Observations from a newcomer

Dear Friends

Back in November I gave a few personal reflections on recent events at The Tron from the perspective of a newcomer. There are so many things that merit mention, but from the long list of possibles here are four things that have struck me with particular force during the last year since Annie and I moved up to Glasgow.

1) The Tron is a tremendously encouraging congregation to belong to!

No doubt we could all think of aspects of congregational life that are not ideal, not quite as we would like them to be. This is always so in any normal church family. I am also sure that there is anger at the unfairness of losing the Buchanan Street building. I have only been here eighteen months and I feel the loss; goodness knows how one feels if one has been here twenty years (far less sixty!). So, yes there are negatives but, brothers and sisters, the positive things about this congregation more than outweigh all of these. In difficult times it is easy to take one’s eye off the good things, so let me remind you of a few of the very best things, things that a newcomer can’t help but notice about you.

Your courage has been remarkable. One of the first things that happens when churches lose their edge is that they become risk-averse, more concerned about institutional survival than gospel advance. This congregation has not been like that. Concern for gospel advance has remained at the very heart of your life together and it is wonderfully encouraging to see. Consider the people who have been baptised and added to the membership in the last few months. This is no accident. It has happened because, under God, you are a congregation that loves to see the gospel grow.

Your unity has been inspiring. It is so easy for Christians under pressure to lose heart and become divided, but as a newcomer I have seen day by day, week after week, your patient, faithful, loving trust that the Lord will work all of this out. You have stuck together and loved one another and it has been wonderful to witness.

The diligence of your leaders has been exemplary. Situations such as these are very draining for church leaders. However you have an Eldership and a Pastor who have kept doing the right things and saying the right things and working hard in the face of great disappointment. I have never come across better, more thoughtful communication between leaders and congregation, between church and wider community, than I have seen here. It is so common for Pastors, leadership teams and congregations not to respond as you have and it has been refreshing to see something unusual going on.

The building loss is a great disappointment, but church is about people, not stones, and buildings can constrain gospel vision as well as being useful for gospel advance.

2) Churches will never be truly evangelical without enduring conflict!

Recently I was asked to speak to a gathering of evangelical ministers on the following question: “Why is it that though there have been many evangelical ministers in Scottish churches there have been so few congregations that have become thoroughly evangelical?”

Of course there is no guarantee that good ministry will lead to every church becoming solidly evangelical in practice, but there is nothing unusual or unexpected about the kind of work that must be done in order for this to be possible. The gospel worker needs to teach the word of God, to do the word of God, and to expect conflict; conflict from within the congregation as the word of God is resisted, and conflict from without the congregation as the word of God is resisted. But it seems many today have not been taught to expect conflict as a normal part of word ministry. Such conflict—contending for the faith, within the congregation, with denominations and with other people who call themselves evangelical—is a necessary part of Christian ministry, as the NT shows plainly. But some evangelicals seem to think that merely being present in number within their denomination will change things for the better. So when conflict comes they are not ready for it, nor prepared for the inevitable losses that will accompany it.

The Tron’s stance opened the door to severe difficulties: rejection by some Christian friends, potential loss of home and livelihood, loss of church building, even legal threats. When the stakes are very high, and the implications so threatening at a personal level, we ought not to be surprised that it’s much more comfortable for people to believe that such conflict should be avoided, and that a church in conflict has behaved wrongly, rather than risk facing similar loss themselves. In short, though difficulties of this sort often arise in ministry, contemporary evangelical culture seems to be specially conflict-averse, and this is one of the reasons the behaviour of some who should have been supportive has been disappointing. But solid gospel churches cannot be built without conflict, and cost.

3) The future may be difficult!

Now that the decision has been made, the building left and some of the hostility has died down, there is likely to be a sense of relief within the fellowship. However there may be some unanticipated difficulties.

There is something energising about conflict. Having a hostile enemy to deal with promotes a sense of unity. It is also exciting to look forward to a big day. But life beyond the big day is often hard to imagine. What will life be like beyond the C of S and will unity be preserved now that the pressure is off? Almost certainly there will be real positives about being free from hostility, and genuine excitement about new possibilities ahead. However there may also be a sense of anticlimax, and lots of hard work and discomfort to come. It is possible that discouragement and dissatisfaction may begin to creep into congregational life if care is not taken.

So take care!

Take care that your leaders don’t run into difficulty. The conflict they have been engaged in has been very draining and people who shoulder heavy burdens at times of difficulty can find that they pay a price for this when things get easier. Take care relationships with one another don’t run into difficulty. In Philippians Paul exhorts Euodia and Syntyche to agree with one another in the Lord. It’s salutary that these two experienced gospel workers seem to have fallen out with one another over some matter. We are not told what it is, but we do know that the Philippian church faced other stresses and difficulties, so it is possible that the Euodia-Syntyche dispute has been provoked by these in some way. Note that Paul encourages others to help these women through their difficulty. So don’t take your unity for granted, don’t take your leaders for granted and don’t think the evil one will be any less at work today than he was during the hard days leading up to your disassociation from the Church of Scotland. The thing that he most desires is to make you fall out with one another, to become angry with one another. Don’t think that you have ceased to be at battle stations and don’t stop praying in the way you prayed all the time that things were hard. The battle is still on!

4) All of this is normal!

Of course the recent difficulties feel abnormal to us. But in reality, things like this have happened all throughout Christian history and continue to happen all over the world today. For a minister to be threatened with loss of house and livelihood is a perfectly normal thing elsewhere. For a congregation to face the loss of its building is nothing unusual. In these recent difficulties you have simply been experiencing a little of the corporate cost that all those who belong to and follow the Lord Jesus Christ always experience in one way or another. That all this has happened to you does not mean that you have done things wrong or that you are being any less than godly; quite the reverse, you are genuinely aligned with the Church of Jesus Christ worldwide today.

Finally, let me conclude by saying that belonging to this congregation has been more than encouraging – it has been restoring. In setting up home in Glasgow and at the Tron Annie and I have come into contact not only with outstandingly thoughtful and penetrating preaching, but also with a congregation whose message and corporate life has been marvellously influential for good in our own lives. It is a huge privilege for us to be able to belong to you and we are so grateful to the Lord for his kindness in bringing us here.

Andy Gemmill