When Reverend Alexander Macleod arrived in Uig, in 1824, he found that practically everyone in the district was a communicant member in his church.This may sound like a sign of great spiritual life, but was in fact a sign of the times, as MacLeod was soon to discover. Early in his ministry, he witnessed two elders of the church at prayer – one beseeching the Almighty to send a shipwreck to their shore, and another lamenting the death of Christ as a dark day for mankind. They were victims of moderatism, the same kind of outward observance that causes some to believe – even today – that if you lead a good and decent existence, harming no one, then you have as much right to call yourself a Christian as the next man.
While MacLeod’s communion table was full to capacity, new research suggests that the pews of the Western Isles are no longer exactly bursting at the seams. 44.3% of the local population regularly attends the means of grace which, if you’re the pessimistic kind, means that 55.7% prefer doing something else with their Sunday. And if you’re the atheistic kind, you probably think that this is a welcome sign of Calvinism having to relinquish its cold grip at long last.
Well, you say cold grip; I say warm handshake. In a country where those going to church account for only 7.2% of the population, forgive me for thinking that the statistic for our islands is not cause for distress. Nor – sorry, unbelievers – is it the silencing of a strong voice in this community. It is, rather, a call to arms. Or, at least, a summons to the field. Ploughshares are what we need now, not swords.
The Free Church has been mission-minded since its inception, sharing the gospel of Christ with people all over the globe. Statistics like these simply demonstrate an exciting challenge by reminding us that the field has narrowed, and labourers are required on the very thresholds of our churches.
We could weep and wail and bemoan the loss of those days when some referred to Lewis as ‘the last stronghold of the pure gospel’; or we could work and pray for refreshing. This is not a numbers game and God did not promise this island that Christians would always be in the majority; but we were promised that, where two or three gather in His name, the Lord will be present. Two or three – and we’ve got twelve thousand.
Last November, worshippers from all over Lewis packed into a meeting at Stornoway Free Church, as part of the denominational Day of Prayer. It closed with five minutes of silent prayer, during which the power in that building was almost palpable.And that particular gathering represented a mere fraction of those who belong to the church of Christ in the Western Isles.
But there’s one more fraction I should mention here – the 24% of worshippers who ‘disappeared’ between 1984 and 2016. Where are they now? Well, I am inclined to think that they’re in God’s storehouse, safely gathered in. He isn’t willing that any should perish; percentages don’t come into it.
When you look at it in its real context, 55.7% isn’t a defeat at all: it’s a latent harvest.