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Good old Summer Mission has something still to teach us!

The outdoor Church at Millport!

The late, great, Sandy McDonald, minister at my Church in Paisley asked me one day, “Have you ever thought about going on summer mission, Robert?” And from that moment when he explained a little he had me hooked!

In the early 1980s we went to sunny Millport, two ministers with youngsters from two Churches, one in Paisley, one in Glasgow. There were probably about 30 or so on the Mission Team. As the years went on, our Team numbered well over 40, coming and going at different times, representing 18 different Churches and 6 different denominations. When one of Falkirk Presbytery’s Churches was uniting with another, it took many long months to sort out the union because one of the Churches was an ecumenical parish. Only Churches can make such simple things so complicated. Just flippin get on with it! We didn’t need protracted negotiations and multiple forms of agreement to work together on summer mission, we just did it! Good old Summer Mission has something still to teach us!

As the Mission Team met up to begin the fortnight there were the usual polite introductions. From the next day onwards it was like we had been friends for years. No one known by this or that Church, only by their first name. No division, no club mentality, yet is that not what is often in evidence in our Church today in many areas? The Church down the road is sometimes seen as the opposition rather than brothers and sisters in faith! And who is willing to let go “my Church”? The General Trustees tell us again and again that we have far too many Church buildings. We have multiple Churches in areas where one or two would more than suffice and would be more than capable of accommodating worshippers. And the number of ordained ministers is dwindling, with at least one in every three Churches looking for one (without success) within the next four years. We need to overcome the divisions and the club mentality. Good old Summer Mission has something still to teach us!

You helped to fundraise for the mission, you donated what you could afford, many people – from home Churches as well as many local people and businesses – assisted in whatever way they could to support the mission. There was always enough. We had the motto round our long dining table, “stretch or starve”, but in truth, although it was a melee at times, we learned to serve one another. There is something about sharing food together around a table that links people together. Something more than that formal Supper so often “celebrated” in our Churches. Somehow it felt more like communion sharing informally a cup of coffee and a roll with home-made rhubarb and ginger jam. Good old Summer Mission has something still to teach us!

We engaged in Bible study every morning for about an hour. Imagine that? Young people discussing how the words of Scripture might have something to say to their lives today! Enabled by two wonderful ministers – Sandy McDonald and John Campbell – allowing people to question and doubt and discover faith for themselves, rather than be taught what they must believe and be led down a particular theological path unwittingly. Good old Summer Mission has something still to teach us!

We played games with well over a hundred children on the beach for an hour each morning. It was exhausting, especially if you were het in a game of aeroplane tig! We had games in the evenings for older children too. Why games? You got to know the children by name and met their families and they found out that Christians could have a lot of fun. We had about 300 people at our family BBQs, singing songs round the fire and having a whale of a time! Good old Summer Mission has something still to teach us!

In the afternoons we held beach services, weather permitting, but it always seemed to be sunny! (Wearing rose-tinted spectacles at present!) The children gathered round, many adults stood or sat along the promenade and listened too. Amazing who you can reach when you go outside walls! Services led by the ministers? Occasionally. But mainly by Team members, reading, quizzes, stories, praying, singing. Although we might not have known it at the time, we were enacting the ministry of all God’s people. Even my accordion was welcomed! Good old Summer Mission has something still to teach us!

Planning? Yes, we had to meet a few times to plan before we went on mission, but it was more about meeting each other than any guidelines, which were necessary but few. The focus was the mission. Need I say more about the courts of our Church? You know what they can be like! We have built a Church that is meeting orientated, regulated by rules that are often archaic, and the focus on mission gets fuzzed into grey matter. You know where our addendums and our edicts should go! Good old Summer Mission has something still to teach us!

What was the worth of those Summer Missions and their predecessors, the Seaside Missions? For Team members, it was a time to discover faith in a friendly and safe environment where none of us knew it all. And I bet there are many within the Church of Scotland still who look back and remember coming to faith through Summer Mission, and probably many, like myself, who heard the call to ordained ministry through involvement with Summer Mission. We also planted seeds of faith in children and adults through the Mission and God only knows what growth has come over the years since. We would encourage children and adults to go home from their holidays and be part of their local Churches. Some probably did. Others often said, “But it’s nothing like this experience in our local Church”. The writing was on the wall 40 years ago (and before) but Churches continued to follow the format, the one that even today Churches are finding it difficult to depart from and embrace radical change. Good old Summer Mission has something still to teach us!

One of my best moments? When I was working with the Ministries Council, assisting candidates for the ministry. One new candidate came into our meeting room, sat down, looked at me and said, “Are you big Robert from the Millport Mission?” Guilty! The young man opposite had attended the mission as a child and here he was entering ordained ministry! My desire to see reform and radical change in the Church of Scotland today is driven in large part by the experience of Summer Mission, ironically part of the Church of the past yet which was so unlike the Church of the past. We need to create a Church that inspires enthusiasm and faith rather than drains it. We need to create a Church that enables its ministers to be free of the shackles of the old model and encourages them and their people to carry out the ministry that belongs to all God’s people. We need to create a Church that does not belong to buildings. We need to create a Church where there is a heck of a lot more home-made rhubarb and ginger jam!

Times have changed, Summer Mission is no longer, nevertheless good old Summer Mission has something still to teach us!

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