Every summer, our school had a fund-raising fair. You could smash crockery, throw wellington boots (WellieWanging, to be technical), chuck wet sponges at your English teacher. It was all good for a laugh, and raised at bit for the old place.
One annual favourite was CrazyBikes. Standing in the corner of a soccer pitch were half a dozen ordinary-looking bicycles. Except they had been cunningly re-engineered. The pedals, to work, had to be rotated backwards, and the steering was in reverse, too. Turn right to go left, turn left to go right. Every year the challenge would be accepted, and some super-sporty physical type would leave his bunch of mates and, for a laugh, pay the money and jump on the bike. I mean, how hard could it be? It wasn’t like learning German verbs.
It was worse. Far worse. In all my time I never saw anyone successfully manage the width of the goal, let alone the pitch. No matter how competent the cyclist, put them on a CrazyBike and they were guaranteed to fall off, as if they’ve learnt nothing.
And for those watching, it simply couldn’t be funnier. Pratfalls by the competent are always hilarious.
The last few months, as we’ve descended into and through lockdown, have been my CrazyBike ride. I’ve been in full time Christian ministry over forty years, and got the point where I’d been invited to speak at conferences, be on the staff at a seminary, and even write a book or two. In church terms, I could fancy myself as Captain of Sports.
Then suddenly, everything was re-engineered. Suddenly, I was nervously preaching from my living room, to a computer screen. The whole building and the offices were silent. No big smiles for new people, or quiet prayer ministry in a corner. The guitars gathered dust.
Personally, it was a humbling necessity. Any pastor who thinks they know what they’re doing needs a swift kick from the Lord, and I got one. But nonetheless, it was hard – everything we did had to be reinvented, and probably done differently the next week too.
CrazyChurch is tiring, very tiring. But it has an enormous gift: it forces us to become very deliberate, slow, and thoughtful. At every point we have to ask, why do we do this? How do we do this? Should we still do this? Because the moment you stop thinking, you’ll turn the handles this way, the bike will go that way, and you’ll fall off. If you’re a pastor like me, you’re probably nursing some painful bruises right at the moment.
So what just happened to church?
It’s worth remembering that the world was in a time of rapid social and cultural disruption from before the virus emerged, and many of those elements still remain in place. Some are still forging ahead, others are dormant, for a while. To list a few – the accelerating rise of China; the ongoing presence of militant Islam; the possible distortion of democratic processes by a hostile state or states; Brexit; gender fluidity; ‘Woke’ politics; the influence and accountability of digital giants like Google and Facebook; the presence of embodied Artificial Intelligence. Black Lives Matter erupted on the cusp of the lockdown. The ice caps are still melting. You can add your own issues to that list, and you’ll probably feel your pulse race as you do. Because the reality is that the 24/7 nature of online information means that all these issues and more are continually before us, morphing and interconnecting. Often, demanding our response.
Christians believe in being disciples in our minds, which means we have an expectation on ourselves to understand, analyse and respond to such changes. It’s sometimes called ‘discerning the times’, and it is a good thing to do. Those of us who are pastors are rightly expected to have our teaching engage with such trends, and my generation have heroes like Francis Schaeffer, John Stott, and Harry Blamires, who modelled how to do so with courtesy and courage.
I think we need to admit it’s becoming harder, though. The range of change, and the speed, mean that there are more such issues to relate to and speak about, instantly. And there’s more ‘stuff’ around each issue, more debate between experts – and non-experts, and booby traps too. This is a common experience, and one reason why we can see that we need to pray for wisdom for our politicians, is that we can see that they are having to make hard decisions on the basis of marginal and emerging scientific data, and where there is no scientific consensus.
I remember clearly the day I finished writing my first book. I was sitting in a well-equipped theological library, and I sat back from my laptop. I like to think I sighed with pleasure. Because as I looked at the shelves of commentaries and journals, I knew I had read and engaged with every single one.
If writing a book can be compared to swimming the Channel, I had touched bottom on the other side. Job done.
I have never felt that sense of completion again, because it is now impossible. The Web is inhabited by many more people than would publish a book, and many of the articles they write are important. Back then, I was aware of the main series of bible commentaries and the likelihood that gaps might be filled before mine hit the press. Now, any writer of a print book has to assume that there will be books unread and issues unaddressed, on almost every page. The model of a well-informed, biblically balanced survey has become daunting, if not fantasy.
It’s also become scary. Books breathe the atmosphere of that library, and disagreement is conducted in low tones. When someone publishes a book which is shrill, it’s as though the rest of the readers look up with faint surprise and disappointment, and someone in charge says ‘Shhh.’
The Web is the Wild West, where laws of libel and slander are hard to police, and fact-checking is shaky, to say the least. Because there is so much of the Web, getting and keeping attention makes many people become shrill, or eccentric, or to give their writing a serrated edge. You don’t get readers by being bland. So saddle up, and shoot before you’re shot.
Christians are not immune to this, as any innocent blogger can testify. Dare to speak about ‘intersectionality’, conspiracy theories, Alt-right or the Far Left, and the comment columns are filled with extraordinarily hate-filled bile.
Small wonder then that I know of preachers who mutter that all they do is to teach the bible, and keep out of current affairs. Some of that is a theological position, and some is self-protection – yet the reality is that we teach the bible to people who are immersed in that flowing culture, and who will ask question and need help. And we too are immersed in it, if we but realised. The idea that ‘cultural trends’ are somehow out there, and we are safe in our church-world, a sort of theological Switzerland, is nonsense.
We shall come back to this repeatedly, because if our default long-term reaction to overwhelming change out there is not to think but to retreat, we shall be ill-equipped with filtering change in here, in a church responding to a pandemic. And the same goes for anyone who just embraces those changes without thinking.
if our default reaction to overwhelming change ‘out there‘ is not to think but to retreat, we shall be ill-equipped with filtering change ‘in here‘, in a church responding to a pandemic.
Technological change and cultural change
So let’s freeze frame. It’s not just that our culture is experiencing technological change: our culture expects technological change. It’s one of its defining features. Once, we could say that a ‘culture’ was an accumulation of habits, customs and language, built up over long periods, and without explanatory footnotes. It was just what was. Massive change was rare. But that’s no longer the norm. To some extent, all global culture has changed, to become a global culture of high-speed change.
Global culture has changed, to become a global culture of high-speed change.
Sometimes, technological change has driven cultural change. That’s been the case with the effect of smartphones on how we live, work and socialise. Nobody asked for those effects, and it’s likely their creators were unaware of what they were unveiling. But, undoubtedly, technological change was in the driving seat that time.
Not always, though. There is an obvious rising alarm at the impact humans are having on the planet, and that cultural change is driving massive technological change. Car manufacturers would probably have been happy just to keep on improving petrol engines, and computer manufacturers encasing their products in plastic. But now they have been forced (and are also probably wanting) to manufacture new and recyclable products. In that case, it’s the cultural change that has driven the technological change.
Why did I freeze the frame? To get you to notice how weird this is. The nineteenth century Industrial Revolution produced massive social change, but over many decades. The social drive to eradicate smallpox drove huge scientific innovation, over decades.
Now, the wheel is spinning faster, and churches are in the mix too. You may not have wanted to be, but we don’t get a choice.
Are you tempted to retreat from change? Or, unthinking, to embrace it?
If you could press pause, to buy some time, what question would you like to think through?
if you’re a pastor, do you feel out of your depth? In a good way, or a bad way?
This is an adapted excerpt from @church: is online, off limits?, now available on a Kindle near you!