Young, hopeful and completely committed to God
At 24, Michael Mair is soon to become the Church of Scotland's youngest minister. He talks to Christian Today about what attracted him to the ministry and the experience of young people in an ageing Church.
What attracted you to entering the ministry?
Michael: I became a Christian at the age of about 13, when there was a missions trip to the local Church of Scotland by a group of American teenagers who shared the Gospel message. I decided to become a follower of Christ and that had a huge effect on me and my life, and very soon after that I felt God speaking to me that 'I want you to tell people about me and share what you have and the life that you find in me with people'. Soon after that I felt a calling to ministry. When my school career officers asked me what my chosen career was and I said minister they all looked at each other quite strangely because none of them had ever come across anyone who wanted to do that and they didn't know what the appropriate career advice would be! But there was really nothing else I wanted to do and I was accepted as a candidate when I was 18 and spent the last seven years training.
That's a long time.
Michael: It is a hugely variable process depending on your age and stage when you enter it. I have had pals who came through it in three years but I think because I was quite young they wanted to make sure I had a bit more grounding and I am just coming to the end of my training now.
You became a Christian at 13. Was your experience before that non-Christian or are you from a Christian family?
Michael: I wouldn't say I am from a Christian family but my mum had attended church and dragged us along kicking and screaming with her and I had had conversations with my family in the first few years of being a Christian. My mum, who went to church, would accuse me of being a fanatic and taking things too far! So I don't think there was ever a connection between what you do in church on Sunday and it really impacting on the rest of your life.
What about your friends at school? Did they think your choice of career was a bit unusual?
Michael: I think it helped me that almost as soon as I went to high school that was what I wanted to do and so that kind of just became part of who I was. It wasn't that half way through high school I suddenly changed and had a Paul on the Damascus Road experience. It was just who I was so people were able to accept that. It is a little strange and odd and of course, you get labelled as the token Christian and what not, but I found it to be a really positive thing and at the end of my sixth year I was nominated to be vice captain and felt really appreciated.
Some young Christians do say they find it difficult to be one of the few Christians at school, particularly where they don't join in some of the things that the other kids are doing.
Michael: You always have the moral dilemmas going through high school. You test your independence, you try things. There were parties where there was no adult supervision and you have to make the choice of: Do I indulge? Do I partake? Do I go too far with this? Do I hold back? We all have to make those decisions and sometimes we mess up and make fools of ourselves. But without that we never understand where our limit is. There are times we can make a huge embarrassment of ourselves and let ourselves down and are disappointed in that, but it's always how you come back from that. Instead of indulging when people invited me along, it became my role to pick people up when they had had too much to drink, get them into the car or the taxi, and look after people when they got into a bit of a state. So you find these niche rolls that are open to you because you are the caring Christian and people are quite open to that. It's just looking at these opportunities that we've got and before we open our mouths to speak, we've got to wash feet and serve.
It's interesting you mention the 'caring Christian'. We hear so much about secularism but it seems like although a lot of people may not understand what the faith is about anymore, they still make the mental connection that Christians are a force for good in some way.
Michael: There are always two sides to the coin and what we have in the UK at the moment is a great deal of cultural Christianity and that bedrock of what everything has been based on is still hugely prevalent in society. Churches and people of faith are all about being nice and doing nice things, loving neighbours as ourselves, which is a real opportunity, because if we can live up to that stereotype then that gives us a platform to say 'Come and listen to why we do these things', 'Come and see what gives us the motivation.' And I think that's a real positive.
People have expectations of Christians as the people who love and so we have an opportunity to live up to that. If we meet some of those expectations, that is a great thing. If we fail to meet some of those expectations, that is an incredibly damaging thing. I think part of what we are called to do now is to know what these expectations are and to surpass them.
What did you enjoy about training for the ministry?
Michael: Doing it at such a young age, I had a huge amount of freedom to travel and have different experiences. I picked up a job as a youth worker to improve my skills there and alongside that I did a placement at the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh to learn what chaplaincy is about and how that works, the particular conversations you can have there, and what the limitations are in a purely secular environment as a God person. Then my wife and I went up to Culloden near Inverness and spent a summer season at the church there. After graduating we spent two years in Amsterdam with the Presbytery of Europe. It was a phenomenal opportunity at the church there to support them and see Christianity in a different culture and context.
It's a lot more diverse that what might expected from training for the ministry! Did you ever feel out of your comfort zone?
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Michael: With the hospital chaplaincy, your options for the God chat are limited unless someone else brings it up and I was going around as a young, 21-year-old, very healthy man and meeting people who were literally at death's door or meeting families who are weeping because their children who are my age are in a high dependence unit and there is a big elephant in the room when you say 'God still cares for you', when all these things are happening to someone my age. These things are enormously difficult.
In Amsterdam there is a very fallen culture. Things that we see as morally abhorrent like prostitution and gateway drugs are culturally acceptable. You see things that are hard to comprehend. But the point of doing these hugely varied things in training is so that you are constantly stretched and challenged and prodded at and you have to reflect 'Well, who am I and what do I think about this?' 'What does that say about God?' and 'How do I tell people about God?'.
What issues do you think you might engage in when you become a minister in Scotland?
Michael: I am in the process of applying for parishes at the moment but I am drawn to something very urban, my heart is for young people so I would like to work where there are a lot of young people. I think one of the challenges overall is the image of young people in the media and the public perception, particularly young people from priority areas or financially challenged places. There seems to be an apathy or lack of drive to engage with people and to provide what they require.
It would be great if our churches said 'Come and use our buildings'. They don't need to provide a programme, just don't smoke or drink in the buildings, but come have your chats here. And then we could see what develops from that first step.
The evangelical movement in the Victorian era saw this cycle of crime and poverty and felt that if the children from these areas could be educated and have morality instilled in them it would break this cycle of poverty and crime and so they set up the Ragged Schools - that was before education was a right for every child. It didn't work for everyone but it did give many of these children a hope that they could be so much more than what they saw themselves as being. Lord Shaftesbury gave a speech about the Ragged Schools and how he believed that not one of these children couldn't be raised to be a peer of the realm.
That was a revolutionary idea and I think we could still do that today. There are still areas where people are being kept in this cycle of poverty and crime and are being ignored by the state and ignored by the church and we can go in with a message of justice and love and hope and I suppose that's what the Gospel is all about it's about giving life in all its fullness.
Do you think there is still a lot of optimism across the Church that it can play this kind of role in the lives of young people?
Michael: I think there should be. There are loads of examples of current youth (and adult) work that are having a radical and life-changing effect on individuals and communities. Street Pastors, XLP, Hot Chocolate in Dundee; they all are making an enormous impact on the lives they are touching. We are still seeing the cycles of crime and poverty that the Victorians saw. Our response has to be different because our times are different, and we can't just replicate what works in London, or Dundee or Edinburgh because wherever we are based, our location is different. What we have to do is look at our communities, love them and then work out what we can do that will make a radical impact.
There is a danger though. At times we expect the work we invest heavily in will have an impact that we can measure in church attendance. But while we work hard at engaging with our communities, we can be somewhat lax at reshaping our church services to be more friendly or relevant. Part of the struggle we will all face in the coming years is how we retain meaningful worship traditions yet also incorporate new ways of doing and being church.
Many older Christians are asking themselves this question too of how the church can attract more young people as some congregations have very few younger members.
Michael: Being the only young person under the age of 65 in a congregation is not an isolated experience. I've just come away from the Church of Scotland National Youth Assembly and it is not unusual at all to be the only young person in the congregation. That is not only depressing for the older people looking out and seeing a generation of churchless young people, but it's also demoralising for the young person who thinks 'There's no one I can relate to unless I come to a big youth meeting'. The National Youth Assembly is an opportunity for such young people to come together and express themselves and it is amazing to see young people take ownership and leadership in the Church, and wrestle with important issues.
You are going to become a minister soon and are still praying about where you will be placed, but what are you looking forward to once this role becomes a reality?
Michael: It will be the realisation of 10 years' worth of calling so it would be good to get to that milestone. It's tempting to say that I'm starting my ministry but I think my ministry already started in the last 10 years of training and will continue among the people I come into contact with. I am looking forward to getting to know the people God will entrust to me for a short time, that's really exciting, and I am just looking forward to dreaming dreams and having a vision for a place that I don't know yet and seeing those opportunities and saying 'What can we do here and how can we affect this small world in a way that will affect the big world?'.