- A sociological perspective
Future Shock was a best seller written in 1970 by Alvin Toffler. Although the author was not coming from a Christian perspective, if you quoted it in a sermon, you were deemed hip and trendy!
I revisited Toffler last week. In a Covid 19 world, we are experiencing exactly the symptoms which he describes when people have to deal with too much change, too quickly.
He identified the trauma of the revolution from an industrial to a super -industrial society. He popularised the term “information overload”. And with prophetic insight reckoned that technology would be the main driver of future shock.
The advent of the Internet has reinforced that truth in our generation. Although in one of those ironies, the technology of digital media in a virtual world is saving us right now! How much darker would be social distancing without Google, Microsoft Teams, Facetime and Zoom to keep us connected.
I celebrated a landmark birthday at the weekend and would have done so in complete social isolation but for a Zoom family party which brought together 40 different people in 9 locations at the same time.
But a moment’s reflection on the impact lockdown is having on us right now, reveals that Toffler was right. The rapid change on the global scale we are suffering, induces a level of distress and disorientation that shatters people. Our understanding of everything in life, from the normal routines to our relationships, has been fundamentally altered.
The amount of time it will take for the world to fully and properly exit from the pandemic is disturbing many social scientists, politicians and economists. Indeed, some argue that the world will never be the same again. The forecasters predict that future shock will continue.
- A Theological Perspective
The Church has produced its own “Alvin Tofflers”. Tom Sine was the first author out of the gate. By the 1980’s he had written The Mustard Seed Conspiracy. This was really a call to live in the future more simply as followers of Jesus in a world of conspicuous consumption.
But it’s Dr Patrick Dixon who is among leading Christians who are currently speaking into the Coronavirus issues from the “futurist “perspective. He was interviewed two weeks ago by Premier Radio.
As a scientific adviser to governments across the world in over 50 nations, Dixon observed that 85% of the globe doesn’t live in the UK, US or the West. Such a majority world, contains the poorest and the least resourced to manage the long term effects of the virus.
“If you’ve got a million people living in a slum, you don’t have the capacity to self isolate, or to contact trace. And in the majority world, we will see Coronavirus unfortunately spread rapidly and relatively uncontrolled.’
For all the remarkable research and investment going on into understanding the virus, Patrick Dixon remains, like many scientists and epidemiologists, cautious and realistic about the future. We don’t have a vaccine yet, we don’t even have proven therapeutic treatments. We don’t know for sure that having Coronavirus will mean that you don’t get it again. So we have so much still to learn.
With Ebola it took five years to find a vaccine and produce it to scale. HIV research began in 1985 and we are still ten to fifteen years away from developing that vaccine.
He is one of many experts who predict that even with the relaxation of guidelines, we will be in some form of of social isolation, with limited numbers of people allowed to gather in any one context and reduced international travel, for up to two years.
But it was his observation on future church, as opposed to future science, that struck a chord with me. He suggested that the online digital revolution, which the pandemic has generated, is here to stay.
He cited the fact that over 1 Million people viewed the Spring Harvest Easter Conference; that 58, 000 Churches in the UK alone are now streaming their services. And that the local, national and global audience includes many who have never been to church or who live in places where it isn’t legal to talk about the Christian faith.
He refers to a Church in Sweden that five weeks ago had 50 worshippers but that now enjoys a congregation of 1000!
I’m a little sceptical that such growth patterns for local churches will be sustained. This may turn out be no more than a temporary novelty spike. But nonetheless, the risk and reward for the Church as an organisation in such a changed context, is significant and potentially exciting.
- The Three Season view of the future
In my reading and reflection, three future scenarios emerge as the most helpful way of thinking about what might happen and how we might respond as believers and Churches.
Depending upon whether you are an optimist or pessimist, will largely dictate which of these three you are putting your money on!
Having said that, all such prophesying needs to be done with humility and the recognition that life operates under the sovereign control of God.
Though we are to plan and to that extent predict the way things might be, we do so with an open hand not holding on tightly to our view of the future.
In his New Testament letter, James warns us “Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.
That same biblical sanity applies in the realm of future Church strategies. Such wisdom doesn’t make planning ahead wrong, it just prevents us from thinking that the future is in our hands.
The three season view of the future sees the impact of Covid 19 on society and therefore the Church as being either a “blizzard”, a “ winter” or a “ little ice age”.
In the blizzard, we have to wait out as the the crisis passes in a few months. In the mean time we adapt as we need to, but we don’t over invest in changes to patterns and methods. The storm will blow through and we will pick up pretty much where we we left off, when the virus hit.
Churches don’t need a new “play book” as corporate- speak puts it. The new normal will, with the flattening of the curve and effective “test, track and trace” policies, mean that we’ll be back to normal by the autumn.
I have to say in the first few weeks of the crisis I adopted this “blizzard” mind set. I talked up the need to respond immediately to practical issues, to design and build online, pre-recorded video services, to adapt our meetings and communications policies and then we would emerge from the shelter by the summer.
I think I underestimated the nature of the crisis and how it’s consequences would be far reaching.
The second scenario understands Covid 19 as a cultural and economic “winter”. And like a winter season in more northern latitudes, what begins as a blizzard turns into a cold season of months. It is an ongoing period which requires significant adaptation to hostile weather conditions.
Regional variations may apply, but even in less severely affected areas, society is reconfigured.
As this scenario relates to Church, we could be looking at the gradual lifting of social distancing guidelines, while the restrictions against mass public gatherings continue. That would have big implications for a Church like Lansdowne. How do you organise, for example, 500 people on a Sunday?
I have spoken to a colleague who leads a large church in Chicago and typical perhaps of the US scene, his Staff have already started modelling “war games”.
They have mapped out plans to run 20 services across a weekend in which 100 people per service, wearing masks and with no refreshments afterwards, meet for live, embodied worship.
The third and by far the most significant worst case scenario is “a little ice age”.
The last one of those ended, according to climate specialists, in 1816. But it had gone on for centuries. I don’t think anyone expects the impact of Covid 19 to last several hundred years. Modern medicine, global interconnectedness and big economies, are likely to prove capable and resilient enough to mitigate the worst of Coronavirus.
However, flattening the curve will also mean extending the curve until population immunity is sufficiently established and a mass produced vaccine is in use.
But even a season of 18 – 24 months will feel like the chill of a little ice age. Certainly as a duration of time, it will be long enough to require significant restructuring to the way life works. The travel and tourism industry is already talking about the major impact on them lasting for the next two to three years.
And if in the West we recover more quickly than that, the majority world will not be ready to re-join the global economy and open up, for several more years afterwards.
It has become apparent that 80% of the West’s business, industries and public service sectors are digging in for a little ice age in relation to growth, employment and productivity.
When, as a few weeks ago, the oil price drops so low that a barrel of the stuff is worth less than nothing (!), you know something big is going on.
Air lines are one industry savagely reducing their cost base on the assumption that things won’t be returning to normal for an “age” !
- The Church and the future
So what of the Church? Well you can read the appendix at the end. It’s the Nine Point Strategy of the Covid 19 Church.
It will give you a handle on how we see Lansdowne positioning itself. To what extent this strategy is built on a “ blizzard”, “winter” or “little ice age” scenario, is unclear.
I think, wisely, we are building our capacity to manage all three seasonal possibilities. Operating now as if in a blizzard, but planning for either of the longer term options.
In them all recognising that the strategic play book may have to be amended and changed as new realities emerge month to month.
The E- Formation
But I want to wrap up with a bigger perspective than the local Church. Someone has described the impact of Covid 19 as being an E-Formation. In other words, it stands to have the same significant legacy on the church and the nature of Christian mission, that the invention of the Printing Press did on the medieval Church when it rediscovered the Bible under Luther and Calvin.
I think there are persuasive parallels between that Reformation and this e- Formation.
The printing press, which was a technological development in the form of a new mass communication tool, fuelled the broadcasting of the Word of God. Wycliffe Bible Translators are direct descendants of this passion to translate the Bible into every language.
Today’s Church is being asked to embrace new communication tools in the effective use of streaming, digital worship, small group study by zoom, even pastoral and counselling work on screen.
Now, there are red flags to be aware of, which I will wave next time. But a wide open door for the gospel has developed. Patrick Dixon sees Paul’s imprisonment and his prodigious writing of letters from such social isolation as an early example of digital discipling.
All over the world today, Church leaders and Churches, locked in solitary confinement, or locked out of their building, have begun to realise “we can still use emails, You Tube and the web to get the message out”.
John Macarthur is pulling in an audience of 300, 000 for his live stream sermons!
Now again there are caveats which I will discuss another time. But let’s end with the positive. These are extraordinary times to be alive as a Christian. And there are changes going on which will be with us for years to come.
Let’s pray for wisdom to read the seasons and plan effectively.
Peter Baker | Senior Minister
The Nine Track Strategy of the Covid 19 Church.
To enhance the making and maturing of disciples during the pandemic
Effective online gatherings that unite the church, engage everyone and communicate with impact for the making and maturing of disciples
|Pastoring the Church
Ensure everyone is discipled and cared for
Equip current small groups, and connect the unconnected, for effective making and maturing of disciples
Maximise our prayerful dependence on God for the making and maturing of disciples
Facilitate practical support for church and community
Unite and deploy all staff to enhance the making and maturing of disciples
Equip the whole church to maximise this opportunity to make disciples
|Youth & Children
Making and maturing young disciples with great impact
Ensure and facilitate effective messaging of central priorities