Aug 7, 2015

From the Archives

Scotland: Lessons for Effective Ministry in a Post-Christian Context

Despite levels of secularization that are much higher than in the U.S., the research findings from Scotland will likely strike American readers as familiar: increasing numbers of non-religious adults, declining church attendance numbers and fewer people engaged with the Bible. What is happening? And how can the trends revealed by the research help church leaders in America and beyond do more effective ministry in their own post-Christian context?

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The yearlong research effort, commissioned by the Maclellan Foundation, examines the current state of the Christian faith in Scotland and identifies ministry approaches that seem to be working in this particular post-Christian context. While some of the trends revealed in the new report, Transforming Scotland, may paint an uncomfortable picture for church leaders, the research also shows surprising “countertrends” that refute traditional expectations of secularization, including best practices among growing churches.

The State of Christianity in Scotland

  • Scotland is a nation divided—at least when it comes to religion. Half of all Scots describe themselves as Christian (51%) while the other half identify with another faith or none (49%). The cultural trend to identify as Christian is in decline; younger adults are much less apt than older adults to describe themselves as Christian.
  • As is also true of Americans, not all Scots who self-identify as Christian are fully engaged with or committed to their faith. For many, in fact, the label alone is enough. The power of Christendom’s cultural legacy remains strong in Scotland, especially among older adults. Seven out of 10 self-identified Christians are “legacy Christians” who do not believe basic elements of Christian doctrine or express personal faith in Jesus (69%). This translates to more than one-third of the total population (36%). Interestingly, a legacy Christian is more likely than the average Scot to say “a Christian nation” is the best way to describe the country (44% vs. 31%), a view that also demonstrates a more cultural than personally transformational view of their religious affiliation.
  • At the opposite end of the belief spectrum among self-identified Christians are evangelicals. For the purposes of this research in Scotland, Barna adopted a definition of “evangelical” based on Scottish historian David Bebbington’s four-part rubric, known as the “Bebbington quadrilateral.” Only those who meet all four of the standards qualify as “evangelical” under this definition. (1)
  • In Scotland today, about 3 percent of all adults—5 percent of self-identified Christians—qualify as evangelical. (In contrast, 25 percent of Americans qualify under Bebbington’s definition.) Evangelicals in Scotland are much less likely than average to describe Scotland as “a Christian nation” (8% vs. 31%); rather, they tend to say that “a secular nation” (40%) or “a post-Christian nation” (44%) is a more accurate description.

Perceptions of Christianity and Churches
According to census data, Scotland has seen a precipitous drop in church involvement during the past few decades. Between 1966 and 2006, membership in the Church of Scotland, which remains the largest Christian denomination, declined from 1.2 million to 504,000. By the end of 2013, membership had dropped to fewer than 400,000. In the 2011 census, those who registered as having “no religion” (37%) outnumbered, for the first time, those who registered as “Church of Scotland” (32%).

What has precipitated such declines? One clue may lie in the ways adults describe present-day Christianity in Scotland. Presented with a list of possible descriptors in the Barna research, respondents were asked to rate each on a scale from “very accurate” to “not at all accurate.” The phrases most frequently chosen as “not at all accurate” include “relevant to my life” (42%), “not accepting of other faiths” (27%), “offers hope for the future” (22%) and “a faith that I respect” (19%). Those most commonly considered “very accurate” include “not compatible with science” (23%), “judgmental” (21%), “out of touch with reality” (20%) and “hypocritical” (20%).

Given such harsh evaluations, one might conclude that the average Scot maintains a negative view of Christianity. Yet a majority reports either a “very favorable” (12%) or “fairly favorable” (42%) impression of the faith. Even wider majorities—more than eight in 10—believe a church is a “very” (24%) or “fairly” (59%) favorable thing for a community.

Identifying the Countertrends
Against a receding tide of Christian faith and practice in Scotland advance a fervent minority whose lives have been transformed by faith. In particular, the study found a surprising number of factors that are ticking up among young adults, or Millennials. This is especially noteworthy because young adults in the U.S. rarely represent a countertrend against secularization.

For example, Scots under the age of 45 are twice as likely (23%) as those 45 and older (12%) to say faith “has transformed my life.” As it is comparatively rare for young Scots to have been raised in church, it may be that a greater proportion of young adults are Christian by choice, rather than by cultural default.

Noteworthy, as well, are the 36 percent of young adults ages 18 to 24 who hold to an orthodox view of the Bible, compared to 29 percent of all adults. They also express more interest in what wisdom the Bible offers for their lives. By the reverse token, however, young adults are somewhat more likely than the national average (32%) to understand Jesus as “just a moral teacher or prophet and not God” (37%) and twice as likely as the average (7%) to say that Jesus “was not an actual historical person” (12%). Such generational cognitive dissonance may be the natural result of few formative church experiences.

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Comments on the Research
Through the years, the Barna team has often been asked about how America compares to other more secular nations, and Scotland certainly qualifies. David Kinnaman is the president and owner of Barna and directed the research study in Scotland. He says, “This study will inform leaders in Scotland as well as pastors, church planters and leaders in other post-Christian contexts by showing both the significant headwinds facing and unexpected tailwinds aiding Christian communities.

“The project also marks our company’s first major public study outside the U.S.—a strategic decision not only because we aspire to serve leaders in many countries and contexts, but also because we believe the challenges facing Christians in America cannot be addressed effectively without a broader, more global set of insights.”

Kinnaman points to several ways interested readers can learn more:

  1. Next week, readers will learn more about nine key transformation factors, derived from the Scotland research, that distinguish growing churches from baseline churches. These include insights regarding prayer, leadership, preaching and more.
  2. The full research study covers these best practices, as well as the state of faith in Scotland; interviews among Scottish pastors, leading thinkers and ministry practitioners in Scotland; and recommendations for ministry to Millennials. These research-driven insights can be found in the report Transforming Scotland.

About the Research

Barna Global, the international partner of Barna Group, undertook a multi-phase research project. The research was commissioned by Transforming Scotland, an informal network of Christian leaders in Scotland, and underwritten by the Maclellan Foundation.

The first phase was a series of 29 in-depth interviews with key Christian leaders identified by the Transforming Scotland Steering Group.

Concurrent with the in-depth interviews were two national surveys: one of more than a thousand Scottish adults ages 18 and older, and another of 200 ministers/pastors of Protestant churches in Scotland. A nationwide study of Scottish adults ages 18 and older was conducted using an online panel. Surveys for this portion of the research study were completed June 9–16, 2014. A total of 1,019 surveys were completed. The sample error on this survey is plus or minus 3.1 percent points at the 95-percent confidence level. Data were weighted by age, gender and socio-economic grade to be representative of all Scottish adults aged 18 or older.

The final phase of research consisted of three studies to uncover a set of best ministry and mission practices. The first two studies were conducted December 2014 to January 2015 among a small cohort of Protestant evangelical churches. Comparisons were made between baseline and growing churches. Growing churches stand out from the norm, reporting significant levels of growth and other key metrics. Because spiritual transformation is a difficult reality to measure, numerical growth—specifically, conversion growth, rather than transfer growth—was used to indicate transformative ministry. Baseline and growing church attenders, and their leaders, responded to identical surveys about their beliefs, perspectives and behaviors—thus enabling parallel comparison to identify which factors, if any, stand out as indicators of transformational growth in these congregations.

During the same timeframe, Barna also interviewed a small cohort of faith-engaged Millennial Scots to discover their perspectives and experiences of church and faith. What “best practices,” if any, had their church communities adopted that motivated them to stay connected when so many adults of all ages are disengaging from church involvement? What factors are at work to help them live transfvormed lives, against the cultural tide?

Learn more about the study and the findings in the new Barna report, Transforming Scotland.

(1) The first principle of Bebbington’s rubric is “biblicism,” a perception of the Bible as totally accurate or authoritative in all of its teachings. One in six among all Scots meets this standard (17%). The next principle is “crucicentrism,” a focus on Christ’s atoning work on the cross. Individuals who are crucicentric have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus as their Savior. About one-quarter of Scottish adults meet this standard (23%). The third principle is “activism,” or the belief that the gospel must be shared with others. Someone who holds this conviction believes that he has a personal responsibility to share his faith with others. One out of seven Scots meets this standard (14%). The fourth and final principle of Bebbington’s rubric is “conversionism,” a belief that conversion to Christianity is imperative for every person. To meet this standard, self-identified Christians had to “strongly disagree” that “everyone goes to Heaven when they die, because God loves all people” or that “if a person is generally good, or does enough good things for others during their lifetime, they will go to Heaven.” Based on these answers, one in eight adults meets this standard (12%).

© Barna Group, 2015.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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