The downward trend in UK church attendances could be about to go into reverse, with Shetland apparently at the cusp of the changing picture.
That is according to international evangelist and Jewish Christian Martin Goldsmith, the speaker for this year’s Bible Week at the Methodist Church in Lerwick.
The number of people going through church doors every Sunday has been in steady decline over recent decades, but Mr Goldsmith says the picture nationally is beginning to show signs of changing.
“Obviously the church has been going down. Now, I don’t think it’s been going down any more,” he said.
“Generally speaking it’s pretty well static. Interestingly, the church in London is going up. In the last two or three years it’s gone up by about three and a half per cent.
“That’s not massive growth, but it’s not decline. Although London is a tremendous way away from Lerwick, it’s amazing how what happens in London begins to influence gradually out from London into other parts.”
In contrast with much of the rest of the country, he recognised the reasonably strong numbers for church attendances in the isles.
He described Shetland as “not as far down the road of rebellion and reaction” as other areas on the mainland, and says its people are “very warm and welcoming”.
“It would be my hope that Shetland would see some of the tragedy and dangers of going down that road rather than just following 20 years behind.”
Talking with Mr Goldsmith reveals the full extent of the extraordinary life he has led.
He speaks with a wry smile, and often a dry wit, about his experiences and ministry.
He was born in Germany in 1934 – “the same year Hitler came to power, but the two are coinci-dental”. Mercifully, he came to England with his grandparents before the start of the war, although wider members of his family were murdered in the Holocaust.
In adult years he trained as a Russian interpreter for the Navy “in case the Cold War got hot”.
He said he felt at home in Shetland, partly because of an affinity he has with islands, although the island he spent some years on – Bermuda – would seem, at first glance, to have little in common with the Northern Isles.
Actually, Mr Goldsmith has certain aristocratic connections. He is part of the Rothschild family – the European dynasty of German Jewish origin that established European banking and finance houses from the late eighteenth century.
For his part, the young Mr Goldsmith studied modern languages at Oxford, before carrying out further studies in Russian political thought.
But it was his 10 years working in South East Asia with OMF (Overseas Missionary Fellowship) which helped him see the world and work in Christian service.
“We worked in four different countries: Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and South Thailand. We worked among all the different religions – Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist – and also witnessed the tremendous growth of the church in Asia.”
Since then Mr Goldsmith and his wife Elizabeth have had a long association with All Nations Christian College, north of London, where they both lectured for over 20 years. They are now travelling and teaching full time, however. “It has taken us to each of the different continents. On average I’m in almost a different country each month.”
Mr Goldsmith is tolerant of other faiths, and is anxious to learn more about the many places he visits ahead of his arrival.
“It’s always my aim when I go to a place to try and learn what people are thinking. I was once in a Muslim country and a Muslim leader used a lovely expression to me. What he said of one of my books was that he had noticed I was ‘walking in their sandals’.
“I thought that is a lovely expression, never mind whether I actually fulfil it or not. But it would be my aim to try and walk in Shetland’s sandals.”
By the time you read this, Mr Goldsmith will be part-way through his study of Matthew’s gospel. He maintained the first book of the New Testament had particular relevance for today’s society.
“I’m doing Bible studies on Matthew’s gospel, which is written for a little Jewish church in the first century when most Jewish people by that time had rejected Jesus.
“It’s a gospel written specially for a minority church, which of course is what we are in Britain now.
So actually Matthew remains particularly relevant to the British church.”