Faced with falling congregations for years, the Church of Scotland has a new threat from virtual churches. Sandra Dick asks whether the Kirk can stage its own resurrection.

Pastor Darren Parker is a busy man. It’s around midday on Friday, and on laptops and mobile phones, in internet cafes, living rooms and even prisons around the world, his congregation eagerly awaits.

First, he needs to record a warm welcome – a kind of web-based soft handshake from the kirk elder in the foyer.

And then he needs to video the sermon, a TED Talks-style of presentation from another of the Everyday Church’s pastors and which could touch on anything from sexuality to the craziness of modern life.

He splices in a few jaunty tunes from the resident band – no plodding psalms or hard-to-follow hymns for this audience – and prepares to upload it all to a global congregation hungry for guidance, advice and spiritual support.

“According to Google Analytics, there are 195 countries in the world,” he says. “And we are reaching 191 of them.

“Among the ones we are missing is the Holy See – the Vatican City – and for some strange reason Lichtenstein, Tuvalu in Polynesia, and North Korea.”

At least two of those destinations will be tricky to crack for even the most determined church missionary. But the Everyday Church, with its logo “Everyday People, Extraordinary God”, seems to be doing just fine without them.

“We average 12,500 unique visitors each week,” continues the pastor. “And we get 55 individual prayer requests every week for our dedicated prayer team. Plus, every week, 50 people make a commitment to the church so we can add them to our database.”

In a push-button society, where we can source everything from pizza to a prospective mate online, it seems perfectly logical that Jesus should also be just a click away.

Moses may have received the tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments chiselled by God’s finger, but it is digital tablets that are offering guidance to today’s lost sheep.

The Everyday Church, adds Parker, offers them a mindboggling 168 services a week. “That keeps us busy,” he smiles. “That allows us to reach a much larger group of people across different time zones.”

From its London base, the church reaches members in Tanzania who follow services by mobile phone, the housebound who can’t make it to their local church, curious young people across the UK wondering what the gospels might be, and others in religiously sensitive countries where being openly seen to be Christian could be life-threatening.

The word of God seems to be booming. Its Facebook page alone has notched up 238,596 “likes” – and that is a whopping 212,000, give or take a dozen or so, more than the Church of Scotland’s.

Virtual churches, with no crumbling buildings to maintain and the chance to keep costs down to just some decent video equipment and a good broadband connection, appear to be thriving, and none more so than Oklahoma-based Life.Church.

Launched in 1996 in a double garage with some basic video gear, it has grown to become the largest church in America. It currently beams 80 services a week to the online world, operates a popular Bible app and racks up an average weekly attendance of 70,000. Plus, its recent financial statement showed it had net assets of nearly $300 million.

Placed alongside the Church of Scotland’s £4.5 million deficit last year and its decades-long battle to hold on to congregations, it starts to appear that just as the online world has eaten away UK high streets through internet shopping, it could also take its toll on already dwindling traditional church congregations.

The Kirk has lost 80% of its parishioners since the 1950s. Membership has dropped from 413,000 in 2011 to 325,695 last year, with admissions down from 3,867 in 2017, to 2,105 last year.

When it comes to big life events – baptisms, weddings and funerals – all have slumped between 2017 and 2018.

So, is the Kirk itself in need of being saved? And how might it resurrect its fortunes?

Like Pastor Parker, the Rev Scott McRoberts is a busy man. While online churches with slick videos, Christian rock bands and a global reach appear to be on the rise, so too is his very modern version of the Kirk.

His Inverness St Columba’s New Church is just nine years old – born from a former city-centre kirk which was sold. It meets in a local school, and, unlike some congregations, is thriving.

“We started with a blank sheet, so we could look at what kind of church would meet the needs of the community,” he says. “We’re in a suburban area with lots of young families, people raising their kids.

“Our form of gathering and worship is very modern. There’s no organ, we have prayers and a band with modern music,” he adds. “It’s very relaxed in style and a different image of the Church of Scotland that people might remember from their childhood.”

The church began with around 25 people and has grown to over 100; half the congregation is under 40 and around one-third under 18.

McRoberts, himself just 36, believes modern pressures, fears over politics and climate change, and the age-old search for "identity" is leading new generations to investigate what the church may offer.

“It has been said for a long time that although institutional religion is in decline, people’s spiritual search is not,” he points out. “Issues such as homelessness and suicide among young people are huge problems. People are feeling that sense of struggle with life and that lack of hope and direction.

“A lot of families are quite isolated – they are going to work, doing the school run, coming home. The times we gather on Sunday morning or in the community are offering a real culture and time with each other that we can share.”

His church has embraced social media but he believes there has to be more than sitting at home in a dressing gown flicking between sermons.

“Social media is great as a point of contact but we offer a real alternative to a digital world where Facebook ‘likes’ become more important than face-to-face relationships.”

Meanwhile, at New Kilpatrick Church in Bearsden, the Rev Roddy Hamilton shifts focus from stressing over falling congregations to a “back to basics” approach that sees it playing a strong role in its local community.

Its recent Bearsden Festival embraced a mental health and wellbeing theme, working in partnership with other organisations for a greater good, in a “big society” style.

“Everything we did during the festival was not as a church but as a community co-ordinator working in partnership with people,” he says. “That’s how the church has to be.

“In the past, the church gave life to hospitals, schools, education, welfare. All church initiated, then we let that role go. The church has to be local, not national,” he adds.

“We might not fill churches on a Sunday morning, but I don’t think we’ve ever been more creative and imaginative than we are now.”

Stripping the Church of Scotland back from a national religious organisation with a network of mostly empty buildings to a tighter, more modern operation is at the heart of a radical three-year action plan rubber-stamped by the General Assembly last week.

Among the measures is a £25m Growth Fund to help congregations and presbyteries to drive forward plans for mission, community engagement, church planting – encouraging growth – and working with young people.

It also includes plans to slash administration costs by up to 30% within two years, and potentially reduce the number of presbyteries from 45 to just 12.

The church has introduced five new “pioneer ministers”, including one serving Glasgow’s arts community, another dedicated to Ayrshire’s hard-to-reach rural farmers, and an East Lothian minister focused on new housing developments.

It is not letting the digital age race away from it either. It has its own version of an online church in Sanctuary First, launched three years ago and with former Moderator of the Church of Scotland the Very Rev Albert Bogle in the role of the Kirk’s first digital minister. It is also looking at cashless options for the collection plate and already has churches which stream their services.

Meanwhile, across the country, an army of individual congregations are at the heart of foodbank programmes, support for the homeless and lonely, providing youth organisations and pastoral care.

Rt Rev Colin Sinclair, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, said: “At our General Assembly this week, the Church of Scotland took a significant step to change the way it operates to make it fit to support work better at grass-roots level.

“That will lead to a whole variety of creative responses including the renewal of the traditional church and the planting of fresh expressions of church.

“It is an exciting time to be part of the church right now.”