Taming Ministry Chaos

This is a very quick and superficial response to a question I received on Twitter about the kind of systems and structures that someone in Christian work can use to tame the chaos that frequently accompanies it. Others have written more at length, but the below gives and indication of the things I find helpful

I hope someone finds something useful from the thought I have had to give to this for my own use over the years. Mainly I hope you will read this and take comfort from the fact that you are far more organised and far less of a basket case than I am, and don’t need to do any of it because you find it so blindingly obvious

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Instagramming Your Dinner?: 1 Timothy 4

Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity... Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them so that everyone may see your progress   (1 Tim 4:12; 15)

Paul's instruction to Timothy is well-known. It was written to teach him how to live and to lead as a role model leader when people were looking down on him with condescension because he was young. There is little designed to get a young Christian leader's back up more than people assuming youth = immaturity: "but you're so young." Lacking the insight and wisdom that comes with age and experience is one thing. Assuming that godly young leaders can't lead, teach, preach, evangelise or draw others together to advance the Kingdom is something else and often incorrect. But Paul's instruction to Timothy wasn't to ignore presumptuous or patronising comments about youth, but to set an example. Role models are as role models do.

I got into conversation with someone who was desperate for more transparent authenticity from church leaders. "I want to be able to see their lives. So I know how to follow Christ with my life and so I can see how the gospel works out in their lives in reality." That's a good thing to want. "After all Paul tells Timothy to set an example in his life and let everyone see his progress." It's hard to argue with that.

But what should this look like in a social media age where expectations and definitions of authenticity are running riotously out of control?

The panopticon prison was design in the 18th century. It had cells round a circle or semi-circle with a guard post in the middle. It allowed maximum surveillance by a minimum number of people and is now widely criticised as inhumane because of the power and humiliation that go with being on display, having your every action constantly monitored. But now we have gone way beyond the panopticon. Not only do we accept observation of every area of life as normal but now we display ourselves entirely voluntarily to a degree never before known. A sizeable proportion of the social media savvy equate willingness to put yourself on display with authenticity. Discretion is fast becoming a discredited virtue and privacy confused with secrecy or worse. Unwillingness to display oneself can be perceived as inauthentic at best and suspicious at worst.

How should we think about letting people see our lives in an age when "authenticity" is too easily confused for instagramming what you are having for dinner and vlogging from your bedroom? We should distinguish carefully between:

  • becoming a role model (usually a bad one) BY putting yourself on display and encouraging everyone to copy you, and;
  • being a role model, who by dint of certain characteristics of your life ought to be at least partly visible so that others know how to live in a godly way and can copy you

The second of these is worthy of display, the first is just bragging and self-publicising, the new way of social climbing.

What should godly role models display of their lives. Whatever it is, according to Paul, it is with the purpose that people will see their progress in the faith and be encouraged to emulate them. It is unlikely, therefore, to include instagramming dinner. Or instagramming very much, probably. It will certainly include:

  • how we deal with life circumstances and events in Christ-centred and godly ways so people can see how the our new identity and the good news affects our responses to what life throws our way
  • a degree of public exposure about how we repent of sin and walk in faith. If leaders are not chief repenters how is anyone else meant to know how to do it? They'll just assume leaders are perfect. Or, more likely, inauthentic shams. And definitely not to be emulated either way
  • how we identify the need for change and growth in our lives and take steps to do it. Timothy was told to let people see not just his godliness but his progress - that he was growing. Of course that implies being straightforward that nobody is the finished article
  • our eagerness to serve as opposed to lording it over others (of which online self-publicity is an insidious new form)
  • how we are learning to grow in Christlikeness and yearning for the fruit of righteousness in our lives

Its notoriously hard to teach about humility or to point to evidences of how we are growing in the fruit of the Spirit. You might almost say that anyone who is tempted to display on social media how they are growing in these areas quite possibly isn't! People may see those things in a person but that person can't tell them that they experience growth without calling that growth into question. People have to see our lives and that simply can't happen through the self-curated presentation that is social media. There is role-modelling that happens through personal relationship that simply cannot happen through Twitter or Facebook (and perhaps also in churches so large that almost nobody can know anything about the lives of those who lead).

The Apostle Peter instructs us to humble ourselves before God and clothe ourselves with humility (1 Peter 5). Those who do are likely to turn into contagiously godly role models. Their churches will know it, their friends will see their. But they themselves are unlikely to be forthright about their progress. It is caught by being around them and witnessing it, not by them parading their humble clothing.

And they are very unlikely to display themselves much on Instagram.

Truth, Power, Love, Hate - and Social Media and Elections

Violence is what happens when you try to resolve a religious dispute by means of power. It cannot be done. Trying to resolve ultimate issues of faith, truth and interpretation by use of force is a conceptual error of the most fundamental kind. Just as might does not establish right, so victory does not establish truth

You cannot impose truth by force…greater is the pursuit of truth than the exercise of force
Religion leads to violence when it consecrates hate…You cannot create a free society on the basis of hate

Do not wage war on the children of darkness. Make sure instead that you and your children are sources of light

The above quotes are not from a Christian (though they could easily be) but from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ wonderful book Not In God’s Name. A book I thoroughly recommend. 

Rabbi Sacks’ sets out to analyze specifically religious violence but just about everything he says is relevant to any situation where force is used to impose someone’s idea of truth. His conclusion (correctly to my mind) is that it always fails and always will fail because of the most basic conceptual mistake: truth is not amenable to imposition by force. The results are firstly, bitterness at being thus assaulted; second, what he describes as the consecration of hate - people mostly behave as enemies because they perceive themselves to have been made enemies of, and; third countermeasures by those imposed upon, force is met by force, perception of being hatefully treated by hatred.

His almost shocking conclusion is that the only way out of the cycle is powerlessness. On the subject of religious violence to deliberately separate out religion (truth) and politics (power).

Sacks has, I think, a rather Utopian view of the neutrality of the state:

The liberal democratic state does not aspire to be the embodiment of the good, the beautiful and the true. It merely seeks to keep the peace between contending factions. It is procedural rather than substantive. It makes no claim to represent the totality of life…It does not invtie its citizens to worship the polis, nor does it see civic virtue as the only virtue. (NIGN p.229)

One might reasonably ask what happens when the state is perceived by one party or another to have been hijacked precisely to make universalising and substantive claims on all. Law will be used to impose a state-authorised morality and civic virtue will indeed be seen as the only virtue (”fundamental British values” being an obvious case in point). When that happens the state has ceased to be an arbiter and itself become a contending faction. 

But that aside, what of his contention that powerlessness is the way out of the standoff? His suggestion that the house of study must replace the battlefield? The best picture of a standoff with power is the cold war nuclear threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD). The problem of course is that nobody can be the first to disarm because that makes you a defenceless target. Why wouldn’t the other person simply destroy you? But to not do so leaves you with perpetual heightened tension with no way out. 

Catch 22. But you have to admit a very Christian Catch 22. We follow one who refused to retaliate to the point of his own life being taken for the sake of his enemies. And who insists that his followers do likewise. Retaliation is what non-Christians do, not Christians:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. If someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also; if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well;    (Matthew 5:38-40)

Jesus had a principled willingness to be walked over.

But what about the recent US election? I suggested in my previous post that this is an election in which for many young voter social media has played a significant, but not healthy, part. In Rabbi Sacks’ terms I think that limiting access only to views that you already agree with is like turning the house of study back into the battlefield. If religion can consecrate hate that leads to violence then so can Twitter - just read the comments on many politicians’ Twitter feeds if you are in any doubt about that. 

Truth is not established by by force. Facebook might not look like a means for exerting force - it isn’t a battle fleet - but by dint of having 1.79 billion users it is precisely that. And in that way people have tried to use it: to deny the face of the Other, make substantive moral claims which it is hoped would be assimilated by the state. The use of social media to disrupt the neutrality of the state, turn it into a competing party and then use it to impose views by force on the unwilling. 

How should Christians respond? I suggest Rabbi Sacks is right - embrace powerlessness. The thing we must not do is fight with the same weapons. The Apostle Paul tells us that our fight is not against flesh and blood but against spiritual forces of evil. Peter says:

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people   (1 Peter 2:13-15)

Be willing to be powerless in this world’s terms. And don’t use the weapons of the world, instead do good. I am suggesting that social media is definitely a weapon of the world and Christians must avoid at all costs using it the way the world uses it. That might be by simply deleting the app and having nothing to do with it if you can’t be self-controlled in the way you use it. It might mean that you deliberately follow the feeds of people with whom you disagree so that you are not inadvertantly sucked into the way it can shut down competing voices and debate. It might mean you use it as deliberately as you are able to bless those with whom you disagree. It definitely means not saying anything online that you wouldn’t say with the Lord Jesus in the room.

No, we commit to the word of God (that’s our weapon, the sword of the Spirit, we are people of the book not the Twitterstorm, still less the riot), to prayer - including for our enemies for them to be blessed - and to doing good. The Christian question for election outcomes we don’t like is not “how can I push back?” but “given this situation how can I bless for the good of society and the sake of the Lord Jesus? Given this outcome, what is the most redemptive way for me to behave? How can I bless my opponents? How can I avoid being swept up in a tide of sentiment and dismay and instead be self-controlled, loving and kind, full of the fruit of the Spirit?”

The danger of the social media election is that it makes everyone, both before and afterwards, ask the wrong questions: how can my group win? How can we dominate the state? How can we use its laws and constitution for the good of us and the detriment of the Other? The Christian instead will always ask, how do we bless the Other, how do we serve not dominate, what does kindness, love and the redemption of God look like in a  world full of hate?

Jesus called his disciples together and said:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  (Matthew 20:25-28)

Social Media and Echo Chamber Elections

Social media is notorious for being an echo chamber. It repeats what you already think back to you, often amplified, rarely more harmonically. All the while dampening access to alternative melodies and harmonies. It affirms your existing opinions. Your tune is the right tune, your drum the only drum. To mix my metaphors, like a planet with a large gravitational field it captures you within the orbit of what you - or your group, your interpretive community - already think. 

However social media does not, as it so often likes to claim, democratise thinking. For it has its own demagogues, its high priestesses and priests. The arbiters of orthodoxy operate on the one hand by of millions of retweets and on the other the threat of appalling censure. Depart from received opinion and you can find yourself unfriended, deplatformed, demonised (maybe even killed if you are of a gentle disposition) by twitterstorm or simply isolated and chucked out of the in-crowd. It might not be the Spanish Inquisition (nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition) but there are nevertheless some pretty powerful incentives not to challenge the high priests and priestesses. 

Fine, you might say, there is no forcible association with social media. You don’t have to belong. But that is to ignore the fact that at least among Western Millennials just about everybody signs up before they realise there might be a problem. Social media is thus frequently a tool of group think masquerading as a tool of individuality and self-expression. Rather than taking public discourse from the hands of the powerful and putting it in the hands of the powerless it often simply places it in the hands of a differently-powerful group to the old one without anyone noticing because the new media elite don’t have offices at the tops of tall towers.

The other thing about social media is that by dint of being an unnuanced medium it tends to extremes. It actively excludes alternative, perhaps ameliorating, voices. Group dynamics maintain the in-crowd by dismissing, even to the point of dehumanising, the out-crowd. Social media attracts its fair share of what have become known as “virtue signallers”, those who parade their own value by heralding their great commitment to whatever cause is deemed virtuous by the community. Of course if you define your cause as virtuous and yourself as a champion of said virtue, what does that make those who disagree? They are no longer merely mistaken, misguided or wrong because what they oppose is not my ideas but me. And I am virtuous which makes them at least risible and possibly evil. How else could they oppose virtue? If they weren’t evil they would be over here with us and the fact that they aren’t has to mean they can’t be good or virtuous. Because if they are good or virtuous that means our group doesn’t have a monopoly on those things. The tools of narcissism don’t just work by telling us that we are great, they do so by telling us everyone else is appalling. We demonise the Other in order to exonerate and praise ourselves.

And then, of course, social media is rapidly killing traditional print media with its emphasis, however flawed, on fact-checking, public accountability and extensive - and therefore expensive and therefore dying - investigative journalism. (Even the Guardian is frantically appealing for subscribers on the basis that it will otherwise go under, for crying out loud). And - oh the horror for the social media crowd - different views, competing, comparative, trying to persuade in the same newspaper. Did the old media not research their niche audience well enough? Surely they couldn’t have been sufficiently naive to think that their audience actually wanted to read a variety of opinions? How very last century!

The recent elections have been extreme. The responses after the event equally so. There have clearly been many on each side who have bought the idea (actually been sold the idea) that their opponents are entirely and utterly negative. Black holes devoid of all virtue and humanity. Just look at how much Hitler/Chamberlain rhetoric has been thrown around recently. Not only have they nothing good to say but anything they might say is pre-interpreted as actively evil and opposing our valiant forces of goodness. America, never averse to a bit of Black Hat / White Hat dualism, has taken it to wholly new levels of inability to compromise. One by one all the more compromising candidates fell in line behind the most polarising and unconcilliatory leaving the average voter with a stark choice - vote for us or vote for evil. 

There are large numbers of younger voters in America (and to a lesser extent in the Brexit referendum) for whom the recent elections are the first and only large scale vote in which they have participated. Clearly some have found it a shocking experience: “those people only won because they lied to us” is not just an winsome and endearing response from first time voters, it is also astonishingly naive about the sides they themselves chose to support: “its us against the liars so the vote should be retaken on the basis of truth-telling.” Much as I like the instinct towards the virtue of truth-telling, the idea that one side only tells the truth and the other side lies (horrifyingly winning by doing so, the bounders!) is a position I doubt could have existed for voters who haven’t spent half their lives on social media before being ask to take part in their first election. 

Note too that those who are used to thinking in binary terms about themselves and others are now turning disagreement into perceived conflict. Not agreeing is now offense, micro-aggression, disrespect, even shame. How dare you suggest by your voting position that I am not the arbiter of correctness? My relativist worldview has brought me up to believe that is oppressive. It is my basic human right to never be contradicted. I don’t believe in truth and you are going to force on me the result of decisions I do not like and make me live with their consequences. What kind of tyrant are you?

And so emerges the Great Divide. The other lot are no longer rational actors with real lives and real concerns because I no longer have a real facility to listen and discuss. Only to try to impose my view, to fight by fair means or foul (nothing is too foul anyway because they are aliens and what is at stake is, you know, the whole world), to ignore ideas and deny opponents the field by depersonalising them - and to respond in shocked disbelief when it doesn’t work. 
The point of democracy is participation. The effect of social media is to try to exclude, especially by making your opponents literally non-people. After all they weren’t there in your social media feed so you’ve never had any reason to think they and their views actually existed. Until they awkwardly popped up at election time and expressed things you find unbelievable because you don’t believe them and you only ever listen to yourself being reflected back to yourself. 

If there is a positive result from the recent elections (and I will be the first to say how depressing the whole thing is) its that social media didn’t exclude the Other. Amazingly it didn’t skew things (or if it did then it did so in highly complex and unpredictable ways). Perhaps the subsequent meltdown is at least partly an inchoate feeling of betrayal at our own darling media. Surely we weren’t lied to, were we? No, no, shift the blame anywhere else. Whatever the problem, it can’t be me and my lovely Facebook feeds (though, ironically, it clearly can be them and their lying Facebook feeds which are so full of propaganda, falsification and incorrect news). 

When the dust settles, the world is still turning (I will repent this piece if it isn’t!) and the more cataclysmic propositions from the virtue-signalling prophets of doom are seen to not come true one can only hope for some more serious reflection on why things got so overheated. And what we have lost in the absence of an ability to hear and interact well with carefully expressed views with which we happen to disagree. All kinds of horrors have moved into the vacuum created when civil discourse left the room.

(Rant over. Next post I will try to give a little more specifically Christian reflection on the subject)

Lament and Political Apocalypse

Violence, the paralysis of law, the perversion of justice and the victory of the wicked over the righteous. That is the complaint of the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk at the start of his book. And - immeasurably worse - God isn’t listening (or so he thinks):

How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? (1:2)

Every single person of faith utters that cry sooner or later in our lives. Everything seems bleak, meaningless and terribly frightening and God seems to do nothing about it. Indeed many have argued from the apparent implacable cruelty of the universe and human nature to the non-existence of God. Worse by far is the notion that God does exist but his lack of help in the face of evil indicates that while he may be powerful he is not good. If ever there is a reason why the believer might catastrophize, that is it.

I have watched the American election with a mixture of fascination and repulsion only possible from a reasonably detached distance. Distance, I am aware, that almost removes any right to comment. Yes, along with many around the world I am rightly (very) worried about demagogues with access to nuclear launch codes but external pontificators don't have the same insight or personal stake that our friends in the US do. How easy would I have found it to choose between an attractive abortionist who might just shoot down Russian war planes and a repulsive, racist misogynist? Talk about damned if you do, damned if you don’t. (On the issues of supporting Clinton over Trump's racism, this is an excellent read by Thabiti Anyabwile).

I was interested just as much at the whole tone of the political campaign as the outcome, as the discourse was ratcheted up to apocalyptic levels of rhetoric. Or maybe not rhetoric, I don’t know. On the one hand “a vote for Trump means certain nuclear apocalypse”, on the other “a vote for Clinton means tens of millions of child murders and the end of Western civilization”. How on earth is anyone meant to have a sane, nuanced public discourse or serious policy discussion - let alone ethics discussion - when it comes to that? It is impossible and unthinkable - and deliberately so. It was meant to make it impossible to even think that the other candidate had any redeeming features whatsoever, and that neither therefore did their policy platforms. It is an extreme example of mutual demonisation. Both sides claimed divine prerogative and threatened that violence, paralysis of law, the perversion of justice and the victory of the wicked over the righteous were the inevitable consequences of the other lot winning.

Therefore it is no surprise to wake up in the aftermath and find that there are a lot of very, very scared people in America. After all they were told incessantly that they should be afraid. Whoever won, half the country was going to anticipate the apocalypse, and now they do. Perhaps more so in the case of a Trump win because the liberal media were so hysterically worried about the protection of their own value systems. And so today we have the remarkable spectacle of liberal riots and Americans - yes Americans! - burning the American flag. And, perhaps worse, damning the democratic process and contemptuously declaring that all those people who are on the wrong side of history (you know, the ones who won) shouldn’t really be enfranchised to vote anyway. Oh the irony.

Is it not right to critique winners? Of course it is. Is it unacceptable to express your fears? Of course not, especially when they have been intensified to fever pitch. There was always going to be an venting. Perhaps there is something positive. Pressure cookers without escape valves explode. 

But what of the nature of the escape valve? Liberal riots are surely a disproportionate response to the mere fact of losing. Which shows that it is not just losing that is the issue. You didn’t see conservative riots after Obama was swept in with his messianic mandate regardless of how disappointed and worried people were. No, the issue is bigger than losing. It is that people are now so divided that both sides think a victory for the other is the demolition of their way of life, hope and worldview. And maybe a real global apocalypse as well as a personal and political one. Rioting externally manifests the disorientation of a riotous mind. It realizes what a friend of mine refers to as a "howling tempest in the brain". Feeling oneself caught up in a storm we become stormy.

A public protest at democratic result, in some cases leading to riot, is what you do when you believe all other options are denied you. Let’s be honest there aren’t very many riots so I don’t want to overstate the case but the fact that there are any shows to what extent the system has got overheated and people feel there is no other option. It is almost impossible to have imagined it in a previous generation. 

David, King of ancient Israel faced his own personal catastrophe. In the agonising aftermath of his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah his infant son was taken from him by God (2 Samuel 12). David spent days pleading with God for the child but he died and David was devastated. That was that, the worst outcome he could imagine. His life was in tatters and his son dead. Personal apocalypse with no way to reverse it and God didn’t answer his prayer (at least the way he wanted). 

David’s immediate response was staggering. He cleaned himself up, changed his clothes, went into the temple of God and worshipped. It is inconceivable that this was happy worship. No, this was the worship of a broken man with a troubled soul, the worship of grief and tears and repentance and lament. It is striking how many of the Psalms are laments - far more than any other type - often with God feeling far away.

Previous generations of Christians were much better at lament. I wonder how much contemporary worship has been affected by a relentless drive for personal happiness and fulfillment from the non-Christian world because it seems our current worship songs have little room for it (Blessed be your name by Matt Redman being a stunning exception). We’d rather be happy in church on Sunday. In the process we have lost the emotional vocabulary to express the whole range of our human experience back to God with authenticity. We don’t know how to say what we need to say, the language has gone - despite there being myriad biblical exhortations to do so and examples of how to do it. And so our emotion and grief all stays pent up inside.

And if we Christians have lost the means to lament (as our Jewish friends have not), how much more the unbelieving world? Perhaps protest and riot is what you do with your grief and fear when reflective lament is no longer a mode that is open to you. The grief has to get out somehow.
To return to Habakkuk, his disaster wasn’t personal like David’s. It was political (and personal in as much as he was a member of a nation about to get obliterated). He watched and foresaw the approaching Babylonian apocalypse heading inexorably towards Jerusalem. He brought the word of God in devastating times to a people who could not escape. His own fear is palpable. At the sound of the enemy:

My heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones and my legs trembled (3:16)

Yet how different is the response of the prophet to that of people with no hope in God. If you have no hope then fear of calamity overwhelms and produces some of the reaction we are witnessing this week. If you have hope then in the face of calamity you worship. You don’t know why the events are coming on you, you don’t know how God is acting, you don’t even know if you will survive. You just don’t know. Questions aren’t answered. They weren’t for David and they weren’t for Habakkuk. Here is Habakkuk’s response:

Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. 

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.

The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights.  (3:16-19)

Calamitous times are opportunities for Christians to live for the hope of the glory of God and to show what it looks like to trust when there are no obvious signs of blessing and prayers seem unanswered. And to worship, particularly through recovering lament. Perhaps one contribution we have to make at a time like this is helping people express their grief and fear to God by providing a profound and cathartic language of emotion and worship that the Western world has all but forgotten.