It happens more often than I would like. Some important piece of technology goes on the blink, my phone, my e-book reader, my laptop. I try to get the best out of what I buy and also try and avoid adding to the planet’s heaps of electronic rubbish so I keep my technology for as long as I possibly can. The longer you keep it the more likely it is to malfunction. When something goes on the blink I always try the soft reset first. Soft reset means the phone, reader or laptop resets itself without wiping everything clean. It has worked quite a few times for me with various pieces of technology. I go from, “Oh no this thing is banjaxed and will cost me a fortune to replace” to heaving a sigh of relief and thinking “Great, it’s back and hopefully will keep going for a few more years.” The joy of the soft reset.
It’s not just technology that can softly reset. I’m an early riser by habit. But there are days when I get up but can’t get going. My solution is to go back to bed and try and get an extra hour’s sleep. Sometimes it does the trick. At the second time of asking I get going and get into the day. The joy of the soft reset.
I don’t know how soft resets work. I grew up in an era of televisions that could be brought from a snow filled screen to a clear picture with a good thump to the right part of the set. In many homes there was one person who could claim to be have mastered the art of the thumping, knowing precisely where to thump and how hard. Maybe the strategic thump led to the conception of technology’s soft reset!
Covid has reset the activities of church congregations around the world. Like the rest of society traditional church patterns have had a major disruption. What will reopening bring for churches? For some there will be no reopening. The pandemic accelerated a process already under way. A diminishing group of attenders have gotten used to life without a church gathering and now don’t miss it enough to want to come back. The end of useful life has been reached. A very hard reset.
Other groups will do all they can to get back to where they were at the start of 2020. Church was working well. Why change a good thing? There are lots of people who miss what they used to have and can’t wait to get back to it. The goal is to eventually forget that the pandemic ever happened and get back to doing what they had always done. Normal service resumed. No reset required.
Then there’s the potential of a soft reset. Change happens but the memory is not erased. It’s not starting from scratch again. When Covid hit, most churches responded by asking the “what” questions. What must we stop doing? What must we change? What can we start doing? Many groups with the aid of technology worked to get as close as they could to what they used to do.
Now with the opening up comes an opportunity for a reset based on “why” not “what” or maybe “why” before “what.”
Why do churches do what they do? The Great Commission, the Jesus mandate, is to make apprentices of Jesus. This is done, he says, by immersing them in the reality of the triune God and leading them into doing everything that Jesus commanded. If this is what is commanded then (1) what activities are needed to make that happen?
The notion of apprentices is that they learn primarily by doing. Most trade apprentices start out by carrying the tools to the job, watching someone else do the work, handing tools to the worker as needed, and cleaning up the mess at the end. Stage two comes when they are given some of simpler parts of the job to do. In stage three they are given more complex tasks while being assisted, instructed, supervised and corrected when needed. Stage four is when they do the whole task unaided apart from supervision and advice. The final stage is when they do the whole task on their own unsupervised; their training means they know what to do, how to do it, why they do it, and when it’s done.
All of these stages are visible in Jesus’s work with his apprentices. They watch him do it. They receive teaching. They are given assignments. There is time for stories, time for questions. There is advice, critiquing, question and answer sessions. Where do these appear in the life of a church?
This kind of training requires time, focussed conversation, an environment where people can ask questions that relate to their own experience. It also requires people who have travelled a bit further along the road and are able to give some advice and direction to others.
What if this training became the core of the Sunday gathering? Could an opening hymn and a brief introduction to the topic be followed by a time of discussion in smaller groups? The curriculum could be the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus there outlines the way in which those who follow him will live. They will learn from him how to live as those who fulfil God’s law, how to avoid harming others by learning to live without anger, contempt and violence, how to deal with people who are angry with you, how to avoid lust and sexual infidelity, how to experience inner change as opposed to strict outward obedience, how to speak clearly and avoid religious hypocrisy. That is just the first chapter. There are two more!
Examen is an ancient practice of reviewing the day behind and looking to the day ahead for signs of God’s activity? What if “Examen” became a part of the weekly gathering? Five minutes of silence at the start reflecting on the week just passed, five minutes of silence at the end, reflecting on the week ahead?
There are lots of practical questions that will arise. How do children fit in? What about the stranger who turns up? Can they be accommodated? Is this still a public gathering? What place now for technology? Are zoom meetings the best way of gathering for a city centre church? What about eating together?
Sometimes metaphors can help stimulate our imaginations about what could be done. I have already used the metaphor of the apprentice learning a trade. Other possible metaphors for the gathering are
- a team in a training session preparing for the “match” of the week ahead
- a healthy breakfast to get you going for the day
- a 12 step support group where people have a shared desire of how they want to live
The gathering and the singing, the preaching and the praying, the coffee and the chat, the prayer meeting and the bible study, the street work and the outreach, the children’s work and the youth work. These are the traditional church activities. A soft reset would not mean abandoning all or any of these but rethinking them in the light of the purpose to help people become apprentices of Jesus by immersing them in the reality of the Triune God and leading them into doing everything that Jesus told us.
(1) This is based on Dallas Willard’s translation of Matthew 28:18-20 “I have been given say over everything in heaven and earth so go, 1 make apprentices to me among people of every kind, submerge them in the reality of the triune God and lead them into doing everything I have told you to do.”