How To Spell Crisis
According to some, the Chinese word for crisis is made up of the two characters above. At least that’s what motivational speakers, who want to inspire out of the box thinking, were saying long before the Covid 19 pandemic.
But Sinologists have just as long disputed this Western misinterpretation of the way Mandarin and other Eastern languages are formed. Although they do admit that Oriental philosophy often holds in tension two apparent opposites. The world turns on the Yin and Yang of life.
Well, we can leave the language experts to debate all that. I want instead to explore the “green lights and the red flags” which this unprecedented time in our cultural history represents.
I want to ask particularly what lessons the Church needs to be learning as we begin to inch our way out of lockdown into a post Coronavirus society.
If crisis = danger + opportunity, what does it teach us? In this blog I will examine one of each category. I will save the rest, and there are several, for further blogs.
The first red flag of danger is when the medium becomes the message.
In the necessary movement since March of most of the ministry of the local Church to online, media platforms, there is a potential danger in the shift.
We are familiar today with the “sound bite culture” and the “ three minute world”. This is about the fact that people, the young in particular, have apparently short attention spans and therefore need maximal visual stimulus and minimal word count.
I think that’s an arguable overstatement and can be patronising to human intelligence. Music, pictures, still or moving and a verbal or written message are all part of the way we experience and understand the world. There’s no hierarchy of importance. We have been crated to appreciate equally a short story and a long argument, an image and an essay.
But it is undeniable that our approach to communication as a Christian community, which had already begun to adapt to the You Tube culture, has gone through, if not a paradigm change, certainly a significant revision.
I trawled the social media channels yesterday and tasted the various ways in which Churches are communicating on a Sunday. It was fascinating to see how some have made little or no allowances for the new world we are in, whereas others have attempted, with various degrees of success, a complete make over.
Some of this depends upon the skill sets within a congregation to adapt to the changing requirements of technology. We are fortunate in Lansdowne to have a bunch of motivated and able people keen to develop online communication.
The different Church approaches also seem to depend upon an initial decision to communicate essentially to the same people you were talking to before lockdown or instead to start communicating to a changing community.
Even in a world in which, because of the virus, Google internet click traffic to Church and Christian thinking has increased by 144 % , some of us are still clearly more committed to the existing “ insiders”, whereas some are adapting significantly to the new “outsiders”.
So you will hear Christian leaders referring either to their “congregation”, or to their “audience”. The use of which term is not accidental. It looks to me that there is either a basic protective posture to keep things pretty much as they were or a more expansive attitude to grow a new sort of community. Either way it is an intentional call and not just a technological one.
There are in addition a group of churches that were set up for the online world already and for whom the adaptation has been more about scaling down than scaling up.
They have had real difficulties in social distancing a 12 piece band (!) and their celebrity tele -visual pastors look just a little overcooked without an adoring fan club in the auditorium with them. But their video, camera and IT departments have loved the space to take over the world even more! What was already tending towards a made -for – TV, performance- based worship experience, has found the transition fairly straightforward.
But even with these superbly equipped operations, what is clear to me is that for all of us now, the optics are key. There is a world of difference between a worship service and sermon delivered and preached on a platform in front of a lectern, live on a Sunday before a congregation; and a service and a sermon delivered and preached pre- recorded in front of a screen in your lounge from a chair with nobody else present!
The most effective churches are those where the “communicators” are more informal in style and more conversational in tone and, dare I say it, shorter in length ! A 35 minute message in a Church can seem like 35 years on a screen!
The expression “in your face”, is all the more toe curlingly obvious when the preacher or worship leader hasn’t made the necessary adjustment to the medium. Less is often more, especially so in the land of the lens. When we try too hard to be trendy without either the communication or technical skills to pull it off, we can end up looking like “granddad dancing at a wedding”!
The finger pointing, declaratory and over blown theatrics which make up the standard rhetoric of the average preacher on a Sunday (and some of us are very average!) looks more than a little weird when this style is delivered, unmodified, on camera and transmitted into your front room. The mute button can be a real blessing on such occasions! But that of course highlights one of the dangers of the Church online experience. We can be in charge of what we listen to and for how long. We become consumers of a product not worshippers in a community.
The very term “view”, to describe how many people may have tuned into a Church service and the thumbs up or down sign to indicate if the viewer liked or disliked what they were watching, tends to compound the danger.
I can be a spectator not a participator in this online medium. I decide what I filter out or allow. So if the preacher is saying things I don’t like, then I can just shut him up! If the worship song is not my bag, then I can press pause, go and make a coffee and return when the music is more to my taste.
“Screen” religion can be the death not just of the true nature of Church but of the spiritual health of the viewer.
It was Marshall Mcluhan, back in the 1960’s, who made his reputation by signposting the fact that how we communicate is as important as what we communicate. He actually went further and argued that the channel through which a message is transmitted is more important than the meaning or the content of the message.
His thinking largely captured the communications industry and we have been slaves to this emphasis ever since. As such it represents huge challenges to the communication of Christian truth. For our primary medium is a big book (the Bible!) and our preferred channel, at least in the Evangelical Bible tradition, is preaching. We handle a truth message which is not comfortably relayed in a world where truth is relative, personal and always up for grabs.
And our style of Sunday preaching is of a certain kind at that. We value relatively long messages, a propositional not discursive style, we tend to a one person and non-interactive delivery.
Now it’s been really helpful and important that in the last fifty years or so the Evangelical Church has looked again at the Bible and realised that there are a variety of communication methods presented. Jesus story telling parables, Paul’s dialogue and debate, to name but two approaches.
Equally significant has been the growth of a Christian communications industry that has creatively used all manner of media from video to music, to tell the story of faith and teach the truth of God.
I rejoice in all these developments. In my view they do not need to imperil the future health of the church or its message. We are to continue to reflect our image as the creative counterparts of our Creator God. And the use of technology has always been part of that process.
The key thing is to see technology and artistic expression as a means to an end not as the means. These are tools at our disposal.
If you want to read an interesting response to the world that Mcluhan and others introduced, then get hold of Neil Postman’s Book Amusing ourselves to Death. The author is not writing from a Christian perspective, but he makes a lot of sense as he raises the red flag of danger.
The challenge remains. How do we communicate the truth of God to a generation nurtured on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat? If we are not careful, the medium can become the message so that everything is measured by how engaging it is – which often means how entertaining it is- not how faithful to God’s Word it is.
Some of the big truths about God are difficult to convey in any medium, let alone modern media. How for example do we explore the beauty, purity and righteousness of God when it is translated only in a tele visual way. Subjects like sin and judgement, don’t’ tend to play well on camera.
The very nature of spiritual experience and of the transcendence of God can’t be reduced simply to a made for TV programme in which infotainment is the name of the game.
More could be said. But let’s now look at one green light of opportunity.
The Covid crisis has given us A wider reach for our Mission.
Here are three examples of many. I met woman in B and Q this week, like me buying materials, I think, for her home and garden . She recognised me from the Online Services and Daily Devotionals that she has been been enjoying since March.
Previously aware of Lansdowne but quite peripheral, this woman is now sufficiently re- engaged to have signed up for our Open the Bible Zoom course.
Now all sorts of questions arise as to why there was limited connection with us before and whether this new found energy for engagement will translate into a long term change of behaviour. I pray so.
But the point is, some people are finding their way back to God and faith through the virtual world. It is a world that people can inhabit without making the initial and sometimes overwhelming commitment to the institution of Church (which is one of the other dangers !).
But let’s rejoice in the fact that potentially thousands of people, like this woman, who will be in the post Covid church, will be there because they were able to put their toe in the water of the Online Church.
Example two. Someone from Africa Googled “Bible Teaching” and Lansdowne Church appeared somewhere at the top of the options list. They joined the Open the Bible Course last week! Whether they were in the same Zoom group as the B and Q lady, I don’t know .
Now again we could argue, aren’t there Bible teaching churches in Africa ? etc.
And I am sure that when this person finishes the course, they will be advised by our course leaders to get stuck into a more local Church. But what if because of access to our course, this individual becomes a first time believer or their faith is significantly deepened and they share that with a family member who then asks questions and so on. Who knows where that story ends up!
I am convinced that Christ is building His multi – cultural Church in lockdown just as He has been before. We are being kept out of our physical buildings and are having to find new, flexible ways of engaging in Mission. And one of the great things about the internet is that it knows no geographical boundaries. It can gather together in the same virtual space people from Africa and Bournemouth!
Example three. During my daily exercise walk from Coy Pond to the beach, through the gardens, I came across a couple who I knew from Church. This was a couple quite new to Lansdowne.
By the way, there has never been a walk during the last twelve weeks in which I haven’t, even at an appropriate social distance, failed to meet at least one Lansdowne person on my travels.
In fact on one day, in effect, I did four pastoral visits! I met someone on a park bench by the crazy golf , someone in their motorised buggy driving up the promenade and two people from the same household cycling to the Westbourne Tesco Express. It was all told a very productive two hours!
But back to my conversation with this couple. The amazing thing was that that very morning, the husband had emailed the Church Office to say “thank you” for the online ministry and how could he get more involved in the life of the Church. So I had replied by email advising him to join one of the new Online Small Groups which we were starting.
Now there I was, three hours later, two meters away and sharing with them both in much greater detail the benefits of actively belonging to Church.
All these stories tell the bigger story. The reach of our Mission as a Church is growing and growing. And technology is making some of that possible.
Yes the nature of that mission is changing and probably for good. But we are reaching more people in more creative ways than ever before.
I fully expect some of the things we are now having to do in response to the pandemic to become things we will always do because, quite frankly, they are more effective for being digital.
I have myself saved hours each week in travelling to and fro in a car for a meeting that would normally occupy three hours. But now via Zoom or Microsoft Teams, I can accomplish just as much, if not more, in half the time !
The discipline required for Video Conferencing etiquette has wonderful by products in meeting efficiencies! I completed a Trustees meeting this week in just over an hour and we had more time left to pray !
That’s the upside for the Mission of the Church in the world. Of course there are down sides. And I will flag another one of those dangers next time.
But this crisis really is an opportunity. There has never been a more interesting time to be a disciple of Jesus called to make disciples in a virtual world.
Peter Baker | Senior Minister