Monday, 6 April 2020
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
Sunday, 20 October 2019
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.
Tuesday, 24 September 2019
And I'm fairly sure that I didn't go to theological college (Spurgeons) with the idea that I had that the gifting in my kit bag for schools ministry, yet before I began thinking about becoming a Pastor, I was working with children as a Crusader Leader. Something seemed to happen once I began thinking about training to be a Pastor which seemed to make me unintentionally serious and boring and forget about those skills with children, and it wasn't until I met a fantastic guy in my first church called Richard Morrison, a schools worker, that I became freshly inspired to engage with schools, their classes, assemblies, staff, governors and structures. Even now whenever I walk into schools, I momentarily flick back to my childhood and think "what am I doing here?"
Over the years I must have connected with a few hundred or so of children who have been on the end of one my school assemblies - a few silly songs, a prayer drill, an animated talk from a story in the Bible - initially using an Overhead Projector (sometimes coloured in) and then progressing over the years to a data/video projector. Mind you, some of the best assemblies involve no electronics and are entirely practical: a tennis racket and ball, a rugby or football, even my bike once, a water pistol, a golf ball and club and probably a whole load of other weird and peculiar items.
Sometimes assemblies are long-planned and quite well prepared in advance, whilst others are fresh that morning and come from a mad idea that is way out. Strange looks and responses along the lines of "you're not going to do an assembly on that, are you?"
I've also had to be keenly aware that sometimes the schools I've gone into have had our own children in, and for better or for worse my kids have ducked at the moment their dad appears at the front with yet another crazy idea.
Also, over the years schools ministry has been in different political cultures. I think that's the best way of putting it. Initially (in my lifetime) under Thatcher etc, a daily act of worship in an assembly was required and invited. This has moved over the years as assemblies with faith have become less popular. The stark reality is that unless a local Christian leader or Schools Worker goes into a school, or unless there is a Christian on the staff of the school, then a Christian assembly - or put another way - a school assembly with Christian input (the two are not the same) then a school assembly today is now reduced to a thought for the day, a presentation of a few certificates, maybe something musical, and then a nice moral "be kind to one another" kind of quick thought. I would observe that years ago the schools phoned me up to chase me for an assembly date, now the boot is on the other foot: unless I phone up and chase the school, then nothing is going to happen. That's quite a significant change.
One of the most frustrating sides of connecting with schools right now and ok, this might seem minor, but it feels major to me, is that having established a connection with a key contact in a typical local school for planning assembly dates, and other activities, and ensuring that we stay connected and communicate with each other, is that then the school seems to change that named person every year now, in the same way that the Maths Lead Teacher or English Lead Teacher is changed. This is completely confusing and means that communication is hard and the relationship has to start all over again every year.
The best connections with schools lead to some great things. In my current experience we see schools coming on to our church site for Harvest Festivals, Christmas Services, Class visits to the church to look at symbols of faith, Live demo full immersion baptisms, and even on one occasion - a live demo of a wedding service. The most memorable moments just now are when I get the teachers out the front for a kind of Blue Peter "make something in a speedy 2 minutes" kind of way, like an Advent clothes hanger candle, all whilst competing against each other. And probably the most rewarding moments are the Christmas carol services.
So I like Schools Ministry very much. Over the years it has led to me being a School Chaplain, a School Governor and it certainly keeps you young!
Friday, 14 April 2017
Monday, 5 October 2015
In the Christian world we place emphasis on the word "call" in terms of whether God has called us to do something or other, but ironically I've heard on numerous occasions those who would probably own up to little faith or none say "it's very clear that that was their calling." Stated of course with a lack of clarity as to who or what is precisely doing the calling, to what and to whom.
In The Christian world call is at the very heart of our faith. We believe God calls specific people to specific tasks. Let me just clarify how I re-wrote that sentence: I started by typing "....call used to be at the ..." and then decided to scratch that. Because in the days that we live in it doesn't always feel that way. It almost seems like "everyone did as he saw fit" (Judges 21 vs 25), and also as if in these days "the word of the Lord is rare, there were not many visions." (1 Samuel 3 vs 1). In actual fact, it seems that we live in days where there is at times a total relucatance by many to anything at all, let alone anything sacrifical , unless there is a spin off for the individual, a bonus or some kind of profit. Essentially, we live in days it seems where getting anybody to do anything that costs is darned right hard work. As someone once amusingly stated, it seems like the same players on the sports field are again and again asked to do the same tasks 24/7 and they are already exhausted. And of course, the days we live in display the vast quantity of the population to be simply too busy, too tired, overdrawn, too stressed, even though we seem to find hours and hours to surf the internet, play on our smartphones or watch TV. These, if they are true, are quite damming charges.
So where has call gone? Where has it vanished to? What are the ingredients of call?
It seems to me that our response to these questions can be varied, and it does depend on how we see God's guidance. Yet if we are to read the signs of the times, call seems to have largely vanished and the word of the Lord does seem to be for some, quite rare! Has call, or our sense of hearing call vanished? Let's jump straight back and say that on the basis of scripture and it's principles, and the still vast mission field, God cannot be silent, but still issuing calls to his people.
Take for example Isaiah 6 vs 1-10. A classic gobbet of scrpture on call. vs 8 and 9 are the call verses in a section that is built up to on the holiness of God. Maybe this is a theophany - probably. But what is clear is that there isn't much of a carry on! This is straight in with the question from God: "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" And the reply is instant: "Here am I. send me!"
What fascinates me about this text is that the call is given, and there is a speedy response. What is unclear here is that we don't know whether the call is general - ie to anyone, or whether it is specific, ie to Isaiah. What we do know is that Isaiah is in a place of worship and prayer, which leads him to a place of vision from God. The descriptive language is detailed. But if we look closely at the question from God, the "Whom" it gives the strong sense that this call could be for anyone, and indeed they will take anyone who offers! So if that is the case, Isaiah speedily puts himself forward in obedience. We don't know if there are others around him in the same room, or even if there are whether they are experiencing the same vision. But Isaiah doesn't hesitate. There is a divine call and need and it must be responded to. Short of Isaiah's sinfulness, which has been dealt with in vs 6 and 7, there is nothing to stop him saying "here I am." And if we measure Isaiah's response to our modern day processes what we can say is that there is a divine need and Isaiah sees and hears the need and just responds. No checking of his work load, his diary, or family circumstances. Just a simple heart response.
We can potentially draw some conclusions from this: God shows a need, he requires someone to go to fulfill that need, he issues a summons to any who will hear his call. His people hear that call and respond in obedience. This we could conclude is call. As someone once said on this subject during my studies at Spurgeons, call is about "can I do a work here". In other words, this is less about flashing lights and more about the simple response of our hearts to always be ready and obedient to go!
Another example is found in Acts 16. The scripture is far more specific here and the work of the Holy Spirit quite distinct, as of course you would expect in the book of Acts. Paul and the vision from the man of Macedonia is a well known section. It is notable because vs 6 starts with the immediate sense of the Spirit keeping them from preaching in Asia. How this was made clear, we are not told. Verse 7 reveals more, stating that they tried to enter Bithynia, but "the Spirit of Jesus would not allow." Again, how, we are not told. Then we move to the vision (again) and during the night Paul is given the vision of a man from Macedonia begging him to cover and help them." We don't know whether Paul had options here, in other words whether he could have said "no". But what are shown is Paul's rapid preparation and re-deployment, and the vs 10b makes clear Paul's thinking "concluding that God had called us to to preach the Gospel to them."
We are only told the key points in this account, and not told "the what-ifs". Yet we can observe what seems to be the Spirit bringing about circumstances to provide call to Paul. Paul is not detached from this. He is not an individual who is invited to stop thinking. Actually, quite the opposite, he does use his brain. But what he sees yet again is his immediate response to need, and this is obedience to go!
Again, if we were to draw some principles from this, we could say that Paul the great teacher and church planter is open to God's leading. It's clear that "Paul had his plans", but the Spirit led otherwise. What is clear is that Paul changed his plans to comply with the Spirit's call, and was obedient. In Paul's case the call was quite specific - to preach the Gospel and plant churches.
Can it be then that we have either removed call from our spirituality today? Are we more concerned with what we want to do? We will go wherever we please, do whatever we want, but not listen well to the Spirit, let alone respond in simple obedience?
So often in church life need is made abundantly clear, but few respond. Good reasons are given, but when we compare our responses to the above biblical ones, it seems somewhat that the drivers of "me-church" and our own consumer needs are what takes priority to the Spirit's call.
Or perhaps we have become too entrenched in simply forgetting the old biblical principles, and now we simply choose using modern secular methods of choice and guidance. Where in these scoring methods does the voice of God get listened to?
For Isaiah, there was simply a need, and this was responded to.
For Paul, the Spirit distinctly guided.
In both cases the priority was God, and his Kingdom needs, not our own comforts.
Thursday, 17 September 2015
But more centrally I want to ask in this blog a number of key questions which I think need answering:
1. What comes first for you, your Christian faith or your politics? I think this is a really important question. Some would immediately jump up and say neither, they are entirely meshed. After all, the sermon on the mount etc etc and all that gives me a mandate to engage politically as a Christian. My political views are an outoworking of my Christian faith. And yes, I get that completely. I would say the same.
But be careful. The latter must never come before the former! The New Testament makes it clear that only full and undivided whole hearted committment to Jesus Christ is acceptable, and nothing must get in the way of our walk as a disciple. Yes, even politics. Then we must also take into consideration the classic 1 Corinthians 8 text, often known as "The weaker brother" text. The key verse is 1 Corinthians 9 vs 9 "Be careful, however that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak." This is a key text that it is often forgotten in our 2015 world. The exogesis is very straightforward! If what you are doing, even though the scriptures do not command against, is causing your brother or sister in the Christian faith to be held back, fall away or pushed away or weakened in the faith, because they are not as mature as you, then you must stop what you are doing for their sake and the sake of the Gospel and the Kingdom. Fairly black and white, unarguable text! Applied to our political views and what we post, then we should all be careful about what we put up! But someone will say "I'm just trying to make people think!" Yes, I get that too, but again the scripture is clear - our freedom should not be abused, lest it become a stumbling block. And primarily do we present Christ, or do we present our politics? 2 Corinthians 2 vs 16 is also worth pondering in this context: "to the one we are the smell of death, to the other the fragrance of life." What precisely are we presenting as an aroma as we make our posts? It's a very fine line, and Paul says therefore be very careful! Paul in the weaker brother scripture of 1 Corinthians 8 vs 12, says that when we sin against our brother by abusing our freedoms, then we sin against Christ.
2. Let's be clear, there is no one political party for Christians! Oliver Cromwell tried this in his puritan wisdom (or lack?) and the whole thing major backfired. His attempt as Lord Protector to cancel Christmas and to essentially attempt to recreate the Kingdom of God in the kingdom of England went big time wrong. In that sense Cromwell failed to factor in the freedom of conscience of all, most especially those who disagreed with him, let alone those who did not believe the same thing as he or the Puritans. But why be reminded of this piece of English history? Simply this - Christians of sincere and true faith exist in all different political parties, and exist on either side of the debating chamber, whether it be Westminster, or your local county or town council. We may scratch our head and attempt to make judgement on them (which would be wrong), but they have sincerely before God made their choice, and read the same scriptures and worship the same God. Yes, by all means make clear your own political views, but be careful not to judge another believer in this respect. And cromwellism is still seen in our churches today as if there is a preset Christian political view that must be adhered to or if you don't accept the same, then you are amongst the reprobate or deemed a false prophet. Again, be very careful! Freedom of conscience must be given to interpret differently and hold different views, and still be a committed Christian, and yes a brother or sister in Christ. I ask the question again - what is primary? Our Christian faith or our political views? Scripture I believe would support the former not the latter.
3. There's nothing wrong with thinking outside the box, and being made to think about difficult issues. As I've said to our kids time and time again as they have engaged at secondary school level with their essays - "Remember, there are no black and white issues, even as a Christian!" I simply want us to avoid the trap that there is a single right view for the Christian to have and hold on every single tricky ethical issue that there is. Oh I know we like to think as Evangelicals that there are set views, and we even reach for our traditional text books on the shelves to read what it says and then in the worse case repeat them back. But thats the stuff of cults which generally say "this is what we believe in this group, and therefore this is what you are to believe as a follower!" And basically if you don't believe their teaching then you are cast out. Christianity has never been so badly misrepresented if such views are held. No, God has given us a brain and freedom to think, and we should carefully study and read, ponder and reflect and then listen to others, before reaching a conclusion of our own. And even then, remain open to change your views as time goes on. Nothing is ever black and white!
So we should be careful how we express our views, careful what we put first as primary! Faith or politics? Careful what we post, and careful not to judge! And deep, studious and open to the views of others, as we ponder our ethical and political view points!