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Reflections on #CNMAC11 – number two

As Christians, we are both familiar and comfortable with the imagery of the flock. A flock is a gathering of vulnerable creatures in need of succour and protection from a shepherd. We can trace this image for God’s people way back into the Old Testament, to people like David, Ezekiel and Isaiah.

A herd is a rather different image – a group of wilful beasts controlled by its dominant members. The herd doesn’t get much of an airing in biblical imagery, and we would probably be uncomfortable with its implications of male dominance.

A swarm is a different thing altogether. A swarm may consist of thousands of members, all moving together with astonishing dexterity and beauty. You have only to watch the short video of starlings  exhibiting this kind of behaviour below to see this. For generations the swarm was a mystery to scientists – how could it move as a single unit with no obvious means of co-ordination? To try and understand it, Craig Reynolds built a computer simulation programme called  Boids in 1986. Each element in the swarm was given 3 steering behaviours: separation, alignment and cohesion. Gradually scientists began to imitate the behaviour of the swarm – though fully understanding it is a way off yet.

I mention this because when @JamesPoulter was talking at CNMAC11 about the power of social media for change, I couldn’t help thinking that this was closer to swarming behaviour than it was to flocking or herding. The swarm he was describing was united neither by creed, ethnicity nor even by a single cause – and yet they moved together. How does such a concept fit with our ideas of church, I wonder?

The more I think about it, the more I feel that individual Christians behave in different ways acording to circimstance.

In the Kingdom of God we behave as if in a flock – looking to the shepherd of our souls to nurture us and keep us from danger.

In the church – we occasionally behave as if in a herd, conceding dominance to the noisy ones, whether in official leadership or not.

In the digital church, out there in webland, I wonder whether we behave more like a swarm when the right (or wrong) issue unnerves us?

Comments welcome

Flemish artist shows you how

If the church in the image above doesn’t look quite right – its because its not. Constructed next to a cycle track in Belgium, using 30 tons of steel and 2000 columns it is an outdoor artwork commissioned by the contemporary art museum in Hasselt. Though it has a certain ethereal beauty to it – there is neither room nor comfort to use it as a worshipping space.  The artist, inspired by the shape of the (largely vacant) churches around about him, describes it as ‘the traditional church transformed into a transparent object of art’.

Seven years ago the church where I work was transformed by chopping out the middle and creating a two-storey high glass atrium. (You can see a picture here)  The effect of this transparency on the local community has been magnetic- and I’m pleased to say that the building is nearly always busy.

In the speeded-up film below,you will see Van Varenbergh’s construction come together in a matter of seconds. Of course it really took much longer than that.  Constructing a properly transparent church at the heart of the community takes even longer – but it is definitely worth it.

I think this video really needs a soundtrack – any suggestions?

Preaching and the second screen

Research published yesterday by in the UK by Digital Clarity, confirms what many have believed for some time about trends in TV viewing habits. Amongst the under-25s ‘social TV’ is on the increase, where people watching TV are simultaneously communicating with their friends via a second screen on Twitter or Facebook. 80% of those surveyed said that they used a second screen, with 72% of them using Twitter.  This transforms TV  viewing from a passive to an active experience, and allows those who are geographically separated to watch TV ‘together’.  Reggie James, founder of Digital Clarity, commented ‘Social TV has changed this completely by turning programmes into online events where you have to watch them as they happen’. Instead of passively absorbing the content of a TV programme, people are discussing it, laughing about it, and even suggesting the way it should go.

A trend which I have started to notice in the past month or two is people tweeting live on a Sunday from the sermon they are hearing. They are not doing it in vast numbers, and it doesn’t happen every week, but the hashtag #sermon or #sundaysermon is becoming a familiar sight on my Twitter feed. I find myself slightly torn over this.  On the one hand, as described in my post on circular preaching, I welcome anything which turns preaching into a more interactive experience. People tweeting about it means that they are engaging more of their brain with the process of listening, which has to be good. On the other hand, the sight of people looking down at their phones whilst I am preaching, as if uninterested, could be distinctly unnerving. Also, does it mean that they are thinking more about how they can translate the message into 140 characters than how they can translate it into their character? I would love to know what others think about this.

Some of you may remember the sequence in Life of Brian where a group of people at the back of the crowd listening to the Sermon on the Mount all mishear Christ’s words differently. Perhaps today it might look something like this:

Delving into the archives

After a lively and broad-ranging discussion on buses, advertising et al, it seemed like a good moment today for a commercial break. Back in the days before Building Societies were banks and ‘bank’ became a dirty word, the advert below was often to be seen on our television screens. There is a kind of simple charm to it, brought about by everything from the vintage Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young soundtrack to the theatrical ‘staging’. Not only that, but there’s something about it that wouldn’t be a bad advert for the collaborative venture which we call church, too.

Digital input & 360 degree preaching

Some of you may feel that you are all too familiar with circular preaching – it goes round and round like an angry bee trapped under a jam jar, until at last it wears itself out. Thankfully, that it not what I am describing here. Rather, following on from a highly creative conversation with@kimtownsend and @watfordgap, I want to develop my ideas of digital fellowship a little further. It might run something like this:

  • Tuesday – the preacher lets people know via social media what she or he is working on for the coming Sunday’s sermon. Insights on the particular topic are welcomed, and also suggestions for the music and worship.
  • Thursday – as a result of all this, a sermon shape is beginning to emerge, and a related prayer request goes out, together with a request for clarification on an elusive illustration or two.
  • Saturday – an outline of the sermon is posted online, accessible to those who prayed and contributed at a distance, as well as those who will hear it the following day
  • Sunday – the sermon is preached, and the podcast is made available online, as outlined before.
  • Monday – a blog post outlining the sermon and questions raised by it is posted by someone who heard the sermon, rather than the person who preached it.
  • Wednesday – questions arising from the sermon, and from Monday’s post, are fed into the church’s homegroups for further discussion

For preachers who are prima donnas, and who enjoy the mystique surrounding the pulpit, this is all profoundly threatening – since there are stages of this process over which they may have little control. Furthermore, it disenfranchises those members of the church who have neither the facility nor the inclination to engage in social media. Not only that, but we must guard against exchanging the messy business of real fellowship for its cleaner digital alternative. In real fellowship I must sit alongside people whose views offend me and whose problems make demands on me. Through the abrasion of our different personalities the likeness of Christ is fashioned in both of us. In digital fellowship I always have the ‘off’ switch which enables me to opt out.

Consider, though, the benefits. I am a great believer in the place of the sermon as traditionally understood. God has hard-wired us so that we are captivated and moved by human speech. That said, every pedagogical expert from Twickenham to Timbuktu  will tell you that we retain things better when we engage with them. When we handle theological truths rather than simply being shown them from a distant pulpit, we begin to internalise them and graft them onto our very souls. Discussion of a sermon before and after in the way described above can only be good for preacher and people, surely?

There are risks associated with the approach outlined above, and we should not embark upon it lightly. However, the benefits might just outweigh them.

What do you think?




…and missing the door

I have written before on here about my uneasy relationship with navigation, and shown German artist Gavin Nolte’s views on the dangers of sat navs.  I can only speculate about what Nolte would say regarding yesterday’s story of pensioners Hilda and Eric Davies. They were apparently concentrating so hard on their sat nav’s three-dimensional display of the route to Oberallgau’s historic church that they smashed straight into it.  There is now a car-shaped hole in the church’s wall, and extensive interior damage.Newspapers around the world, from Austria to India, Croatia to Florida, have picked up on the story and accompanied it with dubious headlines about ‘the road to heaven’.

Some years ago we had a couple arrive late here for a service, as their sat nav had sent them to Teddington Methodist Church instead of Teddington Baptist church.  I suppose we can’t really expect such a device to be sensitive to the niceties of denominational differences!

What has struck me most about the coverage of this story, though, is the lack of rancour. Neither the local police in Oberallgau nor the priest in charge of the church have been quoted as saying anything beyond that this was an unfortunate accident and that they were concerned for the couple’s well-being. How refreshing!  Years ago I  worked in a church where there was still a yellowing notice in the church hall declaring that “ball games should not be played – by order of the Deacon’s Court”.  Once in a while it was knocked down by a low-flying football, but always replaced for old-time’s sake!

Church buildings are a blessed and sacred resource, but we should be careful not to over-emphasise their importance.

Image of Oberallgau:

What goes on inside?

Years ago I remember sitting in the congregation at a student mission hearing the speaker explaining the necessity of faith to salvation. He talked about how you just had to take certain things on trust, and how other things would only make sense after ‘making the leap’ to faith.  He was right, of course, but somehow he just wasn’t capturing it for me.

A couple of years later, when I  found myself ‘on the other side of the pulpit’, so to speak, I was casting round for a means to explain exactly that same truth. The previous occupants of our house had left behind them a roll of stained-glass cellophane – presumably an old Christmas decoration. Many times since then I have used it as an illustration of faith – noting how a stained glass window looks like nothing from the outside of an unlit church, but it is only when you go inside and see the light streaming through that it is transformed. The step of faith, in through the church door, makes all the difference.

Just a few moments ago Kore.UK drew my attention to American artist Tom Fruin’s installation, Kolonihavehus,  outside the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen. Isn’t it wonderful?


Apart from its startling beauty, two things strike me about the picture. The first is that the light is being generated inside the house. I wonder whether the same could be said of the church? The second is that in the photo above the church in the background is completely eclipsed by Fruin’s little house. It looks dull, angular, and somewhat intimidating by comparison.


Richard Littledale

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