Ministry and Meltdown

One of the mirages of our modern lives is that we are stable and secure in terms of our most basic needs. Far from famine ravaged territories, where one’s chief drama is to watch for rainfall for next season’s crops, away from war torn regions where one’s home and livelihood might any day be overwhelmed by conflict and displacement, we have come to believe in a steady state in terms of infrastructure and comfort. We can be easily surprised and overtaken by the sheer vulnerability which is concealed beneath the thin veneer of supply constantly meeting demand.

During the recent bush fire crisis in Australia the fragility of that illusion was brought into sharp focus. As a developed country, areas of Australia were facing into the reality of losing commodities, and food and fuel security, in an astonishingly short period of time. The Conversation’s report on this experience makes for sobering reading. Part of the problem is the nature of complex systems, and the knife edge that they can be in terms of sustainability. The Conversation characterised a complex system in the following way:

  1. they need a constant supply of energy to maintain their functioning
  2. they are interconnected across a range of scales, from the personal and local to the global and beyond
  3. they are fragile when they have no “redundancy”, or Plan  B.

The ramifications of this kind of potential meltdown are huge at a personal and political level, but they may also expose the ingress of a reliance on technology in the work of ministry as well. When I commenced pastoral ministry my notes were handwritten, my wider Bible references were gleaned from personal reading and concordance work, and illustrative materials were generally discovered in newspapers and books which were read. This necessitated organisation and collation, so that one’s research was physically accessible and connectable to the sermon in hand. Fast forward twenty years, and almost no one is working in that way. Ministry has been boosted by technology in ways which are subtle and incremental, allowing for a smoother, more friction free approach to how we get our work done. This begs the question – how would our ministries fare, if such resources became scarce or unavailable?

It is certainly true that we cannot profitably use technology in expectation of its failure, nor can we maintain parallel disciplines in digital and analogue realms. It does, however, force us to ask if there are basic skills or instincts which technology has encouraged us to jettison, and if we were to live in the wake of a systems meltdown would the quality of our ministry survive. There are undoubtedly areas where tech overreach might have domesticated our skills, or habituated us to patterns of work which are superficial rather than profound.

Independent Research

There can be a fine line between availing of convenience and indulging complacency in terms of our reliance on technology. A preacher setting his mind to sermon preparation now has a vast array of information on hand to inform his mind, to illustrate his message, and to lend cultural currency to his application. A visit to Twitter or Instagram can yield up all kinds of anecdotal material, and websites which host ‘Ask the Pastor’ sections can provide a kind of rosetta stone for untying tight interpretative knots. There is nothing inherently wrong in using these resources, but a good measure of our dependency on them might be to imagine a world where they didn’t exist. How would we trace the unity of Christian doctrines? How would we effectively cross reference? How would we illustrate?

Swiping and scanning can easily replace the discipline of reading and thinking when it comes to sermon preparation. This means that the federal reserves of illustrative materials get badly depleted. This is demonstrated when the horde of illustrations employed by preachers becomes internationalised and homogenised. An example is the John Piper’s *Don’t Waste Your Life*. Some of the elements of this brilliant book became online memes – collecting seashells/CS Lewis’ quote about the child in the slum – which have almost become default material for addressing those issues in a sermon. That phenomenon plays out over and over again, where the most tweeted news story, or the vignette from church history features on a prominent website gets regurgitated across the world Sunday by Sunday. There is nothing unethical about borrowing these kinds of materials, but it is the equivalent of buying in all of our foodstuffs from the same convenience store week on week, or enjoying the colours and flavours of the marketplace. The internet has flattened some of this variety for us.

At a time, pastoral care and pastoral preaching formed a symbiotic relationship, where the preacher’s contact with the needs of his people during the week could help to shape the application of his sermon on the Lord’s Day. Soundings and samplings from everyday life were the yardstick by which we could measure the aptness and potential effectiveness of our application. If the travelling sideshow of social media has replaced this, if we have come to form our ideas about how people think from the hive-dysfunction of Twitter and other outlets, then we might be selling our own thinking and ministry short. Technology might just have cosseted us from the difficulties and contingencies of conversations which could knock the academic edges off our sermons, and plant our application in the native soil of where our local church is situated. A simple equation here might be of benefit:

Sermon prep minus internet =

The answer to this might just expose an overreach and over-reliance.

Shall we meet? 

Another key measure for how much we have come to rely on technology is our face-to-face ministry. Around a decade ago I read multiple articles and blog posts which advocated making ministry more time efficient by transferring leaders’ meetings into an online setting. This meant that the time inefficiency of getting together, the obvious potential for tangents and distraction, would be avoided all together.

This kind of thinking has since spread, to the point where a pastor might more often text members of the church he is serving in than see them, where key decisions about the leadership are frequently made by individuals on WhatsApp in the privacy of their homes rather than the environment of a meeting.

Much of this technology has been of benefit. There are multiple issues which can be readily resolved without even taking time to make a phone call, let alone paying a visit. But if the majority of our decisions are made in this way, if the majority of our conversations are conducted in this way, then we will be left bereft of the ability to negotiate the angularities and contingencies of mutual conversation or convocation. If we become illiterate in terms of face-to-face discussion and difference of opinion, then a mere meltdown in a server could sever us from the capacity to act or to lead. If we have become this reliant on technological convenience, we really need to ask if the scales are tipping in terms of where the centre of gravity is in our ministry.

Situations like those in Australia, such as the social disruption of coronavirus, show to us that the rapid-access, always-on, information saturated world which we take for granted is not a given. It might be a good discipline to take an honest audit of areas where there has been ‘mission-creep’ in terms of our enjoyment and employment of technology, and whether this has ultimately been to our benefit.

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