Mark Nicholas is celebrating twenty years as minister at Gorebridge, his first charge. He has also started his year as Moderator of the Presbytery of Lothian. He has been telling John Macgill that challenges and enormous opportunities lie ahead for the Church of Scotland in Lothian and far further afield.
"This is a time of great change for our presbyteries, for the wider church and for our congregations and how people relate to them.
It appears to me that we are seeing the last days of religious observance. The congregations we grew up with were central to the life of our towns and villages, central to our families. But since the peak of Church of Scotland membership in the 1950s, many of our members have witnessed six straight decades of decline in numbers. It has been demoralising. We wonder if it is still possible to introduce people to Jesus Christ, to engage in mission. Many young people have no church background at all. Many others in our communities have some historic connection to church but don’t engage with the life of their local congregation anymore. The inherited faith that our children and our children’s children received from us is not being turned into an owned faith of their own.
Historically, the religious observance we grew up with was the result of mission. Yet I think many of us have forgotten how to do mission; we have lost the confidence to share our faith. But this has not changed: God’s plan to reach people with his love, to rescue them, is the local church. This means presbytery’s primary task must be to support, equip and enable our local congregations in their life and mission. We need to shape our church life nationally and regionally around the mission of the local church.
I was born in Edinburgh and brought up in Dalkeith, so I have not strayed far!
I wanted to be an engineer like my father. But at the age of 16 I came to the realisation that Jesus was risen from the dead and he had a claim on my life. One December day I fell to my bedroom floor and asked Jesus into my life. That one decision profoundly changed the direction of my life. The faith I had inherited from my parents, Clive and Iris (who both served as presbytery elders), became an owned faith. I started praying and, right from the start, wondering if my heavenly Father was calling me to a life of full-time Christian work. I was also praying whether Diane, who was a leader at the Scripture Union at Dalkeith High, was to be my wife. I am delighted and privileged that both these things came to pass.
Over the next few years, I sensed a call to stay in Scotland and then more specifically to ministry in the Church of Scotland. I was a probationer at Penicuik South and Howgate before moving to Gorebridge 20 years ago. We arrived with three children and now have eight. My family have been integral to the life and mission of Gorebridge Parish along with its members and elders. I am so thankful for them all!
So this presbytery is dear to my heart and, indeed, the only presbytery that I have served. It is privilege and a joy to be asked to be its moderator.
One of the things that we say here at Gorebridge is that the primary task of an elder is discernment: is it good with God, is it good with us? As we gather as a presbytery, ordained as elders, ministers and deacons, we are all called to discern God’s guidance together.
I know that God has a vision and purpose for Lothian Presbytery, and we can discern what it is when we work together. I would use the example of our Congregational Development Team. Initially it was established as part of our response to planning for a future with fewer ministers. It has become far more: a visionary response that asks how we seed best practise across the presbytery and how we help congregations to ask those bigger questions of themselves.
I believe we have lost confidence as a Church which, ultimately, expresses itself in a form of unbelief: we imagine that culture, society and public thought have moved away from us, especially our younger people, the three generations who are largely absent from our congregations. We fear we have little to offer. My experience is that nothing could be further from the truth. As I engage with younger people, they want to explore first order questions, they want to know about God, life and death, good and evil, and they are captivated by Jesus. I would love us to regain a humble confidence, a boldness, in sharing what we have in Jesus. We are the bearers of genuine good news, good news they need to hear.
If we take the risk of moving our churches onto a mission footing then we will see fruit. The decline that we are currently going through will not only arrest, but it will reverse, because we will be fulfilling the great commission faithfully.
If we are prepared to reach out and serve the people in our communities who need help, if we can do evangelism alongside that broader mission of bringing the love of Jesus practically to people in need, then again the Church will turn around because we are fulfilling the greatest commandment faithfully.
If we are prayerful and visionary as a presbytery we can, by God’s grace, do extraordinary things together. The blueprint for church is right there in Acts 2. Every year I return to this passage encouraging our congregation to be fully devoted to Jesus, to be a loving family for one another and to dedicate their lives to reaching those who don’t know his love for themselves. What would it look like to have a presbytery full of congregations dedicated to an Acts 2 vision of church, gathering together to love, encourage and support one another in pursuit of our callings? That would be the Kingdom come here on Earth as it is in Heaven. I am absolutely convinced that if we let him, he will show us how, we will discern it together."