invite you to offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here. If you like what you read, subscribe to our blog (enter your email on the right sidebar) and receive an email when there is a new blog article. 

By Eileen Miller, Church of Scotland

This year, for the first time ever, the apple tree in the corner of our garden produced apples! As someone who does not have ‘green fingers’ and is a bit of a novice in all things horticultural, I was so surprised that a tree which I had planted 5 years ago was producing fruit at all, never mind, producing a bumper crop of apples.

eileenThe truth is that I had little expectation about its fruitfulness possibly because in the previous four years there had been no sign at all of an apple. Meanwhile, the surprise was compounded by the fact that my attention was focussed on a harvest coming from a different part of our garden. In the spring, I had planted two small tomato plants and a pepper plant in a small greenhouse structure on our patio. I had been carefully watering, feeding and attending to these plants on a daily basis and even when we went on holiday, a kind neighbour took over watering them. My family and I were delighted to observe the rapid growth of the two tomato plants although the pepper plant did not flourish. We watched as the yellow flowers made way for small green tomatoes and delighted as they grew bigger and started to redden. Fruit was growing in our garden for the first time, tomatoes from plants that were carefully planted and attended to.

At the same time, and growing unnoticed, were apples on the tree in the corner at the edge of my garden. The tree was producing fruit, without any effort on my part, other than a severe pruning last winter. This was a reminder to me that it is God who causes the harvest to grow (Isaiah 55: 10-11) especially when I am tempted to think it is my own efforts that causes growth and flourishing, both horticulturally speaking and spiritually speaking! Sometimes the growth can happen in unexpected places and at unexpected times. Even in our churches, we can find growth and flourishing happening in surprising places and at unexpected times.

A few weeks ago, I was part of the Scotland Connection gathering in Kirkcaldy, Scotland where 12 pastors from the PC(USA) and 12 from the Church of Scotland met to share experience and to envision what the Church may look like in the future. The focus of the conference was the book by Diana Butler Bass’ entitled “Christianity after Religion: the end of the church and the birth of a new spiritual awakening”. The conference was led by Diana and Doug Gay, a Church of Scotland minister and lecturer at Glasgow University. We were asking where the growth and flourishing is in the Church at a time when statistics about the decline in church membership in the Church of Scotland makes bleak reading. The number of members in the Church of Scotland has halved in the last 30 years and the Presbyterian Church in the USA is beginning to experience decline, albeit not to the same extent as in Scotland.

photo credit: jkc916 via photopin cc

photo credit: jkc916 via photopin cc

As a Probationary Minister preparing to be inducted and ordained within the Church of Scotland, I have been looking around asking ‘where are the fruits of growth in the Church?’ and ‘where are the communities of faith that are flourishing?’ During this past year, I have been surprised by growth in unusual places in the Church. Growth on the edges, in unexpected places and with unexpected people.

An example would be Messy Church events where families who come along on a Sunday afternoon with their children for an afternoon of messy crafts around a Bible story theme, which also includes a short time of worship and a meal together. Many of these families are not members of the church but in this setting, there is a growing sense of community.

And then there is the meal every Wednesday night in the church hall, organised and prepared by another small group of people, for people in the local community who are dealing with issues connected to homelessness. Many have issues with drugs or alcohol.   Growth on the edge, in unexpected places, as the church extends hospitality in the name of Christ and relationships develop.

Also, there is the group of adults of all ages and all abilities who meet monthly for a special worship service which offers creative worship suitable for those with learning disabilities. This also includes making crafts, creative and visual illustrations of Bible stories, drama, music and, of course, sharing food together is also an important part of this community. Growth on the edges, on a Thursday night rather than a Sunday, although some of this group also come to church on Sunday.

Another group of volunteers welcomes between 50 – 70 mainly retired people from the community together for a few hours to share tea/coffee and cakes and chat and sometimes there is some musical entertainment. Many of those who come to this afternoon tea have been invited by people in the church and many are those who have lost their connection to the church for one reason or another and through this, people have renewed their connection with each other and the church. Potential for growth on the edges, as those who have lost a connection with the church find a way back in albeit for a social afternoon.

It seems to me that the growth and flourishing I have been witnessing is coming from projects and groups that offer a place to develop relationships and make connections; either renewing old relationships or making new ones. The groups I mention are meeting in the settings of Kennoway, Windygates and Balgonie: St Kenneth’s but there will be a diverse variety of other communities or potential communities ready to form in different contexts, in other churches everywhere! It struck me that the thing that all of the projects I mentioned have in common is food! Hospitality and enjoying a meal together were key features of early church’s ministry and mission and I suspect they provide a key to mission in our own contexts.

Many of those who come will not be reflected in membership statistics as they may not have joined the church. The groups often take place at times other than on a Sunday morning and therefore the participation of many in the life of the church is not reflected in statistics of membership or attendance. Therefore, statistics alone cannot provide an accurate reflection of the health, growth and flourishing of the Church. Let’s look for the growth on the edges, discerning where God is causing his Word to grow, remembering God is a God of surprises who is committed to building his church (Matthew 16:18) and who causes growth and flourishing in unexpected places by His grace and mercy.

Eileen Miller has worked in the fields of community education and counselling for many years and is a senior accredited counsellor with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. Her growing edge has been following a call into ministry and, after 5 years of training, she is about to be ordained and inducted into a church within the Church of Scotland.

Does the Church Have a Future?

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