Wednesday 9 June 2021

What will happen if we can't sing?

I sat and listened recently to a group of Pastors "check-in" as we always do on a monthly basis and the conversation turned to our frustration at Government restrictions that are holding us back from being the people God ordained us to be - worshipping people. 

The discussion was broad and had different perspectives, but what was clear was that we were predominantly not happy with what the guidelines were restricting us from doing when seemingly others in our community in the hospitality industry are permitted to go beyond what churches are allowed to do. We need to sing! There is a desperate thirst in our church families to do what our Heavenly Father has created us to do. 

And today in the media, Andrew Lloyd Webber has thrown down his gauntlet in regards to the June deadline, saying he is prepared to open his theatres on "Freedom Day" come what may and is prepared to face arrest if regulations block him. Of course, performance is quite different to worship, isn't it .......well yes and no! You see agree or disagree, this is one of the major stings of Covid to churches: performance has become our current thing rather than true biblical corporate worship, because of the regulations! Six can be involved in worship from the front only - no one else can sing. At the moment we consume, we watch and we view. We are making the best of it, but we thirst for corporate worship with all singing their hearts out!

Now don't shoot me before I've finished laying my cards out. I would be one of the first to absolutely say that our Baptist Theology, Principles, and Heritage does not limit worship merely to singing. We worship when we come around the Communion Table, we worship in prayer, we worship through liturgy, we worship through silence, we worship when as we hear the Word of God preached, and we can raise our hands or clap in response to inspired songs - but at the moment, only those that are leading from the front can sing! And so you see I still want to say "I miss the singing!" In fact, at times I ache for the singing to return.

So - all good so far! You know what I mean. And in the church I Pastor we have obeyed the guidelines and regulations and we have prayed that the day will come soon when we will soon sing again! We have for good scientific and medical reasons obeyed the advice and we have put government guidelines and science before our faith - for the good not just of the church family, but for the good of the community and indeed for all! We have trusted what we have been told and done what is necessary. And now it's almost all over, and infection rates have vastly reduced and the risks are significantly lower. All good! Yes, there is still minor unfinished business, but the consensus is that we are way past the very worse, and we are into better days. So maybe we should continue the way we have been going and continue to do as before, without question!?

Except I have a gnawing sense of unease that's started to grind away within me, and the question is I think: "What will happen if we can't sing?" What if the government continues to say that we cannot sing - then what?! So far we have been good as a Union of Baptist Churches and the advice from the government has been translated and interpreted and passed down into our churches and we have obeyed. We have made our buildings Covid Safe by risk assessments and practical steps and we have worked hard to make socially distanced worship workable. In the meantime, numerous aspects of the life of our churches have been savaged and destroyed, and some churches may indeed struggle to ever reopen again. And we have done so at the expense of our religious freedom and with the trust that this was the right thing to do because we trusted the advice was right.

And now we have a set freedom day and the days are counting down towards it. I hope and I pray that this will indeed be held to. But what if another two weeks are added on? And then another two weeks? What if it turns into a month? And another month? And still, we cannot sing. Should we obey the government or should we put our faith first and our desire to sing and worship the Lord?

There are some key Baptist Principles here for us to consider when pondering this question:

The principle of RELIGIOUS LIBERTY, namely that no individual should be coerced either by the State or by any secular, ecclesiastical or religious group in matters of faith. The right of private conscience is to be respected. For each believer, this means the right to interpret the Scriptures responsibly and to act in the light of his conscience. 

The principle of SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE is that, in the providence of God, the two differ in their respective natures and functions. The Church is not to be identified with the State nor is it, in its faith or practice, to be directed or controlled by the State. The State is responsible for administering justice, ensuring an orderly community, and promoting the welfare of its citizens. The Church is responsible for preaching the Gospel and for demonstrating and making known God’s will and care for all mankind.

These two principles are worth carefully reflecting upon. On the face of it, they seem straightforward. But what if the state ceases to govern well, fairly, or appropriately? Then it is right and proper for the church to dissent. Now Baptist Christians are not idiots or weirdos, nor are we anarchists, nor are we extremists! Generally, we are amongst those who would be described as careful, level-headed thinkers who pray for those in authority, not least those in government. But we are also people of the Word and Spirit who have had our hearts won by the Lord Jesus Christ, and desire to follow his call to live differently and often radically.

Dissent begins with the weighing up of what is being required of the citizens of a nation, with what is set out by the principles of God's Word. Are we being cajoled into something which is against God's good principles? Dissent continues with honest reflection and questioning - often in a prayerful way - consider Daniel's precise approach in a similar scenario that led him into the end to the decision to face several sets of lion teeth than compromise! And dissent then in reality ends up with some kind of blunt choice - to obey the state or to obey God. Church leadership teams need to beware at this point and carefully consider the arguments placed before them. The choice is surely not simply reduced to obey the government and do what it says, or choose to seemingly disobey and go our own way! Is that really the sum total of the argument?! Of course, leaders are trustees these days and such positions carry heavy responsibilities. Does that mean that a church leadership team might feel compromised to choose to stay within the law rather than obey God? Good question!

All that's pretty heavy - and what has that to do with singing? After all, some would point out that we are not restricted from worshipping how we want to in the open air! Good point, but why should we feel pressurised into accepting second best - particularly if it's pouring down with rain and we want to worship? But we don't believe in the church as buildings, but as the family of God's people - we can worship anywhere! Yes, Yes, and Yes! Even in the days of Old Testament exile, God's people found themselves worshipping him in a strange land. And therein maybe lies the truth - we must worship as we want to and indeed need to, and as God has told us to. Our primary goal is to worship God and to please him. Everything else is secondary.

What will happen if we can't sing? Well, I hope that we will be allowed to and that freedom day will indeed come, and also that we will indeed be virus-free as a nation. But let's not just follow the standard dribble that is being poured out without asking important questions. Let us sing the song of the Lord once again and may it be really soon!

Wednesday 12 May 2021

Ministers of the Gospel and Mental Health: it's not just what we do, it's what we carry!

Music is doing "it" for me right now! I'm wearing my fantastic Bluetooth headphones my son gave me for Christmas, and I'm tuned into Radio 3. And it's beautiful. I'm wearing them to walk the dog, around the office, and in the kitchen whilst I cook. And it's helping. I've long gone off Classic FM because of the commercial breaks and frankly, I'm done with listening to adverts for Stannah Stairlifts, Funeral Plans, and Incontinence pads. Or wait, am I mixing this all up with ITV3 - aka "The Murder Channel"?

What is the "it"? It's the mental health. It's stress. It's partly the aftermath of lockdown, and how hard it's been on everyone. And speaking personally as a Pastor, its felt very hard. We've had to keep going whilst watching our church be destroyed by the enemy. .  And it's partly other stuff. But clergy stress and mental health is well documented. Ours is "the highest calling" with few outside that we are able to share with and unload to, and few that understand. Why is that? I think it's because it's not just about what we do, it's also about what we carry! The call is a high and costly one and carrying it is often an impossible challenge.

So to mark Mental Health Week 2021, I thought I'd blog about Clergy Mental Health. And I wanted to write with this in mind: "It's not just what I do as a Minister" - after all, according to my brother - "I do only work one day of the week!" Actually, the truth is even when we are on a day off - a sabbath, we are still there "on call." In fact, the smartphone has partly eclipsed the easier boundaries of the last few decades because it's there and the coms are still on. The dumb phone is less than smart. And now coms take place rarely by phone (remember the days?), often by email, definitely by text, quite often by social media, and even that multiplies out into numerous strands of additional communication methods. And our homes are classed as our place of work too. All of that, is not just about doing stuff that is stressful. It's about the "call from God to be available" - this is what we carry. Yes, there are important points about taking sabbath, boundaries and limits, but even when all of that is dealt with and properly attended to, it's still the call, and it is what we carry, even when we are off. For most ministers, even when the phone is switched off (and mine goes off usually at 9pm), then the church landline is next to my left ear, all through the night. My mother tells me of my Grandfather who was a traditional local Doctor in Bournemouth, and who after service in WW1 began to practice medicine in Scotland, and then Yorkshire, before the days of the NHS. He was the typical well-respected family GP with a practice running from his own home and where he knew each patient by name, and was on call 24-7. According to my mother, he had a tube running from a pipe by his bed, which made its way down to the front door and which patients would speak to him in the middle of the night. I doubt that many GP's of today would provide such 24-7 service. Well, the phone is still next to my ear at night, and over the years some have made use of it, and I've grabbed on my clothes and headed out to either house or hospital to pray with the terminally ill and dying. It's what we carry, and being available is mentally, physically and spiritually exhausting. Today, in this mental health week, I stand with all Ministers of the Gospel and their mental exhaustion, and I pray, "Lord have mercy." Truth is that post-pandemic, there is a very high chance that many ministers will resign, or stand aside, or leave ministry completely because they are exhausted and they can't take any more of the stress and worry. It's because what we carry has become too much, and we can't cope. It's stress, its expectation, its exhaustion and it's also (to use a soldier term) "Friendly-fire" - though I can assure you that there is nothing friendly about it. Those who criticise, who undermine, and attack your character and complain about you. And that by the way is not always to your face, but believe you me, you always get to hear about it, and when you do it's like another arrow into your soul. And we are meant, apparently, to take it! To smile and always be in a great spiritual place. We Ministers are not perfect, and we make mistakes and our characters are also "work in progress", but there is nothing worse than another arrow fired at you and finding its target.

One of the most stressful parts of a Minister's job is in my view - living with the expectations of people. Show me a room of 50 people and I will show you a room of 50 different expectations. Double that to the average UK church size, and that's with one Minister because that's all they can afford, and you have 100 different expectations to live up to. Except that you can't. It's impossible. But these expectations are always in every local church. Sometimes we Ministers can satisfy some of those expectations, but a lot of the time we can't. Perhaps, and in truth, the only expectation we should try to satisfy is that of our loving Heavenly Father?! But living with these expectations is part of what I've so far called "the carrying." We certainly can't make them dissolve and disappear. Expectations can be even down to whether someone gets welcomed on a Sunday, or not as the case may be. But if it doesn't come from the Minister, then there's trouble! From the earliest age, as my Dad showed me around the Restaurant kitchen (two family-owned and run restaurants) on the Weymouth seafront, he always used to say "make sure you say hello to the staff!" And he was right. And we all as a family had the same training from Dad. My mum used to say when she was out the front of the restaurant amongst the tables and the customers - "make sure you give them a bright and positive welcome in!" And she was right, and it worked, and I've always tried to model the same in the church on the door, even though at times, I have been struggling within and feeling broken.

Have you ever wondered how much emotional and mental energy it takes to stand up the front each Sunday? Have you ever wondered how much emotional and mental energy it takes to preach or to lead worship? And to literally give of yourself passionately in preaching the Gospel? And then to feel drained at the end, and then to receive a word of criticism or email of disagreement - it breaks you and empties you. Again, it's not that we will hit the heights of quality preaching every Sunday - far from it! Poor congregation - it's going to be another lengthy depressing sermon. But it's what we have to carry quietly. Except that it's not quite as easy as that. We take it home and it affects our spouses and our family because "we're in a bad mood again because someone has said something or done something at church!

Another for me personally is facing up to discouragement. The church of God is not always an encouraging place, regretfully so. Yes, there are encouragements, and there are some wonderfully encouraging saints in most churches, but more often than not we end up measuring these with the not insignificant criticisms of the people of God. And sadly, when people say "this isn't personal" - it's more often than not totally personal. It is of course the brokenness of the world we all live in. We are all broken, and some are more wounded than others. Ministers do not minister in an unbroken world, otherwise, we'd be out of a job. Though apparently, Heaven looks a lot like that perfect world, and then hopefully we will indeed be out of a job! But I continually live with discouragement. It's like a "black dog" as Churchill used to say. Discouragement is what many Ministers carry!

Of course, the spiritual realities of ministry are that we "wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers" as Paul reminds us in Ephesians. This means that the climate in which ministry takes place is one of a constant battle. Dark powers and even Satan himself and his demonic powers seek to destabilise and damage and wear down the Ministers of the Gospel. It's what we carry!

So let me go right back to the start. To my beautiful music. In 1 Samuel 16: 14-23, the shepherd boy David is summoned to soothe the despairing soul of King Saul. So the shepherd musician David takes up his harp and plays for King Saul, and his soul becomes rested, peaceful and I guess his mental state becomes restored. It's a lovely picture. I love my music. I've always loved singing, from a young age as a Chorister, through to Opera as a slave boy in Verdi's Aidi, to the choral society I sang in, and through my years of experience in charismatic renewal of the 80's and 90's and church now! I love the music my daughter produces on the flute and guitar as she sings. I love the music my son produces on the Trumpet and French Horn, and I love the music my son plays on the drums. And as I listen to Radio 3, and sometimes to the Evensong on the station on Wednesdays, I let the music and liturgy lead me in worship. It soothes my mental state, it heals my soul. Right now, I need it more than at any other time, because the days we are living in are far from easy. You see, it's what we carry, not just what we do!

Pray for all Ministers everywhere please!

Monday 19 April 2021

The death of the internal combustion hymn book

I'm sure you have experienced it too? The quiet sound of an electric car coming down the road behind you. It's not quite like Ernie's milk float at 5am in the morning. His was louder. It's an extraordinary experience in South Street outside our church offices. You don't hear the sound coming at all. There's no kind of build-up. It just arrives, and it's quiet. It happened to me again this lunchtime in the beautiful blazing sun and got me thinking. I wondered what it's going to look and sound like; this brave new world just around the corner of no engine noise. 

It's nothing more than a dream of course - some engines will inevitably still be around us. I say that as a matter of faith - as a "classic car man!" I naturally (because of my age and era) started to remember my old MGB and its throaty exhaust sound, and then I started remembering leaning over the front wing side tuning its dual SU carburetors (a right pain to balance) and I remembered what my Dad had modeled to all of his sons: that ear to listen to the engine and its tick-over and the slightest peculiar noises or misfires, or lack of balance in the engine's constant tick, or of course any squeaks or knocks! I still do it today. People may be talking to me, but I'm actually listening to an engine! So it's some massive revolution that's taking place - the death of the internal combustion engine! Have I bought my last car with one? 

Revolution is what we've been through in the last 13 months during lockdown. Don't ask me how, but the paradigm shifts have happened in places I wasn't expecting. But let me defend my passionate cause with a dart up a quick cul-de-sac: I absolutely, completely and wholeheartedly believe in the local church and not cyber church! There, that's done!

But if the pace of re-opening continues - and I hope it does, then we in the local church are beginning to dust off some of the old ways that have been gathering dust. And it's not easy. "Lockdown Church" has become a feature. Routines have been established. Of course, a few are still saying "it will be nice to get back to normal!" Truth is, quite a few have now stopped. Normal as was, ain't coming back. I'm not even sure that "the new normal" is coming back. The new is still emerging. The pieces are in the air and they are still landing. I've stopped listening to the "Prophets of the future streaming church only" brigade by the way. Please go away quietly and annoy someone else!

But dusting off the old ways is not easy. There's a rota for this and that, and that too. That's what we were doing 13 months ago, Let's resurrect the rota! Hmm - not sure. It sounds like we ought to, but there's a tad of reluctance. In "Leader-me" - that asks "will people do so?" In "Ordinary-me" that asks "do I want to?" Trouble is, if we don't, then the survival teams of the last 13 months - who have put their heart and soul into holding the bare minimums in place, they will fade and die. These have been the emergency heroes and heroines who have stepped up to the plate and given their all in order to hold it all together. Now we are moving into a new phase, it's almost like starting all over again. The survival teams are tired and we can't continue on these emergency batteries. Now it's time to start rebuilding, but it's all a little different. The combustion engine is on its way out, the electric engine is arriving. Simply going back to the classic car as was, isn't the obvious choice. Do we really need all that we had? Yes, no, maybe! Has the paradigm shift knocked us into simplicity? A simpler, stripped-down, church? Even in simplicity, someone has to "do the stuff." Yes, we do need some of that stuff, but it was important to ask the question, not assume it so. Some of the old ways are very much still good old ways. We must not lose them simply because we can't be bothered anymore. Potentially that's what 13 months have done to us - God forbid that we can't be bothered anymore! We need to be willing to serve - again! Everyone one of us is going to need to step up to the plate once again.

But then there is some stuff that frankly was mere "we're doing it because we've always done it!" So stopping and asking "why were we doing this?" That's a good question to ask it seems to me. We must not assume that "as it was, so shall it ever be!"

I never ever thought I'd see an electric car. It wasn't even in my mindset. The internal combustion engine was here to stay. Well I was wrong there, wasn't I!?

Sunday 16 August 2020

Has the church regretted this season of livestreaming?

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!

Monday 6 April 2020

Will the church regret this season of live-streaming?

So the coronavirus came like a thief in the night and in a matter of hours and days our entire church life has been overturned, and many of us have, in a reactive and necessary way, ended up cantering towards the brave new world of live-streaming our church services and exploring numerous means of doing so. But of course, not all have been able to do this. We are now all experts (of course not) - or getting there, and like reaching a new challenging level in a computer game or entering a foreign country where the language is quite different, we are coming to terms with this brave new world. I'm in the groove now with the preliminary levels of expertise of the technology: I can do the basics well and each week I find myself modifying or adapting some of the tek, and getting slicker with the presentation. I've taught myself to predominantly get past the lack of a physical presence of a congregation with which I can make eye contact, and yet to imagine our viewers in the homes that I have visited pastorally. And I've taught myself to look at the camera and make presentation snappy. And yes, I've even caught myself thinking "Oh, I don't look like that on camera do I?" And "I really must tidy myself up and brush my hair." And then I've chuckled when others have gone on camera and done the same thing. Then I've found myself unhealthily playing a pointless game that I long gave up years ago, and bound myself over to never, ever play again - the "bums on seats" numbers game, except that this time it's with "the number of channel subscribers game." And it felt good and momentarily injected my ego that we've xxx more subscribers this week. Wow! And then I slapped myself around the face, told myself how stupid I'd been for falling for the old game again, and recommitted myself that this streaming experience was primarily for our own church family, anything else was well "nice, but wasn't why we were primarily doing it." And so we keep going with this brave new world of doing church and we are adapting and perhaps this is a plateau for the moment. The loss of not being together physically Sunday by Sunday is an ache that we all feel, but we have no choice and we must make the best of what we are doing so far. And we are, and we will. Except that I have a sinking feeling that this is not completely all good and how will we recover from it? In the brave new world of cyber church, parts can be cut out, muted, changed and so that we only get to hear what we want to hear. And in cyber church, the complete lack of tangible fellowship holds no one to account.

And the entire world has gone Zoom, Facebook-live or Youtube mad. Now everyone and their mother is doing it! Suddenly I am receiving invitations to zoom-meet with my denominational leaders, association leaders, and church world leaders in the intimacy of my home where before I've not heard a dicky-bird from them. Now, all of a sudden my time can be taken up with all-day Zoom meetings, and my steady emotionally-healthy-spirituality routine has been smashed to bits. I'm just not going to survive the pace if this goes on. More to the point, I'm not going to find the silence, let alone the downtime to just relax.

I recognise that not all churches have either been able to or in fact, wanted to stream and that some church members and congregation attendees are essentially wanting to and needing to engage with an act of worship that is in their style and worship diet. So I guess the natural thing would be to find a nearby suitable church and connect in with their streaming. But now my social media feed is full of a steady list of virtually every possible church from here, there and everywhere advertising their stream. So the opportunity now exists to pick and choose what your diet is going to be each Sunday. Why stick with one? Even my local association is advertising a different church each Sunday to do this with. And okay, I might be a tad moaning here, or overdoing my argument, but the glorious spirit of spiritual consumerism is now fully present in our homes. You can surf the proverbial channels and literally pick and choose and no one will ever know. In fact, speaking as a Pastor of a local Baptist Church, I have no ability to track whether my church members are faithfully tuning in to our channel, or whether this glorious "extended church holiday" is actually a great opportunity to look around and view what others are doing. You see Youtube tells me how many are present, but not who. Facebook is I think different. Zoom shows people's faces. And will this enforced diet divide into a number of different responses? Firstly, will it mean that some will never actually come back to a physical church in the future because of the easier experience of staying at home in your pyjamas and tuning into your preferred cyber church of choice for that day? This I think has been fairly minor in the UK until now, though the USA has lived with the TV church for several decades. The assessment is mixed - physical church attendance has still continued in the US, but the consumer spirit has been strong. Secondly, will it mean that some are using this time as an opportunity to look around other churches, and actually they will choose a new, different church to attend physically in the future? That could be a gain or a loss of course! And thirdly, will there be some who actually will never ever return to church at all, because they haven't missed it. That would be a very worrying situation and one that is out of the control of anyone.

On the upside, service streaming is doing something that I recognise is a positive experience and takes me all the way back to our short few days of training in radio at theological college 30 years ago, where we had to write a "thought for the day" and you discover that most have written far too much waffle and the red pen needs to be applied. Here's what I think its doing: our first service stream was way too long, but it reflected what we normally did on a Sunday morning. But in the TV world, no one is going to stick around that long. So its made me look at what we've been doing in terms of content and cutting it right back to the really important bits, and removing the unnecessary. And actually, most churches have been woefully asleep in this respect. They have thought that what they have been churning out on a Sunday is what people want to see and experience and they have been utterly wrong. This is an unhelpful wake-up call to Preachers, Worship Leaders and all involved to wake up and get their act together. And I'm not talking here about style necessarily - after all some very contemporary churches have for a while been pitching their services almost as rock concerts where the focus is on the hero band, rather than a corporate worship occasion or experience. What we are understanding about the days we have been living in is that people are thirsty for real spirituality. That's why some of the Cathedrals of the UK have been experiencing extensive congregational growth.

We are all looking forward to getting back to normal, in our lives and in our churches. But will that actually be a good thing? We can't go back to how it was in any aspect of our lives. And in terms of church, there are things that we should leave behind. But nor should we merely buy completely into the future of this brave new world. Many have and are grieving what was. But I'm already grieving what we might become. The danger signs are already ahead on the road and much wisdom will be needed to discern carefully what we should take up, as well as letting go of the past.

Sunday 27 October 2019

Good article on clergy mental health

Sunday 20 October 2019


The language and ideas of consumption are upon our lips every day in these times. Right now, we are trying to reverse our consumption of "things" so that the planet is not worn out - and rightly so. My garage is no longer the traditional home of a motor vehicle, it never actually was anyway, but now it is full of different boxes and bags of different types of recycling. I can't help but wonder if someone has pulled a fast one where, instead of the recycling depot, our garage has now become a recycling processing site!
The word "consume" brings all kinds of images into my head: something or someone consumes what is available, more often than not in a container, and then uses or digests the something, then often throwing away the container as rubbish. Also, in the case of fuel, a vehicle or boiler will consume fuel, and then having extracted energy, exhausts another substance which is what is leftover.
The Christian concept of stewardship is significant here. Christians are meant to be good stewards of that which God has put them in charge of. Good rather than careless. Why? Because the scriptures are clear that we will have to give an account for how we have cared for things and people and a good few other items, I guess. In other words, consumption is a reality, but the manner in which we consume has to be a careful process.
The word consume also suggests from a Christian perspective that we are not simply to be consumers, but that we are to be a people who give something back. We are not to be those that merely suck something dry, but actually, we are to be part of the process of inputting, so that others benefit.
There is a significant pause for caution and reflection here too. The implication of consumption is that that which is discarded is seemingly no longer cared for. It is potentially thrown over our shoulders or dropped onto the floor, and considered as rubbish which we never look back on, because we are only focused on that which we have got out of the process.
One of the side reflections of my dog walk today (on this topic), is that which I am very much concerned with and for as a local church pastor - the local church. Now the scriptures paint a very radical picture of the church. It is not a building or an institution or a kind of dead, lifeless and unimportant object. In fact, Baptist Doctrine which was my training at theological college and is the tradition to which I belong, very clearly paints the church as the people. The church is the committed group of people who make up a local family of believers. There are numerous types of these in local towns and they are all different. And if the local church is the living people who have committed to God and each other, then this is a living and active experience which is about how we give and put into the family, and it's not at all about what we consume. The danger here is all too clear in the context of consumption. Consumption would suggest that we are only interested in what we get out of it - in this sense, the local church. Being a church consumer would suggest precisely this - only what we get out of it, and when we are done with it, we merely discard what we no longer need and move on to something else or indeed somewhere else. In actual fact, the idea of consumption is completely foreign to being a part of a local church. No, this living relationship is a three-way process of giving to God, giving to others and receiving from others. But be in no doubt, the idea that somehow or other the local church is where you might consume or receive only, is a completely foreign, illogical and unbiblical concept which has no place in a Christian's life.