I’ve recently had a new article published in Witness (a USA-based journal). At the moment, it’s only available to members and subscribers, but I am permitted to provide a copy of it here on my blog. I’ve also included the abstract below.
I didn’t expect to go there, but analysing the data from the case study church took me back to my PhD research on contemporary conversion.
The covid-19 global pandemic radically interrupted all areas of life, including forcing churches to adapt their worship, mission, and pastoral care within new constraints of physical distancing. This article explores a case study of how one church communicated the message of faith; connected with, and cared for attenders, the wider community, and others; and experimented with different forms of worship and ministry during covid-19. Drawing on data from a questionnaire, focus groups, interviews, content analysis and participant observation, the article demonstrates the importance of amplifying a message consistent with one’s values, providing opportunities for warm connection, and continuing to make iterative change to ministry practices. Considering this alongside recent research on contemporary conversion, the paper affirms the significance of relational authenticity in engaging in Christian witness, including when the church is forced into unfamiliar and undesired realities. Churches can be encouraged by the potential fruitfulness of multiple voices communicating the significance and meaning of their faith; being honest about life’s challenges; and encouraging and resourcing engagement in spiritual practices as means of Christian witness, including in challenging times.
Taylor, L. M. (2021). “Reaching Out Online: Learning From One Church’s Embrace Of Digital Worship, Ministry And Witness.” Witness: The Journal of the Academy for Evangelism in Theological Education, 35, 1-14.
I don’t know if you experienced and remember the sense of
hope that perhaps the world and the church might be different in the future, because
of the pandemic. Maybe we’ll discover ways to live without trashing the planet.
Maybe we’ll find new ways of being the church in our local communities. Maybe
we’ll live into new ways of caring for one another. Maybe there are things that
we learn and do that might become part of our future, rather than just being
One person I interviewed described it like this: “What might
be normal going forward might be different, but we get to build that. We get to
decide what that is.” There was a sense of determined anticipation that the future
could be different, and we could be involved in shaping that.
At the same time, there was some resignation by then (March 2021) that much had returned to an old normal. That many church members simply wanted a return to what was, rather than a turn to what could be. That’s not surprising: a return to familiarity can be comfortable and comforting.
But let’s be honest. The Church is in decline and the things that have been done over past generations are not all that will be required into the future. So dream a little dream! (Or a big dream, even.) Imagine what could be. Look back in your journal on your computer and see what new and fresh things sparked a sense of joy and anticipation. What old or ancient practices were reinstated? What new things grew? As I write this, we’re still in Alert Level 4, here in Aotearoa New Zealand. None of us want to be here. So read this in the light of the previous nine things I also wanted to say.
Look back and draw on past strength; and live into and out
of your values. Those things will help sustain you. Lean into God, in whom our
hope and strength are found. Name the challenge: it’s hard, right? Prioritise connection
and invite participation. Be “good enough”: perfection not required; perfection
not possible. Invite people (online) into your place, even if it’s a bit messy
or muddly. Keep an eye out for God at work. Get people involved, reaching out
to others. And, strengthened and empowered by all that, dream a little dream of
what might be.
There are many things that are crucial to our wellbeing as
humans. In addition to our more obvious physical needs, some scholars talk in terms
of three inherent needs: autonomy, belonging and competency. Needless to say, pandemics
impact negatively on all three! Competency relates to a sense of purpose and
mastery – having something important to do and knowing that you do it well.
Belonging relates to a sense of connection and attachment to others: more
difficult to achieve when physical distancing is mandated, and travel
restricted or prohibited. Autonomy relates to a sense of being in control,
which is obviously diminished by uncertainty around lockdowns and the wider ongoing
One way that all three can be enhanced in covid times is through the simple act of reaching out to others. In the context of the church, this can be approached informally as everyone is encouraged to care for their friends and whanau. It can be approached formally through creating pastoral care structures that ensure each person is linked to others in the church; each caring and being cared for. Or there might be an approach somewhere in the middle, where informal care is encouraged, and those with particular needs matched with someone who can check in on them. However it happens, it’s good to celebrate its significance!
Autonomy is enhanced as the caregiver makes the effort to
offer care: as they decide for themselves to act in a way that is caring towards
another. This can give them some sense of having control over their actions.
Belonging is enhanced as relationships deepen, and the caregiver sees what they
are doing as making an important contribution to the church community. Competency
is enhanced as the carer regains a sense of purpose: they are doing something
that is important and is valued.
We often see such actions in terms of the benefits for the recipients
of that care, but in reality, they also benefit the one doing the caring. There’s
reciprocity here – the benefits go both ways.
Therefore, ministers can be encouraged to name and celebrate
the importance and significance of caring beyond one’s own bubble. Of taking
the time and making the effort to reach out to others. Sounds like a win-win to
(Of course, we need to ensure that there are clear ways that
people can escalate any concerns that they may have about those they are reaching
out to. In this way, appropriate pastoral, spiritual and practical care can be
offered to those who need it.)
I’ve just sent someone an article that I wrote a number of years ago about older people in the church.
It encourages taking a holistic approach to what it means to be human; looks at the sorts of resourcing a local church can provide to older people; affirms the need for places of connection; and recognises the need for all people to have ways that they can offer themselves and their gifts for a wider purpose.
Interested? You can download it here (It should go directly to your downloads – if you have any difficulty, flick me an email :))
Today (26 February) marks twelve months since the first person suffering from covid-19 arrived in New Zealand. As I re-read the media release from the 28 February 2020 (the date the case was confirmed), I was struck again by how well New Zealand has, from the outset, handled this pandemic.
This time last year,
isolation was already possible and required: a negative pressure room in the
hospital was used for the patient: a woman in her 60s, and her family members
were placed in isolation. Contact tracing was underway and close contacts were being
tested. The messaging from the Ministry of Health was reassuring; from the headline,
notifying of a “single case” to the final sentence advertising the free 24/7 covid-19
Healthline number. Medical staff were using protective equipment, and district health
boards across the country had “been preparing” for this.
In addition, however,
the “high degree of uncertainty” was noted: this was a “rapidly evolving” situation.
It was uncharted territory. While there were principles, protocols and plans to
draw on, the actual path was unknown.
The need to work
together as a team was named and affirmed: “Keeping individuals, families and
our communities safe and healthy in the current global environment requires a
team effort and that’s what we’re seeing across New Zealand.”
Of course, none of
these systems were perfect. All required (and continue to require) iterative
change as more is known about the disease, as case numbers rose, as things began
to return to a new sort of normal, and as cases continue to crop up.
Twelve months on, it is appropriate to pause and be glad of how we’ve traveled this past year. It’s also appropriate to pause and remember the 2369 people in New Zealand who have suffered from covid-19, and the 26 people who have died, along with their friends and families who continue to mourn their loss. It is appropriate to think of all those who have worked so hard to help us as a nation to come through as well as we have.
This twelve-month marker is a good opportunity to look back over
the past year and see what we have learnt and can be learning. I’m sure I’m not
alone in doing so! Many will be considering this remarkable period from various
perspectives. Me, I’m thinking primarily about how churches responded to the
As I have been trawling church websites, and listening to church
leaders, to church services and to international discussions over the past year,
my particular question has been around how churches are working to support human
wellbeing. How have they engaged in pastoral care? In what ways have they been
involved in their wider communities? What has been the shape of worship, when
gathering in person was not possible. What
changes that were made during lockdown have been retained once restrictions have
been lifted? I’m curious about what has changed and what motivated those
changes, what has remained the same or returned to normal, and what the future
might look like. I have the privilege of 5 months set aside to focus primarily
on these questions.
To date, I have primarily explored the worship services
offered during lockdowns and afterwards. In writing this, I am drawing on
analysis of those services, and the data from an online questionnaire completed
by nearly 100 church leaders in New Zealand and Australia. It is early days in
terms of my analysis and writing, but here are some things that I have observed
so far. (I’ve opted not to point to the wider literature here.)
Some churches were ready to go online, some were not, but
generally they “went” regardless.
Many online services on the 29th of
March began with words along the lines of “this is not as anyone would have expected.”
Watching the earliest services, one gets a sense of the leaders’ discomfort at
being on screen; their shock at the unfolding situation; hope, trust and eager anticipation
that they could still be the church despite distance; and a strong desire to do
their very best, while aware that today’s best had room for improvement.
Some churches were able to build on existing
innovations. For instance, one was already live streaming their services, but realised
that there was much more that they could be doing with the technology.
That leader also perceived that they had also been
prepared spiritually, noting that during 2019 they had explored the theme of
exile, considering how they would remain connected to God in the midst of great
There were various reasons why some churches did
not offer online services. Some did not have the technology or skills required
to do so. Others reported that their congregations did not want to meet online.
Some had members without internet access, or without the knowledge or ability to
access online services. In some cases, that was perceived to be true of all
members. One leader reported that their leadership, “wanted our ‘scattered’
worship to be accessible to all members, including the 25% who did not have
internet access and were probably the most vulnerable and isolated group” and
so they instead provided printed worship resources via email or into
letterboxes. Another leader reported, “We
decided to let each person go to God for guidance.”
Churches and church leaders made iterative changes to their ministries
as the weeks passed: for example, improving or streamlining the way that they
offered their online worship and offering new online gatherings, and regular reflections
or prayer times.
One church leader was initially concerned about privacy
(and they noted, laughing, “not sure how it was going to go”) and on the first
week recorded selected reflections from their sermon, rather than the full Zoom
service. In subsequent weeks, they recorded the entire service, and protected the
privacy of other participants by being the only face on screen.
Other churches sought to increase ways that
people could participate: “We eventually got the technology together to allow
people to be involved.”
Finding ways to participate was frequently seen by leaders
as important, indeed a priority. Many approaches were taken.
Prayer needs were shared in the chat or comment
Responsive prayers were led by families in their
homes, allowing multiple faces and voices to be heard and seen
Digital prayer and praise walls were created
Photos of regular attenders were shown before or
during the service
One leader reported: “Well we’ve just had our
zoom church service we did it live there were people there with their mics on
and so the responses had other voices; the prayers had other voices the
readings, and even the singing, and it was fabulous.”
Some leaders reported that meeting online
increased participation – more people were involved than would have been in
previous in-person worship.
One noted the “most common comment they received
weekly [was an appreciation that] they were able to see the service and
Covid-19 offered a unique context of solidarity in that ministers,
worship leaders and preachers were in the same situation as their
congregations. They were preaching and speaking into their own challenging
reality as much as they were speaking to others. As they did so, there was
evidence that they offered preaching and worship that was both centred on God, and
designed to bring hope, courage and peace to the listener.
For churches that drew on them, the lectionary texts
provided a ready means for this to occur. On March 29, for example, the Old
Testament text from Ezekiel 37:1-14 provided a rich metaphor of wilderness days,
disorientation, a “dusty sense of hopelessness” and a longing to return to love
and to God and to how things should be. The need for a new orientation was
noted, along with a realisation that the new normal to which we might return
will hopefully be different from the way that way things have been in the past.
In this, we see also how the language of change was used
positively: covid-19 was causing a pivot that was welcomed by many, from churches
of various denominations and sizes.
One leader noted that this was a time of “societal
disorientation” and spoke of the need to trust that a time of “new orientation”
will come. They paraphrased journalist, Rod Oram, as saying of the airline
industry: “They won’t fight the tide. The airline business will come back, but
it won’t be the same.” The underlying message here seemed to be that the same
was true of the Church: it will return, but it can be (or, perhaps, needs to be)
One church, already offering online services
before covid-19, seized the opportunity to improve their systems and platforms.
Another noted their hope that the church and
nation would “find new and different ways of being church and of being community
and of being country.”
Ministers worked hard to ensure their congregations’ pastoral,
practical and spiritual needs were met: one part time leader reported that they
“worked at least twice the amount of usual and is pretty tired.” Many sought to
reassure their congregation that they were not alone. In many congregations,
pastoral care was shared as new networks including prayer and care chains were established
or revitalised. One noted, “the world was flooded with messages of uncertainty
and turmoil, so it was important for us to bring reassurance to as many people
as possible regardless of their recent connection or disconnection to God and
church.” In some cases, such as this, care extended beyond the church, including
as community ministries were adapted, and new initiatives established.
Technology was embraced and initiatives such as daily devotions
or chats offered online during lockdown. Small groups met over Zoom for social
and spiritual purposes. The potential reach was far beyond the church’s usual geographical
bounds, extending internationally in some cases
Some churches returned to old practices and forms as quickly
as they were permitted to (or earlier), which others embraced the ongoing
changes and continue to adapt and innovate.
Evident in the media release reporting the first case were preparedness;
words of reassurance; a naming of the need for values of communality and solidarity
to be at the fore; recognition that this was an unfolding situation and that there
was ongoing need for iterative change. To greater and lesser extents, these same
characteristics are present in the data on how churches responded to COVID-19.
While no one, pre- covid-19 would have expected there would
be an immediate move to online church services, there was still some sense of spiritual
and practical preparedness in the data from churches and ministers. This was evident
in the speed with which churches were able to begin offering online worship and
ministry, however messily, and in the way that they were able to draw on past
spiritual and practical resources. It was, arguably, also evident in the appropriateness
of the lectionary text, drawn on by churches all over the world, on what was (for
most nations) the first week when services could not be held in person.
Reassurance abounded: both in words spoken in sermons and
worship and in faithful online presence. It was a reassurance that found
expression in communal life and in solidarity.
While churches can seem allergic to change, the covid-19 lockdowns
demonstrated that many (perhaps most) can change, and quickly when the
situation requires it. Many churches continued to adapt their practices, and
some continue to do so. Perhaps covid-19 has also demonstrated to the church
that we don’t need to be certain that the changes made will be perfect: rather
iterative improvements and adaptations can be made.
There is much more that could be said! Watch this space and
keep up via
Practical Theology is critical, theological reflection on the practices of the Church as they interact with the practices of the world, with a view to ensuring and enabling faithful participation in God’s redemptive practices in, to and for the world.
Working with this definition, we examined how churches prayed in gathered worship on the Sunday after the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings. What were the practices of the church at that time? How did they faithfully participate in God’s redemptive practices?
Some 153 churches responded to our paper. In this paper we analyse this data with a focus on healing.
A feature of the way churches prayed was their use of the Psalms, particularly psalms of lament. There was also evidence of other responses that were psalm-like, even if they did not draw overtly on the Psalms.
Following Ellen Davis (Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Lanham, MD: Rowmand and Littlefield, 2001), we argue that this use of the Psalms and psalm like actions was a move towards healing. It was a first step which was a truth telling through an uncovering of the wounds.
Churches named (uncovered) multiple wounds.
One was the wounds experienced by primary victims and their families. Another was a wound to Aotearoa’s self-perception as a nation. A third wound was that of a culpability, recognising the potential for evil in all of us.
In the data we saw a lived theology that named wounds as a first step in journeys of healing and was part of a multiple commitments to remember, find compassion and express solidarity.
Abstract proposal in response to a call for papers on spirituality and mental health:
FOUR WALLS, FOUR DOMAINS AND FIVE WAYS:
EXPLORING TRANSCENDENCE AND WAIRUA IN MENTAL HEALTH AND WELLBEING
Despite the significance and acceptance of Mason Durie’s “Te Whare Tapa Whā” model of health, the Mental Health Foundation’s “Five ways to wellbeing” material contains no explicit reference to spirituality/wairua, thus seemingly neglecting taha wairua. While some note potential connections, further exploration and nuancing in relation to the place of spirituality in the “Five ways” is required.
Fisher, Francis and Johnson’s “Spiritual Health via Four Domains of Spiritual Wellbeing” (SH4DI) model helpfully extends spirituality beyond an emphasis on the divine as the object of one’s spiritual focus. Alongside God, their model names self, community and environment as domains of spiritual wellbeing. A weakness of the SH4DI, however, is its potential to limit transcendence to one aspect of spirituality (relationship with God or Transcendent Other), rather than considering how transcendence relates to each of those domains.
This paper places “Te Whare Tapa Whā”, the SH4DI and “Five ways to wellbeing” in conversation. It considers how transcendence may be experienced in each of Fisher et al’s areas of spiritual wellbeing and focus (personal meaning, interpersonal connection, environmental concern/appreciation, and “religion”). This approach is then applied to the Mental Health Foundation’s “Five ways to wellbeing”, exploring how each might relate to transcendence. The paper concludes by returning to wairua, making explicit the potential relationship between each of the “Five ways” and spirituality.
It was great to explore how we might adopt embodied, multisensory spiritual practices that help build towards faith and faithfulness… Drawing on Jesus’ “I am …” statements in John.
(Favourite feedback comment: “Thank you. That was delicious.”)
Here’s my abstract.
It is well recognised that engaging in spiritual practices can work to form people spiritually. Spiritual practices help to facilitate an awareness of God, providing a means by which to come to know God, oneself and the world. Recent scholarship also points to the specific importance of embodied spiritual practices: practices that are attentive to, or engage, the whole person.
This paper takes a multisensory approach to spiritual formation, seeking to develop embodied communal spiritual practices that draw on Jesus’ “I am” statements in John. Brief exegesis on selected statements is followed by a suggestion (and experience) of an embodied (and sensory) liturgical or spiritual practice that aims to spiritually grow the participant by embedding significance and meaning.
This endeavour has two key points of significance for missional theology. First, the increasing interest and involvement in spiritual practices by those outside the church presents Christians with both challenge and opportunity. Many people are interested in their spiritual growth. The church ought not to abdicate this opportunity to non-Christ-centred expressions of spirituality. Secondly, and relatedly, Christian spiritual practices have been shown not just to develop existing Christian faith, but also to help form faith where there was previously none. Therefore, spiritual practices that are connective for those who would not call themselves Christian can help to build an openness to God and God’s activity in their lives.
It was great to present yesterday at Otago Theology’s Trajectories conference.
My paper explored the following (at pace, and with an engaged group of participants):
See-Judge-Act scripture reading: what does a model born in Europe and fruitful in Latin America and Africa have to offer Aotearoa?
The See-Judge-Act process of reading Scripture together in a small group originated in the European Catholic worker-priest movement in the 1930s and 1940s. This model of scripture engagement later thrived in the Latin American context, amongst people dissatisfied with Western biblical scholarship and its lack of emphasis on the poor and oppressed. It has also been fruitfully employed in African nations. The author adapted See-Judge-Act for use in a university student congregation in Dunedin.
As a bible study model, See-Judge-Act offers a way of both inviting reflection on one’s context and experiences in the light of scripture, and of encouraging action towards transformation. This means of exploring the scriptures brings the lived experiences of the participants into conversation with the context that the group finds itself in, as well as with the actual text of the bible passage.
This paper explores the origins and potential of this bible study model, outlining its significance in various contexts. It then invites participants to briefly experience See-Judge-Act: following a process of sharing stories of the week past, reading a selected passage, reflecting on standardised questions about the text, and moving to consider the implications of the text for life. Once experienced, we discuss the strengths and weaknesses of See-Judge-Act before concluding by exploring its potential value for churches in Aotearoa New Zealand.