If you could stumble across Scotland on social media, she would be the girl you remember from youth group—the one who went to all the Bible studies, the one you expected to head to the mission field. You’d have to blink and rewatch her post before it would sink in—she’s deconstructed her faith, more completely and rapidly than you thought possible.
Her U-turn would be so unexpected that you might call a friend to help you process it. It might even make you question your own faith a little.
In the past, Scotland’s Christianity—especially her adherence to Reformed theology—has been unusually strong. Her government and church were strongly influenced by John Knox, who was strongly influenced by John Calvin. By the 1920s, about half of Scotland’s population was connected to a church (nearly all of which were Presbyterian).
“The city looked like a modern-day Christian Athens,” he said. “There were churches—places of worship—absolutely everywhere. And the astonishing thing was they were all made of this extraordinarily strong, powerful, almost overpowering granite. They looked truly magnificent.”
The Church of Scotland had it all—good theological heritage, good attendance, and good buildings. It also had the strong support—yet not the interference—of the government. But if you knew where to look, the cracks were already starting to show. Though church membership was massive, the giving was “terrible,” Ferguson said.
Not long after, Scottish Christianity collapsed. In 60 years, the Church of Scotland plummeted from 1.3 million to 300,000 members. Meanwhile, the proportion of Scots who claim no religion has risen to nearly 60 percent.
Aberdeen is now the most secular city in Scotland, which is the most secular country in the United Kingdom. Her massive granite church buildings are restaurants and apartments and bars with names like Soul. A few years ago, a photographer documenting the shift called it “Jesus Has Left the Building.”
On Queen Street in downtown Aberdeen, near the police station, the city council offices, and the local newspaper, sits one of the largest church buildings in the city. Four years ago, it was sold—not to a nightclub or a retail store, but to a gospel-centered congregation.
Trinity Church had left the Church of Scotland more than a decade ago. In the years since, she’s preached the gospel, started a student ministry, and grown a bit. She’s too small for the enormous building, but when her congregants look at the space, they see possibility and hope.
So does Ferguson. “God willing, it will be a real beacon in the city,” he said.
Those aren’t just nice words. Ferguson has bought a home in Aberdeen. In his retirement years, one of the most influential modern Reformed pastor-theologians will spend his time preaching mainly evening services on one of the most secular streets in Scotland.
“To me, this is a sign of spring,” he said. “Who knows what kind of harvest the church will see? Will it be 30-fold? 60-fold? 100-fold? That’s God’s business and his prerogative. But this sign of spring encourages us to keep on sowing.”
‘Jesus Has Left the Building’
The congregation that first built on Queen Street left the Church of Scotland about 165 years before Trinity did. Their pastor, John Murray, objected to land-owning nobles (not all of whom were even believers) selecting clergy for their local congregations. He wasn’t the only one. In the biggest church split in Scottish history, 474 of 1,200 pastors walked out of the Church of Scotland and started the Free Church of Scotland in 1843.
Murray’s congregation later became the North Church, and under a string of influential and capable evangelical pastors, they grew. By the early 1860s, the church was “the evangelical center for the whole city,” church historian Alexander Gammie reported. When the denomination wanted to start an outreach to “the masses in the lower parts of [the] city,” North was the obvious choice to lead.
The congregation “unanimously and enthusiastically resolved to adopt the scheme,” Gammie wrote in 1909. To pull it off, they’d need a lot of space, so they built an 18,500-square-foot, five-story building. They filled it up with outreach services, a choir, and an orchestra. They held nine different services and meetings each Sunday, followed by 26 more during the week. Staff and volunteers buzzed around the “hive of industry,” Gammie wrote, and were so effective that “many visitors have come from other parts of the country to see the scheme in operation.”
This was the heyday of the church in Scotland which had, at that point, been a staunchly professing Reformed Christian country for about 350 years. The doctrine was so solid that few, if any, churches split over it. Instead, they kept arguing about who got to appoint the minister—the congregation or the God-ordained government. (Perhaps you noticed King Charles’s recent oath to preserve the independence of the Church of Scotland. And though he’s the official head of the Church of England, his position doesn’t extend to the Church of Scotland. Neither of those things is an accident.)
However, these were also the days when pastors and theologians began suggesting a new way to view the Bible. There might be inaccuracies in there, and that’s OK, they said. The creation story was probably a Babylonian myth. Abraham didn’t actually exist. Noah’s flood almost certainly didn’t happen. Neither did Jonah’s fish. Actually, the Old Testament shows man’s religious evolution away from those primitive beliefs.
“Until this point in history the fundamental question for Christians was, ‘What does the word of God say?’” Banner of Truth editor Iain Murray wrote. “The new question had to be, ‘How much of the Bible is the word of God?’”
And then: What about Christ? How much of what he said is real?
The church “lost its confidence, lost its way,” said church elder Simon Barker, who watched that continue in both England and Scotland over the past few decades. The church was “suddenly ashamed of Christ, and thought that it couldn’t possibly expect people to believe in a risen Savior. And therefore, with a sort of Enlightenment attitude, rather embarrassingly stared at its feet, stopped teaching the Word, and started saying, ‘Well, if we could just be nice to one another and play ball, it’s going to be fine.’”
When the majority of the Free Church reunited with the Church of Scotland in 1929, it did so with a compromised statement—that the Word of God is “contained” in Scripture. None of the theologians who preached biblical errancy were disciplined.
By the time Ferguson was earning his theology degrees in the 1960s and ’70s, only one or two of his professors were old-fashioned evangelicals. The evangelical student club was so small they joked they could meet in a phone booth.
The Church Without Christ
Four hundred years of good theology doesn’t disappear overnight.
In the 1950s and ’60s, “everybody I knew was connected to the church,” said Ferguson, who went to Sunday school weekly even though his parents didn’t attend any services. In his state-run school, he memorized the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Beatitudes. Church services were televised, double-decker buses took kids on Sunday-school picnics, and the annual General Assembly was widely covered by national media.
But the giving was starting to dip. You could look it up in the Church of Scotland Year Book, which listed congregational membership alongside giving.
“When I was in the college library, I overheard a conversation between a minister and the college librarian,” Ferguson said. “The minister said, ‘Have you seen the amazing givings in Mr. Still’s congregation?’”
Ferguson’s ears caught that—he was part of the church that Still was revitalizing through expository preaching and love for the Lord. (To hear more of that story, listen to Ferguson’s audio story.)
“The librarian said, ‘Oh, yes, well, it’s full of students,’” Ferguson remembered. He was offering it as an explanation for the large income, but Ferguson wasn’t fooled for a second. Students don’t have a lot of money, he thought. That’s hogwash.
The main reason people weren’t giving is that they weren’t in church. Though about 60 percent of Scots were members of a church in 1957, less than 20 percent were showing up each week. The high membership rolls masked the problem for a long time. They also killed motivation to evangelize.
“It induces in us who are ministers the complacent thought that our task is at least half done,” wrote Tom Allan, who was the executive chairman of the Billy Graham All Scotland Crusade in 1955.
Some Bible-believing Christians took action—the six-week Graham crusade introduced thousands to Christ. In the early 1970s, William Still began inviting pastors to gather. That event would grow to several hundred evangelical pastors a year—the largest meeting outside the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly. At Ferguson’s InterVarsity group, anyone who didn’t exposit the text wasn’t likely to be invited back. And more men were going into the ministry not because their fathers had, but because they felt called.
“That increased the sense that God was doing something in our time,” Ferguson said. “The wind was behind us.”
But while there were evangelical pastors, and some evangelical church members, they were usually minorities even within their own congregations, Ferguson said. And “unless the gospel is grounded in community, there is no guarantee of its future.”
There was also no structure to support them. “In the United States, evangelicals created institutions,” he said. “I don’t mean this pejoratively, but in the good sense. They institutionalized the evangelical convictions to preserve them for the future.”
In Scotland, people don’t write statements or create nonprofits nearly so quickly or easily.
“The strategy [of Scottish evangelical leaders]—and there was a very definite strategy—was essentially not to have a strategy,” he said. “The language that was used was ‘quiet infiltration.’”
In a single congregation, a conservative pastor can sometimes pull that off. But on a denominational level, it doesn’t work. Instead, the mild-mannered middle—even if it’s full of people who believe in Jesus—chooses the path of least resistance. In a liberalizing culture, that’s liberalization.
“The danger of quiet infiltration,” Ferguson said, “is that you are quietly infiltrated.”
That’s how a trickle of biblical errancy, fed by a culture that loves scientific rationalization, can grow into a stream. And that’s how a stream of biblical compromise, fed by a culture that says everyone gets their own truth, can grow into a river.
Little by little, that movement can carry away a church’s foundation—even one laid thick and solid on 400 years of Reformed theology.
Sometime in the 1960s, the bottom dropped out.
“For many years, the decline was attributed to the dropping off of ‘dead wood,’ people who had become members of the Church without any real commitment to Christ,” pastor David Randall wrote in 2015. “It was once possible to be consoled by the thought of a leaner and fitter Church.”
That consolation didn’t last long. Over the past six decades, there has been no rebound, plateau, or even slowing in the straight drop of Scotland’s church membership.
The official story is that the church is suffering from Scotland’s falling birth rate or the church’s failure to reach the younger generation and that better technology use or more liberalization might help. Since 2009, the Church of Scotland has voted time and again to expand recognition of same-sex relationships.
Instead of attracting participation from those outside the church, those votes just accelerated the exodus of conservative pastoral candidates, pastors, and churches.
One was High Church, Hilton, on the north side of Aberdeen.
Peter Dickson quietly began an evangelical ministry in High Hilton in the mid-90s.
“He effectively planted the gospel within a dying church,” said David Gibson, who was later his assistant pastor. “They had no history of Bible teaching. He started with 10-minute sermons.”
Every so often, Dickson would lengthen the sermons, until eventually they reached 30 minutes.
“He watched men and women get converted through clear and warm expository preaching, loving them, and by making the manse a place of welcome and care,” Gibson said. “He slowly turned up the spiritual temperature within church life.”
Simon Barker was on the elder board. “I don’t think most of them believed,” he said. Watching them come to faith “was a humbling experience,” he said. “That happened quite a few times.”
About 15 years into Dickson’s ministry there, another church in the presbytery called a minister who had left his wife and daughter to participate in a same-sex relationship. Dickson and 11 other pastors objected, arguing—and losing—at the local presbytery and later at the General Assembly.
After three years of “negotiations, discussions, church courts, decisions meetings and correspondence,” the Church of Scotland decided to send assessor elders to help run High Hilton. In response, Dickson left the denomination.
“Fifteen years before, nobody would have left with him,” Gibson said. But by this time, the congregation had been hearing the gospel regularly for years. Of the over 200 members, 170 went with him.
They were the first congregation to leave the Church of Scotland over its stance on sexuality.
“That was a really difficult process,” said Barker, who was on the elder board the whole time. Putting the gospel before your denomination, especially if you’re the first to leave, is deeply painful and exhausting.
“We wept over that,” he said. “It was not an easy thing to do. You never want to cleave apart—what kind of message does that send to the world? It wasn’t a great thing to do. But it was the only thing we could do.”
The departing group called themselves Trinity Church and began meeting in a fading art deco hotel ballroom, where you could sometimes find party debris or catch a whiff of liquor from the night before.
“It taught us a good lesson on not being reliant on buildings,” Barker said. “But it also taught us how limiting it is to operate without a building.”
Trinity couldn’t get into the ballroom when they wanted for Christmas and Easter, since the room was booked for big parties. It was hard to start neighborhood ministries since they couldn’t invite anyone over. And they were always cognizant that one viral sermon clip could get them kicked out.
The feeling of rootlessness was compounded by a jump into the International Presbyterian Church (IPC) as their new denominational home. It was founded by Francis Schaeffer—think lots of good conversation, lots of good fellowship, and, in recent years, exciting church-planting activity in the U.K. and Europe. There was confessional commitment and gospel life, but the relationships were new and would take time to grow deep.
Dickson and Gibson kept getting up to preach, Sunday after Sunday. Eventually, Dickson moved on to lead the student ministry of the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship in Scotland, and Gibson became the lead minister of Trinity.
“Peter’s costly and extraordinary faithfulness and the long-lasting fruit of his ministry at Hilton and Trinity is one of the most wonderful things I’ve seen,” Gibson said.
Slowly, Trinity continued to grow. They began raising money for their own building. At an IPC meeting, Gibson got to meet Sinclair Ferguson, one of the most well-regarded Reformed theologians in the world.
And Ferguson got to meet David Gibson.
“God has given David a great determination,” Ferguson said. “He is intellectually very able, and he’s a very able expositor. He has a real love for his congregation. And together with his elders, they have a real sense that they can create something in the city.”
Remember that congregation that left the Church of Scotland in 1843—the one started by John Murray? The one with so many packed-out services and ministries and volunteers that it looked to observers like a beehive?
Within 100 years, the hive was nearly empty. Only 30 congregants moved slowly around the building—a sanctuary that seats 1,000, two additional halls, multiple classrooms, and a three-bedroom apartment for the caretaker.
In 1929, the congregation had rejoined the Church of Scotland, which has been efficient in consolidating resources as its membership tumbles.
So the dwindling former North United Free Church was merged with nearby congregations in 2004 and again in 2017. Even before the Church of Scotland officially OK’d same-sex marriage, the congregation “decided to depart from the Church of Scotland’s traditional position in relation to human sexuality in order to be inclusive,” notes the parish profile.
Numbers there are so low that in May, the Church of Scotland announced it will be shut down in the next five years.
The old North building hit the real estate market just about the time Trinity had enough money to seriously consider a purchase. Because the building still belonged to the congregation—through a paperwork mix-up back in 1929—Trinity could buy it without involving the Church of Scotland.
“I remember being a little bit daunted, because it’s so big, and it’s got a lot of rooms in it,” Barker said. It also needs a lot of updating and repair. The roof leaks, the electrical system needs an overhaul, and every single room needs some remodeling.
“You might just want to buy a little bit of it,” the seller’s representative advised Trinity’s elders.
But the more they looked around, the more excited they got.
“It’s crying out to be a gospel hub in a city center,” Gibson said. He could picture outreach lunches for business executives, food or shelter ministries for the homeless, and pastoral interns housed in the caretaker’s apartment.
It was a beautiful vision. But it was going to take a lot of work, and it would be nice to have some help.
Sinclair in Scotland
After writing more than 50 books, speaking at virtually every Reformed conference, teaching at nearly all the Reformed seminaries, and a satisfying run as pastor in a historic South Carolina church, Ferguson retired in 2013.
With no solid plan for retirement—beyond making room for his successor to lead in South Carolina—he headed home to Scotland. He helped at his daughter’s church for a while. When her pastor moved to Australia in 2019, Ferguson knew he wanted to give the new senior pastor some breathing room.
At an IPC event, he mentioned something about it.
Gibson heard it. He went home and wrote a letter, inviting Ferguson to join Trinity’s work in Aberdeen.
Eighteen months went by, and Gibson didn’t receive a response. COVID hit. Trinity shifted online. Things got busy.
“And then one day I was in a supermarket, and he phoned,” Gibson said. Ferguson was on a golf course. (Professional golf was a route he might have taken had he not gone into the ministry.)
“I’m interested,” Ferguson told Gibson. “Let’s have a talk.”
Ferguson was curious enough to come out and see the church, which Trinity used during COVID but has moved back out of until it can be repaired. The first time Ferguson walked in, he was “gobsmacked,” he said.
“It has potentially phenomenal facilities,” he said. He knows the church isn’t the building but loves the idea of a thriving, active, buzzing hub of robust theology and ministry in the heart of Aberdeen.
“Like the cover of a book, buildings do say something,” Ferguson said. “If God grants the provision and [Trinity] fulfills it, it will make quite a statement that something is happening here. . . . People might wonder, ‘Why is it, when other churches are closing, this one is expanding?’”
Signs of Hope
Even if your doctrines were written by John Knox, your theology rooted in the Westminster Confession, and your buildings made of granite, if you don’t have the gospel, your church will fail.
“We’ve got a city where the legacy of Christianity has all but vanished,” Barker said. “Those people who went before us served faithfully to build up the church, and we’ve squandered it in a generation. It’s pretty awful.”
Sometimes “the places which have had the greatest opportunities for the gospel, when they no longer want it, become very hard places,” Ferguson said. In a few years, there will be just four Church of Scotland congregations in Aberdeen’s city center.
“There’s no living gospel witness anywhere in this part of town,” Gibson said. Trinity’s building is right in the heart of the civic, economic, and judicial heart of the city—with business down the street, law courts around the corner, and a city plan for shops and a plaza next door. The University of Aberdeen is within walking distance.
The location is perfect for a church plant. But planting never comes before dying, Gibson said.
“If there is any fruit in Trinity’s ministry, it has come from what was sown in tears in the years previously,” he said. “We often use the organic language of ‘planting’ with little attention to the fundamental seed principle, which is that seeds have to die for a plant to live. Peter’s faithfulness and leadership forged a new path and led us into new fields in which we have plowed and planted. And Trinity is now just trying to carry on the same kind of costly ministry. There has been a lot of dying! . . . I don’t think anyone who does this sort of thing doesn’t ever question—is it worth it? But we are convinced it is, precisely because we’ve already tasted the fruit that comes from death.”
Along with recruiting Ferguson, Gibson has been preaching sermons, asking donors to contribute toward the remodeling, and helping to plan Scotland’s version of the Charles Simeon Trust workshops. By next September, a small coalition of pastors will offer classes that include the principles of exposition, preaching narrative, and genuine gospel ministry. They’ll meet in Trinity’s space.
Like those before him, Gibson wants to send the gospel into the future. And he wants to do it from a building he received from Reformed Christians in the past.
“I see it as a sign of great hope,” Ferguson said. “There are these signs of spring. You know, the Lord doesn’t need to give us those signs of spring. But he is. And Trinity is certainly one of them.”