Does creativity end with the kids’ talk?

The Children’s Address, as it used to be called, remains the highlight of the service for some.

It’s an open secret that most children’s talks are the main thing that the adults remember long after the sermon has become hazy. It’s also an open secret that most ministers, if they haven’t managed to contract out the kids’ talk, have, at least, half an eye on the adults when preparing.

At our church, prior to Covid, we had all but stopped kid’s talks. This was partly because we were using teaching material that follows a different plan to that of the ‘sermons’. It seemed confused to initiate two narratives for the children.

Post Covid, we have yet to recommence the children’s work and all services are currently ‘All Age’. So, the kids’ talks are back on. Accompanying the main ‘sermon’ we usually provide a worksheet that includes the ever popular sermon bingo.

The kids talks are being given by a range of people from the congregation. What has struck me is the variety and creativity with which these are delivered. They come with visual aids, songs, video, worksheets, and crafts all illustrating what is being said.

In contrast, the ‘sermons’ have a lot more talking and a lot less creative illustration. Why? Why do we teach adults in a way that is much less creative and varied?

Is there an underlying belief that creative illustrations and participation in practical activities are childish? That would concur with my experience of school where primary eduction was play-based but later education was often more like a lecture. I hope that schools have moved on from this approach.

Similarly, even tertiary education appears to have moved on from lectures to greater use of discussion and practicals. Of course, the lecture is still perhaps the most effective way of delivering information to large audiences. Or at least it was until the arrival of massive online meetings. But churches may be alone in their fairly monochrome approach to plenary communication.

People will sit for long periods and listen. Just look at the success of stand up or TED talks. But neither of these examples is supposed to be an all encompassing approach to educating the audience.

Over the years we have tried more interactive and creative approaches. Once a month our church has/had the ‘Breakfast Service.’ This is just as it sounds, a worship event that includes breakfast sitting around small tables.

More recently we added a more discursive approach to teaching. We started with a variation of Nigel Barge’s ‘Hearing the Word’ method. For the first 15 minutes, each table simply read the text and asked questions. In the first section you were not allowed to answer the questions. Afterwards in plenary, each table selected some questions to share and an attempt was made, from the front, to answer these. The other tables were also welcome to share their own answers. All this was supported by a homemade worksheet that displayed related images and encouraged reflection and drawing, even by the adults.

As you can imagine, this was met with mixed responses. Anecdotally, it did seem that often that those who were ‘unchurched’ or ‘less-churched’ were more open to this approach to learning in a church service.

The question still to be answered is, does such an approach constitute a legitimate way of preaching the Gospel? The answer, I suspect, will depend on whether, or not, you think that Preaching the Gospel requires a particular form of communication.

Eschatophobia?

We’re currently studying Revelation in church. We started after the church letters because this was an unexplored frontier. How many churches similarly, study the letters and then jump to the new Heavens and Earth where Kleenex will no longer be required?

The intervening narrative is strange and obscure. But with the help of commentaries and some OT prophets, it is possible to wade through, at least, the shallows of the text.

Studying Revelation has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience, at least for the preacher; if enjoyable is an appropriate term for an apocalypse. But it has also raised some questions about contemporary Christianity in Scotland.

Reflecting on the text and the current state of Scottish Christianity has led to the question, how well equipped are we for the kind of trials that Revelation’s Christians faced and that many face today across the globe?

Some contemporary teaching packages Christian faith as a life enhancing bolt on. There are, of course, many significant life enhancing aspects to our faith. But without certain qualifications, ‘life-enhancement’ sounds a lot like false advertising.

Revelation depicts a persecuted church, making huge sacrifices but secure in the promise of the returning King and the new world to come. This eschatological perspective is often missing in contemporary presentations of Christianity. The, now historical, Christian Aid slogan, ‘We believe in life before death’ is apt. With the current stress on the Kingdom of God as the basis of the Christian life, I wonder if the eschaton has dimmed in the Church’s teaching?

The reminder of the Kingdom lived now was necessary. For many Christians it was important to discover that the Earth is not simply Heaven’s waiting room. Here, conversion is not the end but the beginning of Christlike living defined, not simply by what must now be omitted but, by what must now be done in Christ’s name.

But has there been an overcorrection? Are we still teaching the necessity of contemporary cross carrying in order to participate in eschatological rest? On the contrary, it seems to me that we are often teaching an over-realised eschatology where suffering with Christ has little place. Not only does this breed immature, self-indulgent, Christians, but it does them an injustice. Christians today may not be prepared to deal with reality? What happens when the first bump on the heavenly road is hit?

The Christian life is marked by suffering, self-discipline and self-denial. Is it all bad? No, it’s glorious! In the midst of trials we see heaven opened and angelic armies worshipping the Most High. The problem with the ‘life enhancement’ theology is that it expects no suffering. It offers Heaven today while circumnavigating the way of the cross.

Sadly, there are other theologies present in the church today which struggle with over-realised eschatology. Of course there is full blown prosperity preaching. But there is also a more subtle blend of pietism with a dilute prosperity gospel which considers God to owe us because we have been devoted to him.

It’s not wrong to expect blessings from God. But it’s mistaken to presume upon them. Because the only thing guaranteed in the Christian life, prior to death, is that we will suffer with Christ. All guaranteed blessing is eschatological and therefore tied to the life to come.

We should, of course, avoid a morbid, pessimistic, theology that only expects bad things from our Heavenly Father. Early in life I developed a theology that seldom moved beyond the cross. I thought little of the resurrection or ascension apart from being proofs for Christ’s divinity and my forgiveness. It was liberating to realise that King Jesus rules today and we meet each day as his willing subjects and servants, with grateful work to do.

But ‘life enhancement’ or ‘God owes me’ theology is prone to forget altogether our crosses and may not prepare us as servants and heralds of the Kingdom. Instead are we becoming suburbanites; viewing the Kingdom of God as a gated retirement community that dishes out heaven’s blessing like a gratuitous pension?

Philip and the Ethiopian

An Angel said to Philip, go to the Gaza road. So he did just that.

On the way he met an Ethiopian man, who looked important and wealthy. The man was on his way home from worshiping at the Temple in Jerusalem. He was reading the Scriptures from the book of Isaiah.

Philip heard what the Ethiopian was reading, because the man, thinking no one else was listening, was reading aloud.

“Do you understand what you’re reading?” asked Philip. And soon the men were talking about Jesus and everything that had happened in Jerusalem.

As they continued along the road, they passed a small stream. The Ethiopian turned to Philip, “listen, why don’t I just get baptised right now?” he said.

Philip paused and began to feel flustered. At last he replied apologetically, “sadly I can’t do that. I’ve not done the proper training. I was only ordained to catering.”

The Ethiopian continued on his way disillusioned with early church structures.

In Christ’s Name

“Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

(Mark 9.38)

“Did you get his name?” replied Jesus, “Let’s google him…wait has this place got wifi?”

“Has he got twitter?” someone asked.

“I found a blog” shouted Matthew.

“Is he evangelical?” asked John.

“What does that even mean nowadays John” said James.

“Ok then, is he complementarian?” asked John.

“Does his church sing Getty or Bethel?”

“What’s his view on N T Wright?”

“Is he emerging?”

“Ok, ok” said Jesus, loudly.

“To be on the safe side, let’s issue a press release distancing ourselves. The usual thing please Matthew; say he isn’t part of a ‘Gospel’ church.”

As you go

Matthew sat among a group of disciples eagerly listening to his story of Jesus.

“Jesus said, ‘all authority on heaven and earth has been given to me, therefore as you go make disciples, baptising them and teaching them all I have taught you…’”

“In other words”, continued Matthew, “life is about sharing the Gospel; as you go about your business, make disciples.”

“That almost sounds too simple” said one of the group.

“Quite right” said Matthew, that’s exactly what we thought. And so we invented ‘mission’. Matthew now had a glint in his eye.

“Mission” replied the questioner, “what does that mean?”

“Precisely,” said Matthew, “what does it mean? It means everything and nothing at the same time. It means whatever you want it to mean.”

“Mission means; courses and books, research and consultancy, workshops, webinars, conferences and lectures.”

“Mission means; experts and advisors, specialists and coaches. It means having little time to do anything else because you’re too busy talking about mission.”

“But doesn’t the Church need to know that Jesus wanted them to get on with life, sharing the Gospel as they went? Wouldn’t it make things much simpler?”

Matthew looked aghast. “Of course the Church doesn’t need to know that Jesus left them a clear and simple task”, he shrieked. “That would ruin everything.”

Do we need to rethink Word and Sacrament?

During this year’s Church of Scotland General Assembly, a discussion arose over the nature of Ministry of Word and Sacrament. It was inspired by a request from the Presbytery of Aberdeen & Shetland that the normal process of training for ministry of Word and Sacrament be adjusted to suit a particular circumstance. The Assembly ruled against this concession and this was understandable given that ‘exceptions make bad laws.’

But this discussion, and others, clarified an issue within the Kirk with regard to the understanding of ministry of Word and Sacrament. The phrase ‘full time ministry of Word and Sacrament’ is often used when what is meant is ‘parish ministry.’ But in the increasing mixed economy of recognised ministries the two are not interchangeable.

How might we recognise that Word and Sacrament is a wide concept encapsulating various ministries? Perhaps we could start by recognising that little training is required to conduct the sacraments. In fact, a strong Christian faith and a steady hand are the most important characteristics. The training of parish ministers, in my time, featured little about the theology or conduct of the sacraments. I didn’t particularly feel that this was an oversight.

Despite a previous convenor of the Kirk’s theological forum nearly passing out at the thought of elders conducting communion, it’s not difficult, it doesn’t require a minimum of six years training and there’s little good reason not to allow others to do it. I’m not suggesting a free for all, but it would be very easy for Presbyteries to offer a short training course and then commission people to a sacramental ministry.

When it comes to ‘Word’ ministries a greater degree of training is required. However in recent years not all of the universities have taught homiletics and many candidates for ministry probably received little training for preaching.

Few university biblical studies classes teach much that a congregation would benefit from hearing. Instead they fixate on textual transmission and reconstruction, never reaching questions of what God might be saying in his Word. And again, I wonder whether God is able to work to a far greater extent through the preaching of a humble but committed believer over a biblical scholar with theological sophistication but uncertain where to find God’s Word within its biblical ‘container.’

Let’s return to the concept of ‘Word and Sacrament.’ If we separate out the constituent ministries eg parish, OLM, pioneer etc why not also ordain as ministers of ‘Word and Sacrament’ chaplains and theology academics, many of whom have studied as much or more than most parish ministers? And why not ordain some elders to ministry of Word and Sacrament too, recognising that this does not make any of them parish ministers.

We do need highly trained ministers of many kinds. But the necessary training relates to dealing with fragile people, managing churches, leading teams, engaging theologically with the world, handling the word of God and planting churches. A ministry administering the sacraments to God’s people does not require even close to the same level of training. And if we are to more forward into the Kirk’s new structure where parish ministers will be few and far between, the sooner we share out the tasks of Word & Sacrament the better.

Is it worth the effort?

“…the Free Church…like the Church of Scotland but with Christianity.”

The Spectator

This is how a recent Spectator article depicted the Church of Scotland: a Presbyterian denomination devoid of Christianity.

It’s exaggerated and harsh but one of the Kirk’s most esteemed prophets does petition the Lord for the ability to “see ourselves as others see us.” And while it’s not an accurate statement, I suspect the CofS will not be suing for libel. In fact a recent tweet suggested that the author may have formed his opinion based on watching the essentially humanist communion at the General Assembly 2021.

The question is, how do you know when you are no longer a Christian denomination? Is it similar to an individual falling away from the faith? What belief or course of action would indicate that you had crossed the line into unbelief? Do you have to consciously choose to give up following Jesus or do you slowly drift until finally you realise you don’t believe anymore? Perhaps we’ll know we’ve reached that point when like the decreasing number of people in the Scottish census we tick ‘Christian – Church of Scotland’ but only attend once a decade.

We might ask, for example, don’t the Kirk’s history and core beliefs clearly identify her as Christian? That raises another relevant issue for this years General Assembly. Does the Church of Scotland have core shared beliefs? A previous Theological Forum Convenor once pronounced that the Kirk was no longer a confessional church. But the current forum is asking instead whether we can indeed affirm a shared core theology.

One suggestion is that the Kirk drop the Westminster Confession and replace it with some of the more ancient statements of faith such as ‘The Apostles Creed.’ That seems eminently sensible but I’m not sure whether, even here, we will find wide agreement. How many years will it take to decide if we believe in ‘God the Father’ let alone creator, heaven, virgin, resurrection and everlasting. And even if we agree to this position it would be unenforcible. In living memory, has the Kirk challenged any minister or elder based on their handling of core Christian theology?

Another suggestion from the forum is that we consider writing our own doctrinal statement. Thankfully this is not their preferred option because most of us would be dead and buried before that particular document was approved. Also, even if we could agree a bespoke statement of faith, the product would likely struggle to affirm a theology of God (or “the sacred we know as God”). Instead areas of general agreement such as creation care and social justice would become the only central tenets of the Kirk’s faith.

All this leads to the title of this blog; is it worth the effort? In a year when the Kirk is being asked to reduced ministers by another 20%, to reduce Presbyteries down to around nine and to consider the value of Presbyterian governance, is it worth also trying to define our faith? If we’ve not satisfactorily defined it since the 1560, what’s the harm in waiting a few more years?

And forget the progressive wing of the Church; when was the last time conservatives turned to the Westminster Confession for clarification on theology? More importantly, when was the last time, amongst quoting C S Lewis, J I Packer, Tim Keller or Tom Wright, you quoted a theologian from the CofS? In fairness, I’ve nearly made it through the first chapter of Torrance’s Incarnation. But the point being, we seldom look within our denomination for a theological lead. In terms of central support from the Kirk, it’s not the theological pronouncements that are useful but HR, the safeguarding, press and legal offices, the clerks and the General Trustees.

These are genuine questions. Do we need a shared theological statement? There is clearly an expectation that we should have one, but is it necessary or even possible? Would it be wrong to simply remove the expectation of a shared confession? Would it be more honest to share an administrative structure and not pretend that there is a coherent theological position? For clarity, I’m not saying this would be my dream situation, far from it! But would some of the angst and contention be removed if the Kirk stopped trying to define its theology and simply shared administration? Like Better Call Saul, separate firms with a shared reception.

So what about call?

Recently, I’ve been trying to think through some of the questions that new ministry structures raise for the Church of Scotland.

And there’s a big one around the issue of ‘the call’!

For some their ‘call’ has an almost sacramental significance. They return to it for comfort and assurance in the same way as Luther reminisced of his baptism. Others are more pragmatic or even dismissive; believing the call to ‘word and sacrament’ has been raised too high above the general calling of all Christians.

I also suspect high and low views of call transcend the traditional theological boundaries of progressive and conservative. But no matter how sacred we consider ‘the call’ the likely restructuring of the Kirk will challenge all of us.

The language of call is of particular significance in the CofS because in the absence of Bishops the call functions as our Presbyterian sorting hat. An Individual may discern a call, but central committees must affirm it, congregations must echo it and Presbytery’s must confirm it.

Calling therefore operates on multiple levels from a personal sense of vocation to the fulfilment of a perceived institutional necessity, ie this vacant church requires a minister to function effectively. For example, I felt a strong, if uncomfortable and unwelcome, draw towards ministry in the Church of Scotland. But my particular background meant that I’d never heard of ‘Word and Sacrament’ or thought about ‘Parish Ministry’. Which is the authentic call; the personal conviction or the available institutional expression? What are we called to?

This is significant because until relatively recently ministers in the Kirk were generally called to a particular charge. But what will we be called to in the the unfamiliar territory of a post covid, post Christian and post GA 2021 world and an increasingly congregational Kirk?

And if we object to a redefined concept of call. Will we be on strong biblical ground, or simply expressing a preferred historical approach to filling institutional slots? Can we redefine ourselves as called to a region or a social subcategory? Can we consider ourselves called to something other than a parish and still be considered a ‘real minister’? The pioneer minister pilot assumed that we could as do different forms of chaplaincy.

And lastly, many of the concerns from my previous post about hubs are relevant here. Working in teams is a good idea, in theory. And deploying ministers over larger areas and multiple congregations and ministries may be a necessity. But can it work in our specific context and can it be bluntly applied based solely on geographical proximity or current vacancy?

In the case of call, these may be even bigger questions. Because, while congregations may be often less concerned with theology than function, it’s the nature of theological practitioners to really care about theology.

Planning for failure?

The introduction of ‘hub ministry’ to the language of the Church of Scotland was met with the expected range of responses. At one end of the spectrum, there was eye rolling and the rehearsal of the long list of restructuring proposals that have come and gone in the last 20 years (parish groupings anyone?). At the other end of the spectrum was enthusiastic early adoption by those striving to reverse the downward spiral of the CofS.

While initially it appeared that hubs were about cooperation, it became clear that they had an additional task; to make accompanying efficiencies and staff reductions.

Hubs were soon renamed clusters or networks, but the aims remained the same and this dual purpose means that they have an inherent contradiction which may challenge their effectiveness. In fact there are a number of issues with hubs which, if not inherent, relate to their current application.

Dual Purpose

To cooperate with a neighbouring church requires trust. Trust between Christian communities is, of course, desirable. But in a Presbyterian context, it is vital because cooperation is near impossible to enforce. In the Kirk, cooperation must be ‘encouraged’ because it cannot be ‘instructed’.

Real trust between churches can be rare. I enjoyed participating in one of the, apparently few, ‘Parish Groupings’ that worked. However, that success was based on serious intent, pre-existing shared core theology and vision and conducive personalities. Removing one of those characteristics would have seriously challenged effective cooperation.

The theological broadness in the Kirk can make building trust with neighbouring congregations a, possibly insurmountable, challenge. But even where churches have similar theology and vision, simple competitiveness, or complacency, can ruin trust.

And this is where the dual nature of hubs comes into play. Hubs require cooperation but by being agents of a ministerial cull they also build mistrust. How can we expect trust from people vying for the same post?

If we want effective, successful, hub ministries we need to remove from them the accompanying expectation to identify which partner congregation should lose its minister or MDS worker. It would be better for unity to have all members in a hub working together to challenge an externally proposed reduction in staff, rather than them fight against one another to save their minister.

Geographical Evenness

Another potential problem with hubs is found where they aim to reduce ministry staff in a particular geographical location without reference to what is happening elsewhere. For example, should we ask a cluster of healthy growing congregations to reduce their staffing levels in order to reallocate ministers or MDS workers to hubs where the churches are in long term decline? Or should that same healthy hub reduce staff when the required Presbytery reduction can already be found through forthcoming retirements across the Presbytery?

This form of planning may be grounded in the apparent geographical evenness required by the Third Article. But while the aim to bring the good news of Christ Jesus to every part of our nation is laudable, it should not be at the cost of wise planning. Surely it is better to invest where there is growth and prune where branches are dying? Should we leave parts of Scotland without a witness to Jesus? No! Growing congregations should be encouraged to plant where other ministries and congregations no longer exist. In fact such a missional culture is one indicator of a healthy church.

Theology & Geography

At the recent Theological Forum event to discuss the Westminster Confession of Faith, we were told that the Church of Scotland had no stated definition of ‘the substance of the faith’. And in practice it does appear that, apart from a few, often secondary issues, the Kirk is essentially a theological free for all. This may be too cynical but perhaps the CofS is now held together only by shared legal and fiscal systems, by charity law, safeguarding and GDPR policy.

It is possible that neighbouring congregations can cooperate in these more practical areas for example with a shared safeguarding officer or treasurer. But for real trust, effective mission and long-term shared worship a deeper basis of unity is necessary. It is institutionally naive, or evidence of a long term goal to impose theological beigeness, to assume that, in general, neighbouring churches can achieve more than shared administration.

It is very unlikely that the theological factionalism of the Kirk will disappear any time soon. Therefore if hubs are to work at a deeper level, they will have to move beyond the blunt imposition of cooperation between adjacent parishes.

A last thought

Having said all of this, hubs themselves will not save the Church of Scotland. At best they may allow more efficient management of our demise. Surely the Kirk will only be saved if she rediscovers her founding mission; to live for the salvation of Scotland’s people and the glory of Jesus Christ. Indeed only when this replaces her current mission of self-preservation will she be worth saving.

You are the best resource our church has!

“YOU are the best resource our church has, whatever your role, wherever you do it. Thank you.”

Ascend website

The Ascend website currently features these incredibly encouraging words. They appear to be addressed to all who are involved in the various ministries of the Church of Scotland. It’s worth allowing the quote to imprint on your memory. Because in the current climate of financial anxiety in the church, it often feels that those in ministry are considered to be the problem rather than a useful resource.

As we all feel the financial squeeze, understandably, there can be less goodwill towards paying in to central funds for stipends and salaries. Meanwhile communication from the central offices reminds ministers that they are the greatest cost for the Kirk. This is accompanied by the requirement for Presbyteries to reduce local ministries, which presumably will be replaced by non-stipendiary or volunteer leadership. This goal fuels the growing assumption that paid minsters and ministry staff are largely unnecessary and may even impede the life and growth of the church.

I’ve lost count of the number of meetings about expenditure, strategy and the need to reduce ministries, where I’ve left with the distinct impression that everyone might be better off without ministers. And, in all honesty, that’s something every minister must consider. Am I the barrier to the growth and thriving of the church? To borrow from John the Baptiser, how much must I decrease, that Christ might increase?

But set against that, is the narrative from Scripture that God calls individuals to specific ministries, just as he calls peoples and communities. Scripture also gives the impression that at least some people should be made free to bless and serve the church and wider community. In reality for some churches it is impossible to fulfil the potential for mission or the demands of the Kirk administration without paid employees or paid office holders.

So if you feel the burden of the expense of your ministry and the possibility that, soon, your services may be no longer required (pun intended), remember that someone somewhere believes that you are still a vital resource for the Kingdom.