The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Posts Tagged ‘shepherding

The invisible congregation

with 6 comments

Yesterday evening, I sent out a brief and innocent tweet: “Preaching to an invisible congregation is more exhausting than I thought.” I was surprised by the tide of earnest response that it garnered from tired pastor-preachers.

Why should that be? What can we—pastors and preachers, and congregations—do about it? Answering that question will tell us a lot about our theology of preaching and our theology of the church, for better or for worse.

We must first take account of the limitations of pre-recorded or even livestreamed preaching. Perhaps the best way to communicate this is to give a précis of what I said at the beginning of our video recordings yesterday. It went something like this:

We are grateful to all who are joining us (from our own congregation and others) but we need to issue a necessary reminder.

While some means are better than others, because they have more dimensions of communication, recorded videos, livestreams, and the like are not a substitution for the gathering of the church, but reflect an interruption of it.

Genuine biblical preaching is a living man among living men before the living God: it involves a supernatural reality along appointed channels—both preacher and congregation subject to the immediate operations of the Holy Spirit and both communicating with each another under his influence.

In the absence of a congregation, those dimensions of real preaching are stripped away; the livestream or recording further diminishes that reality because of the extra distancing involved.

We are not, therefore, trying to accomplish what cannot be done. We are not setting out to replicate, by electronic means, the vital spiritual reality of the gathered people of God in the presence of our God under the Word of God.

These efforts are not a replacement for the gathered church but a supplement for the scattered church.

The situation we face keeps us spiritually hungry; this temporary and limited provision stops us spiritually starving.

These scraps will, with the blessing of God, keep you going, but they should also make us long for the restoration of the weekly feast and the laying of the eternal banquet.

That gives something of the backdrop to the challenges we face. Without denying the care of our Heavenly Father, or the goodness of the Good Shepherd, or the might and mercy of the Holy Spirit, the simple fact is that this situation robs us of the normal means and channels by which this act of preaching is normally conducted. That dynamic preaching triangle—in which the Holy Spirit is operating along three planes, involving God and the preacher, God and the congregation, and the preacher and the congregation, each operating upon each other with or under the Spirit’s superintendence—is missing one of its corners.

For the congregation, the mentality of ‘going to worship’ is reduced. Under these lock-down and shut-in circumstances, we are being encouraged to maintain a routine for home-working, to get into the groove of labour despite being not in the normal place of labour. In a similar fashion, getting up, getting ready, and getting out for worship, going to a particular place for that particular activity, helps to put us in mind of what we are about.

Add to that the fact that the congregation is now typically in a different and potentially distracting environment. One of the advantages of Dissenting chapel architecture is its deliberately clean minimalism, removing many of the elements which might otherwise take our hearts off the preaching and hearing of the Word of God. Now, the inventive or unfocused mind will find and have a hundred ways still to do that … the animal outside the window … the number of panels in the ceiling or wall … the play of the sunlight … the preacher’s verbal tic … the agitation of the family with the young children … the reflection of light from a watch face. Been there, done all that! But, the fact remains that many church buildings are uncluttered spaces designed to focus the attention on the preaching. Our homes are not the same. There are all the things that we are accustomed to do, all the things that we would not have to worry or think about if at home. We lack the gracious pressure of a whole congregation helping to establish a reverent and attentive atmosphere. We can get up and brew up, we can pause the preacher, we can relax in our comfortable chair and drift away. There is also the novelty factor, especially for those who have children. The fact that it isn’t ‘church’ can make it harder for our children to adapt.

And then, the preacher himself is not there to engage with them, to pick up on the ebbs and flows of a congregation and its listening. This is no longer a mutually responsive environment. Perhaps they are tuning in to someone else who is not even their pastor and usual preacher, so he is not even preaching with them in mind. The reality of this particular under-shepherd feeding this particular flock which he knows and for which he is, under God, responsible, is gone.

The preacher is, perhaps, aware of much of this. It may be that he has some very similar challenges for himself, for many were attempting broadcasts from a study or living room or kitchen. He is not in his typical environment for preaching. Perhaps he is sitting when usually he is standing, behind a desk when usually behind a pulpit. Distractions which are usually absent (barring those of the congregation!) are now painfully present.

Or perhaps he is preaching from a church building, and he has only before him rows of empty seats (perhaps a few family members), or just a camera (perhaps not even an operator). (Our recording involves a quick jog to press a button and back to the pulpit.) Now he is missing all the cues which, under God, normally stir his soul. The regular rhythms of gathered worship which so often generate spiritual momentum are absent. Worse, there are no people, no faces, no responses. And he is, or should be, conscious that—whether livestreamed or recorded—he has to overcome, under God, some of the congregation’s disadvantages, wherever they may be and under whatever circumstances they might be listening. And so he begins to preach … except it’s barely preaching. His normal thinking and feeling are all undermined by the absence of that natural and spiritual give-and-take which characterises real public ministry. He never was a mere automaton, spouting religious words. He struggles to concentrate, to maintain intensity, he has no external cues for the ebb and flow of the sermon, no external prompts for getting, keeping, or recovering the attention of a body of people. He is not so much leading the flock to the green pastures as pinging vitamin pellets at them with a catapult. Perhaps he is not sure where to look—at the camera, at the seats, out the windows. He does not want merely to read, but he struggles to do more than speak. Everything feels flat, and there is a possibility that he will over-compensate, and try to do what—under the circumstances—is nigh-on impossible to be done, and end up not with a flat mess but with a hot one.

And, then, perhaps worst of all for him, he may have an opportunity down the line to watch or hear a recording of himself, which—as most preachers know—leaves us ready to crawl into a deep dark hole of mourning and regret (or maybe just a real deep, dark hole), taking perpetual vows never to preach again, let alone in front of a camera, for his own sake, and the sake of all whom he loves and whose sanity he cherishes.

And that leaves us with the last point of that dynamic triangle: God. This is a good place to be left! If it were not for our Lord’s blessing upon regular ministry, it would be at least as bad as that usually, if not worse. It is he who, by his Spirit, establishes all those connections and makes them lively with heavenly forcefulness. The usual means he has appointed are no longer in place. The usual channels of blessing are dry or blocked. But, as a well-established Confession of Faith puts it, “God in his ordinary providence makes use of means, but he is free to work without, above, and against them as he pleases.” Praise God that it is so! What we are doing is just not church, and it is not quite preaching, but that does not stop the Lord blessing the usual means under unusual circumstances, using unusual means to usual ends, or even using unusual means to unusual ends. After all, there are many saints in many churches who are genuinely unable to attend regular services, and the Lord in his mercy makes what would normally be limited means sufficient not just to survive but even to thrive. Why should be not be able to do the same, even under these circumstances, for all of us?

With all that in mind, let me offer some practical suggestions. Members of congregations might plan to meet at a regular time (if livestreaming, this may be already in place). Whether individually, or as a family, prepare to be in a certain place at the appointed time, with everything set up and, if possible, tested. Do not go full slob: wash and dress as you would for church. Minimise distractions where possible—no food or drink, silence your phones, do not be preparing a meal or worrying about other responsibilities. Pray before you press play. Focus on the preaching of God’s Word. You may not be worshipping with the church, but you are and still can be worshipping God. Some technologies allow for commenting and interacting. Perhaps it is worth leaving that alone, and focusing on the listening? Pray afterward, alone or with others, for a blessing on what you have heard. Use what technology is available to interact with others afterward: pick up the preaching with family or friends, maybe send the preacher a message of encouragement to remind him that someone human was engaged and engaging. Be thankful to God for the wonderful means that are available for you to obtain something. And do pray for your pastor. He is trying to feed your soul from a distance. He is like a shepherd looking out over distant fields, seeing his sheep from afar, chained up and only able to lob something good in their general direction.

Pastors, too, should perhaps seek to maintain, as much as possible, their usual routines, even if their sermons are necessarily adapted to the present crisis and its particular circumstances. It is no bad thing to wash and dress as if you were ‘going to church.’ If you can, sing and pray, even if alone, so that your soul is stimulated and enlivened by those spiritual exercises. Whether at home or in a church building, it may help not so much to imagine as to visualise the congregation. Remember the faces to which and the lives into which you are normally preaching. In the same way as you normally preach to the people who are or who you wish be be in front of you, and not the people who might listen later, on this occasion speak as if to the people who are normally in front of you, regardless of who might hear it otherwise.Do not so much speak to a camera as through it. You may need to speak more briefly and pointedly, both to help you stay engaged and focused, and to help those hearing or watching to do the same. And then, when you have finished, do what you usually do—go to God with all your failings and feebleness, and ask him to bless what will lie dry and dusty on the surface of the soul without his gracious ploughing to carry it home and his refreshing mercies to cause it to spring up into life. Expect to be drained, perhaps in different ways or in different aspects of your humanity to the usual. Make sure you rest, and think about your labours, and learn how better to communicate truth under these circumstances, for as long as they may last. How thankful we should be that, though we may be physically far from the flock of Christ, we can still bear them up in our hearts, knowing that the Good Shepherd has promised that he will be with them always, even to the end of the age!

When all is said and done, do not expect it to be real church and do not expect it to be real preaching. Even with the blessing of the triune God, it cannot and will not be that. And so, let preacher and hearer alike be stirred up to eager anticipation for the day when we can once again see each other face to face, so that your joy may be full (2Jn 12), and when we—together in the presence of God—hear the word of life once more.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 23 March 2020 at 16:34

Concerning dogs and their ears

with 17 comments

It struck me again recently that the internet, and not least social media and blogs, enables us to have arguments with people we would never normally meet about things that would never normally swim into our ken, if I might be permitted a nod to Keats.

Many of these engagements are carried out with scorching pyrotechnics, eschewing the trammels of grammar, punctuation and spelling with a view to the devastating broadside of scorn and abuse. If not, it tends to take place in portentous tones of great sombreness, often in language that is doubtless intended to carry weight and express spiritual gravitas, but which often ends up sounding like the pompous tones of what would be a great style for a lampoon if it were not intended to be serious, in language that actually reveals that the writers – who evidently think that by writing thus they sound intelligent and theologically mature – actually don’t quite know what all the words they use mean or how to use them.

And so, like techno-knights jousting across the broad field of the interweb with slightly unbalanced but highly polished lances overdecorated with the bunting of rhetoric (Q.E.D.?), we clash with people we do not know over things that do not concern us (or would not if we had not made it our business to look into someone else’s).

I wonder how many blogs would dry up and ‘ministries’ would fold – or, at least, how many fewer posts would be written – if we got on with the work of the kingdom that is in front of us instead of carping at and meddling with the way someone else is doing it a thousand miles away. More particularly, how much progress might we make in our own spiritual development or in the intensive and extensive growth of the kingdom if we engaged with good words for profit (receiving and then giving) rather than seeking out bad words for criticism. I am not arguing here for the suspension of the critical faculty, nor that love should ignore a multitude of heresies, I simply wonder how much of it is really our business.

Shepherds are not wolf-hunters, nor do they need to be. Our primary concern is for the sheep appointed to our care; for some, that means a small flock in an out of the way place. Others, by virtue of gift and opportunity, under God, have larger flocks. Others still, often by dint of unusual insight and long experience or particular training (perhaps in some specific area), are sought out by other shepherds for advice, and so might give counsel that will have an impact on the health and wellbeing of several flocks. But, in any of these instances, the shepherd need not go looking for wolves. He simply needs to watch for their approach and to prepare to deal with those particular wolves who are a danger to his particular flock. And it is his particular flock which is his concern; again, there are right times to send messages to other shepherds on the same hills warning of wolves roaming the area, but there is not necessarily a need to broadcast that warning to all shepherds, not least because not all shepherds need to worry about them. And the fact that wolves exist, and that some wolves have a wide range, does not legitimise our agitating about all wolves all the time.

We are not wolf-hunters, but sheep-herders and sheep-defenders. Be faithful in the work that God has given you to do, and you will have no need to go hunting for error and spiritual danger: it will come hunting you and your flock, and you must respond when it does. If you have spent all your time and invested all your resources in spectacular but largely pointless wolf-hunting then you might find yourself caught unawares or engaged elsewhere when the wolves in your area come hunting.

That is the thing about dogs and their ears: “He who passes by and meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a dog by the ears” (Prv 26.17). Once you have that dog by the ears you are trapped: before it was only a dog, but now it is an enraged dog, and you cannot afford to let it go. You are stuck with the beast snarling in your face, unable to disengage lest those well-stropped claws find a grip in your flesh and those gnashing teeth find a lodging in your throat. And while you and your dischuffed dog are locked in a mutually unproductive tussle, who knows what is going on around and behind you. So leave quarrels to the people who need to have them, or are ready to indulge in them.

When the Lord Christ returns, I doubt his first concern will be with how many wolf-pelts you have hanging on your walls. “Where are my sheep that I committed to your care? How are they?” I doubt that he will be impressed to find you hanging on with all your might to the ears of some passing dog. “Why are you not feeding my lambs?”

The apostle Paul had a legitimately wide scope to his ministry; there were plenty of wolves to fight and warnings to be given. But we do not find the apostle indulging in slanging matches for the sake of it, but putting his body between the wolves and the sheep for the sake of the flock, and for the glory of Christ: “For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming?” (1Thes 2.19).

Let us pick our fights with care, focusing on the needs of those committed to our keeping and investing in those wider spheres in which the Lord himself has given us legitimate opportunities. Let us leave alone distant wolves and passing dogs, and deal with those who need to be dealt with. And who knows? Maybe this year your own soul will be fed and the sheep will grow healthy. Maybe you might find all the fighting you desire on your own doorstep. And maybe you will have all your energies rightfully taken up with all those things, and the kingdom shall be all the better for it.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 4 January 2012 at 17:01

The shepherd’s responsibilities and liabilities

with one comment

It is not, perhaps, a locus classicus for the pastoral office, but Genesis 31.36-42 certainly gives us some impression of the liabilities and responsibilities of the shepherd as understood by the men who used that phrase of their protectors and rulers. Perhaps a similar picture begins to emerge in 1 Samuel 17.34-36, where David tells Saul that “Your servant used to keep his father’s sheep, and when a lion or a bear came and took a lamb out of the flock, I went out after it and struck it, and delivered the lamb from its mouth; and when it arose against me, I caught it by its beard, and struck and killed it. Your servant has killed both lion and bear; and this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, seeing he has defied the armies of the living God.” So, are there any incidental lessons to learn from Jacob’s defence?

Then Jacob was angry and rebuked Laban, and Jacob answered and said to Laban: “What is my trespass? What is my sin, that you have so hotly pursued me?

Shepherding is a thing in which there is much scope for wickedness and all manner of abuses with regard to the flock and the One whom we serve. There are many trespasses and sins to which a shepherd may be prone.

Although you have searched all my things, what part of your household things have you found? Set it here before my brethren and your brethren, that they may judge between us both!

It is possible nevertheless to live with that necessary degree of blamelessness (1Tim 3.2) which commends one’s God and one’s service to him and to his flock, and a shepherd is entitled to prove his faithfulness should occasion require it.

These twenty years I have been with you;

Shepherding is often a long-term investment. It is not a matter to be quickly taken up nor a duty to be swiftly and lightly relinquished.

your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried their young,

There is a tenderness required of the shepherd, a care for the weakest and neediest of the flocks.

and I have not eaten the rams of your flock.

The shepherd does not take advantage of his position, either defrauding the owner or abusing his privileges.

That which was torn by beasts I did not bring to you;

There are beasts, and they rip into the flock. There are wolves, lions, and bears with which the shepherd must contend. Sometimes they get through.

I bore the loss of it.

The shepherd takes responsibility for his charges. Their blood is on his hands if he is neglectful or careless in his duties.

You required it from my hand,

The shepherd is accountable to the one who commits the flock into his hand. The shepherd must give an account for the manner in which he has discharged his duty.

whether stolen by day or stolen by night.

There are predators and thieves who lurk in every place, waiting to strike out of light or out of darkness. The shepherd must be constantly on guard.

There I was!

Talk about “incarnational ministry”! This faithful shepherd is among his flock, not sitting comfortably at a safe distance but sharing their experience and feeding, protecting and nurturing them wherever they may be. He is with them in the truest sense.

In the day the drought consumed me,

The days are long and hot, and the shepherd is worn down by the labour of them.

and the frost by night, and my sleep departed from my eyes.

The nights are long and cold, and the shepherd is wearied by his constant endeavours as he keeps watch over the flock. He gives up a degree of necessary rest in order to discharge his responsibilities.

Thus I have been in your house twenty years; I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times.

What a mercy that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Great Shepherd in whose footsteps we follow and whose flock we tend, is more faithful than Laban ever was: “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away” (1Pt 5.2-4).

Unless the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had been with me, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed. God has seen my affliction and the labour of my hands, and rebuked you last night.”

Here is the hope and consolation of every true shepherd. There may be no rewards on earth. There may be little to show for his years of affliction and labour, but – if God be with him – there is a reward to come: he does not walk away empty-handed if, in dependence upon God’s grace, he has faithfully discharged his responsibility. He may have nothing in the present age, but he is rich in the age to come.

Seeing all this, should we not be the more thankful for that Great Shepherd of the sheep who in his life and by his death has secured the everlasting good of the flock of God’s pasture, and who will see the labour of his soul and be satisfied?

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 17 June 2011 at 12:59

%d bloggers like this: