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Submitted by Rev Hector Morrison on 20th May 2016

The first article that caught my attention in the May edition of Life & Work was entitled ‘The hidden Christians’, in which Steve Aisthorpe, Church of Scotland Regional Mission Development Officer for the Highlands and Islands, describes the roots and inspiration for his academic research which has been distilled in highly readable format for general consumption in The Invisible Church, published this month by Saint Andrew Press, and already into its second printing.

In this article Steve shares with us first of all the very real life situation that led him to research this phenomenon – Christians he had known in a particular Highland parish who, during the 12 years in which he and his family had served the Lord in Nepal, had severed their links with the local church, while, at least in the case of a number of them, retaining a living faith.

Steve then goes on to talk about his own early wrestling with this strange phenomenon. Like many of us, he no doubt wondered how Christians with a living faith could detach themselves from the local congregation. Had they ever been Christians in the first place?  Had they simply been hurt by their experience of church? Were they backsliding? Had they not just lost their faith? These are typical assumptions we make about those who disappear from church life, and, remembering the parable of the sower, they may account for some who are no longer found in church. But – perhaps through encounter with Steve’s work at its early stage - I too have become more aware of Christians here and there who are clearly going on with the Lord in their life of faith yet have opted out of their local congregation. Perhaps you have become aware of such Christians too. 

Steve’s research raises a significant challenge for the Church of Scotland (as for other denominations too). Why do so many Christians not want to engage with our congregations any longer? Is the fault really all on their side? Or are there things that we need to learn, changes that we need to put in place?  But, are there other lessons too that the Lord may be teaching us through the apparently growing phenomenon of ‘churchless Christians’?

As someone who has been involved in theological education for the past 22 years, it is particularly encouraging to see the kind of academic work that lies behind this book being sponsored by the Mission & Discipleship Council of the Church of Scotland. Like any piece of academic work, it is not the final word on the issues raised, but it is a very important initial investigation of this phenomenon in the Scottish context and one on which further academic work will be based.

At HTC, staff and senior students were privileged to engage with Steve and his academic work at various points of the process and I was delighted to be asked, and happy to provide, an endorsement for this important book, which, hopefully, will lead to much more academic research being done in this and other related areas of Christian practice in Scotland and beyond today. We look forward to having Steve back at HTC again on Wed 1 June for one of a number of launches of his book.

Commissioners to the GA can find out more about Steve’s work in Section 2.4.7 (p 16/5) and Appendix II (p 16/25) of the ‘Blue Book’ in the Report of the Mission and Discipleship Council and will also have the opportunity of supporting this work under deliverance 6 of the Report, which reads: ‘Commend the book, Invisible Church, to the Councils and Committees of the Kirk for consideration in the development of strategy and policy.’ That is the very least we can do. Were I a commissioner this year I might wish to commend the Council for encouraging this research.