The Electronic Mission Field

During a recent gathering in our church hall, the minister asked how many of his congregation were regular users of social media. Quite a few hands went in the air, despite the fear that he may be about to chastise us for wantonly dabbling in a century other than the one to which we belong (the 19th, according to many sources).

It was more unsettling than that, because he just looked mildly interested, and sat back. No shouting, no threatening – okay, he didn’t have a pulpit handy to thump, but really – and no accusatory pointing.

In still greater nonconformity to the stereotype, he was asking this question in the context of a wider discussion about Christianity and media: traditional and social. These have been a growing consideration since the 20th century came to the rest of Scotland and even occassionally lapped at the shores of backward, wee Lewis. Of course, with the advent of radio, and then television, the implications for the church have been catastrophic.

Last week, I challenged an assertion by the Scottish secularists, that it had been the norm for ministers in Lewis to regularly peer through windows, to ensure that people weren’t watching anything mì-chàilear on television. Nonsense – one minister on his own would never have been able to handle the workload – obviously there must have been a crack team of elders supporting him in these endeavours.

No intelligence was offered on what happened in the event that the entertainment being indulged in did breach Presbyterian etiquette. Did the outraged minister burst in and switch the set off? That would certainly have been more impressive and dignified prior to the remote control: imagine the interloper having to first rummage around under the sofa cushions, before he could eventually zap the offending signal.

It must have been an enormous relief to these overworked killjoys when the dear old Beeb closed down with God Save the Queen at midnight.

Now, though, media is 24/7. The recent discussion in our church hall was an acknowledgment of the challenges this poses to Christians. It is a minefield for young – and not so young – people. Satan lurks where we sometimes least expect, and the newer technology has provided him with a host of opportunities for trouble.

We hear about cyber-crime, and the dark web. And every parent should be aware of the threat posed by that laptop, or tablet with which their child spends so much time alone. What are they looking at? Who are they talking to? Are your family safe in their own home, or are you harbouring – unaware – a stranger who means you harm?

Of course we have to be mindful of the dangers. The internet is both an extension and a mirror of this sinful world. There is real evil to be found there, as there is here.

But also real potential for good.

I have heard prayers that people would spend less time on social media and more attending the means of grace. While I completely understand the sentiment, and the intention, I’m afraid it’s an unhelpful approach. Attendance at the means of grace should, without question, take precedence. We all must begin by ensuring our own spiritual lives are healthy before going elsewhere; but there has to be a Christian presence online as well.

Why must there? Well, obedience to the Great Commission – ‘go, therefore, into all the world’. The apostles had to wear out shoe leather doing that, but we can fulfil at least part of the command at the touch of a button.

On Friday, I was able to testify to Christ’s work in my life to a Highland-wide audience, using only my mobile phone. I sat in an empty classroom at work, and shared in prayers and witnessing with people I have never met. We could see each other, and speak like friends.

During the recent Trust election, I maintained a smidgen of sanity because of my WhatsApp support group. We anchored our daily discussion in the Word, and in worship music, and we had virtual – yet very real – human fellowship.

Videos of our church services go online now. A Gaelic sermon, preached to a congregation of perhaps seventy people, will be heard by five hundred more. And they feel connected to it because they can see the preacher and the precentor, as well as hear their words.

Aren’t these valid uses of technology?

Stornoway Free Church has never just been confined to the building on Kenneth Street. It has always been missional, sending people out into the field at home and abroad. Cambodia. Moldova. Uganda. Leaders go off to camp several times a year. And on our own doorstep, Campaigners, Sunday Schools, Christianity Explored – reaching out to the lost.

Now, though, mission has a new dimension. Make no mistake, it has its own difficulties. Christians will be pilloried and despised online as they are in the world; people will ignore your message on the internet, just as they do in person. Those who do not set foot on the threshold of a real Church are unlikely to click on your website link, or Facebook page just because it’s there.

But online mission is important, and I believe we have to get better at it. The people are there, and so many of them are lost.

Instead of praying that Christians would avoid social media, shouldn’t we be encouraging them to bring their witness to it? God does not send His soldiers into battle unequipped and, if we place our faith in Him, He will make us equal to this task also.

I can testify to the fact that technology is not bad, or wrong if, like anything else, we deploy it in His wisdom and not our own. Let’s encourage the world to look through our window, and let’s show them nothing but Christ.

Not to be Read by Unbelievers

We were all gathered together in the church hall, when the minister picked up the microphone, fixed us with his most intimidating gaze, and asked, ‘who reads the Bible on an electronic device?’

There was an awkward silence. People tried to avoid his eye. I sat, rooted to the spot in terror, thinking, ‘so this is how it ends’. In my paranoia, I even wondered whether he would be able to tell me for a Kindle-user, just by looking. ‘Put up your hands if you have the Bible on an electronic device’, he ordered in his most threateningly reasonable tone. Still, no one moved. None dared.

And then it happened. A miracle. In the finest ever ‘I’m Spartacus’ move, his wife raised her hand. The whole atmosphere changed in an instant, and suddenly hands were in the air all over the room.

I held my breath. What would happen? Surely this show of defiance could not go unpunished. Yet, what could he do when his own wife had openly admitted to using modern technology herself?

Finally, he spoke.

‘I see’, was all he said.

And then I also saw. Sitting there, with a wireless microphone in his hand, he could hardly castigate his congregation for indulging in the odd Bible app. Especially when his own household was patently guilty of making forays into the modern age.

I wondered whether this was history in the making, a momentous event that would be recorded forever as the night the Wee Frees in Stornoway were finally forced into the 21st century.

But then I remembered – no, of course, that could not be. It had already happened . . . sometime around the end of 1999, I think.

However, it is important to be fair. People cannot help conceiving ill-informed ideas about an organisation that is secretive, and a closed shop. Besides, if it seeks to exercise power and control over an entire community, surely its leadership could be more transparent, less misogynistic,kinder, less controlling . . .

That same day, the membership had been told not to read anything written by me, and not to show anything written by me to others. The decree was issued online with no right of reply, and with an Orwelllian postscript that it would be removed from view in due course.

Who did this, you ask – the Moderator, surely would be the only one with that level of power. Or maybe the Presbytery – was it them? Surely no individual minister would be so egomaniacal as to exert his authority in this way . . .

Oh, you mistake me; I’m not talking about the Free Church. My local elder used to visit the house once a month to check the contents of my bookcase, right enough, but they’ve reduced the visits now to three-monthly. I cunningly hid all my offensively heretical books behind the Diary of Kenneth MacRae and Leabhar Aithghearr nan Ceist, which seemed to satisfy him.

No, it isn’t the Free Church telling its members what to read and what not to read. The organisation which seeks to ban certain writers, and to control what its membership looks at online is not the repressive Wee Frees; it’s the tolerant, welcoming people ‘of all faiths and none’ Western Isles Secular Society.

Yes, like a tinpot dictator, one of their administrators has prohibited my blog from being read by WISS members, or shared to the group.

The reason, of course, is that the last time it was dragged back there, the unruly hordes picked over it and in a frenzy of hatred, unwittingly revealed their true colours.

I was variously described as ‘disgusting’, ‘rude’, ‘racist’, ‘spiritually immature’, a ‘zealot’, ‘an embarrassment to the fellowship of the church’, and an egomaniac in pursuit of martyrdom.

Officially, they must not read it, speak about it or do so much as coimhead an taobh a tha mi because I am an intransigent troll.

But, in reality, they must not read it because there’s a danger in being exposed to the truth. Some things are only recognised as broken when they are held up against the light.So, it is safer to preserve them in darkness.

The secularist response to that blog has made me pity them more than ever. Though they hissed and spat, and even tried to use Scripture against me, it isn’t me they fear at all; it’s Christ.

He is so inconvenient, shaking the foundations of their fictional world. And because they don’t want Him, they attack any who try to speak about who He is and what He’s done. They won’t silence Him, though. If Christ intends that any or all of that Society should hear Him and bend the knee, then hear Him and bend the knee they shall.

It shouldn’t surprise me that the Western Isles secularists have obeyed this edict not to read my work; these are the same people who want their own children ‘protected’ from the Bible because it doesn’t tally with their world view. If they are prepared to attempt silencing the voice of God, I can hardly expect special treatment.

Let me not, though, hear any further suggestions that they are the voice of reason and tolerance, over against the oppression and control of the Free Church.

One has afforded me a voice; one has silenced me. The leaders of one have encouraged me to think for myself; the leaders of the other have suggested that I am incapable of such a thing.

They don’t want Truth. Pilate asked what it was, even as it stood before Him; they are not prepared to risk Christ getting that close.

One day, I hope they’ll be grateful that it was never up to them.

 

 

 

 

May The Force Be With Us (The Real One, That Is)

So, the newshounds  have finally caught up with An Lanntair’s plans to open one Sunday each month. It is a big deal for them, and for those people living in Lewis who don’t like the island very much the way it is. For the media, it is an excuse to point the quaint, wee island out to mainland sophisticates, so they can laugh at our eccentric ways. Somewhere, right now, I guarantee you, a ‘journalist’ is writing copy that contains the words, ‘they’ve only recently been allowed to hang their washing out on Sunday’.

People outside of Lewis love this. To them, we are hilarious anachronisms in black clothes. The only modern thing about us is the microchip implanted in our heads, controlled by the minister from his study computer. Him and his big, fluffy, white cat.

We are other. And we always have been. It makes us fair game.

Here, I’ll empty out the sack of cliches, and you can write the headlines yourselves – just pick and mix. Strictly Sabbatarian. Narrowly Presbyterian. Deeply Religious. Chained-up swings. Swimming prohibited. Wee Frees. Disapproval. Opposition. Planes. Ferries.

You know, the usual sort of thing. Journalists are after a couple of hundred easy words, so I suppose it’s no wonder they resort to rummaging in the stereotype bin. Tomorrow, they will be casually ripping into someone else’s community.

The people I really don’t understand are the ones who live here in the island. I get that they want to make it like everywhere else; no one can punish them for the fact that they apparently lack any feeling for the uniqueness of the place. We have a saying in Gaelic, ‘an rud nach d’ fhuair Niall, chan iarrar air e’. Similar, I suppose to the English: what would you expect from a horse, but a kick?

But do they never stop, in their endless, whining, ‘but I waaaaant’, to think about why Lewis has not ‘caught-up’ with the rest of the country? Could it possibly be because Lewis did not need to be like other places, having enough of its own character to stand apart?

However, the decision is made. The cinema will open one Sunday a month. To begin with. And then the gallery, the cafe, the shop. Will that be enough for our restless secularists who apparently can’t be alone with their families even one day a week? Of course not. Already they are talking about the swimming pool. Then it will be buses, shops, supermarkets . . .

Then, though? Then, they will be satisfied?

Not even then. Discontentment like theirs knows no end. That’s why they are building themselves this house of cards – they think, ‘one more blow against the Lord’s Day and we will be happy; one more victory over Christ and we will have Him beaten’.

They expect opposition from the church. No – correction – they want opposition from the church. It entitles them to rail against religious privilege, if anyone representing an island church raises even one objection to this latest ‘development’.

Well, they won’t get it. The time for that is long past. They are using their God-given free will to spend their time as they choose. Nothing I or anyone else can say will change that. Already, they know that it’s wrong to keep none of it back in tribute to Him. Oh, they’ll deny it. But they know.

It is called the Lord’s Day, not because He commands us to spend it in chains, bored, and reading the Bible without understanding.
He wants us to fulfil our purpose, which is twofold: to glorify Him, and to enjoy Him.

This is not the language of bondage, but of freedom. God wants us to choose to spend time in His presence – He doesn’t compel, or command; and He will not drag you to Himself kicking and screaming.

Though, one day, you may wish He had.

And, even though this step has been taken, it does not mean the atheists have won. They are not victorious in any sense that I can envy. I can say that even though the auditorium will be full on the first open Sunday, because every ticket has already been sold.

It was calculated that way. Some savvy person knew that these superior beings who will not allow their children to be duped by fairytales from the Middle East, would like nothing better than a Sunday afternoon watching aliens and spaceships.

Harmless escapism? I suppose that all depends on what you’re fleeing from.

Meantime, we Christians will be invoking that much talked-about religious privilege. We only have the one, but it really is all we need. ‘The force’, you might call it.

It is our privilege to pray for those who will not pray for themselves. We pray that their eyes will be opened to the folly of what they’re doing; we pray that they will get a heart of wisdom.

Closed minds and deaf ears will not hear our protests; but God is waiting for our petitions. Not – lest they wilfully misunderstand and take offence – petitions that He should smite them, nor anything of that nature. This isn’t Star Wars, you know.

No. Prayers that they will see Him as He really is. And that they will take hold of that for themselves. This is not about power, or imposing a Sabbatarian lifestyle on others.

For the Christian, this is much more important than lifestyle – it is about life. We would have everyone choose that themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

Fiery Crosses and Rightful Kings

If you wanted to foment a rebellion today, it would be a simple matter of texting all your supporters the where, when and why. ‘C u @ Gfinnan – B there or die.Charlie x’ . The Jacobites didn’t have Vodafone though, so their technology was rather more primitive, and quite possibly a lot more reliable – the crann-tàra. This was a cross of wood which had been partially burnt and then dipped in blood before being passed from person to person in a kind of relay until all had been rallied.

A scattered population has always presented a challenge to any cause. It was difficult to provide a uniform education system, or equal access to healthcare in all the corners of the Highlands and Islands. And it was difficult to evangelise those who did not live in or near a large centre of population.

That is certainly one of the reasons why the Reformation arrived so late in our neck of the mòinteach. Keeping the effects of the Reformation alive is proving to be an equally great challenge in the present day.

People do not come to church if they don’t want to and, increasingly, they don’t want to. Attendance at the means of grace has dwindled alarmingly across the country and even here in the islands.

There is still a thing or two that we could learn from the Jacobites. They did not sit around waiting for their supporters to show up – they went and demanded loyalty from each one. The symbolism of the crann-tara was that anyone who did not respond accordingly could expect to meet with fire and blood. It was quite literally a life or death proposition.

That, I think, is how the Gospel has to be presented – urgently. All who hear His call must know the truth, that it is a straight choice between falling in with Christ, or dying eternally.

Of course, you have to know where the people are. Otherwise, how can you obey the great commission and ‘go’? We don’t have to trudge across the region, or gallop on horseback, though, to go where the people are.

They’re right here: online.

We can’t assume that methods of communication which don’t work in the real world are going to be any more successful on the internet, however. If people don’t want to walk into our churches, then, why are they going to follow us on Twitter, or click on our Facebook posts?

At Stornoway Free Church we have recently been stepping up our use of social media. This is not in some painful effort to make ourselves cool. (Mo chreach, I’m just not sure we’d know where to start).
We simply recognise two things: Jesus wanted us to go to where the people were with His message; and where the people are, the Devil is always prowling. It is incumbent upon the church, therefore, to bring light into the darkness that can sometimes exist online just as it does offline.

Christ’s church exists to glorify Him, which I think we can sometimes forget, even with the best of intentions. We think it’s up to us to devise the initiative that will be the golden key, the thing that brings people flocking to us.

What will bring people to us, actually, is grace and that is not within the gift of the Free – or any other – Church. We must surely accept the Holy Spirit’s divine authority. So, we ask for God’s guidance, and we continue worshipping and spreading the Good News.

And, we show forth who Christ is, and what He has done on our behalf. That is sufficient. Using social media is just another way of ensuring that people know the truth. We don’t have to do anything more: there isn’t anything more to be done.

If God becoming man, God suffering and hanging on a cross to die for us is not enough; if His defeat of death is not enough, then we are not people who can be satisfied. Gimmickry and hashtags will certainly not impress if His name leaves you cold. But then, if His name fails to rally our heart to His cause, we must be prepared for the consequences.

Like the Jacobites, we should use every means at our disposal to spread the news. But in passing this fiery cross to others, we have to let them see that its terrible beauty and power lie in something not unlike the original crann-tara.

The cross we hold up before them is dipped in the blood of the Saviour, and fired with the power of His salvation offer. How we pass it on hardly matters. He is not willing that any should perish, and so we may be quite sure that it will reach all those who belong beneath His royal standard.