Bible Reading in a Digital World

What percentage of people in your church have their own Bible? Most, I guess. Many own more than one. What percentage are reading them at home? Regularly - once a week, twice a week, every day? I guess a much lower percentage.

Living in a digital age is clearly having an effect on Bible reading. I don’t just mean having new devices on which it is possible to access and read the scriptures. I mean new devices that distract from reading them. Our new generation have never not had computers, gaming, multiple channels of distraction. They have so many inputs. They don’t need to retain any information because they can google it at any time. 

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8 Principles to Help You Lead Through Change

In times of change godly leaders are the key factor in leading for the positive and minimising the negative impact on the flock. Therefore the key question is: what do leaders need to bring to the table to build trust and confidence in new direction or a new initiative?

Here are a few principles:

  • Leaders help the flock with their core motivations - aligning them to Christ and Christ's purposes through teaching, encouragement and godly role modelling
  • Leaders clarify future challenges and needs with gospel vision
  • Leaders care for the flock when uncertainty comes. We need to be able to express how change will affect people positively and negatively so they know we will help them when they feel weak and afraid
  • Leaders communicate clearly in order to help the flock embrace godly opportunity. People respond to concrete vision not vague vision
  • Leaders build team and gather resources for the task ahead, focusing people with our enthusiasm and joy in God
  • Leaders smooth transition with wisdom and the affection of Christ
  • Leaders expect to absorb angst with prayerfulness, compassion and kindness. In doing so we minimise future distress and disturbance
  • Leaders help the flock celebrate successes and mourn failures constructively

Leaders are always sensitive to the people they have and what goals and timescales for future change are realistic. We cannot change what we do not have the level of trust to change. In addition we cannot change things in Christ-centred ways unless the church shares a Christ-centred, disciple-making view of its purpose. We lead change in order that he is better magnified through the church making disciples. If that purpose is not central we will simply default to running everyone's favourite things.

Bob the Bootmaker - a Parable

Bob the bootmaker finally graduated from boot-making school and boy could he make a lovely pair of boots. He went happily home to his family, waving his boot-making certificate.

"And guess what?" He asked his wife. And then, without waiting for her reply, "the principal called me in and told me that he's found me a leadership position at a great boot-making factory training all the other boot-makers."

His wife was overjoyed. "But it gets better still" Bob said. "They have a flat attached to the boot-making factory which we get rent-free as part of the salary package."

Within weeks Bob and his family were packed up, moved to the boot factory and happily settled in the new flat. (Being totally honest, it was a little too close to the factory and Bob's wife secretly wondered if it would mean he was never really off duty).

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Diaries, Wisdom and Spiritual Healthiness

If you are a pastor or some other kind of Christian leader would you say that you drive your schedule or that your schedule drives you? How much control do you exercise over external demands and expectations?

Furthermore, what does your schedule do for you? Does it function to facilitate organisation and activity or Sabbath, spiritual life and wisdom? If you are anything like me you tend to use it for the former rather than the latter. It is very telling that my diary organises my meetings and appointments rather than my spiritual life. I don’t know many people who use it for both, or indeed for spiritual life.

Our diaries describe our normalised patterns of life. And and normal patterns or habits reveal what’s most important to us. Its worth looking carefully at our diary to see what it reveals about our spiritual walk with God. How can we use them to help us live lives of quality and depth rather than massive running around.

Our diaries might show we are really good at organisation. Many pastors juggle a huge number of difference commitments and people with amazing multitasking skills. But what would a diary look like that schedule enough space for praying, worshipping and seeking God? What would a diary look like that is being used well to produce a spiritual life of quality? As the Bible says, like a tree planted by streams of water whose roots go very deep?

Most pastors I know work up to the limit of their capacity pretty much all the time. They believe - rightly - that it is good to work hard for the Lord in the service of the gospel. But many struggle with the sheer subjectivity that plagues so much of the work. It is very difficult in pastoral ministry to know when you have done enough or to evaluate whether it is good or bad work. The frequent answer is simply to do more hoping that means it is better. This leads to living at the outside limit of capacity, with no margins, all the time. Of course it only takes an unexpected pastoral crisis or two to push us over the edge.

I’ve read a few books recently about Getting Things Done time management principles. They all work with the idea that working efficiently frees up more time, reducing exhaustion and providing space. The trouble of Getting Things Done material for pastors is that it assumes there is a finite workload that can simply be managed better. If we perceive there to be an infinite workload - or at least an impossibly large one - so that no amount of efficient working will ever free up time then there is no incentive to work efficiently. Any time freed up will always immediately get refilled. The demand perpetually exceeds supply and eliminating the truly unnecessary is difficult because there is always a real person on the other end of it.

I think the answer is to use the diary to demarcate the spiritual input part of our lives before we put in other things. To prioritise life with God before meetings and to normalise sabbath, prayerfulness and worship. And space for thinking. Wisdom is a by-product of seeking the Lord with faith and fear. And seeking the Lord is a product of deliberately making space to do so.

We get spiritual input from one of 5 places:

  1. Directly from God
  2. Care that we do for ourselves or in small groups of friends
  3. Within our church or ministry environment
  4. From wider networks, for example at conferences
  5. From specialist pastoral carers

What is your mechanism or system for ensuring you are getting appropriate spiritual input in each of these areas (or at least 1-4)? What is your lifestyle in each? How do you use your diary for each? Or what is stopping you and what will you do about it? Note that number 4 alone will not sustain you if 1-3 aren’t working for you.

Over the weekend I spent a few hours with a man who builds networks for pastoring pastors in Latin America. For him the key was accountable groups of friends who deliberately, intentionally pastor each other. I wish everyone in pastoral ministry would have a group like that. But whether you choose that method or some other, we all need some accountable system for maintaining spiritual vitality whether it one to one, in a small group or some wider context. Without it eventually running out of steam is practically inevitable and with it goes our discipleship, wisdom, worship and the ability to do the job. When our discipleship dries up we can’t fulfill our pastoral calling either.

Ministry can be so busy that there are potentially an uncontrollably large number of inputs into our lives. And it is so people-oriented that a large number of those inputs lead to situations that remain open loops rather than leading to closure. Allow an ever increasing number of inputs and open loops and life eventually overwhelms us. We start to run just to stay standing still and eventually we can’t sustain it any more. Our diaries can be a critical tool for a wise, God-directed life if we use them to help us be proactive, not reactive, about our life-choices and spiritual-life-choices.

Ministry and Healthy Spiritual Life

Everyone in the church would like a relationship with the pastor. And that’s a good thing, right? Leading the flock is inherently relational. Its hard to speak the gospel into people’s lives where you have no personal connection.

How many people do you think a pastor can have a meaningful relational connection with? 10? 50? 100? At what point does a church grow beyond the ability of its pastor to maintain those relationships at a meaningful depth? If they or the church continue to expect the same level of connection after that point as they enjoyed before surely that is a recipe for destructive patterns sooner or later?

The difficulty is that many pastors don’t know how or when to say “no”. And many churches expect them to work right up to capacity all the time (while not actually knowing where the line of realistic maximum capacity is). The point at which church growth means the pastor can no longer have meaningful contact with everyone is not only the point where those pastors are at their most stretched it is also the point where criticism starts to rise. Previously people enjoyed and valued having a piece of you. Now they clamour for a piece of you they can’t have but feel they have a right to.

Criticism - real or perceived (”don’t they know how much I am doing for them?” (no, they really don’t!)) - has a nasty habit of coming when we have least emotional resources to deal with it constructively. It’s easy to cave in and continue to try to satisfy all the demands. It feels easier than renegotiating expectations. However over a period our sense of who we are starts to be determined not by relationship to God but by multiply, competing, unfulfillable demands from everyone in the church. Our sense of achievement - so difficult to define in Christian ministry at the best of times - starts to be defined by how well people tell us we are doing at satisfying their requests rather than our enjoyment of being in Christ.

Add to this the collapse of clear boundaries and ministering always at the edge of capacity has the potential to seriously disrupt a healthy sense of identity. As one assistant minister put it to me recently “nobody at my training college told me that when you work for a church your work, non-work, church life, family life and leisure-time which were previously distinct now all become blurred.” The identity markers that function for most people - work, accomplishments, life-boundaries, family - can simply stop working for pastors and their families.

But we live from our identity. We pastor from our identity. We minister out of the overflow of a healthy spiritual life with God. It is ironic that church life and growth can itself be the thing that damages the spiritual life of leaders. But it is remarkably common - perhaps inevitable - where there are no healthy mutual expectations of what leaders should and should not do, that we need to receive as well as give, rest as well as work. It is critical for churches to find ways to help their pastors live in Christ.

Whenever I visit another church as a guest speaker I like to ask whether they know who feeds the people who feed them. I don’t need to know the answer - I know what it will be before I ask (”no”). The church assumes it pastors are themselves being fed, but they don’t know that they are. The assumption is almost always wrong. The result is that pastors and their spouses can easily be the least spiritually fed people in the church. Their spiritual outgoings constantly outweigh their spiritual incomings. They feed others, nobody feeds them. They are the focus of the hopes of a large number of people. When they fail to deliver they can become the sole focus of all the criticism of a large number of people. On the occasions when it all goes wrong they can become isolated, often without mechanisms for negotiation or redress at the point where they are also spiritually running on empty.

Hence the Hebrews 13:17 command to churches is critical for the health of pastors and of their churches:

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority because they keep watch over you as those who must give account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you

Make pastors’ work a joy because pastors who have lost their joy in God and in the church through unfulfillable demands, criticism and perpetual overwork no longer pastor well. The Bible says their job is to work for people’s progress and joy in the Lord. It is a wise church that finds ways to work with them for their own progress and joy because it is out of that centre that all good pastoring flows.