The manuscript of David’s message can be found here: https://theweeflea.com/2016/05/24/discerning-the-times-retiring-address-at-2016-general-assembly/
Now, in this blog we want to distil David’s message, using his headings and highlighting some key areas. We will save our comments to the end.
On his blog David confesses:
“This is my assembly address. It was too long… I deviated a lot from what is written below and missed out a lot….I preached my heart out – but there is too much in my heart! …It was somewhat like throwing out a dozen darts in the hope that at least one of them would stick.”
In Robertson-esque style, this year’s outgoing address was sobering, scintillating and really challenging. Entitled ‘Discerning the Times,’ the message was anchored to two Biblical texts:
Matthew 16:3 You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.
Isaiah 22:3-4 At this my body is racked with pain, pangs seize me, like those of a woman in labour; I am staggered by what I hear, I am bewildered by what I see. My heart falters, fear makes me tremble; the twilight I longed for has become a horror to me.
David then set the scene of his message by informing us that many people today don’t recognise the Scotland they are living in. “Scotland,” David noted “has undergone several generational changes within one generation.” This means there is great confusion among many, “which leads to darkness and despair within both the culture and the church.” He goes on:
“It affects the church because we are much more influenced by the culture than we realise. Many of our people do not know how to think things through from a biblical perspective, perhaps because we have not been good at helping them in this respect.”
Therefore, he stated that the central aim of his message was to think about “how we interpret the signs of the times, and how we can cope with a regressive culture and communicate the great news of Jesus Christ within that culture.”
The signs of the times:
Apathy – We live in an apathetic age. In general most people simply do not care about the big questions, Christianity or coming to church. David then made a very sobering point: “My concern is that this apathy is reflected in the church. We either don’t care, or the things that we do care about are relatively trivial. There is no sense of need, no urgency, no lostness, no awareness of the eternal.
Anxiety – We live in an age full of anxiety. Whether it is in the world of politics or in our culture, we worry over job, family and health. David remarked, “Again as regards the church it is disturbing how many of us can give into the spirit of fear and despair. We do not have an adequate and practical view of the both the sovereignty and love of God.”
Alienation – We live in an alienating age. David Robertson noted that there is little sense of belonging in Scotland today. We all long for this, but for many there is no metanarrative – there are no big ideas – resulting in an overwhelming feeling of being adrift.
Anger – We live in an angry age. This may sound like a direct contradiction of the above point on apathy, but people are angry about so many things – not least what they perceive to be intolerant and regressive viewpoints. On this, David quoted the Puritan writer, John Flavel, who in speaking on communion with Christ gives this picture of the Christian: ‘It is sweet, Christian, when the heavenly cheerfulness and spirituality of thy conversations with men, shall convince others that thou hast been with Jesus.’”
The outgoing Moderator then concluded, “These, then, are at least some of the people we are talking about – apathetic, anxious, alienated and angry. How are we going to reach them? Not by the weak, insipid and too-nice Christianity which ignores the tough questions and the hard challenges.”
How do People cope?
Answering this question, David Robertson picked up on four principles people rely on:
The Pleasure Principle – “Friday is coming. Let us eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.”
The Power Principle – “It gives people a sense of meaning to have power. That is a source of so much sexual abuse, emotional abuse. People like to have power. It is a temptation as old as the garden of Eden.”
The Peace Principle – “People want peace. ‘If only I had some peace.’”
The Pain Principle – “Apart from a very few people, most want to be free from pain. You drink to take away the pain, physical, emotional, etc. We live in a painful world and yet the lie of our 21st-century, affluent philosophy is that we not only can, but also we have the right to live without pain. And so we avoid pain and seek to live within our own painless comfort zones.”
How do we reach people?
This is a big issue for all of us as Christians, wouldn’t you say? It matters what we do, and how we reach out to this kind of society.
Here were the Moderator’s thoughts:
Biblical Evangelism – David helpfully contended that Biblical evangelism “is primarily church based.” He adds, “as Reformed Christians… we have, or at least ought to have, a high ecclesiology. We need to stop excusing the church and/or ignoring her in evangelism and apologetics. The church is key.”
Church Planting – “The beauty of a church plant is not that it allows you the freedom to go along with the culture or to show how trendy and cool you are but rather that you have the freedom to start afresh, seeking to be biblical, unhindered by years of accumulated unbiblical traditions. Sometimes it seems as though we accept that the term Reformed Church planting is an oxymoron.“… we are absolutely failing to recognise the riches in our Reformed heritage in this respect and we are being completely unbiblical. What is the point of Calvinistic theology and Arminian methodology? We should aim to have at least one good, Reformed, Bible-teaching, contemporary church within 30 minutes drive (or walk?) of everyone in Scotland today. And perhaps even more radical – let us not compete with other like-minded brethren such as Calvinistic Baptists. And it is the church that must lead these things – not just left up to individuals or missionary organisations.”
Reality – “We live in a plastic age that too often breeds plastic Christians. There is a sense of unreality and surreality about so much of what we do. What people want is something real. We really need to bear this is mind in our outreach. Are you for real? So often we are playing games, playing a role, adopting a strategy – there is precious little reality about it.”
Radicalism – “We need to go back to the roots. Christians have to be really radical. Taking everything back to the Scriptures – letting the Word of God be a sword which divides, exposes, reveals.“It is almost the opposite of the seeker friendly church – come and die is hardly the message of the seeker friendly church. This is particularly true of conversion where too often we treat it as something far less radical than the Bible does.
“Christian conversion changes everything – we have a new outlook on everything, a new attitude and motivation and a new relationship to everyone. Some may regard this radical approach as unpopular and not likely to win many people.
“It is the very radicalness of Christianity which proves attractive to so many people and it is the incipient, spinelessness of so much modern commercial market driven Christianity that is driving people away.”
Relationships – Relational evangelism is one of the buzzwords that has been doing the round for some time now. People do need relationships but again they need real ones. It is quite wrong to become friends with someone in order to ‘bring them to Christ’. It is manipulative, patronising and unreal.
“Take these three things together and what do we end up with. People must first of all have a real, radical relationship with Jesus Christ. The heart of all evangelism and apologetics stems from that. Then we must have the same real, radical relationship with the Lords people in his church. Again that is crucial. The ultimate apologetic is the apologetic of the Church and the love that Christians have for one another. It should be transparent but not showy. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples if you have love one for another. Many people are deeply cynical and all our protestations of love, peace etc. will be only words unless they see reality in our lives and our relationships with one another. They do not believe us – they know that an elder is just as likely to commit adultery as anyone else. We need a recovery of the practice of open, loving and biblical church discipline. That is also true of our relationships with those outside the Church. They too need to be real and radical.”
It has struck us, as first time commissioners, that the outgoing Moderator’s address was such a poignant message for all of us present. The penetrating points made by David Robertson can so easily be lost on us when we rush through the talk.
Wouldn’t you agree that one of the perennial problems of our age is our inability to stop and think? We hear a stirring message; we feel its impact. Do we then walk away from the demands it places on our life, failing to give them a second thought?
In light of this, can we gently encourage every member to read it and then, perhaps at a Midweek meeting, to discuss it – allowing the force and application of the message to sink in. On the first Wednesday in July we both intend to have discussion on the Moderator’s speech. Keep an eye out for it in the June edition of the Record.
Informing Our Preaching
We are grateful to David for doing a lot of spade work in his message for us as preachers, since he informs of us of the cultural narrative, the current thinking prevalent in society today. This cultural narrative is the very thing we try to address from the Bible in our preaching. So, thanks, David!
What about you?
How has David’s address informed and enabled you to take on the issues you see around you?
If you are a preacher, how has his talk influenced or helped you?
A Nationwide Vision
Look again at what he said in terms of reaching our society:
“We should aim to have at least one good, Reformed, Bible-teaching, contemporary church within 30 minutes drive (or walk?) of everyone in Scotland today.”
This point struck us strongly. The situation for the congregation on Mull is that the nearest church of this kind is an hour and a half away by car and ferry! For Cumbernauld, we are the only such congregation in an area of 50,000 people! We both feel the need for more churches like those envisioned in the Moderator’s address, and on that topic, we would like to share with you something from our own presbytery. We were refreshed and enthused by a vision Colin Dow of Glasgow City gave us for the ‘A724 Corridor,’ an area east of the city with a population of 120,000. Last night (Tuesday 31st May), he outlined a proposal to explore this area – taking in the conurbations of Blantyre, Hamilton, Halfway, Newton, Rutherglen and Cambuslang – with a view to establishing a gospel witness. To the south, Rory Stott of Ayr and Kilwinning spoke to us of a joint venture with Erskine Independent Evangelical Church. They plan to invest in an evangelist to help in reaching out to North Ayrshire. These are encouraging plans, and we ask you to join us in praying for their realisation and success in the grace of God.
So, those are some of our thoughts. We look forward to sharing more of David Robertson’s helpful address with you tomorrow. Please do keep reading along, and let us know your thoughts – we’d love to hear them!