Friday, 21 August 2020

Scattered Means Scattered

Recently I had an interesting conversation with a Christian who is both prayerful and keen on action (a great combination!). They mentioned a potential initiative around where they lived, which geographically is very much on the periphery of their local church. Having described that they quickly went on to canvass me for ideas and input on possible activities that geographically were central to their local church.

I realised I had to press the pause button. The 'central' ideas were great in their own right, but I asked why they were trying to give priority to those rather than the equally great idea they had mentioned in passing: the one that was 'far off' geographically. The conversation revealed a potential sense of false-guilt self-projection: the Christian was at risk of feeling guilty for not doing something centrally. This was ironic given that they potentially had a real leading of the Spirit for a new activity in their local area.

These lockdown times have forced us to think more of 'church scattered' than 'church gathered'. Virtually all 'central ministries' cannot happen because of the restrictions and difficulties caused by the pandemic. Frustrating though that may be, it gives opportunity for the Spirit to lead us into potentially new avenues scattered across our different locations of home, work or play.

If we are to embrace this 'scattered church' mentality, then we must learn to work out what that means in practice. Surely it means that as leaders we bless and release people to do look into opportunities they have out in their locality, even if that is geographically some distance from the traditional sphere of local church activity? It means we should help those activists not feel guilty about this geographically peripheral activity - in fact we should celebrate it, for they are putting 'scattered church' into practice.

It means us learning that 'scattered truly means scattered'! The work of the local church is now the union of the various dispersed activities - even if that is harder to visualise or quantify compared to the traditional central ministries.

Monday, 29 June 2020

Don't Turn the Magnetic-Field Back On

Coming out of lockdown I am repeatedly asked "When can we get back to church?". Of course this is the wrong question from the outset, since we never stopped being church ... so it is not possible to 'go back'! But I also must admit from a personal perspective that in many ways I don't want to go back ...

Yes I want us to gather together as the extended family of Christ-followers. Yes I want us to join together in an expression of worship with each other, a gathering into which we can invite God to speak to us together. Yes I very much want to gather into an environment where the Spirit is free to move and we see ministry among us. And yes I basically want to see, chat, have coffee with and generally be alongside my fellow believers. I want all these things and I miss them like many others.

But I don't want the inadvertent magnetic-field that I worry can go with such regular gatherings, wonderful though they are. The force that turns us inwards, that captures our attention and our focus, that risks making us 'building-centric' or 'sunday-centric'. The pull that stops us from looking out to the incredible, exciting (but also very risky!) things that can happen in our missionary discipleship out there in the periphery. The power-house that tempts us to rely on it rather than paying proper attention to our own rhythms and diet of personal discipleship, discipleship done with trusted partners - discipleship journeyed in the rough and tumble of life.

All these out there things some of us (I hope many of us) have experienced and explored because of lockdown and our inability to gather centrally. We've had over 3 months of the magnetic-field abruptly turned off: it has been difficult, it has brought many challenges (not all overcome), but it has also brought a healthy re-focussing of how we live and grow in our faith, alongside fresh mission endeavour. Yes we have lost many things, and it has raised many questions, but I have seen much blessing and what I believe are healthier for the long term habits arise.

So yes I would dearly love for us to be gathering again - as soon as we meaningfully can - but please don't turn that magnetic field back on!

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

I Love Rainbows

A rainbow seen in the sky always looks both pretty and a thing of wonder: whether it is against murky rain clouds or the brighter sky poking through, to see the arc of different colours of light always lifts my spirit.

Interestingly in our lockdown times the rainbow has become a symbol of support for the NHS, and seems to have been naturally adopted by children as a universal symbol of thanks and hope. Walk through the housing estates and you will see home-make rainbow posters alongside the 'thank-yous' for our NHS and carers.

This seems to me to be appropriate: the rainbow is also the sign of God's covenant promises - a covenant made with Noah for all humanity and indeed all creation. It is a covenant of hope - of withholding forces of destruction, of limiting judgement. It is of course the covenant God declared to Noah after the receding flood (see Genesis chapter 9).

The rainbow is a symbol that reminds us that God would prefer mercy than wipe out.

In recent years the rainbow symbol has given at least some Christians a bit of a conundrum, because it has also been adopted by the LGBT community, its advocates and activists. Some may have been offended by this, perhaps seeing it as a hijacking of a Judeo-Christian symbol.

Yet it needn't be quite so problematic: I had noticed a trend for it to start to signify more than the LGBT labelling - broadening to respect diversity of many kinds. A kind of encouragement for each person to afford basic human dignity to every other person.

This broader usage surely also resonates with the covenant purposes of God: that whoever you are, wherever you are, God would prefer mercy for you along with the whole of humanity and creation rather than wipe out.

The rainbow sits deep in the Christian story, establishing a covenant that points to and connects with that other important Christian symbol - the cross - where justice and mercy meet, where wipe out is exhausted by grace.

So as Christians let us love rainbows! Wherever we see the symbol used, maybe it could prove to be a useful conversation starter about an greater topic.

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Ministers Gatherings in the Future - a Prediciton

When church ministers gather and first introduce the conversation is predictable with near 100% certainty: it will include the question 'What size of church do you have?' ! Trust me, I've been there. I have asked the question myself 😞.

Going forward, as we get to come out of lockdown and meet again I think I can confidently give a new prediction! There will be a new question, and it will be: 'How many people connected to your Livestream/Zoom/whatever?'.

This could all be a bit of a nightmare for many of us. And at its worst it means we might have simply swapped our gather-in-building-on-Sunday for a gather-an-audience-online.

It raises the question of 'metrics' - what we measure. The scientist and strategist in me likes metrics - they help us know where we are, and can help chart progress. But that all hinges on having the right metrics.

What if we preferred to try and assess Spiritual impact or development? What if we found a focus on developing depth (in perhaps fewer people), and equipping them to have greater impact in their own spheres of influence? These things are of course hard to measure - much harder than attendees on a Livestream, which your computer will instantly tell you. Do we settle for the easier metrics because they are simply easier, or because they stroke our own ego as leaders?

We live in lockdown times because of a highly contagious destructive virus. Yet as Jesus followers we want to actively spread the apostolic witness to Jesus that brings life. For a virus to spread effectively it needs to replicate well in a host, and then pass on to others. So how about we work out how to measure the effectiveness of replication of the apostolic witness in the people we lead, and the spread-impact that they can go on to achieve?

Monday, 13 April 2020

Value System Recalibration

The value we place on something or on someone is an elastic concept and variable. It will likely be different to the value placed on the same thing or person by someone else. It can also change with time.

Monetary value is even more elastic and subject to change. Just look at share prices for listed companies! In fact monetary value is completely arbitrary. Why is a house worth, say, a quarter of a million pounds or more? Especially when the price to physically build it will typically be much lower.

And as a society we can get our value systems completely and utterly wrong. As the corona virus pandemic brewed in England people (inappropriately) did hoard-buying in shops, clearing the shelves. A fun yet poignant social media post then went round saying:
In 2019 they told me to get good grades to secure a good job rather than end up stacking shelves.
In 2020 shelf-stackers are now in great demand!

Any job that needs doing is a job worth doing - and the person doing it should be honoured valued! Stop and think what the average pay is for a nurse - even a specially trained ICU nurse ... and now think how 'valuable' they are to us as a nation!

As followers of Jesus we should always be pinching ourselves and asking how much we have allowed our own value assessments to be set by the prevailing views of society around us?

Remember the blind beggar sitting near Jericho who called out repeatedly to Jesus. The crowd tried to shut him up - he was low in their value system. Yet Jesus stopped and called him, honouring him, affording him value.

Pray that we may learn to see value-wise as Jesus see.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Ultimate Individual-Consumerism!

As the recent lockdown neared there was a surge in people using online shopping options. Whether it was groceries or other items, the online retailers struggled to keep up despite their incredibly efficient logistical operations, with robot equipped warehouses and gig economy delivery drivers.

In many ways this lockdown steers us yet further to the Ultimate in Individual-Consumerism: a cultural trend that has been in the making for some years now. We, as individuals, have a pantheon of online consumer options at the swipe of our fingers. We can pick and choose, and flit from one provider to another to get what we want at the best (usually lowest) price. If you don't like even the tiniest detail of your existing retailer, then just skip to another for next time. Furthermore automated supply depots mean that there are barely any humans in the chain of delivery - it really is just all about YOU!

As with any cultural development, churches and their members have to wrestle with it. Some may find themselves in too deep (technically called 'syncretism'), others may isolate themselves off but in doing so effectively be left behind. It is the classic question of how to be 'in the world but not of the world' (John 17:15 - 21).

An irony of the current lockdown is that it may steer some believers further down the individual-consumer route. We had already the growing trend of people commuting ever greater distances to attend the 'big well resourced church' that has professional quality production in all aspects of its gatherings (or should I say 'worship events'?). Now in lockdown none of us can physically attend, and so a myriad of live-stream options have sprung up very quickly to allow virtual attendence.

Of course there will be value in these, and no doubt the Spirit will be at work. Just as I can be spiritually moved by listening to a worship album, people can find encouragement and nourishment from such options. Yet the risk is that now people can act as individual-consumers with regards to their worship or message input more than ever! Didn't quite like the message today (in either content or style)? No problem, next time flit to another!

The end result may not just be virtual attendence, but a reduction to a virtual spirituality coupled with a near total loss of community.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Deconstructionalists Rejoice!

For a good few years now some have been resonating with thinking that comes with the so-called 'Post-modern Mindset' - thinking that leads to some serious questions being asked about how we do faith and church. This kind of thinking is also often known as 'de-constructing' because it involves taking apart structures that have been in place for years (even centuries) and assumed to be fixed and solid. Upon de-constructing it is found that the underlying assumptions perhaps weren't so good after all.

One of those structures has been the fixed weekly Sunday gathering that many seem take as if it was the definition of church. This thinking is often exposed by language such as 'we go to church'. A common symptom is a high degree of focus on the Sunday gathering, and the high level of importance placed on it.

Another symptom is that people seem to confuse taking someone 'to Jesus' with taking them 'to church'. That is not to say that taking someone to a church gathering will not be helpful towards someone meeting Jesus, but we should pinch ourselves and remember our task is first & foremost to take someone to Jesus. Of course the church aspect should then follow, naturally arising in discipleship.

Now don't get me wrong! I still believe that gathering is important (in fact very important). Hebrews chapter 10 verse 25 makes the case for not giving up on meeting together. But Deconstructionalists ask whether the Sunday gatherings should bear the weight we put on them.

Now, with our Covid-19 lockdown scenario, our Sunday physical gatherings are simply not possible!

So Deconstructionalists Rejoice! The arguably dubious tower of over-inflated-importance given to Sunday gatherings is demolished! Now (presumably) is our chance to highlight the importance of individual and in-the-small discipleship practices and experiences (an importance that needn't exclude the complementary importance of gatherings, when they become possible again).

Interestingly churches have rushed to attempt 'live streaming' of their services, so that people can gather virtually. There is value in these, I am sure ... but if the Deconstructionalists are right (or at least their thinking has merit), then I fear that the live streaming efforts might be missing a valuable learning point that this strange season affords us.