Monthly Archives: September 2012

Using An iPad In Ministry

When the iPad was launched, I mocked it. To me, it was merely an electronic toy. It was just about media consumption. Moreover, why had Steve Jobs chosen a name for a product that made it sound like Apple was joining the tampon industry?

But I have changed my views. It all began back in late May, when I attended the New Wine Leadership Conference. Among a few thousand delegates in the Harrogate International Centre, many were using iPads or other tablet computers productively. I tweeted throughout the conference from my smartphone, but it’s small and it wasn’t practical to bring my laptop from the B and B: the battery would have given out too quickly, anyway.

Soon, I began to hear stories of friends putting their sermon notes on their iPads. The morning I had to print off sixteen sheets of A4 for one act of worship, this became attractive. It also dawned on me that I might be able to access other documents online during meetings if I stored them in the cloud. The children would love me to buy one for the games, too, but that really isn’t the most important consideration.

I won’t be buying one just yet: a large car bill last week has definitely delayed the decision. But I’ll lay out my thinking so far in a moment, and I’d be interested in your opinions. Do you think a tablet is useful for a minister or not? Why? Is it just a toy for the rich? If you do use one, what tips would you offer and what apps would you recommend?

My thoughts, then: firstly, operating system. Despite using an Android smartphone (iPhone contracts were just too expensive), I don’t want an Android tablet. Since my phone was upgraded to Android 4.0 a.k.a. Ice Cream Sandwich, it has become too flaky. Numerous apps seize up. I can’t be doing with an unreliable tablet.

Realistically, then, that leaves me with a straight choice between an Apple iPad and the forthcoming Microsoft Surface. So my second area of thought is around the pros and cons of these two tablets, based on my perceived needs. The disadvantages of the iPad revolve around the lack of additional connectivity and expandability. There is also a question of compatibility with Microsoft Office files since we use Windows PCs at home, although I know you can use third-party services to get around that. The iPad’s advantages include the maturity of the platform, the huge range of apps and its general reputation for reliability.

As to the Microsoft Surface, we do not yet know everything about it, despite the spectacular launch presentation for it back in June. Its advantages include direct compatibility with Microsoft Office and the inbuilt keyboard, cover and stand – no need to buy additional accessories. Disadvantages revolve around some of the unknown quantities: will it have 3G connectivity? I shall need that. What will the price be? How many apps (and of what quality) will there be in the Microsoft Store? Early reports suggest that at present there are only about 2,000 – a hundredth of what is available for the iPad. And we don’t know how it will fare in hands-on reviews by technical experts.

That’s my summary. What do you think? Bring your experiences to bear on this matter.

Measuring The Influence Of Bloggers

There has been some conversation in Christian circles about the Top 200 Blogs List released by Church Relevance. They used a variety of metrics, but Adrian Warnock was quick to point out they hadn’t accounted for Twitter followers. He compiled another Top 2oo, based purely on that, and which he has been kindly amending as he discovers other Christian bloggers of various persuasions. He followed up today with a further post in which he asks Christian bloggers to be aware of their motives in wanting to blog and to be on such lists.

Adrian is right to ask why we blog. Vanity can slip in all to easily. I recall one Christian friend who said he steered clear of blogging because he felt it was all ‘Me, me, me.’

But Christian communicators want to have an influence. The statistics, though, can only tell us so much. Does influence consist in reading? If so, I influence 2-3,000 people per week. But anyone can read, and only a tiny minority interact through the comments.

Yet much as I welcome the comments, and they are part of my raison d’être for blogging – I want to have a conversation – even that is a crude way of mentioning influence. Does not a messenger of the Gospel want to exercise influence in seeing changed lives? How do I measure that?

How much, then, are the metrics worth?

What do you think?

Theology Degrees And Spiritual Growth has some interesting articles and videos; I’ve included some here before. But a piece that was highlighted in their daily email the other day bothered me.

The content of the post is fine. A man called Rick Howerton argues that pastors should not assume that because they have a Theology degree they are spiritually mature. Churches seeking new ministers should also not be seduced by that error. Spiritual growth is demonstrated in the fruit of the Spirit and increasing embrace of kingdom ethical standards, amongst other things. Quite right, too.

The problem came with the headline: ‘Are Theology Degrees Keeping Pastors From Spiritual Growth?’ It didn’t seem to me that was quite the thrust of the article. Moreover, a headline like that risked playing into the anti-intellectualism of some popular evangelicalism: “Don’t go to theological college, you’ll lose your faith.” Yes, the issue of pride in one’s academic knowledge must be confronted, but at best I want to argue good theological knowledge can enhance spiritual growth, when detached from pride. When I read a Tom Wright book and his vision stretches me, I end up in worship. Didn’t Jesus call us to worship with ‘heart, soul, mind and strength’?

For me, George Carey put it best. When he interviewed me for a place at Trinity College, Bristol, he told me, “Trinity is not just about information, it is about formation.” I think the two can hold hands. What do you think?

Church Or Prison?

However much you might struggle with church at times, never say church is like prison.

(Via Gavin Richardson.)

Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

It’s a small congregation. Forty members, about twenty-five at Sunday worship. Many are elderly, a significant minority struggle with mental health issues. We can’t cover every necessary job in the church.

One such area is playing music for worship. We can’t find someone to sit on the organ stool every week. Some weeks we have to use CDs of hymn tunes. For convenience, we’ve ripped them on a laptop and one of our members creates a playlist when he knows what songs the preacher has chosen.

Sunday was one of those days. It was harvest festival, and I had picked five well-known harvest hymns. This should be easy, I thought.


Usually there is an organist for my services. Kicking off with the definitely well-known ‘Come, ye thankful people, come’ we soon hit a problem. Our singing was an aural car crash by the end of the second verse, and I don’t mean that I’d forgotten to switch off the radio mic during the hymn. (You wouldn’t want to hear me sing. No, really.) However familiar the hymn was, the congregation was not singing at the same tempo as the recorded organist. They couldn’t hear it well enough in order to do so.

I asked for the volume to be turned up, but that wasn’t possible. We had a clarinettist accompanying the MP3. A real live one. She was altering her tempo to match the congregation, and was able to make her volume a little louder than the recording.

But that risked conflict with the laptop operator. We wouldn’t have had an outbreak of fisticuffs in Christian love – the two people in question are too lovable for that – but you could feel the tension rising.

What was the difference? The real live human musician could adjust to the congregation’s rate of progress. An inaminate recording couldn’t. (Yes, I know you can get software and gadgets that can vary the tempo of music and keep the pitch the same, but we don’t have the riches for swish gizmos.) And that’s the skill of musicians who accompany worship. It’s not a performance: it’s an enabling of the congregation. They may believe a hymn should be sung at a certain rate of knots, but if the worshippers are not up to it, they adjust, in order to achieve the goal of sung praise to our Maker and Lord.

Which in my opinion makes for a parable of church life and leadership. How many of us know how something should be done and at what speed, and won’t adjust for those who are coming along more slowly? If they are coming along and not resisting, why are they a problem? Are the best leaders like the live musicians, who instinctively adjust to the pace of the congregation in order to take them forward?

Yes, conversely, there is a time to urge a congregation forward and get them out of a rut – I don’t deny that. But in our fast-paced always-on culture, we sometimes miss the truth of which Eugene Peterson has often reminded his readers, namely that pastoral work is slow work.

Repeating A Sermon

You may have noticed that in recent weeks there have not been many new sermons on the blog. There has been a variety of reasons:

  • I’ve simply forgotten to post them
  • I’ve repeated old ones.

Last weekend and this weekend, the latter reason applies. Last week, I sat down to write a sermon on a passage I’ve expounded a few times. I struggled all week. Eventually on Saturday I slogged down word after word, having found what I thought was a decent way into the passage. And although by some time gone midnight I had finished it, I was uneasy all day about it. I didn’t have a problem with the content, but it didn’t seem to catch fire. In desperation the next morning, I printed off one of my old sermons on the reading, read it through and scribbled some amendments in the margins. It helped that I was not preaching at one of my two churches, and I felt much happier with it. Certainly it seemed to connect with people.

This week, my feet have hardly touched the ground. It’s harvest festival this weekend; early in the week I looked up suggested Lectionary passages, and settled on one. However, I’ve had no chance for decent, sustained reflection on it. I don’t think it’s right to note down some quick, gut-level scattershot ideas and waffle them into a sermon. I know some people have very quick thinking processes, but one of the things I know about myself is I’m generally a better decision-maker when I take my time. So again, I’m calling up one of my older sermons and amending it for Harvest. I know there are some of you out there who like to read my sermon on Saturday night before Sunday morning worship, even if you’re going to be in the congregation, but I’m sorry, it just hasn’t been possible.

There was a time in my preaching life when I never would have done this. As a young Local Preacher, I once remember my minister saying to me, “When you need to repeat a sermon …”. I told him confidently (well, I thought it was confidently at the time, perhaps it was arrogantly) that I would never do such a thing. I thought that to repeat a sermon was to compromise the prophetic nature of that word to the congregation for whom it had been prepared. That same minister said to me that regular preaching was often more about the ‘eternal’ word rather than the ‘now’ word.

Actually, I think it’s a bit of both. Preaching needs to be rooted in God’s word for all time. Pastorally, this is the food with which the flock is nourished. But it also needs to have an edge for today, for living here and now under the reign of God. So I don’t think there’s any harm in prayerfully taking an old sermon where I have spent time seriously dwelling on the meaning of the Scriptures and retooling it for a new congregation.

I wouldn’t put it like another of my ministers did, when he said he never wrote a new sermon from scratch. He had a good reason: he said that if he couldn’t improve on an old sermon, then there was something wrong with his own growth in Christ. Commendable as that is, I think that’s taking things too far. It assumes you have already covered all the bases, and you just need to find the one that needs finessing this time.

But what do you think? Is it justifiable to repeat a sermon? If so, under what circumstances and in what ways? If not, why?

Over to you.

Back To Church Sunday

Joy of joys, today was Synod. That day when two hundred Methodists sit on their backsides for six hours, listening to a select few speaking from the front. (It’s not quite that bad usually, but it can be like that.)

Today, our Synod had a theme: ‘The Invitational Church’. This was good for two reasons: (1) we focussed on mission; (2) business items were kept to a minimum (although the Spring Synod is usually the monster for bureaucracy).

In particular, we had a guest speaker, Michael Harvey, founder of Back To Church Sunday. I have never encouraged a church to take part in BTCS, because it seems to me it concentrates on getting that ever-smaller band of people, the dechurched, into our congregations, and overlooks that growing group, the unchurched. In fairness, BTCS can tell some success stories, and I shouldn’t be mean about them. My worry is that it plays into the notion of meeting people in our comfort zone.

But Michael Harvey had one vital gem for all of us today, whatever our perspective on mission. He pointed out that churches ‘eat strategies for breakfast’. We can come up with as many strategies as we like, but they will all fail, because the core reason people to not invite others to church (or engage in mission generally, I would argue) is fear. Fear of rejection. Fear of embarrassment. We use other words like ‘anxiety’ or ‘sensitivity’ but really we’re talking about fear. In other words, the key issue for mobilising the church in mission is attention to the inner life of existing Christians.

What do you think?

Inculturating A Doctrine Of The Creator And Creation

Regular commenter Pam has sent me a poem from Australia by William Hart-Smith (1911-90) that is based on an Aboriginal creation story. It speaks of Baiamai, whom Pam says

is usually considered an over-arching creative figure whom missionaries could usefully compare with the god of Genesis.

So this already raises interesting questions about how we communicate our faith in a different culture. This practice, though, has honourable precedent, given the near-certainty that Genesis 1 uses ancient myths, particularly from Babylonia, but then changes the theological message. Here, then, is Hart-Smith’s poem:

Baiamai’s Never-failing Stream

Then he made of the stars, in my mind,
pebbles and clear water running over them,
linking most strangely feelings of im-
measurable remoteness with intimacy,

So that at one and the same time I
not only saw a far white mist of stars
there, far up there, but had my fingers
dabbling among those cold stones.

One thing it certainly does, in terms of classical theology, is it seems to speak of a divine being who is both transcendent and immanent. What do you make of it?

And what do you think about using material from other cultures in the service of the Gospel? Isn’t it what Paul did in Acts 17 at Athens, where he quoted Greek poets favourably? What does this say about other cultures? Does it not lead us more thoroughly into the conviction that ‘All truth is God’s truth’?

Do We Value Prayer?

“Of course we do!” someone may protest at that headline.

But … after one of those manic days yesterday, I just wonder. I was picking music and readings for two services, I had two funerals, Debbie and I visited a mother and her new baby, a hoped-for peaceful lunch time turned into a frantic time of arranging emergency help for someone in dire need, we had to get the children to their annual eye tests, and the sugar fondant coating was Circuit Meeting in the evening. It made me remember those people who value ministers according to their busyness.

How different that is from the concept of being paid a stipend, not a salary, because a stipend is a living allowance that is to free us from want so we can pray. Yes, pray about how we should follow our calling as ministers, but pray.

Oh, we are asked to pray in public worship and include certain individuals in our private prayers, but even that is prayer as achievement, not prayer as waiting or contemplation. The busyness bug even infects what prayer we do practise, or which is approved. Are we really Pelagians at heart, or might we still just about believe in grace?

Engage Worship

Thanks to Krish Kandiah for highlighting this ministry: Engage Worship looks like an interesting resource to help churches with their worship. While some of the articles and resources on their site come from ‘big’ contexts such as Spring Harvest, others are translatable. Take a look at this video that promotes their Count Me In scheme for nurturing participation in worship: