Running on Fumes

When a car has very little fuel in the tank, we say it is running on fumes.  It is moving forward, but warning signs indicate the vehicle is in trouble.  It won’t go very far unless something changes.  And the something is simple – it needs fuel.

The same thing happens with Christians too.  They give the impression of keeping on spiritually, engaging with the church, and so on.  But there are warning signs, and they won’t go very far unless something changes.  Again, the something that needs to change is relatively simple – they need fuel. Simply being around Christians and using Christian language is not enough. Without a vital personal relationship with Christ, they are merely running on the fumes of Christianity.

Warning Signs – In a car, you have warning lights on the dashboard to alert you to an issue before it becomes a problem.  If you proceed far enough, the engine will start to sputter and make unusual noises.  What are the warning signs when a Christian is running on the fumes of Christianity?

  1. Loss of Joy – There are many reasons for a loss of joy, so do not assume that the spiritual tank is always empty when joy fades.  However, any warning light is a reason to investigate.  Indeed, when someone’s tank lacks the fuel needed, delight in the things of God and church life will only come in fits and starts.  The classic biblical example is Martha in Luke 10:38-42 – she was doing the right thing, but the joy was gone.
  2. Alternate Fuels – Is work or a hobby suddenly becoming more significant?  Are they starting to find motivation and purpose in something other than Christ in a way that was not true earlier in their Christian journey?  Alternative fuels are attractive because someone struggling will see the alternative as more readily accessible and the goals more attainable.
  3. Blaming the Church – It is very rare to hear someone drifting from church life and being honest, “Oh, I am staying away because I am not fuelling my soul, and so I feel awkward being around other Christians right now.”  It is much easier to talk about how the church does not meet their needs, and they don’t fit, the programs are not helpful, the other people don’t like them, etc.  Not every person being critical of the church is in a bad place personally, but many are.
  4. Verbal Paper Cuts – Sometimes it is not the full force explosions that hurt, but the subtle paper cuts.  Someone in a low place spiritually will often make little paper cuts with their words.  Little bits of gossip.  Little criticisms.  Little digs.  Maybe nothing significant enough to confront or challenge, but enough to leave you feeling that sting of an open wound when they walk away.
  5. Emotional Outbursts – Sometimes, things do come out in full force explosions.  And, like a cornered animal, someone feeling spiritually empty can lash out and attack rather than admit their need and open themselves up to help from others.

Emergency Measures – What do you do when someone is running on empty and about to run out of fuel and grind to a halt? 

  1. Re-Fuel – To be blunt, they need to be in the Word of God and allow Him to minister to them.  But they may struggle to feed themselves if they have let their tank get too low.  Perhaps a friend can help them get into the Word and start back into a healthy pattern. 
  2. Recognize the Emergency – How often do we pridefully persist on our path, ignoring all the warning signs?  Many a stranded motorist thought they could go a little farther before stopping for fuel.  Part of solving the problem will be humbly admitting the problem.  As long as pride continues to stir excuses and explanations, the fuel cap remains in place.  They must humbly acknowledge how they have allowed themselves to drift, how they have arrogantly felt they did not need to be in the Word personally, or how another sin has built a blockage between them and God.  Whether that is a giant skeleton in the closet or the “respectable” sin of personal pride, confession will be like a doorway to help for the struggling believer.
  3. Reach out for Help – These are in the reverse order.  We need to be fuelled again, but often that won’t happen until the nature of the problem is recognized, and often that is hard to achieve without first calling out for help from another.  If you see the warning signs in a friend, encourage them to face the reality of their situation.  If you are desperate, you could point them to this post and ask if it resonates with them because you are concerned.  If you see warning signs in yourself, then get a friend immediately.  We tend to think that a renewed effort in my quiet times, or perhaps some alternative, will fix the issue.  A thimble of fuel won’t get you too far.  Call a friend and walk through it with someone. 

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Check out a Psalm from this week for your encouragement:

Your Job is to Make Words Clear

When I used to live close to London I sometimes visited the British Library. There you can see some amazing treasures, such as Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus.  It is amazing to see such ancient books, but they are not the easiest things to read and understand. For one, they were written in uncials: ITISNOTEASYTOREADTEXTWITHOUTGAPSORPUNCTUATION.  Oh, and they are in Greek, just to add to the challenge.

Thankfully we don’t have to read Greek text written in uncials (unless we want to, then praise God that we can access so much!) We are blessed to have the Bible very accurately translated into our language and readily affordable (or free online). They even add in spaces, lower case letters, punctuation, etc. How blessed we are! I suppose I should also mention the chapter and verse divisions, which save a lot of time. And there are the somewhat and sometimes helpful section headings.

But remember that to many people in our churches today, the text feels as inaccessible as an ancient uncial codex! To many, it feels like a big block of text with thousands of words running into each other.

And so the preacher goes to work each week, diligently studying a passage in order to first understand it, and then to preach it. That work moves from the initial simplicity of familiar words, through the complexity of trying to grasp an author’s flow of thought, and out into the warm sunshine of studied simplicity. Hopefully, the preacher is then in a place to make sense of the flow of thought, to identify the major thoughts and to see the supporting role of each subordinate thought. The passage no longer feels like a random set of instructions and assertions.

When we preach our task includes the need to make a string of words clear.  We don’t have to start with an uncial script, but to all intents and purposes, we practically are.  Listeners hearing a string of verses often grasp very little during their first exposure. As we preach we look for ways to emphasize the main thoughts, we look for ways to demonstrate how the “support material” in the text explains, proves and/or applies the main thoughts.  Without technical jargon, our preaching needs to verbally achieve the formation of something like a clausal layout in the minds and hearts of our listeners.  Certainly, by the time we are done preaching, they should not see the text as a string of random words or thoughts . . . it should be much clearer than that!

Preaching goes way beyond clarification of the meaning of a string of words. But preaching won’t go anywhere good if it bypasses this critical element of the task.

You Preach to Ordinary People

It is good to remember that your church is not a unique collection of hyper-spiritual elite super saints. Nor is it the strangest and most bizarre collection of people either. You preach to ordinary people.

Ordinary people have doubts that they don’t think they’re supposed to have.

Ordinary people generally feel tired and short on motivation.

Ordinary people often have fears that may be unfounded but still feel ever so real when they lie awake at night.

Ordinary people are anxious about “little things” and distracted.

Ordinary people think they struggle, but assume that everyone else has it all together in life.

Ordinary people don’t think they are particularly significant, or influential.

Ordinary people sin.

Ordinary people are oblivious to some of their sin, but painfully burdened by other aspects of it.

Ordinary people, even after responding to the gospel of grace, still feel that their standing before God depends on their own effort and spiritual “success.”

Ordinary people already feel guilty about several things, not least their lack of proactive witnessing.

Ordinary people are very ordinary.

You preach to ordinary people. You are also one of them. It would probably be good to prayerfully consider what this might mean for how you present yourself, how you present the message, and how the message is supposed to intersect with their lives.

A Random Series of One-Off Appearances

I recently wrote about preaching series that work their way through a Bible book, or a section of a Bible book. A comment, from Anthony Douglas, made an excellent point. He wrote, “They also normalise what used to be an uncontested idea – that God’s people are meant to turn up week after week, rather than in a random series of one-off appearances.”

This puts a finger on a very clear cultural shift that has taken place over the years.

Is it because the rhythms of society have changed? Sunday used to be a noticeably different day when I was growing up. But then, once it became a seventh shopping day, it quickly became the pre-eminent shopping day. Going to church was dethroned as the primary activity of the day. Add in sports, split families doing child transfers, etc. and Sunday is not what it used to be.

Is it because the variety of alternatives has grown? It is not just shopping and sport that offer an invitation to people on a Sunday. More TV channels, more entertainment options, greater local travel, and until Covid and cost of living challenges, even quick foreign travel became a much more common option.

Is it because family traditions have shifted? I grew up in what was a more traditional set of family values. Going to church on Sunday was not top of the list of things we might do. Rather, it was first on the list of things we always do, along with going to bed at night, and going to school or work each day. Most people today do not live life with that rhythm instilled.

Whatever the reason, we are living in an age where diligent church attendance is not normal. A good percentage of church folks are prone to what Anthony described as “a random series of one-off appearances.” It does feel like a good number of people come to church on Sundays when they have nothing else planned.

The challenge for us, as church leaders, is to think carefully about how we respond to this. It is always tempting to simply dial up the pressure. We can put attendance in church membership covenants, we can declare the importance of diligent attendance, we can chase people when they are absent, etc. Let’s be careful of an outside-to-in approach that pressures without stirring motivation. It is easy to slip over the line into creating a legalistic culture that contradicts the gospel we preach.

What does an inside-to-out approach look like? In one sense, we can aim for making church on a Sunday, or a midweek home group, or youth group, so good that people don’t want to miss it. Whether it is the quality of the preaching and worship, or the warmth of the fellowship, why wouldn’t we want to make church as good as it can possibly be – both for believers and guests?

Then there are other details. It is totally appropriate to pastorally care for people. Their absence is an indicator of concern, so checking in is not wrong (but the tone can convey more legalism than care). Teaching the benefits of full participation in the church community, and involving people on the various teams to help ministry happen is appropriate (but always being careful not to fall foul of the outside-to-in evaluation ourselves – just because someone is present is not automatically a positive indicator of spiritual health).

This is where Anthony’s point comes in – sermon series helpfully support the idea of attendance. Preaching in series normalises the idea that church is not a random collection of one-off sermons for a random set of one-off appearances. Now, that does not mean we can make each sermon fully dependent on full attendance at the series – remember that guests always begin by being first-time attendees. They need to be able to fully engage the message, even if it is part 7 in a 10-part series. Even so, a well-crafted series subtly communicates the expectation of regular attendance, and if done well, will motivate it too.

As Anthony put it in his comment, “series preaching better accords with God’s not-so-subtle decision to supply his word to us in rather large chunks sometimes.” We need the whole of John, and Acts, and Romans, and Habakkuk, and Isaiah, and Genesis, etc. The Christian life is not covered by a one-day seminar, it is a lifelong journey of preparation for eternity to come. So just preaching our favourite fifteen passages simply won’t suffice!

Preaching Series: Six Suggestions

Last time I shared a few reasons why I think sermon series should be a key part of the preaching schedule in a church. Here are some suggestions to help them work well:

1. Spirit – Does a series quench the Holy Spirit?  Does preparing a sermon quench the Spirit?  It is amazing how a series can be scheduled many months ahead of time, then when a particular Sunday comes, the text and its application fit as if the Spirit Himself had made the plan.  Nevertheless, we still need to allow flexibility in our schedules.

2. Scheduling – It is unhelpful to pack the schedule so tight that the preacher feels under pressure from the schedule.  Consider leaving “buffer weeks” in the schedule between series.  You will have no problem filling them when the time arrives, either with a visiting missionary, a one-off message on a text you’re dying to preach, or addressing an issue that comes up, or a one-off for one of the preachers you are mentoring in the church.  You might also need to extend a series by a week. Buffer weeks are never a problem. No buffer weeks can create a headache.

3. Variety – A long series in the same book can get old.  There are several ways to avoid this.  Vary the message structure (include a first-person sermon, a more narrative sermon, a more interactive sermon, etc.)  Vary the text length (some weeks you may choose to cover only a few verses, but other weeks it would be possible to cover a chapter or two).  Perhaps sameness can be avoided by having another speaker involved (see below).  And, of course, a long series in the same book can get old, so . . .

4. Length – Think through the length of the series.  The old days of seven years verse-by-verse through one book really are the old days.  Today some advocate that a series should not go longer than 8 weeks.  Others say  4 or 5.  I say you have to think through the situation – who is preaching, to whom, what are they used to, what is the preacher capable of doing effectively, what is the subject matter, etc.  No hard and fast rules, but several months will probably get old for some.  Cover ground more quickly, or break the series and then return to it. Remember that a new series is a moment for new energy, new invitations to guests, etc.

5. Preachers – A series with more than one preacher can work well, but it takes some coordination. Make sure you are on the same page about the book’s structure, main idea, relevance to your church, etc. Probably don’t go higher than 2 or 3 preachers in a single series. If you are blessed with more, save them for the next series. Be sure to communicate and take advantage of the team ethos.

6. Series – Remember to balance your series too. If you have just been in Colossians, probably don’t follow up with a series from Ephesians (or any epistle, for that matter). Mix up sections or whole books across the whole canon, always prayerfully considering what book or section should leave its mark on your congregation.

What else do you find helpful as you plan series?

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Preaching Series: Six Strengths

Some churches always preach sermons in a series. Some churches never do. Here are six strengths of well-planned series:

1. Greater Leverage. By reinforcing and reviewing a Bible book, the series allows for the teaching to sink in and be applied more effectively than a stand-alone sermon. We often expect too much from a single sermon but underestimate what can be achieved over time with cumulative preaching.

2. Greater Coverage. When a church is preaching through a Bible book for a season, it allows other access points for people to benefit from immersion into that Bible book. For instance, people can be encouraged to read and study it at home. Midweek groups can probe the application of the passage preached on Sunday. Maybe even youth and other age groups can be in the book to encourage family conversations at home. Visual presentation does not require weekly creative energy (series title, series image, social media visuals, etc.)

3. Greater Momentum. The preacher can look back and build on what has gone before, but the listeners can also look forward and anticipate what is coming. With some encouragement, they might even read ahead and be more prepared for what is coming.

4. Greater Balance. If a message stands alone, then its distinctive thrusts will often need to be balanced within the message. This can sometimes reduce the applicational impact of a message. When you know (and if helpful, state) that a future sermon will present another side of this particular issue, this present message can be preached without too much energy for balancing it. Also, when a message has been preached and weaknesses were noted, coming weeks allow for easy correction of those weaknesses.

5. Greater Preparation. Knowing what is coming several weeks from now allows the preacher to prepare for more than just this coming Sunday’s message. This means that a book can be working in the preacher before the preacher comes to work through each passage of that book.

6. Greater Depth. When you are preaching through a book, you can overlap some exegetical work and go deeper in each passage as you prepare. For example, this week, I am preaching from Colossians 1:24-2:7. If it was a stand-alone, I would also need to get to grips with the hymn of 1:15-23, thus using up study time. Since I’ve been there already, I can build on that and focus on the preaching passage for this Sunday’s message.

There is a place for stand-alone messages in the preaching schedule – they have a definite strategic purpose. And just because you have a series, that does not mean it is effective or that the strengths are maximised. But I do recommend using carefully planned single-Bible-book series as a significant ingredient in your preaching planning.

Burnout Warning

I was asked by a friend why so many people are burning out these days.  Whether it is a moral fall, a mental breakdown, or a ministry burnout, the frequency seems to be increasing.  Why? 

I remember speaking with several friends some years ago.  They had all gone through a ministry burnout in the previous years.  Their circumstances were different, but they had some things in common.  One spoke of two particularly stressful issues in the church that hit at the same time.  He said that one would have been hard, but survivable, however, the two together created a perfect storm that took its toll on him.

I suspect that right now many are living with half a perfect storm already raging.  This means that many are susceptible to the impact of another stressor that, if faced alone, might not be so damaging.

Let’s imagine that Pastor A was recently bereaved, or had a child with cancer, or some other significant emotional weight that was taking its toll.  He might seem to be handling a difficult situation well, but any friends with sensitivity to his situation would want to protect him from a second heavy load hitting at the same time.  Now would not be a good time for him to also face new and persistent criticism in his ministry, false accusation, a crisis in the church leadership team, or whatever.  We certainly cannot control circumstances and often the second or even third weighty stress factor will combine.  And sometimes we watch men and women serving God who somehow, by God’s grace, are able to weather the worst of seasons without some form of burnout.  But many do not.

I think we should be realistic about contributing factors, sensitive to underlying stressors, and proactive in our care for one another.

Contributing factors – people involved in ministry may well be more susceptible to burnout.  Why?  Because there is a unique pressure not to be.  After all, if Person B is hit by a perfect storm of stressors, they might go to the doctor, get a prescription for something, and get signed off from work.  When they recover, they can go back to their job.  If they lose their job, there is usually another similar one out there for them.  But for Pastor A, there are some unique pressures of ministry – the person in ministry is expected to have unique access to God’s sustaining power, plus they don’t want to let others down (often because they love the people they are serving), they feel they are not supposed to resort to medication, also that the church will suffer if they stop doing their job for a season because the church is not prepared for a sudden “sabbatical,” and if they do burnout there may be no way back into the vocation to which they have given their life – and then how can they provide for their family?  Plenty of people in ministry carry stresses in life that we humans are not created to carry alone.

Underlying stressors – some stresses are more obvious.  When a church is filled with division and tensions, that can be obvious.  When a family member is suffering from a serious illness, people tend to be aware of that.  When an ageing parent has had to move into the family home or a difficult season is entered with a teenage child, or the person is diagnosed with a serious health condition, etc., then others tend to know.  Some stressors are more obvious and the person carrying that load might receive some extra support and help (although I am amazed how often churches expect ministry folks to just carry the extra load and press on!)

But there are also underlying stressors that tend to be less obvious.  Some have always been in the ministry mix: financial anxiety (who cares enough to ask the questions, because the person in ministry will tend to feel unable to raise it), marital tension (again, those in ministry can fear opening up about struggles because of multiplied consequences), private sin struggles (same again), ministry team tensions, chronic health concerns, parenting challenges, etc.  Any one of these can weigh on the soul of the minister and become half of a perfect storm, just waiting for another stressor to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, as it were.

And currently, there are new underlying stressors that we cannot ignore.  In the last five years or so, we are experiencing a hyper-fast change in our culture, as well as two years of Covid-19, of course.  Many are living with an ongoing, underlying weight of stress.  There is anxiety from a culture that no longer needs to wait for a mistake to pounce – the preacher is already on record over many years for believing things now considered “hate speech” that can lead to being cancelled retroactively.  There may be anger at the injustice of the new morality that is taking over society (academia, the media, social media, etc.) – a new morality that determines what can and cannot be believed, spoken and shared.  The loss of free speech and the death of healthy debate weighs heavily on some: if you disagree, then there are many ready to label you with the worst labels and who might also seek to eliminate your opportunity to express your opinion.  And when people in our own churches are trained to act in this destructive manner, more and more people will be carrying growing anxiety and/or anger within.

Covid-19 has been ongoing stress for those in ministry.  There was initial uncertainty about the virus. Then there was the government interference in church world that most of us have never experienced before.  Where we can work, what we must wear, whether we can gather to worship, if we can sing, even when we can walk outside and workout, what medical procedure we must receive, who we can welcome into our homes, etc – these are unprecedented measures.  We have had to adapt continually in ministry: going online, in person with restrictions, changing rules, etc. while trying to lead congregations that might hold very different views on what is happening, and what should be happening.  Many have lived in fear of the virus, others in fear of the government response, and far too often, in fear of each other. 

As we move forward we are now in a different and divided world.  Many in ministry are living with some combination of underlying anxiety and anger (at the injustices that are either flagged or suppressed, the lack of transparency over pandemic decision-making, the apparent disintegration of civil liberties in western countries, etc.)  We will be ministering in a context that is becoming increasingly antagonistic to the Christian faith, with increasing controls on information, communication, thought, etc.  Then there are new chronic illnesses that we are told have always been there.  And just to add to the stress – lots of people are ready to dismiss any concerns because they are reliably informed by the media that everything is normal, and every fear is irrational (apart from the officially sanctioned fears, of course). 

Be Proactive – What should we do to help prevent the rising levels of burnout, breakdown, and flame out in ministry (and other spheres too)?  This post is already far too long, so perhaps I will just say this: be proactive.  If you suspect your pastor is carrying underlying anxiety, tension, or even anger, then be proactive.  Pray for them, but also talk to them.  Make sure they are not carrying burdens alone.  They tend to be ever ready to draw alongside others in the challenges of life.  Make sure someone draws alongside them too. 

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Love Your Neighbour! How?

I am hearing a lot about how we Christians should love our neighbour as people discuss the cultural issues of our time.  We are told to love our neighbours with respect to tolerance, affirmation of declared identity, or various aspects of pandemic response.  If our society declares that it is loving to praise any angry youth for venting their angst, should we automatically join in? If our society determined that good people always wear a glove on the left hand, would that make it so? Now, I believe we absolutely should be loving our neighbour, but it is important to think through what that really means.

The default view of many, it seems, is that loving your neighbour means expressing kindness in the way our culture and the media has defined kindness for us.  The basic idea is that Christians should be leading the way in expressing kindness as it has been defined.  But how is the world’s track record at defining what is right or wrong?  We know the world doesn’t do well with defining wrong, so why should it be any better at defining right?  What if loving our neighbour is more complicated than we are told?

This matters and if we don’t think carefully, we can easily let faulty logic slip into our preaching. This only reinforces the error.

Let’s take a historic example.  Imagine that we are living during the so-called sexual revolution.  “Love” was a big theme for many at that time.  What if Christians were to “love their neighbour” according to the cultural expectations of the day?

We always have the option of loving our neighbours and participating fully in their world as they have defined it.  That was true during the sexual revolution, just as it has been true in the more recent variations of sexual identity and tolerance, or today, in our era of disease prevention.  So, during the sexual revolution, perhaps some Christians participated in the “loving” according to the expectations of the day – or if not full participation, at least by affirmation.  I hope you can see how that would not actually be loving!

The counterpoint always seems to be a pendulum swing in the opposite direction.  If Christians are not going to love as they are told to love, then they must be anti-love and pro-antagonism.  So, the logic goes, the only alternative to loving your neighbour is to criticise your neighbour, to be all about truth, to be relationally clumsy, difficult, awkward and unkind.  (Some Christians certainly have taken this approach, sadly.)

Surely there is an alternative?  We must let God’s values shape our view of right and wrong.  We don’t have to look just like the world, but neither do we have to look like the world’s caricature of Christians.  We can seek to live out that Christ-like combination of true love.  We can love our neighbours, understand them, be kind to them, care for them, show sensitivity to them, etc.  And we can do so while still valuing truth, and reality, sharing the true hope that is found not in their pursuit of love, or safety, or whatever else, but the true hope of love and life and happiness found only in Jesus.  It is not loving to perpetuate a lie to those around us.  In those revolutionary years, the lie of “free love” hurt many people.  The lies of our culture always do.

In a similar way, as a parent, I want to show love to my children. Do I always give them love on their terms? If not, is my only alternative a harsh unloving approach? Not at all. I want to love my children and it often requires prayerful consideration to know what that should look like in a way that will actually help them.

Today we are living in a confused world.  Is the answer to be all in with the world’s plan for showing virtue?  Just love your neighbour and be essentially indistinguishable?  Or should we awkwardly proclaim the truth without love? Or is there a better way?  There is. It is a way that is sensitive to their fears and concerns, a way that goes out of our way to demonstrate love, but at the same time lovingly speaks the truth and points to real hope.

Let’s be sure to love our neighbours, and let’s pray for wisdom to know how to do it.

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Lockdowns & Online Church: Time to Evaluate?

There are few subjects as controversial as Covid-19.  Many churches are feeling the stretch of a full spectrum of views within the congregation. It certainly feels safer to not venture into writing about this subject, but I feel it is important that we evaluate what we do in church world – whatever our view of the actual issue may be.  Obviously, each context is different.  What my church was allowed to do will be different than the rules in your country or state.  What my church decided to do may have been inappropriate for another church in the same town because of different facilities, congregational demographic or local context.

At the beginning of the global crisis in early 2020, most churches saw the situation as a no-brainer.  We were confronted with a new virus and we did not know the extent of the risk (although early predictions were anticipating hundreds of millions of deaths globally).  What we did know was the importance of everyone pulling together to save lives. To illegally meet as a church during those early weeks could easily have been the talk of the town (and it would have made Jesus look very bad).  So for us, and probably for most churches, it was time to get creative and adapt to this unforeseen and temporary lockdown.

Now, 18 months later, we are in a better position to look back and do some evaluating.  In our context we had a long first lockdown, followed by a summer of restrictions, then a shorter lockdown in October/November.  The third lockdown, for the first half of 2021, did not apply to churches (although there were plenty of restrictions). 

Our church experienced the sudden move to “meeting” online without a budget for setting up a high tech studio.  When we were allowed to meet again, we experienced meeting in different venues because our normal venue would not rent to us during the pandemic.  We met in a place where our numbers had to be limited way below our congregation size.  We met in a field, actually two different fields, a large English garden, and as guests of a very kind Anglican church in our town.

Every church will have its own story.  Every church situation is unique.  I am not writing to criticize anyone.  But we should all evaluate.  We are so thankful for the way our congregation responded with flexibility and enthusiasm to the constant changes. As leaders I am sure we made mistakes during these months.  We probably all did.  None of us ever took a seminary class in how to do lead a church during a never-before-seen global health crisis!

So as we look back at online church under various levels of lockdown, let’s take stock of both the costs and the benefits.

There have been benefits – I have spoken with many church leaders and church members who have spoken of learning to be flexible.  Having to adapt to new technology and changing circumstances is probably healthy for all but the most fragile Christians.  Many of us are now as capable of hosting a Zoom call as a business executive, or as familiar with streaming live on YouTube and “speaking to camera” as a social influencer (even if we are still not as comfortable with it!)  Perhaps the reach of your church has extended to people who would never have stepped into your building.  Perhaps, moving forward, the blessing of your live-stream will also be felt by church members at home with a sick child or travelling for work.  

And it is not just about technology and livestreaming.  We have had to think through how to shepherd people that we don’t see in person multiple times each week.  We have had to think about unity more than ever before since Covid has scattered people across a spectrum of responses and perspectives.   We have possibly been given greater clarity on the spiritual condition of many in our churches than was obvious under “the old normal” of predictable church routine.  We have hopefully been pushed to our knees to recognize that we rely on God alone for the health of the flock and not that predictable structure of church life. It is right to recognize the benefits and thank God for His faithfulness during these challenging months of change.

There have been costs – Some people will only speak positively of the impact of lockdown on their church experience.  Perhaps there is something in the air these days that makes it feel forbidden to critique any aspect of Covid response?  But we must evaluate.  Our calling is too significant to do otherwise.  What has been the cost of the loss of fellowship?  What has been the cost of loneliness for believers living alone or as the only believer in their home?  Have people grown to see church as merely watching a sermon and perhaps singing?  What value does corporate worship have in the spiritual life of the believer? What about the relational dynamic at the heart of biblical Christianity?  What about discipleship?  What about serving others?  What about unplanned conversations, warm greetings, handshakes, smiles and hugs?

Have people thrived spiritually with online church, or have they just survived?  There is a cost to not meeting for weeks, or even months on end.  Remember how we would be very concerned pastorally about people who stopped participating in the life of the church for extended periods of time before Covid-19 came along?  That concern still applies.  As churches come out of existing online to meeting in person, they discover that they have lost people.  Some are lost to “pajama church” while others are lost to no church connection at all. Sundays have taken on new rhythms for them.

And what about the loss of opportunities?  We can and should celebrate the people that found church online, but what about guests that never came to church, never experienced believers worshipping together, never experienced the love of a community of God’s people welcoming them warmly?  What about the loss of in-person communion and group prayer?  What about the loss of other opportunities: childhood friendships and life transition moments, mission trips for teens at that key stage of transition to adulthood, youth group heart-to-heart conversations after youth group adventures, and so on?

What do you think? Personally, I believe that online church and lockdown has had far more costs than benefits.  If we had to do it again, what would we do differently?  And are we now happy to switch to online church whatever reason is given for future lockdowns?  Are we really settled with the idea that the authorities can mandate what we do as a church, who we meet with, what we wear, etc.? Is the plan to do what is commanded, or what is culturally popular, whatever the reason? Or are we making different plans to handle what may still lie ahead of us?  Whatever your perspective, it is vital that we all take stock and evaluate. 

I want to recognize that it has been a challenging season to be in church leadership. Thank you for all you have done where you are. It has not been easy. Hopefully, your congregation have expressed their gratitude for all that you have done to make it work in these strange times. Hopefully, you have seen God at work despite the challenges. Jesus promised to build his church!

Our contexts are different and rules seem to be constantly changing everywhere.  How vital it is to think it through, pray it through, and learn lessons in the late summer before another winter comes (whatever that may look like where you are).

(I have sought to gently provoke with questions in this post. I am not looking to stir a political debate, but prayerful reflection. Please do share in the comments anything that could be helpful for others.)

Great Work

In Luke 5, we see Jesus gathering his disciples.  He has already been doing impressive ministry before this point in the Gospel, but this is where we start to see the familiar faces being gathered into his inner circle.  When we look at two brief incidents, we can find real encouragement for today.  This is especially true if you don’t feel particularly impressive as a follower of Jesus.  (And if you do feel impressive, it would probably be good to pray about that!)

In the first verses of the chapter, we see Jesus call Simon Peter to follow him.  Jesus was teaching a crowd and ended up using Simon’s boat as a platform for his message.  Then he asked Simon to head back out to sea and to cast his nets again.  Simon and his friends had just worked all night and caught nothing.  That was not normal (if it were, they would have found alternative employment).   Now Jesus wanted the nets in the water in the middle of the day. Again, this was not a typical request, because everyone knew that fish go deeper when the sun is shining.  However, they did as Jesus asked, and soon their nets were so full they began to break – unusual.  Even their purpose-built fishing boats started to sink – very strange.

We all experience days interrupted by unusual or abnormal events.  It is not normal to have a flat tire on your car, but it does happen.  It is not normal to experience unusual weather, but we have a category for it.  However, this was different for Simon Peter.  This was not the typical kind of unusual event.  This was the kind of combination of strange things that suddenly sent a chill down his spine and caused the hairs to stand up on his neck.

Something bigger was happening, and Simon Peter sensed it.  This is what happens when you suddenly recognize that God is not just out there somewhere, aware of everything.  This is what happens when you realize that God is right here and he is looking specifically at you.

Simon Peter suddenly felt completely undone by Jesus’ presence, the weight of his sin overwhelming him.  “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”

Jesus knew that he was calling a sinner to be his disciple.  Jesus called that sinner to a greater work.  From now on, he would catch people instead of fish.  Simon Peter and his colleagues left their old life behind and followed Jesus to a new life.  Two thousand years later, we are still naming churches and places after them: from St Peter’s Basilica in Rome to St Andrew’s Church in Chippenham, from St James’ football stadium in Newcastle to St John’s in Newfoundland.  How many little boys have been named Peter, Andrew, James and John in the years since?   What an impressive legacy, especially when we remember that they were just sinful fishermen.

Jesus knows that the people he calls are great sinners.  And he still calls us to a greater work.

But then there is another incident later in the chapter.  Have a look at Luke 5:27-28:

27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.

There is no miracle story to set up this call, just a simple instruction.  And Levi left it all and followed Jesus.  But Luke tells us a little bit more – see verses 29-32:

29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

Notice how Pharisees and scribes are in the scene, adding tension to the meal?  Their complaint was simple: Jesus’ disciples should not eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners.  This little group was not living up to their sinless standards.  Take note of Jesus’ response.  Jesus knew full well that he was dealing with sinners and that they needed healing.  These were works in progress. 

To put it simply, in the first story, we see Jesus calling sinners to a greater work.  In the second story, we see that Jesus knows those he calls need his great work. 

What an encouragement for us!  Before we are anything else in the church world, we are disciples of Jesus.  Whatever ministry we may be involved in, whatever position we may hold, we are disciples of Jesus.  And he knows that we are sinful and broken people.  He knows that when he calls us.  He has a far greater work for us to do.  And he knows that he will need to do great work in us.