What are we learning?

I’d considered a series on the blog, on how different pastors are responding to the crisis, and the creative solutions they have come up with. But the more I thought, read, and listened, the more I thought that actually, there are some core lessons we are all learning.


I had considered a little series on the blog, on the way different pastors are responding to the crisis, and the creative solutions they have come up with. But the more I thought, read, and listened, the more I thought that actually, there are some core lessons we are all learning, and it’s worth recording them for the future.

There’s nothing magical about this list: it’s not finished, or in any kind of perfect order.  Do pitch in with your own suggestion.

Actually, there is one exception to the comment abut there being no order – the last one must not be missed.

So here goes.

1 Change – externally imposed change – is hard

One of my guiding principles is that being a pastor requires leading through change.  Repentance and faith is a daily reality, corporately and individually, and so we are constantly challenging ourselves and others to be more biblically obedient, visionary, hopeful and expansive.

The thing is, most of the changes that we lead through are ones we have come to believe in first, and are persuaded are needed.  Often, they’re ones we like, and frequently they’re ones that incidentally make us look that little bit better as pastors.  

We tend to like change. On our terms and in our timing.

It might have been that, somewhere deep in your wish-list, was the idea that you might livestream your services.  One day.  When you had the right kit, and had given the idea some time to simmer. You don’t want to look like amateur hour, do you?

Well, guess what.  We’re all doing it now, whether we like it or not.  Whether you’ve propped up a phone in your study, lugged a computer into your living room, or turned the spare bedroom into a TV studio, we’ve all had to do it.

It’s amateur hour.  And it’s been hard, because it’s been demanded of us, not on our terms, and not in our timing.

The next time we try to lead others through change, let’s remember the emotional cost of what we’re going through now.

2 Innovation is tiring

I very rarely have an idea, off my own bat.  I read voraciously, and nick the best stuff that I can.  A genuinely creative thought is unusual, and if you think round the churches that you hear about, you’ll realise that they often have only one core new idea at their heart.  

Mostly, most of us have long, slow, incremental improvements to what we are doing.

And if you’ve ever had a serious brainstorm meeting, and come up with something obvious but true and new, you’ll remember the little moment of silence that follows, the awed wonder at the thing that has just become clear, and the corporate inability to think any new thoughts for the rest of the day.

That’s because it is tiring.

Now take a breath, and think of the ways you have had to innovate over the past few weeks.  There were no books to consult, no conferences or seminars, podcasts have been scrabbling to keep up – or, when they come from different parts of the world, are irrelevant because they assume things that are not true where you minister.

There was that Sunday when you realised that the next time you met, it would feel very different.  So you reinvented coffee time, welcome, Lord’s Supper. There was the Sunday when you realised that that would be the last time you would meet, for quite a while. Those lovely innovations didn’t last a week.  There was the scramble to find, learn, any way to get some kind of ‘live’ presence for your gatherings.  There was that meeting when, having spent the morning on Zoom, Skype and Teams, somebody suggested you met on Google, and you had a meltdown (OK, that was me, and it happened). Small groups.  Kids work.  Giving.  Prayer ministry.  Everything looks different to three weeks ago, and two weeks ago and maybe last week as well.

We’ve just come through a seriously intense period of creativity, and very few of us have reached a place where we know that we have done.  Even if you have arrived at the streaming method you like, you know that there are a dozen ways you might want to get it better.

Let’s reward and applaud the people who have new ideas.  They are hard won.

3 We can all learn

You’ve had to, haven’t you?  Your technical capacity has gone through the roof, and you are now at home in a world that a month ago you left to the youth ministry.

You’ve learnt to speak to a camera, whether you’re using notes or not.  You’ve wondered, seriously, about setting up an autocue.     You’ve checked Amazon for bits of kit you never know existed, or that you needed.  

That’s important to remember, because it will stand you in good stead.  The brain that was flexible at school has just had a major workout and – good news – it didn’t die.  You can pick up new things, fast.

4 Dinosaurs die

There’s a certain kind of pastor who likes to live in the past – maybe twenty years ago, maybe two hundred.  It’s an affectation, a mild eccentricity, which is usually irrelevant, although I confess to find it wearying.  It’s only really damaging when we refuse to engage with the present, and are content to fight the battles of the past with increasing clarity.

Well, that’s just had its bubble popped.

We in the UK are in lockdown.  No pastor can livestream with the help of anyone else in the building, unless you have a helpful teenager.  So, unless you can actually get your phone to work, get your laptop online, and follow the instructions of your better-informed members about how to connect with the web, you’re silent.

What would Spurgeon do?  What would Lloyd Jones do?  What would Stott do?  They, like you, would be propping up an iPhone, and learning to position the camera the right way.

Now, a certain kind of person hates technology – I get that.  But to continue to pastor, they will still have to innovate.  One-to-one over the phone, or conference calls for a bible study. Move to writing letters, maybe.

To refuse to innovate, means to refuse to pastor.  We shall come back to that, because it needs some nuance, and it’s not a sentence I expected to write.

To refuse to innovate, means to refuse to pastor.  That’s not a sentence I expected to write

5 Church is flat

Certainly in the UK, there is now no real advantage that comes from size.  Yes, bigger churches might have a tech team, they might have been able to put some decent equipment together in time.

But, basically, every church is now coming from the parsonage.  Music is either live and small, from someone else’s home, or recorded. Big stuff is obviously from the past, because no-one – whatever their budget – can pull that off.  Great bands, impressive lighting rigs, cool coffee-joints – they’ve all gone.

I think that’s good, for a couple of reasons.

First, it gives the ordinary local church a chance to thrive.  Without their budget, staff, or buildings to make a show, St Big’s across town is doing the same as us, now.  What will people do, who left us because that church was cooler, younger, faster, louder? I don’t feel quite so in their shadow. We can breathe.

Second, it gives big church a chance to thrive, too.  Suddenly, they’re going to be forced into small church mode, where the quality of the connections with the pastor, the reality of congregational life, will be centre stage.  People can’t be attracted be the smoke machine, so they will have to be won by the gospel.  That’s good news, isn’t it?

Sure, they will work out how to do it better than us, eventually.  But church is still flatter than it was for a season, and we can watch and share good practice more easily, because we’re all doing the same thing.

6 Pastoring is human

Digital is tiring, isn’t it?  Screens are no substitute for handshakes and hugs, or warmth.

What we are doing now is unnatural.  Now, we might find some advantages to this season: I am a big fan of the question, ‘What does this make possible?’, and it may be that you are already starting to ask that.

But, any advantage that comes from the present situation, comes at an enormous cost, and we mustn’t forget that either.  We are already missing seeing people, being with them, and that’s important.

Maybe God is humbling us, to make us realise how even the busiest of pastors is not in business, but in pastoring.

7 It’s been a sprint, not a marathon

We usually say the reverse, don’t we – to remind one another to go slow, steady, to build the flywheel and the momentum.

That remains true.

But in the short term, and one reason you are tired, is that we are having to do a number of sprints.  The word of the season seems to be ‘pivot’ – to change direction.  Actually, I don’t feel iI pivoted at all; I feel as though I’ve zigzagged, repeatedly, and fast.

Because to go slow, would have been to stop.

Now, I think that might be going to come to an end quite soon.  We’ve made the big decisions with the high price tag, like which ministries need to close for a while – they were hard decisions, but we made them, and we were right.  

But even though the immediate drama is ending, we know we can’t settle into this new normal for long.  At some stage we shall be allowed to meet, and all those decisions will need to be rethought.  It won’t be as simple as switching on the lights again – and we shall need to move nimbly.  Let’s remember that we can, when we need to.

8 Values, not plans, survive

I’m having a hard time working out how I spend the next few weeks, in order to move ahead on what we thought were our plans.  Church planting options, weekend away, staff changes – they’ve all hit pause, and may never come back in the way we intended. Short term does not seem to connect with medium term, for the moment.

But underneath the plans, we had worked quite hard at our Values as a church – and I’m quite struck by the fact that they haven’t changed.  They’re proving to be resilient, even while the expression of them changes radically.

So if you’re feeling bewildered, write two columns on a piece of paper.  In one, list everything that’s changed or gone, and allow yourself the sadness of missing them.  And in the other column write all the things that have not changed, which you can still stand on with confidence, and which will see you through the years ahead.

9 The wisdom of crowds

You know about Zoom.  Of course you do.  You’ve worked out some security settings, and how to do break out rooms for prayer meetings.

Now, how did we all settle on Zoom?

Because there is an unprecedented, global ‘hive mind’ going on for pastors.  Every software platform is being tested to destruction, new ones being designed, hacks being shared. If someone’s worked out how to do something, they’re sharing it.  If you like how someone’s doing something, you can ask them how.

So take advantage.  There has never been a better time to get wisdom.

10 Overload is exhausting

The insights from psychologists about what that does to our brains and bodies is proving to be true, for pastors.  I do not want to see another of my friends live-streaming from an indexical study.  I don’t want to see someone doing it better than us, because that is demoralising.  I don’t want to see someone doing it even more ineptly than us (cameraphone up the nostrils?  Again?) Because that makes me proud.

This is the flipside.  We’ve all been living through a rolling news cycle of a global crisis, in real time, while processing how to adapt our ministries in the light of that, and with our social media streams filled with everyone else doing that self same thing.

And every one of our members is feeling the same thing, with their life and work rushing towards them, like a tin tray on snowy hill.

So I need to extend grace to myself, and insist (again) that I switch off my screen.

And I need to extend that grace to others.  I have taken the decision not to offer daily prayers on our YouTube channel (yes, we have one – didn’t expect that, did we?), because there are so many churches doing it.  I’m going to restrict our content to the normal weekly email, a singe live-streamed service, and a weekly five-minute video, just to keep the morale up.

That’s another reason why we are tired.

11 My focus is premium

Therefore, where I direct my attention is even more critical.

I have less energy to direct it, for all the reasons we’ve seen.  I have less time to do it to, because suddenly I’m using ten takes to record a welcome video which I never thought we needed.

So, back to basics.  What are the three things I must do today?  What are the three biggies for the week?

And breathe.

12 Create, don’t consume

The constant presence of relevant but overwhelming information can lead us into dangerous passivity.  I doubt that you’re one of those spending your day bingeing on Netflix.

But you can spend a lot of time checking how Piper, Carson, Keller has responded, and how Groschel and Stanley are reshaping their ministries.

Instead, find the space and time to create content yourself.  I’m putting this list together most for myself, to be honest – I’m taking time out from the waterfall because I need to process, think, order what is going on, so I remember and connect it better.

But that’s trivial.  I’m really hoping that this will become a golden age of Christian writing.  Not of the ‘Ten TopTips to speaking to camera’ variety (though we need that, and reread that bit about cameras and nostrils), but thought-through, considered, long-form material.  

Put walls around your consumption, and decide to create.

13 Orthodoxy is essential

The Christians who will come through this with their faith intact, are those who have deep roots.  

So this will be a testing season.  Which God will they pray to – the one who is sovereign, or the one who is out of his depth?  The one who is still on the Gospel Plan, or the one who is trivial and concerned with many things?

Pastors are like ocean-going fishermen –  we do our business in deep waters.

I think it was Haddon Robinson who said that pastors are like ocean-going fishermen –  we do our business in deep waters.  Guilt and forgiveness.  Isolation and fellowship.  Despair and hope.  Life at the graveside.

So, once you have a rhythm that will allow you to read, grab one of those big books of Christian orthodoxy off your shelf, and give yourself to reading it, slowly and with understanding and prayer.  You’re not cramming for an exam, remember, you’re an under-shepherd who has a vital role to play, in leading the sheep through the valley of the shadow of death.

Keep the faith.

14 Trellis and Vine

Various people have pointed to the brilliant book, Trellis and Vine by Tony Payne and Col Marshall. We read it as a staff team last year, and we are doing it again – because in a weird thought-experiment-cum-prophecy, Payne and Marshall invite us to imagine a global pandemic, with individual Christians in lockdown.  What form of ministry should sustain us through?  What will help the church to grow, flourish, say strong?

Basically, it’s one-to-one discipleship; even more basically, it’s reading the bible with people, and then getting them to read the bible with others.

That’s the core: it always was, and will be.

So now, we get to do it new ways, with people who are at home all day on their own.

‘Has anyone ever read the bible with you?’  Ask it over the phone, and then do it over Zoom.  

15 Healthy habits matter

We have had to engage with a ton of change over the last few days, and there will be more to come.  And even if you are a work-from-home pastor, you’ve suddenly got the rest of the family at home with you all the time, and your normal routines shot to pieces.

So build them in again.  Find the rhythms of bible and prayer, reflection and conversation, study and decision, that have served you in the past.

Find them, even if they are different.  Ive dug out my old copy of Don Carson’s ‘Call to Spiritual Reformation’, not just because it’s brilliant (which it is) and I need it (which I do), but because there is a precise echo I need to capture.  Carson takes us through Paul’s prayers, and does a great and challenging piece of exposition. And it struck me that I am suddenly in a remarkably similar position to Paul – I cannot see our church, together, on a Sunday.  They are scattered, isolated, in a culture which will little to affirm, and much to undermine, their faith.  Paul, in Ephesus, could not speak to the Christians in Rome – but he could pray, and so can I.  And the way he prays for the scattered, distant Christians is a precious template for how we can do the same. Let’s pray that the Christians in our churches will look like the answers to Paul’s prayers.

16 Rest

This is where I wanted to finish – on the need for rest. Because everything we are doing seems that little bit more stress-inducing.  If I run out of coffee, Sainsbury’s is not a five minute trip any more.  Church on Sunday involves a technical set up, a rehearsal, and preaching to a camera in an empty room.  It’s all just a bit outside my comfort zone (although, admittedly, part of it is quite cool).

So my need for rest is greater, because the stress is greater.  Now I don’t want to be silly here – the medics are under stress I cannot imagine, with a need for rest that’ll slip through their fingers.  They will all be exhausted. And in the weeks to come, when the funerals start to fill the diary, we shall have new things to tire us out too.

But although that relativises my current stress, it doesn’t do away with it, and nor should it.  

So, give yourselves your Sabbath.  Pray, and read in the garden.  Walk the dog.  Exercise.  You need to stay as fresh as you can, to pastor as well as you can.

Like I said, this is a list mostly for me.  There are other things I’m learning too, and you will have your own.  I’d love to know what they are – pile in!

4 comments on “What are we learning?”

  1. A great read, Chris. It’s early days yet, but at some point maybe you could give some thought to what you think churches and their leaders are going to need to take from all this once we’re on the other side of Covid-19. I wonder if for many, the busyness might get in the way of deep reflection on this.

  2. As always…and I thank you for this. I agree with the nostrils thing!! By the way, I am currently reading TF Torrance’s Atonement. I thought of you (with your Edinburgh connection). Why oh why was I detered from reading him (‘oh, his too Barthian, you know!). Anyway, once again I wonder why we English evangelicals avoided/avoid Scottish theologians. Perhaps, when all this nightmare is over, you and I can, finally, meet for my long-desired chat and coffee.

    1. Love the chat and coffee! And TF was definitely Barthian on scripture, which is why I parted company. It was the Schaeffer watershed for me – if I followed him on scripture I couldn’t see what would hold me orthodox.

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