As we walked among the large rocks that made up the ‘Callanish stones’, possibly a site of ancient pagan worship, Danelle asked me ‘can you not feel anything?’
‘Nope… Nuthin. Not a thing. My legs are cold… But maybe coz I’m wearing shorts?’
Not what she meant at all. She could feel something and it was spiritual, dark and nasty. I’m sure she’s on the money with her capacity to discern – she usually is – but that ain’t one of my super-powers. They could as easily have been a bit of creative landscaping to me.
But park me down in the heavily churched and yet miserably dour spiritual environment that is the Isle of Lewis and all I can wonder is ‘how would we help these people connect with the real message of Jesus?‘ From there I begin wondering about how a missionary might live in this unique context, what kind of church might resonate with the locals and how we might present an alternative to the bleak and joyless (free) Presbyterianism or Church of Scotland that seem to be the only shows in town.
The note in our visitors guide reminding us that Lewis was a ‘sabbatarian’ culture was the first hint of the tone that faith has taken in this environment. The drab grey buildings that are home to the churches seems to speak of utilitarianism rather than any kind of joy. The existence of a morning and evening service as well as a midweek prayer meeting took me back to my days in Belfast (the 60’s). Further reading spoke of an expression of faith with some very hard edges and strict cultural and pseudo-theological boundaries. I read of a minister who left the church after 45 years of ministry because they had introduced hymns alongside the metrical psalms that had previously been their only expression of sung worship. He argued it was simple heresy (to sing words not directly inspired by the Spirit) and he was forced to take a stand against this aberrant practice.
Remember the fights over hymns and modern songs in our churches? (C.1970-80) Well this is a step further back from that… Whew…
I am always inclined to give the benefit of the doubt, so despite the drab appearance, I imagined a congregation of happy people living in blissful ignorance of where the rest of the world is at. For some reason I envisioned people finding joy in a form of church that simply wouldn’t be my cup of tea.
These were my impressions from afar. But on Sunday evening after we had finished our meal at the local pub we drove by the local church and saw that it was due to start in 15 minutes.
‘I’d like to go,’ I said. ‘Anyone else?’
No one was keen so Danelle dropped me at the church. ‘What are you hoping for?’ she asked as we drove there.
‘I’m genuinely curious as to how it all works.’ I said, ‘I’d like to experience their worship, but I also know that sometimes you hear the voice of God more clearly in different places – so I’m hoping I might have a moment with God that I wouldn’t have otherwise.’
I knew that even though we speak of being the family of God, I was walking into a foreign culture. That said I’d spent a couple of days with the pentecostal side of the family so an hour with the other mob couldn’t hurt.
So at 6.25 I climbed the bare concrete steps to the grey stone building with hopes of something unique and special happening. I was met at the door by two men in suits and ties. They looked me up and down and asked, ‘You here for the service?’ I think my presence and attire (jeans and a jumper) may have caught them a little off guard. I smiled (someone had to) and walked thru the doors into a space that would have held 150-200, but had maybe 30-40 elderly men and women sprinkled throughout the area.
What stuck me immediately was the silence. Dead s I l e n c e Not a whisper was spoken by anyone. I pulled into a pew midway down the aisle and took the opportunity to pray quietly, reflecting that it was good to be able to do that. At home we normally have to dial people down to start a service because there is so much chatter. Both approaches have their merits. I do know that a significant factor in how I have led churches over the years has been a reaction against the stifling church culture I experienced in my early years in Belfast. I have no fond memories of that church experience whatsoever – however I do recall trying to fudge a few tummy aches in attempts to get a day off. My mum was a nurse and never seemed to have any compassion for my Sunday morning ailments. I don’t think I got a single morning off… Add to this the evening service as well as a strict sabbatarian culture and Sundays became endurance feats for a 9 year old kid.
We sat in the pin drop silence until one of the men who met me at the door brushed quickly past and shoved a Bible / song book onto the ledge in front of my pew. He then took up his post at the front of the building behind some kind of wooden barrier. I wasn’t sure what function he was fulfilling as he didn’t do anything else during the service.
Once he was seated the minister entered from the side room and climbed the steps up to the podium, a good 2m above the rest of us, where he spent the whole service. After another few moments of silence he stood and spoke.
It wasn’t a welcome or a call to worship even. Just the briefest of perfunctory introductions. ‘We are here to worship.’ This was followed by the singing of a Psalm. This brand of church believes in singing only what is already found in scripture and doing so without music. You can read the rationale on their website which incidentally was ‘closed’ on the Sabbath too. Internet use is deemed to be possibly an inappropriate Sabbath activity too so the website is closed to prevent you stumbling. I clicked a few links trying to beat the systems but was continually re-routed back to the Sabbath announcement.
So the minister read the Psalm right thru, then called on one of the men to start the singing. He led away while others slowly joined in. It was my first experience of this type of ‘metrical Psalm singing’ and while the language of the Psalms was all ‘King James English’ it was refreshing to simply sing a piece of scripture – although I will take the Sons of Korah (Aussie Band) version over this any day. With many of our smaller churches struggling for musicians I thought hmmm… maybe this is an option… Acapella as normal?..
Truth is you would never get away with it in Australia because the expectation is already so strongly calibrated to expect at least two instruments in play on any given Sunday. To sing without music is just a little too weird for most of us.
Once we had sung the Psalm we sat down, only to stand again for prayer – around 15 minutes in total led by the minister. In truth it felt like another sermon as he led us thru various passages of scripture that were related to content of the prayer. The practice of standing for prayer is engaged to prevent people ‘lounging’ in the presence of God. Again, I understand the sentiment but given the hardness and narrowness of the pews we were sitting on, lounging was never gonna be an option.
Another Psalm was read and then sung, followed by a Bible reading – all of Galatians 3, again read by the minister. I know Galatians pretty well, but the KJV language lost me early. I’m curious that people still favour it despite the simple evidence clearly showing it is a poorer translation. But then we are all guilty of baptising our cultural preferences in a modicum of scriptural / theological proof.
One more Psalm was read/sung before the sermon – a 40 minute tirade on freedom in Christ – that somehow got converted into a spiel on why we should continue to observe the law. Woven into this was the Reformed staple of justification by faith, but it would be an undestatement to say there were mixed messages. As I listened I found myself hoping that there wasn’t communion that Sunday as well as I wasn’t sure I would receive permission to take part.. I wasn’t sure of what their house rules would be and I didn’t want to find out.
I’m not sure if I heard correctly but it seemed like there was a belief in ‘perfectionism’, as we were called to be perfect as God is perfect. No pressure folks… (If you can’t be perfect then you can learn to pretend.) He seemed to be saying that the law was our schoolmaster pointing us to Christ, but Christ did not end the requirements of the law – he simply bought us freedom from its consequences. To be fair I don’t think he was arguing for adherence to the whole of levitical law – but more the 10 commandments. Nevertheless the spread of grace felt very thin while the call to behave felt heavy and the consequences of failure very grave. At no point during the entire service did the minister smile or give any sense of this being a joyful experience. As I looked around during the service his misery seemed to be shared equally among the flock.
As the sermon finished the minister declared the end of the service and as one the congregation stood to their feet and filed out the door. Within 30 seconds no one was left in the building. Another 30 seconds and the carpark was empty too. In our churches the ‘after’ part can last as long as the service itself some weeks and usually ends with me turning the lights off and telling everyone to go home!
On my way out I did manage to receive a nod and a smile from one older lady, but other than that I made it to the carpark with no human interaction whatsoever.
Then I heard the sound of footsteps and some puffing. It was the minister running to catch me – clearly I was the visitor – and he was now all smiles as he shook my hand and greeted me. I think it was supposed to be the ‘gospel service’ that I had attended so I imagine he was coming to see if I may have been a lost soul searching for help. He was around 50 years old and by far the youngest member of the congregation. We chatted briefly until we established that I was already ‘in’ and then he excused himself. I wondered why his pulpit persona was so sombre and heavy. Which was the real ‘him’?
I walked the back streets home wondering again ‘how would you communicate the good news of Jesus to these people?’ It is a culture steeped in so much religion and yet it felt in many ways like an unreached people group.
Bizarrely these very islands were the site of the Hebridean revival (C.1950) that literally reshaped the spiritual landscape of the entire region. It was hugely significant and lasted 4 years – but what is left now is nothing that would even approximate that move of the Spirit. Worse still perhaps, the people may have had their fill of protestant religion and any one who comes in under that guise will be 6 goals down and kicking into the breeze before they even begin.
So what would a missionary do in this culture? I get the sense that any overtly ‘evangelical’ expressions of church would be met with suspicion by existing churches and the community may not be easily convinced to reconsider the Christian message.
I couldn’t understand why the evangelical churches of mainland Scotland haven’t sent church planters over? Why are there no Baptists or charismatic or pentecostals on these islands? Is it just too difficult?
Much of our time on Lewis was wonderful and stunning. Vast landscapes and beautiful beaches were found simply everywhere. We were quite literally overwhelmed with beauty. Wouldn’t it wonderful if the people really got to know the creator of all this and were able to share in his joy?