Church online through the one who promised, “I am with you always”

Jesus’ last words in Matthew 28 are an amazing comfort…

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20)

Here Jesus claims to be ever present in a non-physical way. Just dwell on that for a moment… for 2000 years God the Son has remained incarnate and yet, for that entire time, he has also been physically absent (in this human nature) from his people, his bride. Jesus promised to be with us always, and yet has been self-isolating (physically) for 2000 years.

For Jesus’ words to be a comfort, he must be talking about a way of being with us that transcends physical proximity.

This is an important point to note during this time of Covid19 isolation, and especially as we think together about whether we can call what we do online ‘church’ or not. It seems that some Christians feel that their inability to gather geographically/physically means they can not be with one another in a sufficient way to call it ‘church’. They’ll say things like, “it’s not really church because we’re not gathered physically“.

However, I would want to suggest three things;

  1. The church is a people, not a physical event
    An emphasis on the gathering sense of the Greek word ἐκκλησία can sometimes over-shadow the more significant idea that it is God’s redeemed people (who gather). Gathering is an important response to being part of God’s people, but we don’t stop being God’s people when we scatter on Monday.
  2. We are primarily gathered around Jesus, not one another
    A church ‘event’ is when we gather spiritually around Christ in his word. A group of Christians going to see a movie in a theatre is not a church gathering because it’s missing its essential element; Jesus. In the same way, attending a church gathering in person does not make you a Christian, any more than being in a garage makes you a car. Christian gatherings are an attempt to express a spiritual reality; Since it’s not just me in Christ, but we are in Christ, so we together turn our hearts and minds to him in his Word and with thanks.
  3. It’s possible to be ‘with’ someone without being beside them
    I’m going to go out on a limb and say that gathering is functionally equivalent to being with people. It’s possible to be with someone – in their company – and not be in their physical presence. Telephones, Zoom, Skype, etc. all allow us to share a common mind and attention on Christ in his word with other people and yet without being in their physical vicinity. (There’s a trinitarian basis for this also, since the eternal relationship of the persons of the triune God was not spatially with one-another; relationship and togetherness is not dependant on spatial and physical proximity).

But the main reason we can call our live online meetings “church” is because Jesus is – as he promised – with us. His Spirit lives in us and unites us to himself, his Spirit unites us to one another as his family, and his Spirit has called certain pastors to be over-us in Christ. In and through that Spirit we desire to gather in one place (even if it is an address that starts with http) and together with others who are in Christ (even if that togetherness is helped through technology) we are co-drawn into God’s word and into praise of the one who called us together with his Son – who will physically gather us to himself when he returns.

Until our Lord returns, all our gatherings – embodied and online – lack the physical presence of the one who truly makes our gatherings ‘church’.

The restrictions on gatherings have not brought concern to the Lord of Lords. When he sees your church tuning in and trying to make the best of a difficult situation… Jesus is not thinking “Tut-tut… that’s not gathering!!! How dare they call it church!?” Jesus is Lord. And whether you’re trying to gather in a building or in a zoom chat or in a live stream, he loves his people gathering around him. So don’t fret, keep going.

 

Why people won’t watch your ‘online church’…

Yes… we all agree this whole COVID-19 lockdown provides a unique opportunity for gospel work. Jesus is supreme, and nothing will hold back his kingdom growing. I deeply believe people will come to faith and grow in their faith during this time.

And many churches (including my own) have significantly changed to become media organisations (whereas before, we were more like event organisations).

But… running an event for 100-300 people sitting in a room is very different to producing media to be viewed in someone’s home / hand-held device. Not just a little different… very, very, very, very different. While our theology might mean the ‘event’ and the ‘video’ have similar elements (like a ‘sermon bit’), they require a completely different mindset to produce.

I think the most significant mindset shift we need to make is how amazingly easy it is for people to opt out.

Imagine someone who walked into your church building last year… How bad a job would you need to do for someone to say to themselves, “This is so boring/silly/lame that I’m going to stand up and leave now”? It would have to be really bad, right? That’s because there’s an unwritten social agreement when we physically sit in a chair in a room with other people which makes it really hard to just get up and leave.

But that social agreement does not exist with online videos.

There is barely a thread of social contract holding them there. There is barely anything stopping them from clicking ‘close’ without a second thought.

(Now, I’m sure you’ve had people say that they really enjoyed church online. You might have even heard of people who’ve tuned in and watched the whole thing who have never been to your church. That’s wonderful, God is good! But it’s also going to play into our confirmation bias. Because we have no idea how many people might have tuned in and tuned out after 60 seconds… without even a second thought.)

Good online videos, even more than TV shows, are amazingly intense… they are always – every second – giving you a reason to keep watching. They know that it’s their responsibility to keep their viewers hooked – because there’s no social contract holding the viewer in place.

How do they do that? Well… that’s the real question. And if it was a simple answer we’d all be doing it. But here’s my “it could possibly be” thoughts…

  • There’s some big reveal that you have to wait for.
    Think Mythbusters, SmarterEveryday, etc. The whole package is a journey to something you really want to see. You get taken along a story that builds tension so that you really want to keep watching. This is how countdown videos (e.g. Top 20…) work too.
  • The subject/host is hard to look away from.
    This is a really subjective thing… it’s very ‘x factor’. Some people just have a certain presence on screen that’s hard to look away from. Their personality just seems to ‘fill-up’ the screen. There are some common elements I think… they have very expressive faces, they’re comfortable being silly/relaxed on camera, they usually talk very fast.
  • The subject/host is someone you care about.
    If you’ve been watching someone for a little bit, you start to care about them, and you’re less likely to switch off when they get a bit boring. This is partly why big names like PewdiePie and the Jimmy’s (Fallon & Kimmel) can keep an audience… people get to a point when they are happy just hearing their voice, even when it’s not that entertaining.
  • The content is so compelling/combative/emotional
    Seeing people cry, laugh, get angry is hard to look away from. It’s why cars slow down when they pass a car crash. We’re very empathetic beings, and we get caught up in other people’s emotions. Even when we don’t agree with them.

I don’t know how these and other elements can be used and integrated into our church online packages. I wish I did. But I do hope these thoughts might help spark our Christian desire to love people where they’re at to keep improving what we’re doing for the sake of the lost, and for the sake of the saints.

Image

People don’t ‘do’ MTS…

This is a turn of phrase I’m going to need to change in myself. We so often talk about people ‘doing MTS’… by which we mean they’re doing a 2 year Ministry Apprenticeship.

But MTS is something slightly different. MTS is a Strategy. That’s what the ‘S’ stands for. It’s the Strategy for Training people into ‘the Ministry‘. Think about what that means…

By ‘the Ministry’ we’re talking about (usually) full-time gospel work involving bible teaching and pastoring and evangelism. And to get great people into that most important and urgent role we believe they need good training.

So, by ‘Training’ we mean full-time, getting your hands dirty, people proclamation and prayer, trying new thing, feeling the weight of pastoral responsibility, etc. But it’s Apprenticeship-type training.; it’s with a mentor who loves, supports, challenges, pushes, protects, etc.

We could just call it the MTA… Ministry Training Apprenticeship. But the ‘S’ is important.

This whole idea of getting people to do an MTA is a strategy to raise up gospel workers to take the gospel to Australia and the world.

So people don’t ‘do’ MTS, rather they ‘join’ MTS. They join in this strategy, this plan, this movement that’s trying to win Australia to Christ… through investing deeply in the next generation of gospel workers.

Image

What type of purpose drives your delegation?

An important part of all delegation is setting a clear purpose. Why is this thing worth doing? Why is it worth your time and effort? What are you trying to achieve by the grace of God?

It’s worth recognising there are two type of purposes; ontological and teleological.

An ontological purpose refers to the very nature of something… God is good, We are forgiven, the gospel is powerful, humans want to feel special, etc.

A teleological purpose refers to the outcome of something… God will be praised, we will be saved, people will hear the gospel, people will feel loved, etc.

Since there are two kinds of purposes that can motivate and drive delegation, it’s also worth considering which one is most likely to be your “go to”. Which one is your M.O.?

For me, I’ve always tended towards the teleological… tell me the specific outcome you want and that will give me the motivation to do everything towards that end. For others on our staff team, we’ve realised they tend towards the ontological… they start with who they are in Christ and the reason some program or structure exists and that helps provide the motivation for them.

But as we delegate, we need to remember that we’ve got different people on our teams; some will catch the crystal clear picture of the teleological image, others will grasp onto the deep convictions presented in the ontological image.

Here’s an example as we think about our upcoming Carols event…

Ontological…
We want to put on a great carols night because Jesus is worth making a fuss about and Christmas is the time of year when people are open to Jesus-type things.

Teleological…
We want people to come along to carols and at the end of the night turn to the person next to them and say, “Wow, what an awesome Christmas carols. That church obviously loves Jesus and the community!”

Taking notes during big talks

While some people are natural note takers, others think they can’t do it… they’ll claim it’s hard or even distracting and unhelpful.

But want to suggest it’s a habit worth learning. And I want to suggest a way to get started. But first, let me tell you about Balderdash.

We play this game with our kids where everyone comes up with a fake definition of an unusual word, or a fake story-line of an unknown movie. They all get read aloud and we vote on the one we think is the real one. In a family of 6 that means trying to remember 6 different stories about a space princess and trying to work out who might have made each one up… so rather than read them all again and again, we give each answer a single word… just one word that will help jog our memory as to which story it was.

So that’s my suggestion if you’re not usually a note taker… start with just one word.

Rather than writing a sentence, just write down one word. As you’re listening to God’s word being preached, just think of one word, one idea that is being talked about… write it down quickly and keep listening.

The idea isn’t to be able to go back and read through the talk… the idea is simply to be an active listener. To involve yourself in the sermon. To pay closer attention. Even just to stay awake.

 

Image

The price Jesus paid does not mean you’re worth that much to God.

Have you heard something like this… 

Look at the price God paid for you; His own son! God wouldn’t sacrifice his son for something worthless would he?! Therefore we must be immensely valuable to God!

The crux of the idea of this; God’s primary motivation in sending Jesus to die is because you are personally worth that sacrifice, you are worth that price. The trouble is… you’re not. No one is worth the death of God the Son, the Eternal One. Especially not one of God’s enemies!

So if God didn’t sacrifice Jesus because we’re worth it, why did he do it? Well, first, because of his gracious love. 

But you will say, “Aha! We must be worth something to God for him to love us!” But no! It’s not gracious love if we’re worthy of being loved. If we’re lovely in any way then God’s love ceases to be gracious. 

But doesn’t God care about us, and doesn’t he know the number of hairs on our heads? Yes… but does he care because out hair is worthy to be counted? No! He cares because he is a caring God. He’s a God who cares for things that are not worthy of his care.

That’s what God wants us to know above everything else; he is the God who loves the unlovely, who saves the not-worthy-of-saving, who adopts the useless, who justifies the wicked.

And that’s why the death of Christ is “worth it” to God… that “price” was what it cost to show that he is gloriously gracious.

So, he didn’t send his Son to die because we’re worth it, he sent his Son to die because being known as amazingly gracious is worth it.

Image

Valuable feedback is specific feedback

The very same pastors who feel sceptical when people say, “that was a lovely sermon”, are often guilty of offering the same vague feedback to others.

Valuable feedback is specific feedback. Whether it’s positive feedback or negative is be site the point. Feedback that helps people correct or continue what they’re doing must be clear in a few ways;

  1. Clear behaviour noticed.
    There must be an action, or behavior (think “something that could be caught on video”) that is being addressed. It can’t be a vibe, or a feeling, and certainly not a motivation or intention!! (E.g. “when you looked away while I was talking” is fine, “when you tried to hurt my feelings”… is not fine)
  2. Clear implications of the behaviour
    there needs to be clear consequences that happened because of the behaviour. These don’t have to be observable, they can be feelings. I felt encouraged, I felt excited, the mood in the room changed, everyone looked at their bibles, etc.

In an ideal world, those consequences would be clear to the point of a resulting behaviour… I was excited to talk to my friends, I was scared to raise it again, I was encouraged to pray bigger prayers.

Good feedback helps people be gooder.

Image

Refuelling stations during sermons

There’s a road safety principle that drivers should take a break every 2 hours. You could drive for longer, but the quality of your driving and your awareness will get worse.

Expecting people to listen to sermons is much the same, except people probably need some sort of refuelling station every 5-10 mins, or even more often.

So what’s a sermon refuelling station?

It could be many things; a question, an anecdote, even an illustration is a type of refuelling station, but one of the best is…

 

 

A pause.

A simple pause gives people’s ears and interpreting-minds the chance to stop and take a break.  It gives people’s minds a chance to breathe, even catch-up with what you were saying.

A pause only takes 2-4 seconds. Try it now. Just count to 4 and notice how short a time it takes and yet how long it feels to have zero “input”.

In a world of constant bombarding input, one of the most loving things we can give people when we’re trying to communicate something of eternal importance is a few seconds of silence. It might even allow you to take people on longer journeys.

 

Image

A great opportunity is not God’s calling

It’s a story you’ll hear too often… I’ve been offered this great opportunity; It must be God. They’ve offered me a promotion; It must be God. They’ve asked me to go overseas for a contract; It must be God.

How do you get from “opportunity to do x” to “God wants me to do x”?

Sometimes, people look at the probability of x ever happening. “It’s so rare they’d offer this to a graduate”, “It’s so unlikely they’d offer this to me”… and since it’s so rare, it must be a miracle-type thing, right? So that’s God?

Sometimes, people look at how much they’ve wanted it. “It’s exactly the type of thing I was praying for”, “It’s like God knew just what I wanted”. And so because they were coveting this thing, and now it’s within their grasp… it must be God saying “yes”, right?

But what always seems to get lost in these views are the responsibilities that God has ALREADY called the person to; The guy who gets offered an “amazing opportunity” 600 miles away from his wife. The integral youth leader who gets offered a position that means they can’t keep that team running and loving all those kids. The pastor who feels called to another church where there’s less grumbling and feels more exciting.

I have a suggestion… before you claim that opportunity is from God, ask yourself if God might have allowed Satan to offer it to you. Because remember the great opportunity Jesus got given…

“Again, the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. ‘All this I will give you'” (Matt 4:8-9)

It’s a great offer, a once in a lifetime chance, it’s the almost the exact thing that Jesus came for (all creation under one head; Jesus). It’s just not God’s way.

A great opportunity is not necessarily God’s calling for your life.

Image

The purpose of an Executive Pastor

This is probably the clearest I’ve got it so far, and I’ve been thinking about this for a while. The purpose of an Executive Pastor is to:

  1. Help the Team Leader ‘lead’.
  2. Support the Team as it ‘teams’.
  3. Keep gospel work absolutely central.

If an Executive Pastor plays a special role for the church, it is primarily helping the Senior Pastor as they “lead”. And right there you have to stop, because every SP is different with different skills, strengths, weaknesses and tendencies. As such, a good EP will “shadow” their SP and try to take on whatever takes up most of their SP’s energy. Thus no two EPs will be the same. (That said, some common EP responsibilities are; facilities oversight and management, strategic planning, resource management, financial management, policies, insurance, legal, IT, communications, calendar oversight, vendor relations, fundraising, etc.)

But the SP is not the only thing they help manage. The EP plays an important role in keeping the SP’s team to keep on being a team, to keep being on track. Again, since each SP and each Team is different, this will look like various things. One common aspect is to see what’s sapping the team’s energy most and trying to put things in place to offset that. (E.g. If all your team is exhausting themselves with IT issues, don’t wait for them all to fix it themselves, get someone to come in and help everyone. If they’re all struggling to keep organised, develop a system that will help them not hinder them.)

However, the last aspect of an EP’s role is the most important. It’s keeping the gospel work as the priority while they do the things around it. I’ve heard stories of Church Managers who have crippled their church staff with red-tape, policies and procedures to such an extent that the staff do less people work… they all become servants of the EP. But that’s the wrong way around. The EP is always a servant of the gospel and a slave of the team.

A great picture of this is Stephen in Acts 6. The Apostles can’t keep up with the logistic activity of food distribution, so to keep focused on gospel work and prayer they appoint people like Stephen… who then goes and preaches, gets arrested and martyred. Now that’s a good EP!

Aside: When is it an Executive Pastor, General Manager, Administrative Leader, etc?
We’ve made the decision that a large part of my responsibilities is to prayerfully pastor people and speak into pastoral situations in an executive (high-level) manner. I’d suggest that if an Exec Pastor is not preaching or playing a key role in high-level pastoral decisions, they might be better titled “General Manager” or “Executive Director”.

Image

The best feedback you can get… “it seemed a bit weird”

Like the tip of an ice-berg, the feedback that you (or something you did) seemed a “bit weird” is some of the best feedback you can get. Why? Because it reveals that you and your listener were on a very different worldview. Here is a person who sees the world in a very different way to you… so different that the thing you did din’t make sense to them. Gold!!

So what’s under that tip of the ice-berg?

Is it their peculiarity? Or is it yours?
Is it their attention span? Or is it your idea of what’s engaging?
Is it the structure they couldn’t follow? Or the content within the structure?
Is it the tone they felt your used? Or was it the tone you tried to use?
Was there something going on you didn’t know about? Or were you assuming they knew the context better than they did?
Did they hear what you actually said? Or did you say something you didn’t mean?

The feedback that it was a “bit weird” is — if you can upturn that ice-berg — a gold mine of self-understanding!

Image

When they laugh at your faith

Christians believe something very deeply… we’ve entrusted our lives, careers, money, opportunities, everything over to Jesus. We’re depending on Jesus’ grace to get us through death. These are all serious things!

So it makes it really hard when our non-Christian friends or family poke fun at our faith. When they joke about going to church, or even mention “hell” like its a place they’ll get to party. So, apart from letting it pass most of the time, in the odd times you can address it, what might we say?

  • “Just a second… I’d really like you to think about what you said just then.”
  • “Hey, I’m not sure you realise how important this is to me personally. Can I explain?”
  • “I know you think it’s kinda funny, but I really care what you think about this stuff.”

It may not get somewhere, but it might help them realise that you really do take it seriously… and maybe they should too.

Image

The love that sparks the task should fuel the task

When you start a project or task its easy to get motivated. New things are exciting and carry a sense of momentum. But we don’t just go and do new things… we do things that we believe in… we just find it easier to do the new ones!

So how do you keep plugging away at the project or task when it’s no longer new?

Part of the answer is to re-consider the motivation that made that task exciting in the first place. Ask yourself (or your team), “What were you excited about this project before you got started? What were you hoping it would do?”

The goal or purpose of the project shouldn’t have changed since then. And that means the motivation to reach that goal shouldn’t have changed either.

So dig into the love that sparked the task, and keep working to use that motivation to fuel the task.

Image

How many complaints are you prepared to hear?

No one likes hearing complaints, even when we know they come from a good place and the person complaining is trying to do it for the church’s good… but how many are you prepared for. 

I’d like to assume that most godly positive Christians might have cause to suggest or raise a significant issue once ever 12 months. That seems fair, right?

So if you had a church of 55 people… that would be more that one complaint a week. A church of 200 people would be 4 complaints per week. 

If these people truly have the church and the kingdom at heart, that’s a lot of listening and understanding and explaining to do. 

And that’s why churches need really clear reasons for doing the things they’re doing. It helps when dealing with the always new issues being raised. 

Image

Assume you don’t really understand until…

When you’re trying to convince someone of something the conversation will start in one of two places; either they know you don’t agree or they don’t know that yet. (Eg salesman know they don’t agree with your budget, but they want you to feel like they are on your side, so they don’t tell you they disagree).

But how do you go about convincing someone when there’s a known, articulated disagreement? 

You assume you don’t really understand what they’re saying. You ask them about their point of view, their idea, their world, and so on, until they stop you and start asking questions themselves. 

They might even start asking deeper questions about their own ideas.

Image

Who else have you spoken to?

Often when people ask you for advice or come to us with a problem, it can make you feel important and valuable. However, it’s worth asking “who else have you spoken to?” for several reasons…

  • Avoid becoming someone’s only confidant. Are they telling the people they should tell? Are you the only person they are relying on? Is it appropriate?
  • Have they already spoken to loads of people? Have they all given the same advice? Are any of those people on your team? Is there a danger of undermining someone else’s hard pastoral work?
  • Are they telling only part of the story to you and part of the story to other people? 
  • Are they just raising the issue because they enjoy the attention you’re giving them? Is crisis resolution the only time you give people attention?
Image

Radical Christianity only looks radical this side of heaven

From here until Jesus returns, following Jesus will always look outrageous, extreme and anti-cultural. But even though we know this, we can still feel the pull to make middle-class Christianity a thing.

Middle-class Christianity is faithful to Sundays  (as long as it doesn’t clash with family, kids parties or sport), it gives just enough so it doesn’t hurt, and it loves Jesus… if you ask it, Middle-class Christianity will assure you it loves Jesus (even though it would take a gun to the head for them to mention Jesus in public).

But radical Christianity isn’t so acceptable. It speaks about the Jesus it loves, it says “I got something else on” to things the world assumes are important, and it gives as though the world was ending. 

But in the end, the world will end. And Jesus will be revealed, and those radical Christians won’t look so radical after all.

Image

Jesus doesn’t give you “your heaven” – he calls you to share his.

As we talk about heaven, we too quickly move to the idea it is for us. While this is somewhat true, it’s not the big idea. 

Jesus was raised as the first eternal human – never to die again. He is the sovereign all-powerful king and ruler of life now, and life-eternal. Jesus is the king of “heaven”. It’s his kingdom, his empire. 

You can’t be forgiven and saved from judgement and then expect to do your own thing – your dreams – in heaven. You get saved into Jesus’ kingdom. Not into self-rule.

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Col 2:13-14)

Image

Paul, the Areopagus & the Why of evangelism

We all find evangelism hard. Admitting that is the first step to dealing with it. But what’s the second step? What gets in the way of people taking the next step with their acquaintances, friends and family?

Our Mission Pastor, Sam Hilton recently gave an excellent talk from Acts 17 that highlighted 3 big reasons. I’d recommend you listen to it. If you’re training an MTSer, it would be a great resource to listen and review together.

  1. We don’t understand the non-Christian world-view enough
  2. We don’t get distressed about people’s idolatry enough
  3. We get caught in the same idolatry, and don’t long for God’s glory enough

Have a listen here.

 

Image

Repost: Leading through anxiety

Once during my apprenticeship, I was responsible for the Sunday meeting (setup, order or service, etc). I’d make sure people knew they were “on”, I made sure people knew what they had to do. It was a little ants nest of activity.

One week I was on holidays. Everything was already prepped, I just wasn’t there. When I got back to work, the first thing I did was call one of the guys who was “on” to make sure everything went ok.

“Yeah, everything was fine… In fact, it was the most relaxed and quick setup ever.”

Boom.

So, things went better when I wasn’t there…

After chatting this through with a few people, I realised that I had a tendency to lead through anxiety. I can (without meaning to) create a feeling of pressure and urgency when none really exists.

Sure, sometimes there is a pressure situation, sometimes the sense of anxiety is appropriate. But, don’t let that be your operational standard.