Belfast Telegraph

Church leaders’ strategy for the future is a matter of faith

The Presbyterian Church must face up to many long-term challengesat this week’s special assembly, writes Alf McCreary

More than 800 representatives from the Presbyterian Church in Ireland are meeting in Coleraine this week in a Special Assembly, but it is not business as usual.

Unlike the annual General Assembly in June, the members will not discuss important financial and other matters, including the parlous Presbyterian Mutual Society.

Instead, they will concentrate on their faith and spiritual outreach, under the theme Confident in Christ. This is only the fourth such conference in the past 20 years and it also marks a timely challenge to the life and role of the church in a post-Troubles society.

The Moderator, the Rt Rev Dr Norman Hamilton, said: "We want to spell out clearly, but graciously, what we believe and why we believe it."

The churches have yet to find the kind of clear-cut role which they had in the Troubles in condemning the violence and comforting the victims.

The challenges today are from secularism and materialism, in a society where the churches are no longer given an automatic voice as of right in the public debate.

In spite of such challenges, the Presbyterian Church is maintaining its position reasonably well, with a current membership of more than 250,000 people.

This is only 1,200 less than a year ago, though in the past 20 years the overall numbers have fallen from a total of nearly 324,000.

Nevertheless, there are positive aspects as well. The Presbyterian Church's income has increased from £30.6m in 2008 to £31.3m last year - an increase of some 2%. This is in contrast to the 1989 figure of £12.1m.

Though regular churchgoers have an ageing profile, the numbers attending worship in both parts of Ireland are among the highest in Europe, along with Poland. In Northern Ireland, some 45% of the population attend church once a month compared to 17% in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Presbyterians continue to have an adequate supply of candidates for the ministry, with 52 in training and a further 19 scheduled to start training next month.

The number of ministers has remained steady, with a drop of only 47 in the past 20 years to a total of 385 last year. The number of congregations has decreased by only 15 in the same period, to 549 in 2009.

However, the Presbyterian Church, like others, is currently wrestling with how to use its resources better. This includes the amalgamation of congregations - rarely the first option - and the better use of fewer buildings.

Change is often difficult.

There is a contrast also between the traditional forms of formal Presbyterian worship and the more modern approach with more informality and contemporary music - some of it good, but some very poor.

Some of the more evangelical churches report a rise in numbers.

One of the big challenges facing all churches is to renew the faith of lapsed members and to make Christianity relevant to a wider range of people in a secular society.

This is why the theme of the Presbyterian Assembly in Coleraine this week - Confident in Christ - is timely if it is to attract people seeking spiritual comfort and challenge - even if they do not attend regular worship.

On the other hand, the Church universal has more than 2,000 years of experience in doing just that.

Alf McCreary is the Belfast Telegraph’s religion correspondent

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