Tim Murray writes: Like every other church, we (at Amblecote Christian Centre near Stourbridge) faced an unknown situation when the government started restricting large gatherings and it became clear that the pandemic was going to have a major impact on the shape of our lives. The unknown was not just ‘what we would do as a church’ but about the scale of the damage COVID would do to the community, both in terms of fatalities but also the economic and social impact.
Through these months, our posture has been primarily shaped by Psalm 46. First, we were able to draw comfort from the truth that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change…” (v. 1-3). We needed to be reminded whose hands we were in as we faced an unknown and disruptive future. We were equally shaped, though, by verses 8-11: “Come, behold the works of the Lord, see what desolations he has brought on the earth… ‘Be still, and know that I am God! I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.’” It seems that when facing global disaster, the response God seeks from his people is to be still.
This is a massive challenge for us. It seems that our natural response to disaster is a load of human activity—what can we do to try and respond to what we face. This is understandable—who wouldn’t want to fix things? Who wouldn’t want to try and meet needs that we immediately perceive, or ward off threats? Our conviction, though, was that this is not meant to be our primary reaction when God allows widespread disaster; instead, he asks for stillness. In part, is this because stillness acknowledges our impotence in our circumstances? It is a position of humility, recognising our inability to control our lives or secure our futures. It recognises that in truth we don’t know the best way to respond—that we have to sit before God in order to discern his guidance as to how he wants us to work with him in the disaster, rather than assuming that we know what he would want us to do. Stillness is also linked with a focus on the glory of God—in other words, stillness is the choice to return to what really matters. It is to focus again on what is of primary importance, rather than be consumed by an activism addressing secondary matters. Stillness, then, is not a passive apathetic stance towards our circumstances, but an opportunity to be realigned with the glory of God, that becomes the starting point for any further response.
We attempted to work these principles out amongst our church family in the following ways:
- For the first six weeks we did not attempt to provide any kind of online Sunday service. To do so would have consumed a huge amount of our time and also given the impression to our congregation that we were ‘cracking on as normal’ as far as we possibly could, the exact opposite of Psalm 46. Instead, we wrote to our congregation explaining our reflections on Psalm 46 and encouraging each of us to take time to be still and seek God. We said we would be making slow decisions, not quick ones, asking for their patience and prayer as we did so. The only exception was Easter Sunday!
- The only thing we did in the short term was to group the church into geographical ‘community care hubs’. These have been facilitated by some of the mature Christians in our congregation and have aimed to make sure that any practical needs that came up we could meet as a church family, as well as providing a community of encouragement and belonging. We wanted to make sure no-one ‘fell through the gaps’ or that anyone got into trouble and didn’t know where to get help.
- We gathered the church family on Zoom for an hour each Thursday evening, where we focussed on ‘processing this together’ just as a family might: talking through what was happening and how we, as Christians, might understand and respond. We also were able to share and pray about any critical needs and address questions (Zoom webinars are wonderful tools for dialogue with a large group of people).
As the weeks went on, we began to press into our second reflection on Psalm 46—that this is a time of immense opportunity. Like many other churches, we have been longing that more of us would want to pursue a more authentic Christian life, where we develop expressions of community that are deep and rich, where discipleship is the development of a whole-life apprenticeship to Jesus and the formation of a holistic Christian worldview, and where mission is a lifestyle that flows from the heart, rather than a program delivered out of guilt. Change is always difficult, but one of the things that makes it so is that we’re bound to ‘the norm’: our usual patterns of living, habits of life, the shape of our days, our expectations about church, etc. For most of us, the kingdom life of freedom Jesus calls us to may be a new Exodus that delivers us from slavery, but just like the Israelites, we are so attached to the familiarity of our slavery that we pull back from the invitation to a difficult freedom.
But the pandemic forced ‘normal’ to stop. This is not true in every way, obviously, but substantial parts of our lives simply have not been able to continue as they were. We have become convinced that this is as huge gift to the church – rather than enduring this season and ‘getting back to normal’, there is an opportunity to move forward to something different. We can stop ‘normal’ and think critically, creatively and prayerfully about what we should rebuild.
Practically, we could see one or two of our community care hubs becoming more intentional communities over time. They may at some point meet for communal worship on a Sunday, but this is not about ‘service plants’, but genuine local communities. We are currently exploring ways of each hub collecting money saved in the pandemic to provide for those who will face financial hardship. This could be another step towards a more interdependent common life at a local level. Unsurprisingly, the increase in dispersed leadership has been good for the church and allowed space for people to grow. Experimenting with gathering as a whole church family online has helped us think about ways, in the future, we could be more geographically dispersed (to pursue local mission, deeper community, etc.), whilst retaining a shared journey and identity. I’ll give the rest of this blog, though, to describing how we are attempting to rethink our teaching:
We recognise our responsibility to offer teaching for the whole church to fulfil our responsibilities as elders, but we’ve also long acknowledged some of the weaknesses of delivering this on a Sunday morning, many of which have been described on this blog! Sunday preaching has limited opportunity for discussion and interaction, or for relational ‘working through’ of what we teach about. It also comes around every 7 days, so we only have a week to understand and apply what has been taught before we have to come to terms with another dollop of teaching! We also recognise that it is difficult to replicate a live sermon online; it’s not that one is better than the other, but just that they do not map straight over. Again, to try and ‘crack on’ as normal seems misguided.
We’ve therefore decided to separate our whole church family teaching from our Sunday space. We have reinstated an online service (particularly for our elderly or those who struggle to connect in other ways) and these will have a 15 minute biblical reflection given by many different members of our church, but our core teaching, where we aim to fulfil our teaching responsibility as elders, will be delivered differently:
- When it is our turn to teach, we will teach for a whole month on one particular topic/text/theme, in order to give us proper time to digest and apply the teaching.
- We will teach through a mix of different mediums. There will still be one or two long lectures or sermons, but we will accompany this with short vlogs, blogs or other written pieces. These may be more informal, develop themes, muse on application, etc. Most excitingly, we will also offer several zoom meetings where people can come and have a conversation about the teaching, where we can pursue dialogue and the teaching can become more personalised. We hope that in offering a month’s worth of differentiated modes of communication, we can engage people in different ways, offer more transformative teaching and encourage our congregation to change the way we think about the gift of teaching in the church – that this should be operating in the day-to-day of our community life, rather than within a Sunday slot. In some ways we hope this models the more rabbinic approach of Jesus, mixing monologue with dialogue, speaking with demonstration, personal vulnerability and availability with directional instruction.
- The content of our teaching, in this season, will focus on trying to articulate what the difference is between the kingdom life Jesus calls us to and what we know as normal. It’s all very well exhorting ourselves not to ‘return to normal’, but if we don’t offer an alternative this becomes empty words.
Articulating an alternative
When we recognise that we live within a world-system (call it liberal capitalism, for example) which dictates a lot of our expectations and presuppositions we see the challenge of articulating the alternative kingdom life of Jesus. It seems to me that either we basically concede the framework of our culture and try to live faithfully within it, or we have to propose rejecting what seems irresistible—and both options find it hard to gain traction. If we concede the framework (for example, that businesses must follow the price set by the market to pursue profitability, or that our children need to be educated in a certain way in order to obtain economically secure jobs, or that substantial power should only lie with those democratically elected), we tend to end up only offering ways of altering our ‘private’ lives—our businesses give some of their profits away, we send our kids to Sunday school and we recognise the limitations of government. Great. But somehow this doesn’t seem to encompass the fullness of the kingdom call—it has limited power to stir our emotions and desire for change.
If we press in the other direction though, recognising that following Jesus calls us to reject the normal assumptions of culture and live within a different frame of reference, the application seems so radical as to be impossible: can a business really operate in rejection of capitalist assumptions and in the pursuit of virtuous ends? Can we really pull our kids out of schools to enable them to be educated and formed in a different way? Can we really consider forms of political action that are nothing to do with right-left dichotomies yet remain public rather than private? Often, when we talk in these terms, this seems simply unreachable. And yet often this is because we frame our own questions with the liberal assumption of individualism—we ask, “how could I ever achieve these things?” But we do not have to submit to thinking in individualist terms. “How could we respond to this vision?” is a better question.
Forgive the digression, but this is what will determine our teaching content over the coming months. We want to articulate the alternative by going deeper theologically – to try to identify and teach the fundamentally different worldview Christianity offers; but we also want to be more radical than usual in our application. We want to stir the imagination – for we will surely only change away from ‘normal’ if our hearts are moved to want the alternative. We wont change to simply ‘be better Christians’. To help us, we will tackle topics that are a less familiar and whose importance is less often thought through. For example:
- God and rest, for in a world driven by the worship of productivity and identity reinforced by business, God commands a way of life flowing from surrender, humility, stillness and worship; in a world where rest is conceived as earned and leisure, God offers rest as a gift prior to work and a restoration of the soul. To really live into this, we may need to face our insecurities we cover with activity and embrace less wealth, because we work less and give more, in order to facilitate a community that can live like this.
- God and beauty, for the experience of beauty is to experience a desire for something beyond what is physically present. Thus, the enjoyment of beauty is the school for the exercise of faith. The formation of the imagination and the cultivation of creativity is thus an issue of human discipleship and shapes our ability to have faith in the unseen fulfilment of all desire. If we’re serious about this, we will have to think hard about the formation of our children, family life, education, as well as what we value in our church communities and where we spend our time.
- God and a public hope, for the liberal assumption that the public square is about arbitrating between people with fundamentally irreconcilable preferences, mediating essential conflict and violence in order to deliver negative freedom, is contrasted by the Christian assumption of primary ontological peace, and thus the possibility of genuinely shared values and the pursuit of the common good. This redemptive hermeneutic should compel us into public engagement which is not shy of our faith, but reclaims the calling to be salt and light. It should compel us to resist left-right binaries, nationalism, or an apparently pious withdrawal. We may, in fact, embody our faith as we put time and energy into genuine public movements for the common group, or start a street association.
This is indicative and provisional; it may fall flat on its face, but we hope by God’s grace this will allow us a ‘way in’ to re-imagining a different way of living that we may actually do something about together, in the opportunities that arise from stillness in the face of the pandemic.
Dr Tim Murray completed his PhD in New Testament at the University of Nottingham supervised by Professor Roland Deines. He is now a staff elder at Amblecote Christian Centre near Stourbridge in the West Midlands.
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