The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

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Lockdown: pastoral and preaching conundrums

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Various friends in ministry wrestle with the pastoral implications of the lockdown, as they serve in difficult circumstances locally, nationally, and almost globally. They are facing some particular questions, some apparently less substantially, many more so. Of course, many of those concerns and the responses to them are going to hinge, in large measure, on your sense of what preaching is and ought to be. Low and flat views of preaching are likely to prompt fewer and shallower questions. High and rich notions of preaching are likely to stir more and deeper concerns. Here are some of the common issues so far, with some thoughts toward answers.

Q: What vocabulary do I use to describe my activities when what I do falls short of the full-orbed reality?

A: I would not tie myself in knots about it. We have a common frame of reference for certain kinds of things, and we know when we are using a word for the right kind of thing without pretending it is the whole of that thing. For those of more tender conscience, I do not think you need to get wound up about whether or not you are using the right nouns and adjectives for certain activities e.g. if it is online, can you still call it a gathering or meeting, or do you need to keep qualifying it? If there is no congregation, must I avoid referring to it as preaching? There is some value in precision, as we shall see, but use the normal vocabulary and make the proper distinctions and qualifications when needed either to avoid confusion or make a point.

Q: How do I preach to a camera?

A: This is one of those examples where our casual use of vocabulary needs some particular nuance. We understand the question, but greater precision with our language assists with the answer. You do not preach to a camera. At the best, you are trying to do something as close as possible to preaching to the people who are through or behind the camera. The typical answer seems to be, “With great difficulty!” Some brothers broke down in tears the first time they tried to preach in an otherwise or largely empty room. Some found the pain got worse the second or third time, or the second or third week. Others found it shifted quickly to a kind of a dull ache. Some feel a near-perpetual flatness in preaching without a congregation, missing all the personal, pastoral prompts that keep a sermon lively in its delivery. We do not know how to adjust and to adapt in the act of preaching without the hints and tips that congregational posture, gesture and expression, those little prompts to shift our tone, pitch, and volume, or to tweak our substance to gain or keep the attention.

For some, the answer has been to shift more into teaching mode, delivering something more like a lecture from behind a desk or table at home, or standing in a living room. Others have tried to make that environment more ‘preacherly’ but have found it difficult to do so when accustomed to a very different environment. Those more accustomed to preaching and teaching in homes and other such venues have had an advantage here. Some are recording or broadcasting from a church building still, and have found the dynamic of being in a place where there is usually a congregation very hard. One or two have taken a wife or whole family along, and tried to preach as to a bigger congregation. This has proved hard for the preacher and for his wife and family, who also struggle with the unusual circumstances of hearing (especially younger children). One brother insisted on having no one else in the room, so that he could focus entirely on the camera, and speaking effectively to those who were or would be on the other side of it. This, he felt, gave him a more immediate focus and the closest thing to direct contact with his congregation. For myself, I have tried several different things, and confess again that nothing fully replicates or properly replaces the reality of a living man preaching the living Word among living people before the living God.

One could plot a graph along two axes: one is from livestreaming to recording, the other from a more intimate or informal to the more formal environment. So livestreaming in a more intimate setting will provide something of the immediacy of engagement but likely strip down some of the preaching dynamics, whereas livestreaming from a more formal setting (e.g. the pulpit of a largely empty building) will probably create a more ‘preacherly’ feel for the minister but less contact with those to whom he preaches. Recording from a study chair, or whatever, is likely to provide a measure of care in the instruction but cuts us off from the congregation almost entirely, making a sermon more like a shared private devotion; recording in a church building risks something of a performance but gives the preacher some expansion of soul, so long as he can remember that there are real people on the other side of the lifeless lens.

The congregational corollary of this, naturally, is, “How do I participate through a screen?” This, too, is a real challenge because so many of the normal constraints are lifted. I know some people are accustomed to wandering in and out of the services of worship on the whims of their children or the whimpers of their bodily functions, but to listen at home suspends so many of the normal and profitable disciplines of good hearing. Watching or listening on a device opens you up to the usual stream of device-based distractions, you can pause the preacher while you grab a drink, get a snack, use the toilet; you can adjust the volume, fast forward the ‘boring’ bits, replay the stuff you weren’t listening for, or just switching off. Some platforms tell you not just the number of views, but the length of views. It can be tough to see that a preacher captures most hearers for an average of about two minutes! More of this later.

It is massively difficult to ‘preach’ to a camera, and can be equally painful to watch or listen via an electronic device. I do not think there is an easy answer to this. To some extent, it will reflect the preacher’s own constitution and capacity, his previous experience of what it means to try to preach, and the kinds of responses that he is accustomed to from a gathered church. Most preachers have reported a distinct kind or unusual measure of exhaustion in different aspects of their humanity because of the intensity of concentration and focus required to communicate clearly and earnestly through this medium.

The short answer, then, is this: you do not preach to a camera. You preach to people. You might attempt to do something like preaching to people through the camera, and you will have to adapt many of the normal expectations and considerations.

Q: Am I performing when I am moved in preaching to no-one physically present?

A: Not necessarily, but it often feels like it. Typically, emotion involves reaction. We are often moved when we enter into the experience of others, whether joyful or miserable. Much affection is shared. Again, some of your responses may differ depending on your environment and your congregation (normal preaching place vs. other place, no live congregation vs. some live congregation, recording vs. livestreaming).

So, what is it that is moving us? Of course, we are not talking about the kind of preacher of whom Spurgeon spoke, who had the words, “Weep here,” scrawled in the margins of his sermon manuscript! We are interacting with God as we speak, and interacting with the truth. That truth is having an impact upon our own soul, or should be, under the influence of the Holy Spirit. That affectional force is usually heightened or amplified as it reverberates through living souls, and eye meets eye, and heart meets heart, and deep speaks unto deep. In the absence of such a spiritual echo chamber, we might still be deeply moved, especially as we consider the people who are not there.

So, you must know yourself. If, engaged with the truth of God and the God of truth, you are moved in the depths of your own being, then that is perfectly legitimate. If you are in your normal preaching place, you may forget yourself in the act of ‘preaching’ as you enter into something persuasive or pressing, visualising your usual congregation. Bear in mind, though, that—as ever—the spirit of the prophets is subject to the prophets. The presence of a living congregation can sometimes act as something of a healthy check on a preacher, on which more below.

Q: Why do my speed, pitch and tone change (typically flatten out) in the absence of a congregation?

A: Because the impact of his congregation on the preacher is quite earthy. Several are finding that they speed up and flatten out without a congregation to push them into a normal cadence with proper variation, and a healthy variety of pitch and tone. In the absence of such prompts, both of acceleration and braking, rising and falling, you will need to labour that much harder to be both measured and engaging, bearing in mind that the challenges of listening to you on a screen are only likely to intensify the challenge of hearing your high-speed monotone! That kind of self-awareness may prove a blessing, though, once you are back in the normal course of things, God willing. Certainly it forces us to ask questions and learn lessons about our public preaching.

Q: Am I bolder or more direct when preaching through a screen, and is that a defect in my regular preaching or a function of the medium? Am I discovering that I am, in fact, a pulpit coward, willing to say things in the absence of a real person that I would never say with them sitting in front of me?

A: Part of the answer to this lies in a fair comparison with your regular pulpit ministry. Part lies in an awareness of the way the medium works, and how it can betray you or assist you.

Perhaps it is not unlike the difference between the man who regularly preaches to fifty and the man who regularly preaches to five hundred. On the one hand, Mr Fifty can bring the word of God tellingly to all the flock, while needing to make sure that he does not so single out one or two that the rest of the congregation immediately know who or what he is talking about, while he hides behind the pulpit. On the other, Mr Five-Hundred may be obliged to be broader in bringing the Word of God to a greater variety of circumstances, but might also be more direct with regard to certain matters, striking hard at certain sins without being in a position to single out individuals, or loosing his bow at a venture and allowing the arrow to fall where it will.

However, distance also breeds coolness, and the camera and the screen impose a measure of distance. Again, take into account the lack of congregational, personal prompts. For example, many pastors know what it is to go to have a hard conversation with a member of the church, and to semi-script their difficult words beforehand, only to find that sitting down with that person introduces a compassion and a tenderness that was lacking in the imagined interaction. The same can happen in the pulpit. The ebb and flow of the sermon is influenced, under God, by those kinds of engagements with the real people sitting in front of you. You remember their humanity more readily.

Furthermore, consider that a certain hardness seems to be one of the typical functions of the hiddenness of so much online interaction, either a kind of perverse ‘digital courage’ or a lack of the empathy and responsiveness that should develop when face to face. People seem willing to say things or write things to or about others when they are at an electronic remove that they would not, one hopes, dare to say face to face. Could that be creeping into our preaching when there is an invisible congregation? We certainly need to take account of that.

But it is not only the preacher. As we shall discuss more below, online gatherings for instruction or prayer can be derailed by either a simple lack of awareness, or—worse—that same kind of digital courage manifesting itself in words and phrases that a more immediately personal interaction would not draw out.

So, yes, it is a good question to ask. Perhaps you could ask it of your fellow-elders or other mature saints? “Is the tone and range and thrust of my ministry noticeably different than it was a month ago? Is there any harshness or insensitivity creeping in?” Do not let the medium betray you into a coldness and a hardness, nor lull you into a dullness and a vagueness.

Q: How can I effectively communicate with and care for Christ’s flock under my charge in these circumstances?

A: With difficulty. ‘Pastoral visitation’ becomes much more limited when you cannot sit down and talk with someone in depth. You realise how much of the occasional and incidental business of pastoral care is carried out in the margins of church meetings, a word here or there, someone who catches you while you or they are coming in, going out, or hanging around. Those snatched moments, in person, when taken together, weigh quite a lot. The value of the written note should not be underestimated, nor of the simple text or email. Some of these can be general, others might be more personal. I think that trying to call round the congregation, if necessary dividing up the workload between elders, is a valuable process. Do not be surprised to find that it takes a great deal longer than you anticipated. Urge your ready availability upon God’s people: some will come and find you out, others will need to be dug out. Bear in mind how the extra dimensions of a video call might be a help in some situations, or a threat in others. You might quickly become aware of some who are more vulnerable than others—not necessarily susceptible to physical disease, but to spiritual or emotional or mental malaise as a result of their circumstances. Some of those suffering might surprise you, as might some of those lasting the course quite readily. Engaging the deacons of the church will be vital, because—under these circumstances—there will be a lot of investment that straddles that line between pastoral and diaconal business, with perhaps quite a lot of handing back and forth as a situation shifts, or parcelling out specific aspects of care. As key workers, you may have a little scope to visit personally, as even a cheerful face and voice through a window or at the end of a garden path can be a tonic to the soul. Remember, too, that in many congregations there will be members who have effectively been in something like isolation for weeks or months: members physically incapable of attending services, brothers and sisters with compromised immune systems who have been having to live at a distance during periods of illness or treatment. Some of them might have developed a certain resilience, and might help you understand what others are now facing. Others might find that this situation becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back. There will be a lot of poised reactivity, of prepared responsiveness, that is required.

Q: Is shifting to ‘online church’ the easy answer?

A: Leaving aside the fact that ‘online church’ is a contradiction in terms, the short answer is: By no means! In fact, several using typical and typically average equipment and facilities have found at least as many problems online as offline, if not more. Again, it is not only pastors whose sensitivity and awareness suffers when contributing or participating online. Some report real insensitivity in prayer, because of a lack of awareness of who is digitally ‘present.’ Some of the problems are more basic: barely- or non-existent internet access for people, or faulty or older equipment, often leading to buffering problems with lags in video and audio. (You can tell when everyone else leans in to hear what, if anything, is being said.) Some people have never had to use their equipment in this way before, and all the settings and many of the functions are a new world. Some people, apparently fine with normal face to face interaction, cannot bear the idea of being in front of a camera or appearing on a screen. I imagine that some people are dressing for the occasion! Some either don’t or won’t turn of their microphones, or do not realise that once they are online we can all see and hear them leading to some interesting things heard and seen. (I got a beautiful comment on my appearance the other day, blithely broadcast to the entire group online.) Some people start spoken conversations, not realising that everyone is in on them, or that no-one knows to whom they are speaking. Some dominate online conversations because they can do so more easily, perhaps without realising. Some find the feel of people being in their home by device quite invasive. Some are persuaded that we are infiltrating their computers and causing permanent damage. Some find the feeling of half-connecting painful enough that they would rather not connect at all. Some preachers (and many others) struggle with the basic idea of framing a shot to be seen normally, and we end up with countless shots of one nostril and a lot of ceiling.

So, in addition to everything else that is lacking in terms of basic spiritual communication (see above), the online realm is just as fraught with issues as offline.

Q: Am I reaching a wider audience with ‘online preaching’?

A: Perhaps, but a number of men without a developed online audience have found that the numbers have rapidly declined after an initial burst of interest. In addition, some platforms allow you not only to see how many people have watched, but for how long. It can be a rather painful lesson to learn that the average time that your two watchers spent watching was about ninety seconds. Others have said how wonderful it is to have fifty or sixty people rather than twenty or thirty, but when it drops to fifteen or twenty, that can be disheartening. It is one of those situations in which we must weigh rather than count, or—if we do not have the tools to do either—to leave the matter with God. It may be a matter of casting your bread upon the waters (Ecc 11:1), and hoping to find it after many days. Perhaps some of those thirty second bursts of listening might stick in the soul and produce an abundant harvest in due course. Certainly, it is worth considering that there may be more gospel content online in real time and recorded formats in the last month than in the previous few years.

Q: So how much of this should we maintain when we get back to normal?

A: Who knows when that will be or what will be normal by then! Going back to the last question, how readily might people who have only heard the gospel online, and perhaps come to know Christ, come to make the transition to ‘real church’ rather than some sort of online pick’n’mix? How will we reach them, and bring them? Will they come of their own accord? What might be the fallout for church members who decide that actually they prefer a more remote life in which they can do what they want when they want with whom they want? Will this lead to a sifting as well as a gathering?

Will we have the opportunity to revisit our ecclesiology, and both emphasise and demonstrate some of the realties which, up to this point, were little more than theories in the minds of Christian men and women? It may be that the situation will have already enforced certain aspects of our churchmanship that before lay on the surface, but have now been driven deep into our souls. Our ecclesiology, not least our theology of a gathered church in a particular locality, might be either damaged or enriched, or perhaps both.

One brother said he was ready to drop all the online stuff like a rock once the situation was back to something more normal. He was expectant that most people would come eagerly back to the normal means of grace, and a little concerned that some would settle for what they considered was a ready replacement. I hope for the former, and I fear the latter. But I am also left thinking, with something of shame, that we have moved quickly and robustly when the whole church has faced these challenges. But, for many of us, there are men and women who have been and will remain isolated by physical circumstances. There are people who would drag themselves to church meetings by their teeth if they could only get there. Having been so quick to provide for ourselves under these circumstances, and without pandering to those who might abuse the opportunities, have we learned some lessons about how we can more effectively minister to those who will remain cut off when everyone else is drawn back in? Which of these modes and methods might remain in use, perhaps tailored to the dynamics of the new situation, so that we are not providing a short-cut to people who would rather not make the effort while still providing an escape route to people who would if they possibly could?

And, as we said, what will normal look like in a few weeks or months time? Who knows what sort of economic or social impacts will result? We cannot easily predict what the church might have lost or gained over that time, and what we will need to do in order to reset our corporate life. Those first meetings back might be difficult. There might be some gaps in the congregation that were not there before. There might be some new faces which were not there before. We might gather again in the house of feasting. We might gather in the house of mourning. Perhaps, as in the days of Ezra, we shall struggle to “discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping” (Ezr 3:13). I trust that we shall learn many lessons, and the end of a thing will prove better than the beginning.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 16 April 2020 at 15:23

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