It was April of this year since I last blogged and we were about to dive below the surface of Coronavirus and we were living in extraordinary times. I blogged then about some misgivings about what I thought was ahead, and now it's August. To suggest that we are out of the other end or to continue with the imagery I've already mentioned - "we have risen to the surface", would be foolhardy in the extreme and quite presumptuous. Having live-streamed on Youtube, Facebooked live and Zoomed, (and even Microsoft Teamed on a few occasions) with other aspects of church life, I feel its right to blog again. We are due to reopen for worship in 3 Sundays time and the prospect is an exciting one. But I'd like to make some observations of the journey from under the water!
1) Rubbish has been talked of: I have listened and read like many other Ministers to the buzzing of the social media airwaves and frankly, so much rubbish has been talked about. Perhaps that's the nature of social media and in ministry circles its an opportunity to fire off our insecurities and uncertainties. At the moment I am avoiding looking too heavily at such sites. And these have been days like no other. The early days of trial brought out those understandably wanting to ask the big questions: Where is God? What is he saying? What is he doing? Why is this happening to us? I'm not afraid of big questions, my theological training and 30 years worth of ministry have prepared me to wrestle with such. But some questions are just too big and certainly not worthy of trite easy answers in a post where people can respond with like or dislike. And I've heard some rubbish from people who really should know better, some quite prominent in baptist settings. The first I listened to told me that these virus days were an entirely a spiritual experience and God was in them. The second did not come from a particularly Christian source, but went along the lines of "the planet is fighting back and repairing itself." These two were the most memorable for me (stuck in my head), but in between these were a whole load of pronouncements that God was reforming the church and moving it away from archaic building dominated ministry to where it needed to be out there in the community and that our means of communication had now been rocketed up to new horizons as the internet propelled our contact and message to places we had been unable to go before. That last bit sounds quite Star-Trekky, I know! Certainly, our Youtube channel has steadily grown, and numerous other parts of our church life were successfully zoomed.
My observation is that this has been a dark time and that the virus has been nothing short of intrinsically evil. It has not been a spiritual experience into which God was wonderfully changing, speaking and moving the church. This has been a significant time of suffering and loss. Many have lost loved ones, many have lost jobs and income and far from the virus being some kind of journey which the church might be being mysteriously led by God to grow and change, all I can observe is that has been a time which has been predominantly disruptive and destructive. There is a high possibility that small village churches have been terminally struck and destroyed because their income has folded and this has had the effect of killing paid full or part-time ministry. In addition, churches have lost their fellowship contact to the point where some may not return to their home churches at all, some may physically go elsewhere to those bigger churches that they have liked the look of online, and still others will continue to sit at home on their couches and remotes and engage with something bizarre called cyber-church where the consumer mentality reigns, and where they are not required to respond in discipleship or engage in live Spirit breathed worship. If you think I am being harsh and merely firing off, then I cannot apologise. I have reflected and pondered and as much as we have been successful (and we really have been) in our internet streaming ministry, and as much as it has to some extent sustained some aspects of the church fellowship life (zoom prayer, men's ladies, children's, youth, tea with the vicar etc etc etc), and that this challenge was risen to with a fantastic sense of team focus, I cannot on balance see that it in any shape or form that it has provided an experience of a Spirit-filled church that we had before. Please don't misunderstand me, we were not a perfect church before, but this season has done nothing to perfect us. Slow us down perhaps. Simplify church life maybe. Stress-test our unity maybe (I know - this sounds like "What have the Romans ever done for us?"). It may have actually stifled our mission capability?! Not completely sure about that one. Definitely, it has though deepened the longing for the restoration of fellowship and our gathering just a few weeks ago on the church lawn for a socially distanced picnic and communion, even though rained on, provided something in the hearts of the church family that no upload speed could ever do. In fact, far from the rocketing channel subscribers observed in the first weeks of streaming life, it would be honest to say that most churches have seen a waining of their viewing counts and the numbers have not been sustained. Given the mindset of screen consumerism and the mindset of channel surfing, this is unsurprising!
2) It's been fast-moving and exhausting: Taking some of the thoughts from point 1, I would observe that rather like a curve on a classroom oscilloscope that we once all wrestled with in a physics class, no one week has been the same. In fact, I would say that I have seen the curve fly all over the place. In over 30 years of ministry I have never experienced days like these. I guess the last few decades have been those of relative comfort and ease in Western Christianity! Now perhaps, these have been the beginning of days of trial? Perhaps even of toughening up? What is certain is that we are not saying and doing the same things now that we were at the start of the virus. There has been movement and progression and when the title of "new normal" arrived we concluded that this would be "it" and that we would all get what it was and settle down to a new routine, albeit of a church life that was lighter, simpler, less constrained by "this is what we have always done!" The new normal seems somewhat rubbery and it certainly isn't possible to grab hold of it and say "this is what it is." Even now bloggers are providing 10 easy observations about the new normal - well it might do for this week, but it will be out of date next week or the week after. The energy given over to slick video and worship reflections online have mostly run-flat and been replaced with a need for biblical teaching that will go the distance. The hunger for prayer that was apparently reflected in google analytics early on has been questioned and found wanting. And many of my Pastor colleagues and I who have done a sterling job in holding their primary calling of the church they were called to together and literally laying down every ounce sacrificially in the service of their church are mentally, physically and spiritually exhausted. The pastoral support mechanisms that their denominations and streams were initially providing have dried up and are no longer being provided, perhaps through exhaustion too. We have died a death from a myriad of regulations and guidelines sent out (sometimes daily) and some of the national zoom opportunities that were initially helpful have turned into something that have lost their way because we are totally zoomed out and have no appetite left for sitting in front of our screens anymore. Ministry is changing, re-shaping, moving on.
3) The task at the start was a sustaining ministry, now it's a recovery operation: I set out to our church leadership team at the very start the aim of "keeping the church family in faith, fellowship, prayer, care and worship." And we have been highly successful as a team in gathering around this vision and throwing all our collective energy into making this happen. The church I pastor comes out of this time with a good feeling of spiritual and financial stability and each team member as well as the teams that they have overseen have worked their hearts and souls off to bring great blessing to the church. But now the task has changed - from sustaining to a recovery focus. I cannot underestimate the task that is before us. This season of the virus has not necessarily created healthy habits. People have not necessarily engaged in worship in front of their laptops, they have consumed from their couches as if watching an edition of their favourite weekly TV programme, And the habit of coming together and being the church has been replaced by becoming the remote church, literally separated and almost comparable to old testament times of exile - who knows! This remote church experience is very specific: Surely I can do all that I need to in terms of my previous church existence by staying at home and never coming out again? Other things can be done such as shopping and ironing whilst watching church, but coming together again and being the church seems like a lot of work to be honest, and the habits have been long lost. So now the focus ahead of us Pastors is of a recovery operation. When we reopen our church in 3 sundays time, I am not expecting the seats to be full - no! It will be a drip-feed return to church. Some may not even return for several months. We will, in any case, continue to stream our services, so people could stay home and continue as was. But what a loss! The church is in a risky place right now and we are going to have to work to recover what we have lost, and all of that so long as we have no second or third waves of the virus and further lockdowns - Lord, please no! Yes, the church in every place is in all honesty not in a place of sudden and fantastic recovery, we are going to have to work and pray hard. I'm sure that there will be so exciting new aspects of this new season, but right now we have a significant task ahead of us, and it's not going to be easy.
Has the church regretted this season of live streaming? I can't actually answer that head-on. Probably not, and yet I have never completely felt at ease behind the camera. And I don't think that we have suddenly discovered the future of ministry. I really hope we haven't gained a perception that the future of church is cyber church! Certainly, we have grown in our understanding of technology and in slicker forms of communication. But this evil virus has brought destruction and much suffering and right now some of the pieces are still to fall to the ground! We will have to see in the coming weeks and months how the shape of ministry changes as the oscilloscope curve fluctuates up and down, again and again, as it will for certain.
Oh, and as to the planet fighting back theory - the new challenge of the oceans is that they are filling up now with all our throw away facemasks and gloves. If that's progress then I'll eat my mask!