I have been struck by just how many of us, and how quickly at that, we have poured our time and energy into online content. Now, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with doing stuff online. Clearly I don’t think that – our church has been doing it too! Lots of other churches have been live streaming to serve folks who, otherwise, would receive no specific spiritual input from their churches for months on end. Beyond the streaming, we have created various bit of online content – testimonies and answers to big questions – that we have used as a mean of engaging people locally. And, to be frank, it has been quite successful as far as these things go.
But I do have a question. It is this: how much of our online content has really been considered and thought through – its intent, scope and benefit – and how much of it has really been a question of wanting to look (or feel) busy, active and evidence how vital our ministry happens to be?
I am, for example, very grateful for conferences and conventions and whatnot. I think they can be great and a wonderful thing to tap into. I’ve been to a few over the years and my family enjoy them now. I was even due to be at one with my family this year until the pandemic struck and it was no longer viable. So, don’t hear anything that follows as me having a go at these things in general. I think they are fine things to tap into, enjoy and benefit from. But I have been struck by just how many folks have insisted on the need to save these ‘vital ministries’. Much as I am grateful for them, I can’t help thinking they are not all that vital. Nice, for sure. Helpful, maybe. But vital? Get away!
Some of these big conferences had a real opportunity this year particularly to support the local church. Many pastors and church leaders already feel inadequate compared to the ‘big name’ speakers pulled into these things. Many church members have no problem whatsoever comparing their own church leaders to the well-known great and good of the conference speaking circuit. Others are quite content to tell their church leaders that, without the conferences and conventions, they would be spiritually bereft. What a boost those comments must be for those preaching and praying for them each week.
None of that is to say it’s wrong to listen to those well known guys nor that it is somehow their fault that people know who they are. Neither is it a problem that they are good at what they do (how dare they be!) But there was a real opportunity to support and encourage the local church this year in particular.
Whether it is ever helpful to showcase your ‘world class speakers’ and advertise them as such, this year of all years, nobody could actually gather to hear them. It was a real opportunity to point people away from the conferences – given we are in the midst of a global pandemic – and point out that the mass assembly of strangers is not only no substitute for your local church, it is not an essential ministry at all. That’s not an admission that they are pointless or valueless. Just a clear statement that they are not vital and, similarly, a message to local churches that they are what scripture would consider essential ministry.
Sadly, many wanted to rally round to support what was touted as ‘vital ministry’. But the vital ministry that was deemed essential to save was not the struggling local churches, but the conferences. I appreciate that those who have benefited from these things over the years will have a fondness for them and a desire to save them. But I can’t help but think the cash and man-power swilling around many of them is astronomical and speaks to what many Christians really value. Many local churches struggle to keep their heads above water whilst seeking to reach their local communities with the gospel and disciple them to maturity in Christ. But it was the conferences and conventions that many felt it was vital to save. We have so many conferences and the like, but helpful and nice as they may be, perhaps allowing some of them to go to the wall wouldn’t necessarily be the worst thing. It would free up resources for the local church and would send a strong message about which ministry, exactly, is vital.
Which brings me back to my question. Not only were many of these things saved, but vast amounts of time and effort went into moving things online. This isn’t only true of conferences, it seemed to be the case for almost everybody. But it didn’t always feel we were asking why this stuff should go up. Nor did it always seem we were questioning whether it would be valuable, exactly who was likely to watch it and what we were hoping to achieve through it. The ministry must continue, it seemed, even when the ministry couldn’t really go ahead. Let’s just get stuff online. Something is better than nothing, appears to be the line.
There may be some benefits to putting stuff online. We, for example, did produce content and used facebook advertising to maximise its value. But we had specific goals in mind and particular outcomes that we were hoping to achieve. These things appear to have attained to those things. But it often feels like we are just putting stuff up so that we can justify the importance of our particular ministry. That we can’t do it isn’t just seen as unfortunate, it is deemed catastrophic. Our ministry must continue. And if we can’t do it in its normal form, then we must do it online because nobody could cope without it. It is, we say in effect, vital.
Perhaps that same thinking lies behind our tendency to always want to be busy. Not only must our ministry be seen as vital, we must be seen as vital too. This ministry is essential and so I am essential. If a coronavirus will stop my ministry altogether, I must find ways and means of making it continue so that I am seen to be as vital as I need others to think I, and my ministry, really are. Therefore, the show must go on. The ministry must go online. It is vital and so I am vital.
But of course, neither I nor my ministry are vital. The Lord got on perfectly well before either me, my local church, my ministry, any conference I have ever attended or any convention I have been present at came to be. I am not the saviour of the church. My worth is not to be tied up in the vitalness or otherwise of my ministry. Jesus is the church’s only saviour and our worth should be bound up solely in him.
But if we value Christ, and love him as we ought, we will also value the things he values. We will, if we are growing in maturity, love the things he loves. And Jesus loves the church. He has ordained and set in place local churches. He has given us instructions for how we should function as local churches. He has given local churches great authority in the kingdom. The only ministry vehicle Jesus has ordained in scripture is the local church. Some are sent by the local church to go and share the gospel where there is no local church so that local disciples might be made who will then start a local church. The church is Jesus’ plan A and he has no plan B.
Conferences and conventions, helpful and valuable as they may be, were not ordained by Jesus and his apostles. I don’t suppose they have any problem with them in principle. The Lord has done some great things through them too. But it is a stretch for us to call them vital. And even if we don’t say it with our mouths, where we put our money, plough our resources, insist on taking online and even ask people to give so that these ministries might be saved all says we see them as more essential than Jesus does.
We had a real opportunity this year to mourn the unfortunate reality that some of these things couldn’t go ahead but to show world that the local church is God’s essential ministry. We had an opportunity to show that, though these other things are helpful and good, they are not as vital as the local church. I fear we let that opportunity slip through our fingers and, worse, perhaps evidence that many of us aren’t really convinced that is true at all.