Dark Clouds & Silver Linings
Here are six areas where I’m reading the weather.
The pros and cons of technology
That we can phone, message, email, Facebook, Tweet, Hangout, Zoom, FaceTime, Skype and Insta each other is terrific. I’m incredibly grateful for the way technology is enabling us to fill some of the gaps, stay in contact, and stream church services. At the same time a cloud to this silver lining is that we become increasingly tech dependent. We’ve all been glued to our screens the past ten days and that isn’t healthy. When we are through this the big tech companies are still going to want to mine our data, track our movements, nudge our spending, commoditise us and sell to us. During a time of famine Joseph reduced the Egyptians to slavery (Genesis 47:21). We need to be careful that we are not made slaves of Big-Tech.
We also need to be alert to the reality that ‘online church’ is not church! I’m very thankful that we can put sermons, songs, and other resources online to help people at this time. I know there are real evangelistic opportunities on the internet. But true church is about the people of God physically gathering together, ‘greeting one another with a holy kiss’, taking the bread and wine, looking each other in the eye, and loving others despite their – and our – strange or irritating habits. We must beware falling into the trap of thinking that gathering together is one option among many for ‘doing church’ – that you can just as well do it sitting on your sofa with a phone in one hand and a coffee in the other. That approach will produce consumers, not disciples.
It is already becoming apparent that those who are doing ‘online church’ best are those who are most used to physically being together. Our student group had a successful virtual lunch on Sunday – but that was a fruit of them doing actual lunch together every Sunday. To claim that online church is really church is as silly as claiming that watching Bake Off is the same as making and eating a cake.
Another danger is that as we put things online we develop an unhealthy obsession with how many clicks and views we get. It would be wise to remember how in recent political campaigns those whose worldview was dominated by Twitter and Facebook have been mystified when come election night their side lost. It is not necessarily those with the loudest voice who make the biggest impact.
When this is over we are going to have to re-learn how to connect in more human ways. This, again, will be an opportunity for the church. We will have a responsibility and opportunity to show people that real community is bigger than a screen and more meaningful than an emoji.
A new neighbourliness
One of the most remarkable developments of the last few days has been community groups springing up in street after street. We now have nearly 40 of our neighbours in ours and there is a level of communication which would have been unimaginable two weeks ago. In many places Christians are taking the lead in this – as we should, because we understand community. This is a great opportunity for us! The challenge will be to maintain and build on what is now happening once the immediate crisis is past. We will need to move beyond the superficiality of a WhatsApp message and into the reality of people’s lives.
As neighbourhood support groups are being formed we’re seeing ways in which local communities can support one another in the way more distant government cannot. One of my neighbours has organised a local fishmonger to deliver to our street. I’ve put in a bulk order for flour with a miller I know. Teachers in the group are giving help and advice to parents with kids at home. I heard of another group where chicken eggs were being bartered for loo roll. Even as the global economy takes a battering perhaps we will find ways to strengthen local neighbourhoods and economies.
My brother-in-law in Buenos Aires told us that for the first time in a long time the skies above the city are blue as pollution levels have dropped. When the crisis is over are we really going to go back to how things were before or will we have learnt how to treat the planet more kindly? And might it be that the emergence of Covid-19 finally compels the Chinese authorities to close down the live animal markets that were the origin of the virus – as they were of SARS previously. As well as reducing the likelihood of future viral epidemics this could greatly reduce the global trade in endangered species. Ironically, a zoonotic disease could be great news for global ecology.
When our kids were small we would read the Bible and pray together at breakfast. As they grew older and schedules more complex this pattern of family devotions began to slip until we weren’t doing it at all. Now we are back – praying and worshipping together daily in a way we never have before. If you’ve never had a pattern of family piety it might not be easy to start, but if you can’t start now, you never will. My hope is that in my church (and around the globe) there is a recovery and renewal of families coming together in the word and in prayer.
A purified church
One of the downsides of a time like this is that it brings out the charismatic crazies. There are some truly weird and wonderful things being promoted from certain corners of the church. Peter tells us that “it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God” (1 Peter 4:17). My prayer is that what we are going through will cause some of the dross in the church to be burned off. As the falsity of what some are preaching is exposed a refined and purified church can emerge that is ready to witness the truth of the gospel and welcome people into God’s house. Who knows? Perhaps God is using this time to prepare us for revival.
Keep reading the weather!