FarFlung: Rev. Joe Barnard, BA '05, on ministry, secularism and life in rural Scotland

FarFlung: Rev. Joe Barnard, BA '05, on ministry, secularism and life in rural Scotland

Originally from Covington, Louisiana, Joe Barnard came to Baylor primarily due to the strength of the liberal arts offerings, the academic rigor of the Honors College and the flexibility of the University Scholars Program. He was Junior Class president and a member of Kappa Sigma (among other activities) during his time at the university, where he met his wife, Anna Coutant Barnard, BBA ’05. The Barnards and their four children live in the Highlands of Scotland, where he is the pastor of Kiltarlity Free Church in Kiltarlity, a village of 1,500 near Inverness.

How did your time at Baylor influence you?

It was a formative experience, with nothing more important than meeting my wife Anna there. A great thing I took from Baylor was being shaped by a range of Christian influences, having the early church, the medieval church and the modern church all opened up to me.

In terms of developing a Christian worldview, I encountered such a diverse but interesting set of faithful Christian thinkers and mentors, such as David Jeffrey, Phillip Donnelly and Jeff Fish. They opened up intellectual horizons that I never would have explored or known about, which have continued to shape me. Some of those relationships have continued into friendships beyond Baylor.

Another thing would be leadership. My last year there I ended up being a candidate for some of the national scholarships. There were a variety of Baylor people who invested in me, helping me to develop social grace and to gain a more global perspective. Through that process, I became a different person. Baylor was a wonderful place to grow in character and be challenged to take on responsibility and difficult situations.

The range of academic and social experiences Baylor offers gives you social flexibility and an ability to adapt that I’ve really appreciated moving into a different culture in a different place. I can’t say enough positive things about Baylor.

What happened between Baylor and now?

I did some graduate work at Baylor, worked at Live Oak Classical School in Waco, and had an apprenticeship with Redeemer Presbyterian before moving to Scotland in 2008. I completed a one-year master’s program at the University of St. Andrews before a door opened to come up to the Highlands with a church that was too small to support a full-time minister. So I was working in church revitalization and outreach in an unofficial capacity. As the church grew, it developed into a full-time role, although I only officially became a minister two years ago.

How does church leadership looks different in Scotland?

The Highlands and a lot of Scotland is stuck in a Victorian model of ministry. Although the culture has moved on—it’s pretty much a 21st century secular European country—the church is like a microcosm of what existed 150 years ago. And so, everything about church culture, the patterns, the traditions, are still holding fast to a former world. The view of the ministry was—and still is—very much the caricature of the old Scottish guy with the thick collar in a black suit, doing the official ministry of baptizing, marrying and burying. There’s something very charming about all of that, but there’s something tragic as well.

How is your congregation becoming more relevant to the community? How are people responding?

Speaking to contemporary issues, refocusing on the Gospel, rediscovering the New Testament model of missional community, engaging the village outside of the church, and breaking the stranglehold of unhelpful traditions are all points of emphasis.

The arts are also important. The Highlands has a wonderful tradition of folk music and instrumentation, and we are trying to bring this heritage into the church by singing the Psalms—the traditional praise of the Scottish church—to a more Celtic sound and rhythm. From that point of view, we have been trying to revitalize praise in the Highland church while also bridging the gap between church and culture.

How are you trying to confront cultural secularism?

Scotland, like most of Europe, is deeply secular. Secularism has shaped the intellectual framework of people, regardless of whether they are Christians or not. I’m trying to confront this through preaching, through clear application and trying not just to combat it intellectually, but to find a corporate life together that reflects the reality of the Gospel. The challenge of contemporary ministry in Europe is trying to rediscover the church in a 21st century, secular environment.

Unlike the Bible Belt, there’s no residual spiritual appetite in Scotland for Christianity. The perception of the church is that it is obsolete, out-of-date and irrelevant, so if there’s any kind of spiritual need felt by a person, the last place that she will look for direction is the church. To add pain to injury, Scotland also suffers from a staunch tradition of legalism. You can still find village playgrounds with signs that say, “Do not use on the Sabbath.” That’s the impression that’s been left of what religion is. I’m convinced the only way to combat this bias is through gospel community. The communal life of the church has to reveal the power and relevance of the gospel. So, it’s a slow road to evangelism. Gone are the days of the 1960s when Billy Graham could come in and do a revival in Glasgow and people would come out and be converted. A conversion in Scotland is typically going to take five years, measuring the time between first sharing the Gospel with someone to them living a life of discipleship, so it’s a long game.

Where are some places you’ve seen progress?

Alistar Begg refers to this area as some of the hardest spiritual grounds in Scotland. While there’s no low-hanging fruit, we’ve been here long enough to see real change. We’ve seen people coming out of all kinds of backgrounds to become followers of Jesus—witchcraft, hedonism, legalism, you name it. There’s a real vibrancy that’s beginning to occur and good, steady growth with a mixture of ages and backgrounds. Although the statistics are stark for the church nationally, I believe it’s an exciting time for Christians in Scotland. The dead branches have been pruned and what is left is a set of people excited and prayerful about mission and discipleship. I see blessing on the horizon. The hope of Kiltarlity is to be a lighthouse to the wider, rural church in Scotland. If growth and change can happen here, there is reason for people to believe it can happen elsewhere.

The buzz about Kiltarlity has caught the attention of some of the media. A newspaper article by The Press and Journal had a headline of “Minister in cowboy boots tackles church’s reputation.’ What we’re doing is a small thing, a small work, but I think it’s having a wider impact.

What was it like to lead the Time for Reflection at the Scottish Parliament?

It was a great honor. The challenge was to try to say something that preserves the integrity of the Gospel to the range of worldviews represented by the Parliament.

I work for the Free Church, which has a rich history in Scotland stemming back to the 1840s. The Free Church hadn’t been asked to do a reflection in the Parliament in many years. And as an American, you never expect to be asked to speak in the Scottish Parliament. It was a surprise and a privilege.

What is life like for you and your family, living in the Highlands?

Anna, who was a star student at Baylor, is my partner in the work that we do. Like most ministers’ wives, she’s very active in everything. Our kids—ages 9, 7, 4 and 2—climb hills, chase sheep and live a Highland life. They play shinty, an ancient sport played only in the Highlands that both golf and ice hockey come from. It’s a fierce game. There’s a local team, which is the heart of this village. A lot of people have crofts, small share holds with a few cows, maybe 50 sheep. People do that on top of their day jobs.

The climate is a challenge here, the dark winters, a slower way of life. I never would have expected to spend so much time gathering and chopping rewood. Hospitality is a big thing.A lot of time is spent drinking tea and sitting in front of the fire. Taking time to visit is not as important as it once was, but it is still fundamental to village life.

What do you tell Americans when trying to explain what it’s like ministering in the Highlands?

Europe is ahead of the U.S. in terms of secularism. There’s no harsh persecution of Christians, but you do stand out here if you pursue a life of authentic discipleship. It takes courage to be a Christian, especially to become one, since it requires stepping out of the mainstream of peer culture. In most cases, new converts face criticism. Most people don’t want family members or friends to become Christians, so it can cause conflict.

One special thing about the Highland church is there’s this incredible spiritual heritage. They have this term “worthies:” these older people who remember incredible revivals that happened in Scotland as late as the 1950s. They tell the most remarkable stories of blessings coming upon rural villages, spontaneous moments where people would show up in the hundreds to churches, singing Psalms until three in the morning. It feeds this hope that it could happen again in the Highlands. In small groups, there’s a hopeful expectancy, this waiting and this longing for the blessing that Scotland’s known before, really over the last 300 or 400 years, to come again. My real passion, my sense of calling, is I want to see the Church in the Highlands revitalized.


FarFlung features Baylor alumni who have “flung their green and gold” to the ends of the earth. If you’re interested in being featured or know someone who should, contact Baylor Magazine at magazine@baylor.edu.