As we enter what we hope is a less exciting year than the last one, few of us now doubt that we are living in historic times. You may have heard Uncle Albert’s signature line in the comedy Only Fools and Horses: “……during the war …..”. He sits in the corner and says it a lot, and it gets met with a chorus of sarcasm from Rodney and Dell Boy. Well I wonder if we will end up in our old age quipping “during the virus …..” only to be met with a chorus of “grandad you tell us that story EVERY WEEK!” I don’t know, but “the virus” is the defining narrative of our age, the story we will retell for years to come, a period of history on which school examination questions will be set.
The 4 walls of our church have been replaced by the 4 edges of our screen, and we have adapted to new ways of living and new ways of socializing, at breathtaking speed. 2021 will also be a year like no other. Once we are through this pandemic – and we will get through it — this year will be about picking up the pieces, recovering the activities and communities we had before, but not necessarily in the same ways. As we consider this new, online, distanced way of living, how can we prepare ourselves for 2021? Here are three ideas.
“During the virus …!”
Let’s be quick to listen, slow to take offence — especially online
So much of what we used to say in person is now done by hitting Send.
So much of what we used to say in person is now done on zoom, by email, or with a text. But when we are online, we only ever see a limited view of the other person. When we get onto a zoom call or into an email thread, we leave part of our humanity behind, and it’s easy to make hasty judgements about the motivations and agendas of others.
Whatever it is you are discussing online – whether with work colleagues or church friends — remember this: God is as interested in how you stand as where you stand.
What does that mean?
Well, it might be a secular discussion of how to grow your company’s presence in a particular region. Or it could be a church matter of how to manage divisive building works, or what the Bible really says about some topic. Where you stand, what you think and how well you explain your opinion obviously matters — it says something about your knowledge and experience. But how you stand, how well you listen to others, how willing you are to let go of an entrenched view, says much more – it says something about you.
1 Corinthians 13: “Love does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking”
Online anger is a bit like road rage – we are physically distanced and emotionally charged. And whatever else changes in 2021, we are in for more online discussion than we have ever had. But here’s a suggestion from author Bex Lewis: before jumping into a disagreement on an email thread or a zoom call, ask yourself: “what does the fruit of the spirit look like online?”
Church for many is now 100% passive – that must change
With online church, you no longer need to pretend you’re paying attention (like you did when you were sitting in the front row!)
As we recover from the effects of COVID, churches in 2021 will return to physical congregations …. with conversation, singing, coffee, and no masks (YES!!) But one question worth asking is who’s coming back? That might seem a dumb question, surely everyone is keen to get back to church? I think that is true – people are keen to get back, but how keen? And for how long? Online church has introduced us to consumer-oriented ways of church we didn’t have before. So, staying home to watch church at a time I choose, in my comfy chair is now “normal”. Not only that but being able to step out to make a coffee and (heaven forbid) fast-forwarding over the bits I don’t like, or (heaven twice forbid) flicking over to another church because “ours isn’t very good this week” …. or just not watching church at all, are all new temptations.
The positive side of course, is that, for some, online church is an enabler, a huge blessing. If you are housebound or not able to return to church, it’s perfect. But for most, of us the passive weekly experience of sitting watching a preacher and a band, just became even more passive.
What can you give to your church once you are back in the building? Well, showing up, when you feel like staying at home, encouraging others with a word, a smile, simply being, there are also forms of giving.
Hebrews 10: “Let us not give up the habit of meeting together as some are doing but let us encourage one another all the more as we see the day approaching”.
Be open to views outside your own – even on matters of faith
After a year of dramatic changes, I wonder if we are any better at allowing God to change us?
We easily fall into the trap of thinking our faith must never change. We feel we have our faith worked out and it’s not up for discussion. We only mix with people who think like us and we have little appetite for dialogue with people from other traditions. The idea that any of our beliefs or traditions might need to change is unpalatable, even frightening, as it can start a house of cards effect where other, unrelated beliefs in God become questionable. I understand, but ultimately this makes us unteachable. It means we miss out on the vastness of God. It makes God small, neatly contained within my worldview, made in my image.
Certainly, there are core beliefs which we should hold to — the early church creeds remind us of these including crucifixion, resurrection and forgiveness. But that leaves many other issues for example heaven and hell, other faith traditions or, say, transgender, which, important though they are, we should hold lightly. And we must make safe spaces where it’s OK to raise contradictions, to discuss doubts, to disagree well.
Maybe for me it’s easier. I came to Christ as a “crossbreed”, through various back-doors. Brought up the son of a Hindu priest who was himself the son of a Hindu priest, attending a school where my friends were Muslim, and having a mixed-up denominational start. But if you are a “thoroughbred”, brought up in one tradition which you will fight for, this is hard!
But for those who can embrace it, a dynamic faith that is open to learn new ways and (harder) unlearn old ways leads to a richer, more engaging Christian life. It means God can teach us ideas which today are entirely outside our conceptual framework. Let’s accept that our tradition might not have everything right. Jesus said: “Unless you become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18), meaning: we must strive to become learners. Or as the Catholic writer Richard Rohr says “try to develop a beginner’s mindset, where you live in happy wonder!”
…. and I might be wrong!