We’ve now had two weeks of not gathering here in Dunedin, NZ, due to covid-19. The main focus for Student Soul is now, How can we grow into an engaged, collaborative, online church community of students and young adults?

One important thing that the Sunday event (R.I.P) does is create multiple points of relational connection. You brush past two or three people and say hi. You have discussion with someone beside you during the service, and maybe even a group of three or four, if space is made for that. You see some friends at the end and laugh together. You have a meaningful but mildly halting conversation with someone who you haven’t met before. You may experience a broad sense of belonging by sharing prayers, songs, engaged listening, creative responding with a whole group of people. Gatherings create a relational weaves for each person who attends, which grow thicker and more inter-weaved over time.

Having lost the many of the mechanisms for that precious relational weaving in a shockingly sudden and disruptive event, the main question we now face is, What small moves can we make online to start to recreate the nurturing of that multi-faced connecting that used to happen in person? Two key parts of that quite long (sorry) sentence are 1) “small moves,” 2) “start.”

  1. “Small moves” means tactics. It means trying lots of little things. Different approaches, tools, organisational methods. There might be one hundred little things that contributed into the weave of in-person, real life, pre-covid19 gatherings. We are now rebuilding and stacking up new little things to contribute to a new way of weaving.
  2. “Start” means begin, and speaks of process. It doesn’t all have to happen straight away. This problem is not going away overnight. There is a long view and you might think marathon rather than sprint. The important thing is to start the process, and to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

We are re-learning the weave of community. There is a lot of fast learning going on out there. It is quite amazing to see how communities all over NZ and all over the world are facing the same challenge, but who by diving in the deep-end are receiving valuable & supercharged learning through trial-and-error, as well as some successes, joys, positives, reasons to be hopeful.

I hope that whatever context you are in that you are able to find space to enjoy the experimentation. It is a good time for it… no-one is expecting perfection in this space. There is also no rush. Whatever you do will not be perfect straight away. But it can be hard to keep a clear, and easy to get lost in strategies, tactics, tools and tricks. My personal focus, and my main offering to you is to try to keep the main thing in mind.

What is the main thing in this weighty time? Creating connection.

I pray you would find imaginative ways to create thick weaves of connection in the communities that you are a part of. God bless.

How I’m adapting my roles

Good morning. Here I am, thinking out loud about the different ministry roles I have as a leader and how I am going to inhabit them during this time of change. I often revisit my prior thoughts on personal identity and the different roles I give myself and are given, probably between 2 and 4 times a year on average, so this is nothing new. I’ve actually been meaning to do some work on this for a while anyhow, but I really haven’t been able to sustain very long periods of self-reflection during the last few months (not a good thing). But now we are in crisis, and circumstances are demanding that I do this work. God help me – to stay focu

Ok, hello.

3 Frameworks

So I’m a minister, a pastor, a shepherd leader. What are my key roles? Well, here’s three ways to think about it.

One simplified but helpful version is 1) open Scripture, 2) lead worship, 3) nurture community. (This works on the basis of the mission of God being at the center of all of these.)

Another lens is from the PCANZ Book of Order, where it describes my role as 1) leading worship, 2) leading mission, 3) ensuring provision for pastoral care, and 4) providing spiritual nurture.

A final framework is ensuring holistic growth of individuals and the church community through 1) “In” – nurturing personal faith, 2) “Around” – nurturing communal health, and 3) “Out” – nurturing the imagination and practice of mission within and throughout the church community.

My roles in practice, until now

Preaching – a weekly task to open Scripture, especially during the worship gathering (for Student Soul, on Sunday night 7:30pm).

Worship – another weekly task outworked on Sunday nights. Overseeing the “order of service” or runsheet, planning the liturgical flow, creating space for congregational participation.

Pastoral care – overseeing small groups, maintaining regular one-on-one contact with many of my congregation, working with other pastorally-gifted leaders to ensure there is a strong and growing sense of shared connection throughout the community.

And then there’s the bigger picture, administrative leadership kind of stuff. “Working on the church, not in the church” – that kind of thing. Ensuring direction is clear, working on vision, aligning activities to core purpose, goal setting, maintaining and developing lines of accountability and communication. Stepping back to take a look at things from the birds-eye view.

I think that gets a pretty good grip on it. So which framework is it? I think the PCANZ book of order does pretty well there. Preaching & worship come together under “leading worship,” where opening Scripture is fundamentally about leading people into an encounter with the Living God, and is part of the curating of worship. “Leading mission” in the PCANZ book does not say nearly enough about mission in terms of how I think about it, but it does have a very strong view of the church community a the locus point of mission, which is true. And so, all the stuff I was describing about the big picture and birds eye view works nicely under this heading. Pastoral care translates just fine in every case. I feel comfortable whipping “spiritual nurture” in with the overall preaching, worship, care trio… it is kind of central to all of them.

So let’s just go with “In” (preaching & worship), “Around” (pastoral & community nurture), “Out” (empowering and organising the whole church for active and creative mission). This is my basic model in practice.

Getting to the heart of current needs

  • “IN” – at this time, how can I best resource the life of discipleship for those under my care and in my sphere? What teaching might be needed to help fuel a vibrant Christian life of faith under the conditions of major uncertainty? How can I be a part of inspire and igniting the desire for God in people’s lives?
  • “AROUND” – what does collaborative community look like in a lockdown world? How can I create opportunities for shared creativity in the life of our church? Who are key pastoral leaders who can share the responsibility for providing the care, support and connection of each person within our community? What opportunities are available to us for increasing the engagement of Student Soulers in our shared life (and how do we measure that)?
  • “OUT” – how can we serve others in a state of lockdown? What is mission? Where does the good news of Christ resonate most deeply with our cultural context? What is our particular and distinct core task as a community of believers? What holy opportunities is the Spirit of God opening for the church to join? In what ways could I be empowering others in thinking through these questions?

In summary, I think I need to 1) resource the life of discipleship for a vibrant Christian faith, 2) experiment with ways to build an engaged, collaborative, online community of students and young adults, and 3) develop communal avenues for exploring and experimenting with Christ-shaped mission in a pandemic world.

What that means in terms of actions, this week

  1. The worship service, worship music, liturgy – these are not a priority for me. This week. Some of this is stewing in the background. I have a few ideas/ I might get excited or inspired, another Student Souler might push something forward.
  2. I don’t know what “resourcing the life of discipleship for a vibrant Christian faith” means in terms of content, but in terms of practice I will speak to this – somehow – on Sunday night, 7:30pm on Facebook live. (Student Soul Facebook page). It will not be a “sermon”, I have ditched my planned preaching series (although may incorporate it in some other formats).
  3. Some of what has been lost in terms of the worship gathering can be made up for as part of “building an engaged online community.” Maybe coming under “creative community.” I will do work on this prior to and during our “how to be student soul” online meetup on Wednesday at 12pm.
  4. I need to outline some frameworks for mission as a start point for a group and move from there. Some people have expressed interest in being a part of this area.

That’s me, over and out. The little boy is awake from his nap and me and the kids are off for our afternoon lockdown walk. Should be good. Thanks for listening.

A challenge: naming the storm

It’s the 26th of March 2020. New Zealand is in Day 1 of Alert Level 4 for Covid-19. It’s a national lockdown. On the positive side of things, over the last few days my family and I have never seen so many people out walking, never connected with so many neighbours, never seen so many teddy bears in the windows of houses. It ain’t all bad! Still, last night when I popped out for a couple of last minute messages, it felt like a very weird version of Christmas eve… and even a week ago, life in Dunedin felt strangle eerie, as we seemed collectively to wonder, “Is this the calm before the storm? Or is this the storm?”

Getting some perspective: where are we?

This is one of the things I have found myself wondering about: what’s the best way to think about “where we are” as Christian leaders in New Zealand? We are dealing with a very complicated and uncertain situation in which huge amounts of our “normal” activity has been halted, across our society. When activity stops, it seems natural to try to find new kinds of activity to fill gaps and meet needs, and rightly so. That has indeed been what we’ve been doing.

Over the last week, churches across the country have moved very fast to try to adapt ministry activities to the online world. Many moved to to livestream worship services on Sundays, small groups have moved to zoom meetings and online resource groups have been established. This is all fine and good, and the church community I lead, Student Soul, has done exactly the same. Of course this is all important. But through the flurry of activity I have personally been musing (and it’s been more like a subsonic rumble than a coherent thought) about the deeper implications of this national and worldwide crisis. It’s one thing for our ministry activities and church communities to survive a week, or a month, and even to develop some new rhythms and routines. But it’s a whole different thing to try and understand the scale of the changes that are to come.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have the answer… but here’s some thoughts

Like I said, the best I’ve got at the moment is a low supersonic rumble. I don’t really understand where we are or what is coming next. Who could? There are forecasts and trends and wise guesses. There is prayerful discernment. But here are some puzzle pieces I’m working with:

  1. CHANGE IS HERE: I have been expecting communal Christian life to change dramatically for some time. Many people have been writing, leading, creating, experimenting with different ways of “being church” for a long time. So I’m not surprised that we are now there. (But I am still shocked!)
  2. THE “URGENT” MIGHT NOT BE THE MOST IMPORTANT: Last week the urgency was to devise an alternative to Sunday worship. We all adapted. This week it is yet another change, as lockdown takes social isolation to another level (a minor but practical example is that for Student Soul, the studio space set up for last Sunday is now inaccessible). There has been and is still more “urgent” adaption to be done. But other unanswered issues and challenges remain.
  3. AN ONGOING CHALLENGE: I suspect (but could be wrong) that despite that gains or successes that happen over the next few weeks, the months after lockdown (whenever it ends) will perhaps be more difficult ones. What shocks have we not forseen that will hit us in 6 weeks time? What will the implications to the world and NZ economy be following all this? Will energy for Zoom church stay strong during this period, or will it slowly wane? Will our churches develop thick and strong pastoral connections or will this be a shock that is hard to bounce back from? Whatever the reality, I think we should plan for it being a difficult road to winter… and beyond.
  4. THE CAP ON GATHERINGS: Here’s a what if… What happens if gatherings are capped at 100 people permanently for the next two years? 50 people? 10 people? Are our desperate innovations in the art of connection deep and strong enough to nourish and sustain Christ-shaped communities in an uncertain post-pandemic world?

Moody resilience – getting ready for the long haul

So where does this leave us? I believe that if you are a leader involved in shaping the life of a community in New Zealand (or beyond), it’s time for you to draw on all the energy, resilience and resource you can find. It is time to prepare for a great challenge.

Many people in our country and world are already deeply engaged in this challenge. But there are no guarantees of the shape, the contours, the length, the magnitude or the variety of directions this flood could take us.

It is probably wise for us to be thinking how we can empower strategic leaders and “eyes open” dreamers to be beginning work on some “what if” scenarios planning. (Think about 2-year, 1-year and 90-day plans.)

Even if I am, in my own cautious way, over-implying the longer term impacts of Covid-19 upon the life of the church in New Zealand, the reality is that it has heightened us to a state of alertness that is actually suitable for the high-stakes of the Gospel.

Here we are: it’s time to get ready

I’ve been exploring from a perspective of Christian communities in New Zealand whether this moment of March 2020 is “the storm” or if it’s “the peace before the storm”. I’ve concluded that I don’t exactly know… but that it’s probably best to get ready.

With that in mind, my call to you is to embrace a high-stakes reality. Signs are that Covid-19 is indeed setting the tone for a high-stakes future. And the reality of faith is that regardless of what happens, this has always been and always will be a high-stakes life.

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

John 16.33 NIV

We are now in a high-stakes moment. And I am calling upon you to rise to the challenge, in your own particular and unique way. God has created you with the resilience and courage to enter into this. The Holy Spirit will renew your strength and resolve. In Christ Jesus you have both origin and destination, and these are precisely the tools you need to faithfully embracing the mission task to come.

AMEN / LET IT BE

P.S. I would totally welcome any comments and engagement on this, let me know your views, what does and doesn’t resonate. Let’s chat and keep connected. Peace. Tom

on the move / new horizon (poem)

into the far country we travelled,
driven by spirit

chastened by the curling optimism
of generations past
but holding to the hope
of a love like no other

migration

searching for life
in the face of the unknown,
an indication of possibility
in the face of adversary,
an endeavour of hope
born of desperation, or…
desire

catalyst, dreamer
builder, seeker
we are a people
on the move.
driven by spirit,
into the far country

and here we are.

these streets,
these pathways,
the cloudy hilltops
the rugged valleys…
this has become
our place.

but,

it was sea
that brought us here
and it is the waves
that I dream of still. home
is a dangerously
uneasy
truce

selah

so may this whenua be a place that sets people free
may the breath that carried us here fill the sails of generations to come
and may all our journeys arouse new swathes of determination

as we turn our gaze
to the new horizon

friday (poem)

dude
it’s the morning
life is hope
yet the carnage flies /

caffeine nation
rebellion, for a greater one
hold together the heart before you leap
and don’t forget that in the end
we’re all human /

truth
a light shining in the darkness
piercing the black
a kalaidescope of love /

scope
the future vibrant with memory
deep opportunity
amidst a pulsating path of pain /

dude, it’s friday