08 August 2020

What Kerry Packer could teach the Post-Covid Pastor

Back in the late 1970s world cricket was in a crisis. Kerry Packer and John Cornell launched a rebel competition bypassing the conservative “old boys” at the Australian Cricket Board. The Cricketing establishment around the world saw this as an abandonment of orthodoxy and a corruption of the grand old game. But many of the players welcomed being finally treated and remunerated as professional athletes by Kerry and his deep pockets. This was to be more than cricket on TV, it was a whole new vision of the old game. It was to be played in limited overs over one day and under lights at night. The red ball was white and the white clothes were coloured. And the whole show would be screened on Prime-time TV, with multi camera technology, microphones in the pitch, catchy jingles and lots of advertising dollars to pay for it all.

More than a crisis, it was a revolution which, by the turn of the decade, had proven to be a huge success for the whole game. Many feared it would be the end of Test Cricket but in the end Test Cricket benefited from the game’s newfound popularity. And 30 years later a similar evolution in the game took place with the advent of T20 cricket. Again, the game was reimagined for a new generation of fans and players. And again, its success enhanced all formats of the game. Packer and Cornell recognised that if cricket was to have a future, it would need to retain its players and reach a new generation. The establishment had to be challenged and the game itself had to adapt.

The same applies to the Church emerging into what will eventually be a post-Covid age. For many churchgoers, the pandemic feels like an intrusion in the regular programming of their church life. A disruption that we all must endure, then return to the way things were. But I think it’s much more than a disruption, it is reset.

For the church as an entity, many of its symbols have suddenly lost their relevance. How so? Typically, ‘church’ is synonymous with going to a building on a Sunday, to hear a sermon, sing some songs and socialise with your friends. Of course, it’s more than that, but many unspoken measures of success relate to just this image. How big is the crowd on a Sunday? How modern is the facility? Is the preaching good, is the music uplifting and afterward, is the coffee half decent? And yet those metrics don’t really apply now.

Pre-Covid, churches for the most part shared 5 attributes:
· Site centric – Church was a location on a map. Now our physical location has become almost inconsequential.
· Sunday centric – Church was a Sunday event you attended. Our major gatherings are now “non-essential” activities replaced with home gatherings and screens throughout the week.
· Sermon centric - The focal point of a gathering was the pastor/priest’s sermon to those in attendance. Now our primary method of communication and teaching is digital, people can mute you or just turn you off altogether. Or, watch any preacher they like, anytime they like.
· Song centric – The ministry of worship was dominated by musicians leading people in song. We cannot sing, our worship teams have no live audience and it is not nearly the same watching worship on YouTube.
· Social centric - The foyer was the place of face to face connection, caring and sharing a sense of community. Now we’ve embraced social distancing over social gathering. The foyer is no place to linger and any attempts at gathering involve complex Covid rules.

These ingrained norms have been deconstructed in the space of just a few months. But gradually, we are realising that we are more than sites, services, songs and sermons. We may even be discovering that these 5 ‘centrics’ have dominated our vision of church at the expense of our greatest commission.

What I mean is that we church leaders have always invested a disproportionately high level of staff and volunteer time into the internal workings of a Sunday because we love Sundays and they've been 'core business' in church world for a very long time. We’d gladly grow our carpark teams, greeter teams, cleaning teams, set up teams, kids ministry teams, catering teams, worship teams, tech teams, preachers and service coordinators – and be fine with them all investing hundreds of volunteer hours every Sunday, 52 times a year. Why? Because Sundays matter for a whole host of reasons (including making pastors feel like they are successfully doing their jobs). But every hour invested in one area is an hour not invested in another. If a church has hypothetically 100 hours per week of human effort available to spend any way they like, how they deploy those hours reveals their priorities and values.

So, if a church has a mission focused on some aspect of making disciples (which most do) and they invest 80% of their staff and volunteer energies into some aspect of delivering Sunday services (which most do) – that church is making a clear statement about what they believe to be the best approach to making disciples. My point is not to say that Sundays don’t matter, they absolutely do. But thanks to Covid, Sunday is not king anymore and we need to ask whether our old investment strategy pre-Covid should return post-Covid. And while we are at it, to reassess whether our mission statement is supported or undermined by our choices around how we mobilise our people and resources.

All this to say, maybe this Covid period has offered the post-Covid church a World Series Cricket moment in which to challenge old paradigms and imagine new ones that better enable us to be disciples, make disciples and be known in the world for something more than Sundays. Perhaps now a more honest form of discipleship will then emerge as we shift from:

· an organised event to an integrated life
· clergy centric to relationship centric
· Sunday centric to daily centric
· celebrating attendance to celebrating engagement
· learning by theory to learning with practice
· ‘come and feed me’ to ‘go and serve them’
· a single sermon to whole of life resourcing
· consumer driven to personal ownership

The first few matches of world series cricket in the summer of 1977 attracted tiny crowds and Packer was bleeding money at a rate that would have sunk him within months. The old guard said “Why fix what isn’t broken?” And no doubt many even in my own church will think I’ve gone mad trying to fix something they don’t think is broken. Eventually Packer was vindicated and the winner was Cricket. I hope the same is true for the Church and Christianity.

And just for the record, I am looking forward to gathering as a whole church again, to shake a hand, to worship in song and be aligned around the word of God.... and to drink some reasonably good coffee. But before we rush back to what was, we’ve gotta seriously consider what might be, and not assume that everything familiar looks the same in our post-Covid future.