Church culture, Life, Mental Health, Uncategorized

“Church” – it’s an intimidating place to go to for the first time, you know?

So there I was on the street corner. Looking around I couldn’t see anyone I knew. Or anyone at all. Good. That’s what I’d been after. I’d been here before, but there had been people about.

I’d been working up the courage to go into a place like this for some time. Seizing the opportunity while the coast was clear, I moved quickly across the short garden-y-bit and ducked inside.

Where was I going that I feared to be seen? The area where I lived at this time had a mixed reputation. Some nice shops and restaurants. A small supermarket. Lots of pubs. A few “adult” shops with boarded windows…

But it wasn’t any of these. It was ten in the morning and I was … … going into the small Anglican church at the end of my road.

Gasp!

Why all the secrecy?

My upbringing actually had a lot of “church” in it. My parents took me with them on Sundays when I was a younger child, and the school I went to as an older child had its own high-church Anglican chapel, complete with resident chaplain and compulsory weekly services. But I didn’t enjoy going, and was glad to leave it behind.

I still thought of myself as a Christian. However, despite all the time I’d spent listening to sermons, my understanding of Christianity wasn’t at all good. This became clear to me during my first year of university, at which point I started investigating Christianity for myself. And pretty soon I actually wanted to go to church.

I was really self-conscious about it. I feared people I knew seeing me, and thinking less of me or mocking me. I’d experienced plenty of not-fitting-in and mockery in my childhood and early teens. I had hated it, and dreaded being treated that way again.

So, when I started going to church, I did it in secret. I would note down what time services were, and go out for a walk nearby before service time. If there was no-one around and I was feeling brave I would go inside. And sit on my own and leave again quite quickly afterwards – hoping of course that no-one would be there to see me leave.

Eventually (and to my advantage) this system broke down. A year after my one and only foray to the small church described in the introduction, I had settled into a pattern of going to my college chapel on a Sunday evening. One Sunday I went along and to my shock a friend I knew quite well was there with their mother, who happened to be down visiting that weekend. They spoke to me after the service and my friend invited me to come along with them to their church the following week. Which I duly did, and from then on I started attending a Church of England church in the normal fashion, instead of hiding out in the chapel.

If you had a Christian friend, why didn’t you go with them to church from the get-go?

From the first year of university onwards, I had several friends who were Christians. They actually made a big impact on me, though they wouldn’t have known it at the time. How? They went to church – get this – on a Wednesday evening. Not just on a Sunday, which I could understand; but why would anyone go on a weekday evening? I had no idea, I was just so surprised. (It was for a mid-week Bible study, in case you’re wondering what the answer is. I didn’t know people did that!)

So when some time later I decided to go to church, why did I keep my activities secret and not just go with my friends? I mentioned above that at this point in time my understanding of Christianity wasn’t good. And that from school I had plenty of experience of not fitting in and being mocked. Both of these came into play.

At my high-church Anglican school there had been a “Confirmation” service every year. For those unfamiliar with the Anglican system, “Confirmation” is basically a ceremony where adolescents or adults who have been baptised as infants declare that they are going to live as Christians, after which time they are allowed to take part in eating the bread and wine during Communion / Mass / the Eucharist (hopefully at least one of these terms is familiar.) At least, that is how Confirmation functioned at my school.

But … I had never been confirmed. Even though I had wanted to take part, to put myself forward would have meant expressing something which seemed intensely personal. This meant exposing myself to potential ridicule, and I just couldn’t do it.

So at university I reasoned as follows. I think of myself as a Christian. If I went to church with my friends, things would be fine – until it was time for Communion. But then I wouldn’t be able to take part. Other people my age at the church (my friends included) would find out that I hadn’t been Confirmed. They’d say I wasn’t a proper Christian at all, and be unkind to me.

I know now that my understanding of Christianity, and my expectations of what churches are like and how adult Christians (or in fact people in general) normally treat each other were all way off. But at the time all I had to go on were my experiences of religion and how people treat one another from childhood. So I had negative expectations, and I didn’t go to church with my friends but went in secret instead.

In the end, in my third year of university I did “solve” the Confirmation problem. The college chapel offered Confirmation classes. I got the courage to e-mail the chaplain and sign up. I went to the classes at lunchtimes and then got confirmed in the big university church. Without telling anyone I knew (except my parents… to whom I gave only short notice the week before, in the hope they wouldn’t decide to come!) Thereafter, I felt comfortable with going to church with my friends and family.

At which point, it quickly turned out that proper Christianity was nothing like what I had been brought up with, or what I expected, and all my worries about Confirmation had been completely needless …

Final thoughts

Because of my prior life experiences, I found that starting to go to church on my own as an adult was very difficult. So I’m highly conscious of the fact that for many people the idea of going church is imposing or threatening.

In my case the view of church I had was like something out of an ITV adaptation of Miss Marple – old-fashioned in style; sermons that were often dry and irrelevant; people who didn’t want to be there, and went through the motions “because it was the done thing”; or people who claimed to have a faith, but didn’t live like it touched their lives at all. I didn’t associate church with anything life-giving. But since then I’ve found that my early experiences weren’t reflective of what Christianity is really all about, or what church or Christian people can be like.

While there is much that is bad about the coronavirus and the lockdown situation, one positive to come out of it is that a lot of churches are now live-streaming their services. I’m excited by this. It means that people can now see what churches are like, and encounter ordinary Christian people for whom their faith does make a difference in their day-to-day lives, and hear what Christianity is actually all about – without a social barrier getting in the way. There’s real potential here for changing perceptions and overcoming misconceptions.

That’s a positive note to end on. Catch you in the next post!

Life, Mental Health, Uncategorized

Reflections on Social Anxiety

I’ve said on the blog before that I struggle with social anxiety, but I haven’t written a post specifically about it. So that’s what I’m going to write about today. More specifically, in this post I’m going to turn the clock back twenty years and briefly describe how my social anxiety first developed while I was at school. The aim is simply to give an idea of what living with this problem was like.


What exactly is “Social Anxiety”?

I like the description given on Beyond Blue, an Australian mental health organisation I came across while preparing this post:

It’s perfectly normal to feel nervous in social situations where we might come under the attention of others, whether they’re strangers or people we know. Attending a formal function, giving a speech at a wedding, doing a presentation to work colleagues are likely to cause nervousness and anxiety, both in the lead-up and during the event.

However, for people with social phobia [sometimes known as social anxiety disorder], performing in front of others and social situations can lead to intense anxiety. They may fear being judged, criticised, laughed at or humiliated in front of others, even in the most ordinary, everyday situations. … (… such as having a meal with friends, or making small talk)

I’ve picked out the bit in bold as I think it’s the most important. Social anxiety is related to the fear of being judged by other people, and the consequences that might follow.

When it’s really bad, the basic feeling of anxiety can be accompanied by a number of physical symptoms, such as feeling nauseous, sweating, a pounding heartbeat or “panic attacks”.


How and why did my social anxiety problems start?

Looking back over my childhood and adolescence, it’s pretty easy to trace how my trouble with social anxiety got worse over time. For me, it was largely a learned behaviour – i.e., I learned to become anxious in social arenas as a response to situations I was in and events that happened to me.

Socially, between the ages of 8 and 18 I didn’t fit in that well at school. Most children on their own are friendly enough, but put them into a group and all kinds of additional social dynamics come into play – and who’s in/out socially becomes very important. It can get quite nasty. For me things got much worse with the change from junior to senior school at 13. A particular “highlight” of this year was the game “shoot a BB gun at the person you know can’t fight back, because you like the sounds he makes as he tries to squirm out of the way.”

Yup, some of my childhood sucked.

I was never in much physical danger, as the Ball Bearings in question were only plastic rather than metal, so they stung when they hit you but could only do real damage if you were unlucky and got caught in the eye (which thankfully never happened). But still, I hated being tormented in this way. As a teenager I spent a lot of time on my own and lonely. I did make some friends. However, I spent far more time on my own feeling lonely than I did in positive interactions with them.

Being mocked, and not fitting in, made me highly self-conscious and anxious about trying to join in with my peers most of the time. In addition to this I had several other sources of anxiety:

Authority figures

The first came from the authority figures around me, who were mostly teachers. As you’d probably expect, they often used verbal threats to get cooperation. Nothing unusual there! But actually for me this posed a problem in two ways:

  • Some threats were made in the “class punishment” style: e.g. if the teacher returns and the whole class is not behaving, the whole class gets kept back at break. This sounds like a small thing, but it wasn’t for me. As someone who didn’t fit in well socially, I had no influence over what the rest of the class did. Result: whether I got punished became separated from what I personally did. It was arbitrary. This was made worse by staff suggesting I should be exerting some kind of restraining influence on my peers, as the expectation I felt under was not something that I could reasonably have met.
  • Some threats were made performance related: e.g. “if you don’t get over 90% in the test next week you’ll be put in detention”. For one particularly fierce member of staff this 90% figure… actually isn’t an exaggeration. By nature I was obedient and believed what teachers told me, even if their threats were never realised. The lesson I learnt was that genuinely doing one’s best isn’t good enough. You have to be academically perfect to avoid harm.

Mentally I learned to divide authority figures into two groups: people who threatened me (who I was afraid of), and people who didn’t (who I liked).

Physical factors

The second additional source of anxiety was physical. This time, three examples:

  • As a child I had a mortal dread of swimming in water I couldn’t stand up in without being able to reach out and hold on to something. Our school had a swimming pool. Swimming was not optional. Every time swimming came up, my heart sunk. I was just afraid I’d drown the whole time. (The pool was only five to ten yards wide, so looking back this wasn’t likely… but it felt that way.)
  • This next example may sound trivial, but made a big difference to me at the time! For some reason, I loathe baked beans. I don’t know why. I like all the ingredients. But put them together and something about the taste and texture just makes me gag. Relevance? In our school dining hall baked beans were often dished out whether you wanted them or not. And often we weren’t allowed to leave until we’d finished eating everything on our plates – which would be fine if there had been a choice. Consequence: even eating lunch became a source of anxiety as there was no way to avoid being arbitrarily made to feel physically unwell.
  • This one definitely isn’t trivial. I was born in the mid-1980s in the South of England, only an hour away from London. During the early 1990s, the IRA bombed several London stations including Victoria in 1991, and a year later London Bridge. These were stations we used on outings, such as going to visit my grandparents. I had heard about these events on the news (who hadn’t?) and picked up on anxiety both there and from people around me. I remember being anxious while travelling in cities as a result.

Through things like these, I often felt physically afraid and experienced this type of fear as essentially unavoidable – something I could do nothing about.


So, overall in my childhood I learned to be afraid, and was anxious most of the time. Any of the things listed above on their own might not have been a problem. But the cumulative effect was overwhelming. Fear became the dominate lens through which my social interactions with the wider world were mediated. I was afraid of trying to interact with groups of my peers. Afraid in class. Afraid outside of class. Even often afraid while having lunch – as a teenager I often didn’t even go for lunch, it was just too stressful, surviving during the daytime on a diet of sweets, crisps and biscuits (I was stimulating the local economy! Or at least the sweet shop and the dentist’s… .) And I became horribly risk-averse.

The above all sounds rather negative. Looking back as an adult, I can see that there may have been other ways of looking at things, or things I could have done differently. But the above is how I experienced life as a child – which is what is relevant for understanding how my social anxiety problems started. I didn’t have anyone to talk to most of the time who could offer me a broader perspective. And even if I did, getting mocked and not fitting in socially meant that I learned not to be vulnerable and express my feelings or what I was thinking. So it would have actually been pretty hard to help me.


When did the physical symptoms start?

Although I was often anxious, it wasn’t until sixth form that I started to suffer physical symptoms. Whereas the original social anxiety developed gradually, this new phase was triggered suddenly.

The immediate cause was developing a case of “stomach trouble” one morning shortly after arriving at school. In all likelihood it was my own fault for consuming rather more super-strong homemade pasta al’arabbiata at home the night before than was sensible… at any rate, I felt under pressure from two directions: the first, my stomach, and the second, the expectation to take part at school. In the end I think I went home ill. After a few days off I got taken to the doctor, who (treating the symptoms I described, my stomach) thought I probably had gastroenteritis and gave me a course of codeine-containing medicine. Thereafter I did return to school, but for a while I would only go in mid-morning – my stomach felt dodgy first thing, but by nine or ten I perked up and went in late.

In hindsight I’m pretty sure that, while something had been up with my stomach initially, it was probably only for an hour or two. The rest was anxiety related. I had lost confidence in my body to behave itself (which had previously been reliable). Each morning when I first woke up, I felt under social pressure and my stomach naturally didn’t feel great. Now that I didn’t trust my body, worrying about this too was the final straw. Cue panic attack. When the pressure of having to go into the rigid social environment of school was released, the fight-or-flight hormones eventually dissipated. My mind could see that my stomach was actually fine. I calmed down, and could face going back to school. The next day, rinse and repeat.

This pattern of social anxiety and frequent panic attacks continued into my adulthood.


Briefly, how have things gone since then?

Since leaving school I’ve always had some level of social anxiety. Sometimes a lot better, but sometimes actually worse: for a two-year period around the age of thirty I was badly agoraphobic and hardly went out at all. It was at this point that I finally sought some help from my GP.

Talking about agoraphobia is a post of its own for another day. It’s now some four or five years later. While I’m not entirely anxiety free, things are a lot better.


So there’s a short summary of how social anxiety first began for me and how it developed during my adolescence. I hope reading it has been informative and thought provoking.

According to the NHS page on social anxiety it’s a common problem, and usually begins when someone is a teenager. So I was pretty typical. But as a teenager it wasn’t something I’d heard of, let alone something for which I knew you could get help. I didn’t seek any help until I was in my late twenties. This is also common: according to this NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) publication people often wait for 15 years or more.

Hopefully through writing this article I’ll do a small bit to raise awareness. If what I’ve written strikes a chord with you and you want to follow it up this NHS page is a good place to start.

See you in the next post!

Church culture, Life, Uncategorized

And my least favourite question to be asked is…

The church I go to has just started a new sermon series all about mental health, following a short guide called “Livability”. Each chapter of this book looks at a figure from the Bible, and uses their story as a starting point to talk about a particular aspect of mental health such as depression or anxiety. As I have said before on the blog, I have personal experience with social anxiety and agoraphobia. Writing about my own experiences may be useful for others, and given that my church is focusing on it (hello to this part of my audience!) now is a good moment to do so.

In today’s post I want to want to talk about my least favourite question to be asked.


My least favourite question is a really simple one.

It’s a really common one.

It’s an innocuous looking one.

Ready?

So what do you do for a living?

Really? That’s it? What’s so bad about that?

Everyone’s experience of life is different. For me, this really is the number-one worst question out there. Honestly, I dread it. Doesn’t matter where I am – the pub, at church, meeting friends-of-friends socially. Why?

One of the areas where I’ve struggled most with adult life is employment. I’m now mid-thirties. I’ve never yet had a full-time job.

After writing that last sentence, I automatically started adding other sentences to qualify and explain it. But I’ve decided to get rid of them to leave it on its own. Because this really cuts to the heart of the issue – the importance of employment is so fundamental within our culture that an explanation is needed. Without offering one, its at best a puzzle; at worst it might be assumed I’m a person of questionable character. (Gasp! Sharp intake of breath!)

I want you to keep reading, so I’d better justify myself a bit to put you at your ease. I’m neither useless nor lazy. Every year I have had some work – sometimes one part-time job (though perhaps very part-time), sometimes two. All in the secondary/tertiary education sector, so entailing a reasonable level of diligence and responsibility. But, taking into account my limitations – in particular social anxiety – as well as my skill-set, and up to now I have found it difficult to match to a full-time role, whether to do with education or something else.

Which is a problem. I’m far from idle the rest of the time – learning new technical skills, volunteering with several different charities in a small way, as well as producing useful things like this blog and the website that hosts it. However, the usual social expectation for a mid-thirties guy is having a full-time job. And this means answering questions about “what I do for a living” gets tricky. Obviously, jobs are about earning money. But in terms of social function they do more than that. Having a full-time job shows

  • Something about your values: that you are willing to work to provide for yourself and others.
  • Something about your value: if you have a job, it means someone considers you worthy of working for them. There is a level of accreditation just from having a job.

In other words, the social worth of having a job is partly in showing you are happy to be a “decent” or “contributing” member of society. This is one of two reasons I can think of that unemployment or underemployment is psychologically hard: your value as a member of society is immediately put under question. Perhaps this statement is a little over-negative. But the cumulative effect of giving an explanation of your circumstances to lots of different people, each of whom really is well-meaning, can lead to feeling rather under-siege and defensive. Particularly with the often-negative media coverage of people without full-time work lurking in the background (even though, in reality, the people whose lifestyles they decry are very much in the minority.)

(The other reason un-/under-employment is psychologically hard is simply that not earning enough money to provide for yourself and your dependants sucks. I am fortunate in that I have been able to live with family in economic circumstances that mean I have never had contact with the benefits system. But reading about the difficulties of those who have needed to use it, I am highly sympathetic as it is obviously far from easy.)

The upshot of this is that I find talking to people for the first time can be jolly awkward. When the subject of employment comes up, as it almost inevitably does, what do I say? Do I simply say that I have a job in the education sector? This feels awkward, as it gives the impression of something full-time, and I dislike being misleading. So do I say I have a part-time job in the education sector? But that brings up the questions of why-only-part-time, and what-else-am-I-looking-for. Which is immediately a can of worms. I have come to accept that I can’t expect to get a full-time role in the short term. It may happen – in which case, great! – but I can’t rely on it. But I don’t really want to tell my whole life story, explain about issues with anxiety and so on, right when meeting someone for the first time.

So when I meet new people I feel this question hanging over me, and am embarrassed and sheepish. What I say depends on who I’m talking to. Sometimes I give a response like “I have a part-time job writing maths teaching materials for secondary/tertiary level students.” Not a bad answer. If I’m feeling less confident, I just say something more evasive like “Not very much at the moment.” Which actually gets some hilarious responses. I went to a social event a couple of years ago that was well-attended by some people from my old school. Now, I have always been particularly good at maths and physics, which got me marked out as a smart cookie – someone really going places. The idea that at the moment I might not be very successful in career terms, and my “Not very much at the moment” might be based on awkwardness, embarrassment and shame… didn’t seem to compute. They assumed that my reticence meant I must be doing something I can’t talk about, so I must work for MI5 – which is hilarious, and naturally something I denied. But, they figured, if I worked for the security services then denying it is exactly what I would do… To this day I don’t know what they think. Some kind of bearded James Bond?

A guy who works part-time walks into a church. And everyone in turn says..

At one point in my twenties I joined a new church. For anyone who doesn’t know, the way churches usually work is that there is a formal “meeting” with a Bible reading, talks, prayers and songs, which is followed by a social time with tea and coffee, chatting and getting to know new people. Here’s an artists impression of how coffee-time chats went for the first few months:


Sunday 1, coffee person 1: Are you new here? Tell me about yourself, what do you do? Oh, you don’t have a full-time job yet? Well how I got my first one was…

What a friendly person! That’s a good sign.

Sunday 2, coffee person 2: Hello there! I don’t believe we’ve met. What’s you name? What do you do for a living? Ok. What sort of thing are you looking for?

Quite like last week. But I suppose I am new here.

Sunday 3, coffee person 3: Hello, my conversation is surprisingly like that of coffee person 1! But instead of telling you about how I got my first job, I’ll tell you about my son and how he got his current job.

I’m sensing a pattern.

Sunday 4, coffee person 1 (again): Hello! Good to see you here again today. How’s the job search coming along?

Someone talk about something else next week, please.

Sunday 5, coffee person 4: Hello, I haven’t spoken to you before. You won’t know this, but my favourite subject is talking about the details of my health problems. In detail. Whether anyone is going green or not. Now it all started when…. … … and then it fell out … and you’ll never guess the colour of … Why are the lights out? And where has everyone gone? No-one in this church ever listens to me…

That’s not what I meant by something else! Aaaarrrrgggghhhh!!!! TMI!


I’m being light-hearted, but to make a serious point. Everyone I spoke to meant really well. The questions they asked were perfectly reasonable – most people do have an occupation of some sort, so asking about it is a sensible way of getting a conversation going. They really were interested in finding out about me. Interested in sharing their stories with me, and giving advice, in the hope that my life would be improved as a result. But overall the effect was like coming up against a wall. Employment was a barrier. I had to cross it somehow in order to talk about other things, and so be a “proper” adult member of the church.

For this, and other reasons, I stopped going to church for a while – and when I did my attendance was sporadic. Eventually, the barrier was breached. For a couple of weeks the church ran a project. Volunteers with a can-do attitude were needed. After several days of using tools and wielding a paintbrush, I had shown I was willing to work hard, diligent and could produce a quality result. It was like passing an audition; suddenly I was able to talk about all sorts of things with the other men from church. And I felt much more like I belonged.

So what’s the take-home?

So there’s a few thoughts from my personal library of stories to do with employment and inclusion. Is there a lesson? I don’t think there’s just one simple one. But here’s a few ideas:

  • When it comes to community inclusion, activities like “helping re-decorate a house before someone moves in” can be really helpful. I’ve been involved in this particular activity at least three times, and each time its really useful for getting to know new people. The value isn’t just in the end product – though that is the goal. But in the process of achieving this product, they function like auditions. Does someone turn up, work hard, and to a good standard? Its a chance to show what you are made of when, for some reason, you can’t do this so easily in words.
  • Sometimes, even when everyone means well, social barriers can be set up accidentally. This is just something to be aware of.
  • Employment is a particularly bad area for barriers as money is foundational – it’s needed for buying cars, houses, supporting a partner and children…. So to put up a wall on the subject of “jobs” can effectively mean putting barriers on these other things too.
  • In my experience churches aren’t immune to the problem of accidental barriers. Being a “responsible” member of the community is part of a mature Christian life. For those who are in traditional job-for-life roles such as teachers, doctors and lawyers (who are hardly lacking in UK churches), appearing to satisfy this type of responsibility is pretty much locked in. But not everyone is in the same boat. For those of us who really struggle with employment, showing evidence of this kind of responsibility is much harder. Where there is a social expectation and you don’t appear to meet it, there is a danger of feeling second tier, or even being treated this way (sadly, there are cases I’m aware of where this has happened).

So there’s some of my thoughts on jobs and inclusion. Currently lots of people – I think over 6 million? – are on furlough due to the virus outbreak. Its possible that when things open back up there will be more unemployment, though I hope that doesn’t happen. But this is perhaps a good time to be talking about these issues.

So to quickly sum up the entire post: opening a conversation with asking about employment isn’t wrong per se. But because of the social factors involved the conversation can get tricky quickly. Next time you meet someone new, why not ask about their interests first?

Catch you in the next post!

Church culture, Digital, Uncategorized

Digital potential, part 1 – the sum is far greater than the individual parts

Our survey says…

Last autumn I took it upon myself to do a (totally unofficial) survey of how technology is used by the different churches in my town and the surrounding villages. I used Google to draw up a list of all the churches in the area, then working outwards I went through the websites of these churches one by one, making a note of things like

  • Do they actually have a website?
  • How well does it work? Is it frequently updated?
  • How well does the site describe services, facilities and activities?
  • Does the site have things for particular interest groups (e.g. 20s-30s, marriage-prep, Alpha)?
  • How well does the site use media (audio, video), and does the church use social media?
  • Does the website gives examples of where church members can get involved in using technology, and are these supporting roles (e.g. operating AV equipment) or creative (video production, animation, graphical design etc.)?
  • Does the church use only its own resources, or point people to carefully chosen external resources?
  • How well is the church website digitally integrated into the Christian community in the Aylesbury area (e.g. by advertising events at other churches)?
  • How well is the church website integrated into the wider community, for example by linking to groups from outside the church that use its facilities during the week (e.g. NHS support groups, fitness classes, Alcoholics Anonymous)?

This survey had some obvious limitations. It only provided a snapshot of a church’s digital footprint at one moment in time, it only included items that churches chose to externally advertise (so intra-church WhatsApp groups got overlooked) and so on. Despite this, I thought it was a worthwhile activity to try. Modern technology has already changed the world, and a good question to ask is whether the church (as a whole) is making the best use of it. As someone who spends a lot of time in front of a computer, this is a question I felt I could have a reasonable go at assessing. As a by-product, I gained a good overview of the Christian groups in the area and how they are involved in their wider communities. Which is no bad thing.

Here is some of what I found out.

And the winner of “Best Website” goes to…

Okay, I’m not really going to rank church websites in order of greatness. But some are better than others. Overall, churches with a larger congregation or from a more modern denomination (e.g. Vineyard, New Frontiers) had a better web presence. In comparison, smaller, more established congregations were weaker in this area. This was true of churches in the town as well as in the surrounding villages.

The obvious reason I can think of for this is that making and maintaining a website takes resources (a lot of time, some money) and a degree of expertise. Also, technology (particularly social media) skews towards the skill set of younger people, and there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation whereby tech-savvy people are pulled towards a church that is already tech-savvy…

Some of the best use of technology was actually by churches set up to cover the new housing estates. With hindsight this is hardly surprising, as taking into account their target audience (and in some cases lack of a building) they have had to innovate and engage with modern methods of communication in order to succeed.

The stopping point

Some websites were very basic, giving little more detail than services times, contact details and information that certain types of activity existed during the week. Others were much more fully-featured with libraries of recorded sermons (though some of these seemed to be pretty erratic selections), information on volunteering opportunities, pages describing social action and supported missionaries, and so on.

There was a point at which even the best websites ran out: creative content and resource curation. Some churches had music they had recorded, book reviews, or an introductory video. However, creative content of this sort was always pretty limited. Also, there was generally little attempt to link to external resources, even from within the same denomination. There’s an obvious reason for these things – creating content takes time (it takes me a day to write something as long as a blog post), and so does updating websites. Blogs and “news” sections in particular were often rather like zombies – they’re dead, they’ve clearly been dead for a long time, but they get trapped in an archive as no-one can bear to finish them off.

Everything community

When it came to “community” I was particularly interested in three things: how well churches cooperated with each other, how well churches catered for special interest groups, and how well churches seemed to be integrated with the wider community.

For the first of these, the short answer is: when it comes to technology, most churches hardly seem to interact with each other at all. For one church to link to events or resources at another did happen, but it was actually quite rare – even within a denomination.

Some special interest groups were well catered for. Most churches had a children’s programme, though the extent of it varied. Likewise, there was often provision made for senior citizens, men’s and women’s ministry, and mother-and-baby groups. This was often the point at which official programmes ran out. This isn’t really surprising, as most churches are of a similar size (more than fifty, max a few hundred), have a quorum of children and the elderly to care for, and both too few people in other special interest groups and too little time for running anything else.

When it comes to integration with the wider community, the visibility of this on websites varies greatly. Some churches have a wide programme of social action going on and are keen to talk about it. At the other end of the spectrum, some seem reluctant even to mention the public-service organisations (NHS support groups, disabled clubs, Alcoholics Anonymous etc.) that use their buildings during the week. And few indeed mention those that operate at other churches.

Drawing the threads together and making suggestions

In one sense my survey is now way out of date. As a result of the coronavirus lockdown, churches have been adopting new technology across the board in order to keep functioning. The church I go to now has an active social media group for the whole church, Zoom services on a Sunday, and even Zoom homegroups during the week. However, running in the background there is a strong undercurrent of “this situation is temporary, then we’ll be able to get back to meeting together in person.” Which naturally leads to the question: if the lockdown ends soon, will the new technology be jettisoned as quickly as it has arrived?

I think its an open question. Lockdown is a developing situation, and even the best guess is unlikely to be totally right. The thing that concerns me is not so much whether my particular church keeps this or that specific bit of technology going, but rather that in the desire for the familiarity of physical community the church (in the broader sense) might simply return to what it was doing before without giving the wider role of technology much thought.

Over the last few years I have been thinking that it would be a good idea if churches worked together more. Here are a few ways in which greater cooperation in the digital sphere would be useful:

  • Currently each church reinvents the same wheel. Is there any margin in the idea that churches work together on shared webspace, freeing up resources for doing extra things rather than duplicating the same functionality? As an example: the evidence suggests that no church can support a “church blog”. But if churches worked together, maybe they could?
  • Currently, larger churches have better technological capability, i.e. in a sense there is “digital poverty/inequality.” Is there a way in which more tech-savvy, larger churches can partner with smaller churches in the same area (even crossing denominational bounds)?
  • Digital roles tend to be support rather than explicitly creative, and creative work tends to be limited to introductory videos and youth work. Is there a way in which like-minded individuals from across the churches can be teamed up to make something more significant in the adult space?

Perhaps some of these things are already going on. In which case, do leave a comment below!

Phew. This post has got rather long. Hopefully there is something to get you thinking. One final suggestion:

Somebody please come up with a way for Christians in the same part of town to get to know each other! Currently people living a street away drive to different parts of town for church and don’t know each other exist. This is bonkers!!

See you in the next post!