The Church of Scotland could cease to exist within 50 years unless radical reform is introduced to halt a severe fall in the number of worshippers.
An estimated 17,000 members are leaving the Kirk each year while ministers are becoming harder to recruit and fund-raising remains at dangerously low levels. The assessment came in areport by the Board of National Mission due to be presented to the Church of Scotland's General Assembly next month.
Only 40 years ago the Kirk could boast a membership of 1,292,000, but changes in society have led to young people staying away from the Church, the report said. By 1984 membership had dropped to 887,000. By 2000 it was 600,000. The report said: "Many people are so far removed from the Church that several generations have passed without any family member having seen the inside of a church building."
David Curry, an adviser on mission and evangelism who believes the way forward might be to hold meetings in pubs and clubs, said: "The Church has become irrelevant to most people. We have to take our belief out into the community instead of sitting on our backsides in a church building.It doesn't matter if the first two hours of a meeting are spent talking about football, discussions about faith flow much more easily in informal settings."
The report warned that the Kirk is operating beyond its financial means and could run out of money within 10 years after poor stock market performance and overspending in the past two years reduced its £31m assets by some £6m.
As church buildings crumble, the number of ministers is also contributing to the decline. The report estimated that by 2007 a third of the 1,100 posts will be vacant. More than 800 ministers are due to retire within the next 20 years, with only 96 candidates currently in training to succeed them.
The Rev Douglas Nicol, the general secretary of National Mission, acknowledged: "There is a serious situation. However, there is an appetite for change. We want to see a new form of the Church of Scotland where the people of God, which means everybody, has a greater share in the worship, the life and the witness of the Church."