ONCE the church was an anchor. It was not just about the Sunday sermon, it was central to political life and in the forming of young minds, educating children across Scotland. It provided alms for the needy and laid down a strict moral code that informed – or controlled, depending on your point of view – how Scots lived their lives from birth to death, taking in marriage along the way. But as the remaining church bells ring out to celebrate Easter this Sunday many question the church's role today.

The last census in 2011 showed that just over half of the population considered themselves religious, with 24 per cent identifying as Church of Scotland Christians and 14 per cent as Roman Catholics. The Scottish household survey in 2016 suggested those numbers were falling, with those who identify as religious now in the minority at 48.5 percent.

Attendance at Sunday services is also at an all-time low – just seven per cent go to church, according to the 2016 Scottish Church Census. The figure is expected to fall to around five per cent by 2025, about the number that attend a book group.

The hold of religion has been stripped back in all sorts of ways. Non-denominational primary schools no longer start the day with the Lord's prayer, while Brownies and Guides now promise "to be true to myself" instead of swearing to do their duty to God. Humanist weddings can take place up a mountain or in the zoo and you can choose to be buried in a woodland without any church involvement.

Yet David Fergusson, Professor of Divinity and Principal of New College at Edinburgh University, claims many would still describe themselves as spiritual. "I think the majority who would tell pollsters that they are not religious – and that is now the majority of Scots – are not card-carrying atheists by any means, " he says. "They are often interested in the questions that the church is attempting to answer."

So how should the church respond? This Easter Sunday leaders of the main Christian religions give us their reflections.

Empty pews: how churches respond to the attendance crisis

The good news for Christians: 300 churches have opened in Scotland since 2002. The bad: 764 have closed and nearly half of congregations acknowledged decline in the last five years, a decrease in numbers over time that is the equivalent to losing more than two congregations per week.

More than 40 per cent of churchgoers are now 65 or over. As Fergusson points out, church is no longer about obligation – we opt-in rather than opting out. "That's something that the churches have to come to terms with without beating themselves up," he says. "These are forces that are outwith our control."

Peter Kearney, Director of the Catholic Church Media Office, sees this as a positive thing. "The church can take comfort in the fact that everyone who comes through the door now genuinely wants to be there."

Outgoing Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Right Rev Dr Derek Browning, acknowledges the crisis but also claims a wide variety of people still attend. "Some are better at getting young people along but there is nothing wrong with a church packed full of older people," he says. "That touches on issues of isolation, which church can address. It's one of the few venues where different generations can still come together."

Forget bum-numbing pews – Church of Scotland churches, in particular, are not the formal affairs that they once were, with formats including cafe-style discussion tables and "messy church", which sees families come together to combine arts and craft activities, Christian teachings and a communal meal.

Some services take place on different days of the week, while some congregations in rural places where the church has closed are meeting in people's homes or even in pubs – such as the Crask Inn in rural Sutherland, which was handed over to the Scottish Episcopal Church by its outgoing owners. It runs as a pub but also provides regular services.

Others believe a balance must be struck. Rev Angus MacRae, incoming 2018 Moderator for the Free Church of Scotland, claims it is seeing "some modest growth" against the trend of decline because it is staying true to traditional teachings. He says: "Like any living thing a church community can die. It is sad when demographic and economic factors weaken a community and their churches.

"But too many churches are dead and decaying because they lack joy and hope and deserve to die. Much of the institutional church has failed Scotland. Some preserve correct teaching but lack love and compassion. Others distort or deconstruct the message of Christ replacing God’s truth with opinion."

But for Catholic Archbishop Leo Cushley it's about framing. "If one believes, as we do, that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is of vital significance to the course of human history and to the flourishing of human happiness, then the rise of an ideology that seeks to banish Christianity from the public square is obviously viewed as 'not a good thing'", he says. "The task for Christians in the 21st century is to re-propose the person of Jesus Christ to contemporary society in way that is intellectually coherent, ethically compelling and socially compassionate."

Taking church to the masses: the faith-based work in the community

"We are very concerned about the spiritual state of the nation," says Rev Alan Donaldson, General Director of the Baptist Union of Scotland. Yet the response, according to him, is to come together with other denominations to take religion out into the community. His church, like many other Christian ones across Scotland, is heavily involved in Street Pastors – a group of volunteers who patrol the streets at the weekend looking to offer help to homeless people, or the intoxicated who are struggling to get home.

"We even have pastor events taking place on trains from Edinburgh to Fife, helping folks getting home safe," he says. "Church involvement in foodbanks has grown exponentially and we provide other projects like holiday clubs, or even meals when the schools are closed. We see so much need in the community as a result of the austerity agenda in the last eight years or so."

The Most Rev Mark Strange, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church agrees: “The Church becomes irrelevant in society when it retreats behind its walls," he says. "We, as a church, spend much time engaging with society, at a number of levels, and addressing the issues facing society including poverty, homelessness, substance abuse and family relations.”

For Rev Derek Browning community services, as well as advocating for the marginalised, is increasingly what the church is all about. "The church has a prophetic voice," he says. "It can speak up when we see something that isn't right. It's re-discovering its role. What I'm seeing is the church walking alongside people. That's something that the church has become better at. We no longer have a sense of entitlement."

Modern times: how the church deals with gender and sexuality in 21st century Scotland

Many would concur that the church has struggled to keep pace with the drive towards a more equal, less authoritarian, Scotland. The debates and power struggles – on same-sex marriage and acceptance of women in key positions – are hard to miss. Last year was an important one for LGBT church members, with the Church of Scotland issuing an apology for historical anti-gay discrimination and the Scottish Episcopal Church becoming the first mainstream Christian church to allow same-sex couples to marry.

Women have also battled find their place within the church. Former Church of Scotland Moderator, Sally Foster-Fulton, says there are still too many Kirk communities where women are sidelined. It has been 50 years since women were first ordained in the church and there have been three – soon to be four as Rev Susan Brown takes up post in May – female Moderators.

The backlash around the ordinator of Rev Anne Dyer, the Scottish Episcopal Church's first female bishop in Aberdeen and Orkney, also concerns her. Seven of the diocese’s 14 priests signed an open letter protesting against her appointment last November. She says gender equality in the church must be consistently called out.

"Exclusive language in church – the way we refer to God and humanity in the masculine perpetuates the unequal empowerment of men and the disempowerment of women," she adds. "The idea that leadership positions continue to be male-dominated because there are not as many qualified women is a myth that needs challenged intentionally. Until we insist on balance and equal numbers, the status quo will prevail."

Many will dispute this – the Catholic Church does not ordain women, believing it to be a matter of belief and doctrine, not gender equality. It is perhaps fitting, then, that it sees its role as a "voice of contradiction". Kearney of the Catholic Media Office says: "We are living in a secular society and we don't expect religious views to hold sway. [But] the church can take a different perspective from the conventional wisdom. There will always be a place for dissenting and differing voices."

Medium is the message: how faith responds to our digital world

The Free Church may not been known for embracing modern life but when it comes to technology MacRae is enthusiastic about "using new ways to communicate the old message of gospel good news".

He says: "Several Free Churches live-stream worship and offer Bible teaching online. My congregation at Dingwall Free Church regularly offers spiritual support and community to large numbers of people in Scotland and around the world, particularly those who cannot physically attend a place of worship. But the old ways of hearing God’s voice through reading and applying the Bible remain at the heart of the new ways to communicate."

The downside, he claims, is that the same technology makes the pace of modern life overwhelming. "Stressed-out modern Scotland could do with rediscovering the Sabbath principle of rest," he says. "Only machines or slaves keep going, never taking time to stop, think, and connect with God."

The Episcopals Strange also claims its "robust social media and communications activity" allows "our voice to be heard by those who choose to listen" and Cushley sees social media as a useful way to promote "the harmony that exists between religion and reason".

But for others it is the non-digital offerings of the church that make the difference, the "radical notion" that face-to-face communication trumps all other forms. "We are living in a world where no-one listens very much," suggests Browning. "What churches can offer is that face-to-face listening opportunity. It doesn't fix things but it listens and when people listen to each other change can happen.

Baptist Donaldson, agrees. "I don't think the church should be bombarding anyone with its message," he says. "We need to learn to live like Jesus lived. The way we live is the message. That's all we've ever been asked to do."

Religion in Scotland

Christianity is the largest faith in Scotland – with 54 per cent of Scots identifying as Christians in the 2011 census.The Church of Scotland, a Presbyterian denomination, has the largest membership in Scotland, followed by the Roman Catholic Church, the membership of which has been boosted by Polish immigrants. Scotland's third-largest church is the Scottish Episcopal Church. The Free Church of Scotland has influence, particularly in the north of Scotland, with 10,896 people identifying as being of that church at the census. Non-Presbyterian denominations that entered Scotland before the 20th century include the Quakers, Baptists, Methodists, and Brethren and Pentecostal churches such as Elim, Assemblies of God, and the Apostolic Church have increased in Scotland, particularly in cities where there are larger populations of Christians of African origin.