Scotland Mission Trip
Earlier this month I went as part of a mission trip with my local church. The reason we went to Scotland is that western Europe is almost a post-Christian culture. Statistics show that less than 10% of the population attends church. Indeed, it is not going to far to say that there is almost a neo-pagan attitude towards religion.
Twenty-six of us went, split almost evenly between adults and high-school kids. We flew through Manchester, thankfully avoiding the labor strikes that plagued Heathrow.
We stayed in Motherwell, Scotland, city of some 320,000 that is itself in a post-industrial state (ok, I promise to stop using "post-" this and that). Great Britain became a great power partially because of its steel mills and ship building. Perhaps the last stand of the old industrial economy was in the 19890s when Margaret Thatcher went toe-to-toe with labor leader Andrew Scargill over the issue of closing unprofitable coal mills. Scargill's defeat signaled the last hurrah of the old-time economy. Today much of the UK's economy is based on high-tech enterprises, but the transition has not been so easy for many people.
I bring all this up not to provide an excuse, or even a reason, for the people there to have turned away from Christianity. It was meant merely to set the stage for the rest of the post.
Our destination in Motherwell was a small church called Calvary Christian Fellowship Motherwell.
We stayed at the church, sort of "camping out" on the floor, the people there having provided air mattresses for us. They also fed us well, the ladies of the church were quite dedicated in cooking us large dinners.
On to the purpose of our trip. We performed two main functions while we were there: One, we taught a "Vacation Bible School" for elementary-school age kids, second, we engaged in what can be called "street evangelism".
Religion in Scotland
My purpose here is not to provide a complete history and analysis of the situation in Scotland. But anyone who has paid attention knows that as a whole we in the states are more religious than the people of western Europe. It's pretty well known, for example, that one reason that European elites look down on President Bush is that he is open about his faith.
If Wikopedia is to be believed, about 65% of the population claims church membership. The website Scottish Christian says that 11% of Scots attend church regularly, which is actually higher than the English, which come in at 7%.
The trend is consistent throughout western Europe, according to this story in USA Today, which quotes statistics provided by the World Christian Database, says that church attendance is less than 10% in France, The Netherlands, and Sweden.
By contrast, about 40% of Americans go to Church or Synagogue regularly, and well over 90% profess some belief in God.
The worst part is that the trend is strongly downhill in western Europe. While the US seems to be in another of our periodic religions "awakenings", fewer and fewer people are going to church in western Europe, this from another table in the USA Today article cited above.
The stereotype of the European who looks down at Americans who attend church is typified by this CBN story which quotes American author Richard Miniter telling of his experience living in Brussles:
Richard Miniter lives in Brussels and is a correspondent for The London Sunday Times. He said, "When, as an American in Europe, you tell Europeans that you go to church on Sunday, they look at you like a museum piece—something strange."
I was immediately struck by how hard the people on the street looked in Motherwell. I would was a "what you lookin' at" attitude. I did not feel unsafe, it wast a general stare-straight-ahead-don't-you-bother-me thing. Not a friendly bunch.
One was also struck by the number of pubs in the area. While it is indeed a British thing to 'pop out for a quick pint' we were informed that the drinking in this area was more on the frankly American style of getting soused than the more reserved two-pints-and-go-home attitude that I encountered in Ireland when I visted that Island in the '90s.
The church building itself was kept secure with everything from bars on the windows, to doors that were always kept locked, to a gate and fence with sharpened tops surrounding much of the property. They had had problems with people trying to break in, and even a few late-night episodes of drunks pounding on the door(for whatever reason drunks do what they do).
Vacation Bible School
Think of VBS as kind of a five-day extended "Sunday school" and you'l get the picture. The whole thing was based on an "African Safari" theme, a sort of package you order from some company, which came complete with all the paraphahalia that yoou'd expect; posters, pictures, balloons for the walls, a few fake palm trees, and various activity books.
Calvary Motherwell holds these Vacation Bible Schools all summer long, with various American churches coming to help teach them. As luck would have it were were last, and our week was just before school starts again in Scotland. Attendance was less than earlier in the summer, as our 17 students were fewer than our 26 'teachers'. But no matter.
My job in the whole affair (other than helping as needed) was to take part in a little skit or play that we did. Every day we did one or two acts for the kids. The theme was forgiveness and I got to play the bad guy who eventually comes 'round in the end. It was more fun than I thought it would be!
The VBS was two hours per day, so even with prep time we had lots of time left over.
One evening we all went to a spot near the local supermarket, took a few guitars (we were blessed with some very talented folks), sang Christian songs, and handed out flyers and literature. We spoke to whomever seemed interested in talking about Jesus.
On a few days we went around neighborhoods and handed out flyers advertising a concert that the church was holding. An American band from a California church performed at Calvary Motherwell the last Thursday that we were there.
One of the most interesting places we went was Edinburgh Castle. I'm a huge history buff and found it fascinating.
After the castle we took a walk through the wild side. It was the week of the Fringe Festival, "fringe" being just about what you think it means: whackos galore, dressed up in all sorts of costumes.
They took up maybe two blocks, and were made up of maybe four groups: One handing out playbills for their theater productions. From what I saw most of these plays were leftie affairs, "pushing the boundaries of taste" and all that. Second was some street theater. I didn't get close enough to hear any of it and just as well. Third was one group of certified American moombats, ranting against the war; "Bush only got 51% of the vote and that's not a mandate!" yeah ok. Last was just assorted weirdos running around in various costumes, some somewhat normal, some fairly vulgar.
So what did we do? With those handing out playbills we traded them for Christian tracts. I'm sure no one was converted but if nothing else it was amusing to see the look on their faces.
I took lots of photos. If I hadn't been with my group I'd have engaged the American moonbats in discussion. No point in arguing; I'd have tried to find out what groups they were affiliated with and all that.
After that we went to a nearby park and ate lunch. After that we broke out the guitar and sang a few songs. Anyone in a nearby group who made eye contat with us got a friendly visit. And the visits did turn out to be quite friendly; they asked the hard questions and we gave straight answers. Again, people don't convert on the spot, but you can plant seeds. Whether or when the seed grows is not up to us.
I don't do well in personal evangelism, so I let others in our group take the lead in the discussions. As much as I like to talk and argue politics and history, I find talking about faith very difficult. So it was a learning experience and fortunately I was with some very insprirational people.
I don't have any kids of my own, and the neices and nephews are still in elementary school, so I don't get a lot of interaction with high school aged kids. Before this trip, I've been on three mission trips, all with another church, and in each of them we had about a 50-50 split between adults and high school kids.
The short version is that these trips absolutely renew my faith in young people, at least in the ones who are involved in churches. Our country is in good hands if they are the ones who take the reigns when we pass on.
Certainly the kids on this trip exceeded all expectations. They are much more willing to share their faith with total strangers, whereas I was often unsure and hesitant. They did a fantastic job with the Vacation Bible School. When you get disillusioned by stories of this or that in the press, my advice is to visit the youth groups at your local church.
I have been fortunate in my life to have had the opportunity to visit many places and to go on may trips. I've been to six countries in Europe, and across the U.S. from Washington DC to Los Angeles. I've traveled with friends, parents, and church groups.
Let's face it, traveling is a pain, especially overseas trips where flying east always causes me to loose a night's sleep (I can never sleep on a plane). And I am the worst; for some reason I never pack or gather things to bring until the last minute, then I spend the last two days running around frantically. When I leave the house I am plagued with the feeling that I forgot to bring something, or left some appliance on in the house. It's only when I'm actually on the plane (or far along on the road) to where it subsides.
But what is life if not without memories? My philosphy is to seize the moment when it comes, because most opportunities do not come twice.
With maybe one exception, these mission trips raise my spirits and renew my faith in God and in other people. There is no destination, only the journey.