Monthly Archives: October 2022

Methodism Today: Dot-to-Dot.

World's largest connect-the-dots puzzle

As a child my maternal grandmother would join us for Sunday lunch and tea. I always looked forward to these times because she was my ‘Nana’ but also because she would bring a bar of Fry’s Chocolate Cream to share and a puzzle comic for me to do.

I particularly liked doing the dot-to-dot puzzles, where, if you connected them in the right order, the seemingly random dots on the page would reveal a picture of a car or ship or something.

In many ways the life and mission of the church is like a dot-to-dot puzzle. These ‘dots’ are the unchanging aspects of a churches life and work, like personal invitations to gatherings, breaking bread with a neighbour, singing praise to God, reading his word, offering the life of the world in prayer and offering a captivating message. For many years we have joined this dots together in a particular way to reveal a picture we call Church.

But what if you could join the dots of the puzzle together in a different way to reveal a different picture? If we connect these dots in the “right” order, we just might have an exciting, life-giving movement on our hands. 

Many churches are now quite familiar with a both/and reality, especially with worship. Churches stream worship online while also having people in the pews. On any given Sunday you will find an offering plate but many church members now give online. (Some churches even have contactless card readers to accept donations!) The both/and world is becoming quite familiar, but often overlooked is the responsibility to recognise that both/and is not just about church logistics. Living into this tension elicits a pastoral response. Many are feeling left behind with the quickly changing technological landscape, and with this dramatic change there is grief, those who were on the ‘offertory rota’ no longer have a role to fulfil.

We must hold in tension both the grief and excitement of this new augmented landscape. Many for the first time feel like the church is listening to them. Creating discord servers, developing space in the metaverse, and investing in digital currencies as a means through which the church is serving a new generation, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of those currently in our communities. It’s not about the technology, but it is about the connection (or lack thereof) technologies affords.  As of yet there isn’t an app on the market that can heal a hurting soul who feels forgotten. We must connect the dots between what technology can do and how technology makes us feel. 

In the church there is often a resistance to change and those who resist change will speak about ‘change for changes sake’. I must admit I agree that change for changes sake is not always the best way forward. If change comes it must be adaptive change, joining the dots in a different way to produce a better not just a new picture.

Twenty or so years ago there was a church that had experienced their “golden” years: substantial growth, effective mission, expansion, and influential community leadership. The minister who led during this time of abundance eventually came to the end of their time in the circuit and was stationed elsewhere, and with his successor came great strife. The following years offered division, antagonism, and depending on who you ask, great trauma. Since this shake-up, the congregation seemed to find some reason or another to ask the minister to start packing every four to five years. Why? With each new appointment the next minister was being asked, explicitly or quietly in the hallways in between meetings, to recapture the past. The incoming minister’s vision was never enough. It never could be because repeating the past is impossible. It is not an altogether bad thing to desire the best practices of a fruitful time. Connect-the-dots puzzles are a tried and true children’s exercise, but if you’re hoping to find a connect-the-dots book within walking distance from your home at a corner news shop your walk will probably end in disappointment.  

Congregations tempted to reclaim past mission and vision are in a particularly difficult context today. As I mentioned in my previous article, we are all running the third great Covid marathon; “Nostalgic Scarcity,” the desire to reclaim the past through already limited resources. Nostalgic Scarcity might be an unfamiliar phrase, but “let’s get ‘back to,’” and “This is how we used to do it,” I’m sure will resonate in many churches with a slight traumatic tremor.

Churches who want to ‘get back to’ are stifling this new environment to explore the realities of mission and church today, both physically and digitally. Some members will even go to the extent of removing the dots to prevent a new pattern being formed, the “if you do this I will resign from the church” brigade. Enshrining the past is not a bad thing, but it is the job of museums, not the calling of churches. 

Adaptive change will be waiting for us at the Covid marathon finish line, and with adaptive change there is always a cost. The cost is often loss. Several church members of that church left when the new ministers failed to invest in creating a “get back to” environment; however it seems that the congregation has never been healthier. The worshiping congregation is certainly slimmer, but also more nimble, more missionally engaged, and frankly happy. We must connect the dots between what will bring us into a more fruitful future with the recognition that not everything/one will join us on that journey. 

The good news is that the church is not being called to be innovative, witty or clever. We simply need to be where the people are. We need to connect the dots between the excitement of innovation with the sorrow of grief. We need to connect the dots between the fruitfulness of moving into the future with the loss from adaptive change. We need to connect the dots between innovative technology and the people the technology should serve. When we reconnect the dots of our churches life we will see the shape of a cross. It may have been hard to see at first in the midst of exhaustion and rapid change, but it is our faith that it is there. So, how are you being called to reconnect the dots of your churches life?

Grace and peace to you, Alan.

Being an Attention Seeker-a sermon preached at Kingsbury

Jesus told them a parable to this effect. They ought always to pray and not lose heart. Persist don’t give up. Continue to wrestle with the situation and with God. That is the message of both scriptural passages today.

It’s unusual for the gospel writer to give the meaning of the parable at the outset but perhaps he felt that his readers needed a little help in coming to an understanding of Jesus’ message. Perhaps in our irreligious age we ought to step back and ask a more fundamental question> namely what is prayer. How should we understand it?

In the end prayer is about waiting on God-giving him our full attention.  The orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable towards God-that is prayer. God we believe is infinitely loving and cares for each one of us so we need to pay attention to him and put ourselves in his way.

The French philosopher and writer Simone Weil who was also a High School teacher believed that the study of mathematics or difficult foreign languages like Greek developed the power of attention in students. Consequently such studies were not only helpful to students in their academic and intellectual development but also in their prayer life. This seems odd at first but I’m sure she was on to something. These days’ people find it hard to pay attention to anything for any length of time and they crave instant amusement and complain constantly that they are bored. Perhaps you are bored with me now.

If prayer is to be understood as giving our attention to God we might also consider what prayer is not.

Prayer is not magic or the casting of spells. It’s not about uttering words or phrases to ensure particular outcomes at critical moments. Of course familiar words or phrases uttered at critical moments of crisis can be a comfort to us and have their value but at best they are only a key or a pin number to open up the heart so that it gives its full attention to God.

A famous story told by a French religious figure-obviously it’s their day today-concerns the famous priest known to history as the Cure d’Ars. Walking through his church one day he saw a man kneeling in silence before figure of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Time passed and he became used to seeing the man kneeling day after day before the cross. So he asked him about how he was and what he was doing. He replied; I looks at him and he looks at me and we are happy together. That’s as good an account of prayer as you will find.

Prayer then is giving attention to God. Getting in God’s way and letting God get in our way.

That’s my first point perhaps the key point. The second thing to say is that prayer has a number of aspects:-

Praise: We need always to be praising God for who he is and what he is doing.

Confession: Giving attention to God also means attending to our sins and shortcomings which prevent us from making a full engagement with him.

Thanksgiving-we should always be giving thanks to God for his love and care and his ongoing engagement with us.

Intercession-in which we ask for things. But what things?

You will note, I hope, that when I come here I try and make space in the order of worship for each of these elements. The choice of hymns should also follow this pattern.

All these elements of prayer are needed if we are to have a serious engagement with God who loves us. If some elements are missing we are just left wish wishing and hoping which leaves us feeling disappointed when our wishes don’t come to pass. Always we need to get real-real about ourselves and real about God.

Coming to Church Sunday by Sunday we follow this pattern and this provides us with a template for our own private devotions.

What then thirdly is the use of praying?-to quote the title of a famous book by a Methodist author.

Prayer is good for us because it is the gateway to a holier life and a holy life is a happy life. Holiness and happiness are linked. Prayer is a means to happiness. That’s useful!

Prayer changes things. Not that prayer changes God rather it changes us. Because it changes us it opens up new spaces for God to act in the world – a world so often gripped in a kind of unholy necessity. Prayer changes the world because it changes what is possible for God and for God’s people who act in his name.

When people say, especially in committees: oh but we must be realistic I feel as perhaps you do too the grip of a kind of iron law of necessity. Realistic – well yes- but whose realism are we talking about-our reality or God’s reality. God leads us in prayer to enlarge our ideas about what is realistic in his name.

That’s very useful.

Faced with injustice in the world and with suffering and anguish close to home we must not give up. The cynicism that disguises itself as realism is too easy. Today my diary tells me that it is Freedom Sunday and next week is One World Week. It would be easy to feel cynical and detached in the face of increasing discrimination violence and oppression among the peoples of the world. What can we do? We can call upon God and place ourselves at his disposal. Above all we must persist in prayer as the gospel tells us to do. Be assured says Jesus God will vindicate us speedily.

The key theme in both our Bible readings this morning is struggle. Persistence in prayer as Jesus commends it in his parable and Jacob wrestling with the mysterious “man”. Who is this man? Could it be God? Charles Wesley seemed to think so.

Art thou the man who died for me

The secret of they love unfold

Wrestling I will not let thee go

Till I thy name and nature know.

The struggle you see. To know God and to know his purpose for us through prayer.

But in this struggle we have two great allies:

The Bible in which we learn who God is and how he acts and the Church Christ’s body here on earth present with us in his people and in the signs he gives us most notably the Holy Communion which we are about to celebrate with him, for him and for the world.

You know we did a good thing coming here today. Congratulations to us all for coming together to know God, to seek his will and to enjoy him forever.

Be assured he will vindicate us speedily.

Methodism Today: Where Worlds Collide

Two planets colliding: one short, but beautiful simulation

Like many around the world I watched with interest the final moments of the NASA Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) program, when on 26th September the DART rocket was intentionally crashed into Dimorphos, the minor planet-moon of the asteroid Didymos. This was a test to see if humanity could change the direction of Near Earth Objects (NEOs) thereby defending earth against an asteroid collision. If you want to know why ask a dinosaur!

Interesting you may say but what has this to do with church life? Well, personally speaking, at times mission feels trying to knock an asteroid on a permeant orbit in a different direction.

Post Covid we are emerging into a very different world where the church is being pushed in many different directions. In good Methodist style there three areas I want to consider and these can be further divided into three different directions.

Firstly we are the fulcrum of three ‘ages’. The industrial age, the information age and the augmented age.

Many church members are part of the industrial age. Industrial age members see church as bricks and mortar, worship is about attendance. Information is physical in the Newsletter and the pew-sheet.

There are fewer members in the information age but they feel as much apart of their church as industrial age members. Church is about community, worship is streaming and information comes through social media or e.mail. They may attend church occasionally but are happy to participate online, they opt out of receiving a physical church newsletter.

The smallest group, perhaps because they are the newest are those of the Augmented age. Although we do not know they are the smallest group because they aren’t counted in the same way as other groups. They have avatars, usernames, and gamer tags. These people put down their phones down because wearable technology is becoming its own force. They don’t register their attendance at all. They don’t have to because Augmented Age locations have geofences and register their presence automatically. Where as the citizens in the Information Age go to the internet. For the citizens of the Augmented Age, the internet comes to them.

The challenge for the church is all three ages coexist so how do we mission to them. If you only count those in church on a Sunday morning as attending you fail to register those who follow on social media. If you don’t produce a physical magazine many will feel forgotten. If this wasn’t difficult to navigate we have to remember that we are still living with a global pandemic.

Tackling a pandemic has been described as a marathon and not a sprint. In fact we are running three marathons.

The first Marathon was the one of traumatic innovation. Suddenly every where shuts down we all have to wear masks as of yet there is no treatment no vaccine. Even the church (building) is closed. There is great trauma in this first covid marathon, life is like building a house whilst trying to live in it.

We asked questions of the church we have never had to considered. What does it mean to be “present” with one another while being physically separated? How far does the Spirit stretch when blessing communion elements? Is online worship viable? The good news is that this first marathon has come to a relative conclusion for many. Not for all. There still exists great trauma and sadness from what Covid stole. Friends and family who exist now only in our memory and the eternal heart of God. Missed birthdays and other family and community milestones. This marathon has lasting effects, but on the whole, this race has been run.

As our churches began to reopen we faced a second marathon, that of spiritual exhaustion.

Daily life has never been more exhausting in our lifetime, especially for families with school-aged children. This exhaustion has again led to people asking important questions. People began to seriously consider if they are in the right occupation, location, relationship, and faith community. In-person worship attendance is returning much more slowly than many imagined because it’s taking longer to recover from the week’s activities. It also is revealing that worship for many people was an additional “activity” rather than a lived rhythmic reality of everyday life.

As we reflect on the new reality of church life, post-Covid we are just now beginning to see a third (and final?) covid marathon beginning. That of nostalgic scarcity.

As we think about the future life and direction of the church many people will be scared that there isn’t ‘enough’ of church to risk with speculative programs and missions. And what capital we have in church we want to invest in getting back what we once had. I can’t blame people for wanting to reclaim what it felt like before all the craziness, but there are some aspects of Church life that won’t make it out of Covid. So, let us celebrate and morn and move on.

It would be one thing if these were consecutive races, but they aren’t. Many churches are running all three at the same time, and we wonder why our tempers are short and there is a great resignation happening across the board. 

Now if you have managed to stay with me so far, well done. I don’t want to end on focussing on our challenges without offering a way forward.

Moving forward, either getting a degree, developing a new hobby, or even working through grief, was more or less defined by a paradigm or pathway. First do this, then when that is completed, do that. It was systematic, planned, and expected. The trouble is that Covid has gummed up the works and we find things have ground to a halt.

So if there is no systematic pathway forward for the church we must look for other ways. Another way is to develop a new eco-system for the church to exist in.

Youtube worship and Zoom Bible Study. All seems to be moving in the right direction again…until there seems to be little reason only to study remotely, or there seems to be little reason exclusively to ever go to the church again. The ecosystem begins to break down. The waste within the system becomes unpalatable, and the seamless give and take necessary for a thriving ecosystem only produces bitterness and frustration. So we are forced to re-examine Jesus call of the first disciples and abide.

To abide with each other and with Jesus. We neither try to maintain a pathway or fine-tune an ecosystem. Moving forward becomes compassionately personal. Pathways and ecosystems have work or production at its centre, but Jesus’ “abide” model of moving forward is a people first movement. It gives rise to a decentralised church and autonomous organisations where church members can just be. Where thy are not defined by levels of attendance or roles fulfilled or tasks completed. To abide is to understand that we are not perfect and we are all a work-in-progress. 

What is the point of all my rambling? The nine areas of church life I have briefly discussed need to come together, not like planets crashing it each other, which often happens in the life of the church but like the intersecting circles of a Venn Diagram At its elusive centre is an industrial, informational, and augmented space of traumatic improvisation, spiritual exhaustion, and nostalgic scarcity, moving us from the familiar pathways into an ecosystem that is begging for us to simply abide with one another.  So, take a deep breath, give yourself a break, and know that you are not alone.

God bless,