How I Worshipped on Pentecost Sunday 2020.

Pentecost is one of the highlights of the year as we remember the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, described in Acts 2, and celebrate the birthday of the church. However, this year obviously was very different due to the current lockdown restrictions. Nevertheless, I was glad to have the opportunity to attend a couple of services and decided to share how I worshipped on Pentecost Sunday in 2020.

Our church has been evolving our online services since we first started them. Originally, we used to record a service and put it on our website for people to view. A few weeks ago, we moved to live streaming our services via Zoom and this week in addition to this we also streamed it live on Facebook too. (We are still placing a recording on our website).

Preparing for church is very different these days. On Sunday morning, about 20 minutes before the service, I check the link and password we are using for this week’s service. I normally log on about one minute before the service starts. This is mainly because I do not particularly like looking at myself in the web camera. Once I log onto Zoom I play around with the positioning of my laptop so the webcam is the right level for my wife and I.

It is strange to sit round a laptop to worship but that is how we do this currently. Our service was an all age one which lasted about 35 minutes. The service followed the format of opening song, confession of sin, interactive bible reading, sermon (including animation video), prayer and closing song. The theme was Pentecost and the sermon challenged us to see what God might be doing during this time and to be praying and preparing ourselves for life after lockdown, being ready to share His love with those who do not know Him.

Following the service, we had “virtual coffee”. Basically, the Zoom admin person randomly sends us into breakout rooms with 2 or 3 others and we chat for about 10 minutes. We are then brought back together and repeat the exercise. This has been a good way of getting to know some church members who I had not previously spoken with.

In the evening I attended the Diocese of Guildford Pentecostal Prayer Service which was streamed live via their YouTube channel. The service lasted about 55 minutes and contained prayers, songs, greetings from Bishops in Denmark and Pakistan, a very funny sketch based on Acts 2, a sermon, and a song from a Coptic Church in Surrey.

It goes without saying that watching a service on a laptop or the TV is not the same as attending one in real life. However, sadly that option is not available to us yet. It is wonderful that despite the lockdown we still have this technology that we can use to worship God. There is a lot of work that is put in by technically gifted people to ensure that everything works ok. Many people in the world do not have the freedom to worship and so we should be grateful that we still can.

Interestingly in both our services today we were reminded that the disciples were in “lockdown” themselves before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Whilst we would prefer to actual meet as we used to, God can still speak to people and meet them through remote worship. He is not restricted by this. Both services were encouraging, and one felt some excitement in looking forward to what might happen in our churches once we come out of lockdown and can meet again.


Housegroups with Zoom

Like many church groups, our housegroup decided that we would continue meeting during these unusual times, using Zoom instead of meeting physically, as the lockdown restrictions do not permit us to meet in the normal way. Now that we have done this for a few weeks I wanted to share my thoughts and experiences of meeting virtually.

The format we have used each week is:

• Welcome tea and coffee / catch-up

• Opening Prayer

• Worship song

• Bible reading and short reflection / discussion on passage.

• Prayer time

• Worship song

• Saying goodbye

Our housegroup normally has 10 people who attend. Unfortunately, 2 of these are unable to join the Zoom meeting, leaving 8 of us who have meet each week from 4 households.

I think we all found it initially quite strange looking at each other, and ourselves, on our computers / laptops. One starts to feel self-conscious of everybody looking at you!

It obviously goes without saying that it is not the same as meeting together and cannot replace that. However, currently we cannot do that and therefore this is the only option available. We all agree that it has been good to see and talk with each other again.

As far as the individual parts of the meeting have gone, I would say:

• Worship – the host of the meeting plays a worship song via YouTube. It is a good way to start the meeting, but the videos sometimes suffer from pixel issues when played back via Zoom. We discussed this last night and the problem is with the speed of the broadband connection when streaming the video via Zoom. I think it is something which we are just going to have to live with!

• Bible reflection – We have found that it does not really flow in quite the same way as when we normally meet together as a group. One of the problems is that sometimes it has been difficult for the group leader to gauge the mood of others in the group and if they want to contribute. This is a lot easier to do when we are all in the same room and you can see people’s expressions. That said our reflection last night did flow well and we may find that as we get more used to meeting virtually this might improve.

• Prayer time – I think the prayer times have worked very well. We have a prayer list which is shared on the screen and we quickly run through it, adding anything new, and then we pray together. I would say that the prayer times have probably been the best part of the evenings.

On a personal note there have been times during our meetings when I have struggled to hear exactly what one of the others have said due to the poor quality of my laptop speakers. I could put my headphones on to resolve this but then my wife would not be able to hear anything! I did investigate downloading the Zoom app to my tablet, however they wanted what I considered excessive unnecessary access to my tablet, which I was not prepared to grant.

Anyone who has used the free version of Zoom will know that meetings are limited to 40 minutes. We are fortunate to be using one of the subscription versions so do not have this time limitation.

One of the drawbacks of meeting virtually is that there is the risk that two people in different houses might start talking at the same time. Zoom does have a facility where you can put your hand up if you wish to say something. However, that facility is only available to the host of the meeting and in our group the leader is a different person to the host.

When all is said and done the majority of the issues we have experienced are not major ones. Some might call them “first world problems!” We as a group have enjoyed being able to meet again, even though it is virtual and will continue to do so until we are permitted to meet physically again.

We are very fortunate with the advances in technology over the last few years that we have this option which enables us to continue to meet during these times. I would certainly recommend that if your housegroup has not tried this yet then you consider doing so. You do not necessarily have to use Zoom as there are other options available e.g. Jitsu. Whichever option you choose it is worth meeting virtually to encourage one another.


Online Church Services

Due to the current lockdown it’s now been 31 days (15th March) since the church I attend has been able to meet together in our building. Since that time we, along with many other churches, have moved our services online. We are uploading our online services to our website. Additionally, we are uploading videos for our Messy Church to our Facebook page. Other churches are live streaming services on Facebook.

We are used to services being broadcast on platforms such as BBC Radio 4, Premier Christian Radio, United Christian Broadcasters and not forgetting of course Songs of Praise on BBC1. However, all these programmes will have professional sound engineers working on them. Therefore they will be professionally produced and will be of a high technical quality. Most of our churches will not have access to such skilled personnel, and instead will have to work with the skills available to them within their own congregations.

Obviously all this is a big change for churches and I felt it might be useful to share some thoughts on my experiences of online services.

Our vicar mentioned that he encountered a lot of technical challenges in putting together the services for last week. As it was Holy Week there were four services to produce: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. We are using the Freemake video converter to put together our services. This means that everyone who is taking part in the service has to record their contribution and send it to the organiser of the service. The various different files then need to be converted to the same file format and the video produced. Anyone who has been involved in any audio or video production will know though that invariably things are never straightforward. This can be very time consuming and frustrating! Whilst a service might last 30 minutes it would take significantly longer to produce the final video to upload to the website.

When watching an online service it is obviously essential that your internet connection does not crash. Whilst watching a live streaming service on Facebook on Easter Sunday our connection went down at home. Fortunately the outage was only 7 minutes, so we carried on from where the crash occurred. Depending on where you live in the country, the quality of the broadband can vary. For those in areas where the internet signal is weak live streaming services may not work.

Generally speaking the contents of an online service would contain all or some of the following: a sermon, worship, bible reading, prayers, children’s talk, testimony and communion. If we go through each of these individually:

Sermons – most churches these days upload versions of their sermons onto their websites anyway. Therefore in that respect we are used to online sermons. Over the years churches have recorded sermons, making them available in various different formats dating back to the days of cassette recorders. For most of us then this is not really a significant change in how we have listened to sermons if we were unable to attend church. The big difference is that normally these are audio and not video recordings.

Worship – it can seem strange watching someone singing and leading the worship from their own home. We can find ourselves distracted, looking at their wallpaper and pictures that are hanging up! Another potential issue is we might slip into the role of a spectator just watching them sing, rather than joining in the worship ourselves. Our church helpfully includes song lyrics for people to download from our website. In some ways it can be similar to listening to a worship cd whilst driving. Although unlike with driving you can close your eyes and raise your hands!

Bible reading – ideally we should close our eyes and listen to the passage of scripture being read. I have, if I’m being honest, found myself distracted by the same wallpaper issue though as mentioned above.

Prayers – in the Anglican church we have the practice of someone leading the prayers each week. This has worked well in our online services. Obviously it prevents any open pray, as we are all in our separate homes, but I personally have found this part of the service helpful. The important thing is to ensure that you close your eyes and concentrate on the words of the prayers. The same as in “real life”.

Children’s talk – the ones I have watched in the live stream services have been specific and to the point. They have included some visuals too which have helped get over the main point and been done well. In our Palm Sunday service we had a donkey appear which I’m sure the children would have enjoyed seeing. Interestingly the donkey seemed to have a very familiar voice!

Testimony – this is really similar to the section above on sermons. The only thing I would add is that it’s nice to see another member of the church speaking and see a different face.

Communion – one of the online streaming services on Facebook which I “attended” was a communion service. I took the bread and wine, and personally found the service beneficial. This particular service was put on by a baptist church, which has different rules to the Anglican church in this area. In respect of our church on Easter Sunday the service was a communion one. However, that just involved our vicar taking communion on the video. To be honest it felt strange not taking part but that is the current practice in my denomination.

The obvious criticism of online services is they are not the same as meeting together to worship. Of course it’s difficult to disagree with that view. However, at the moment we cannot meet as a church in the normal way. We do not have that option. Therefore this is the best method we have available and we should seek to embrace it. There are many countries in the world where Christians do not have the freedom to worship and they would I’m sure love to have this facility.

Also although we are unable to meet it least it gives us opportunities to see members of our churches on our screens. Additionally, when you post something online, you never know who will watch it. God can use our services to speak to people all over the world.

A lot of work has been put in by churches in producing these services and therefore I am not inclined to criticise online services. Instead let us pray that they might be powerful and effective in spreading the gospel message.

Online Prayer Meeting

A few years ago one of the Christian Facebook groups I belonged to held an online prayer meeting and I thought it might be interesting to blog about it.

The prayer meeting was led by the group moderator and instead of speaking our prayers out loud, we typed them out on our laptops / computers into the private Facebook group. This is a different approach for most people, but one of the advantages was that we had to think about what we were saying. It prevented us from rambling on!

If I’m being honest I do struggle with praying. One of my problems is that my mind does tend to wander and my concentration levels are not brilliant. However, I found that during the online praying my mind did not wander and I was able to concentrate. Although this prayer meeting only lasted about 30 minutes, I have found that in shorter prayer times when I’m praying my concentration levels have wandered.

So why could I concentrate better at this meeting? Normally during times of prayer, we bow our heads, close our eyes and then pray. Now obviously I could not do that at this online prayer meeting. Well I could have done, but I would not have known what people were saying in their prayers! I found that by concentrating on the screen, reading the prayers and then thoughtfully typing out my own prayers my concentration levels were much better than normal.

I personally found the prayer meeting very beneficial and felt closer to God during this time. This was interesting because the group contained a mixed bunch of people and a wide range of theological views, not all of which I agreed with. Yet this prayer meeting worked. Afterwards I reflected that I stopped myself judging the content of the prayers of the other people and make sure that I kept a right heart attitude throughout. I am embarrassed to admit that I don’t always do this at prayer meetings!

Some might feel hesitant about the value of online praying but Jesus did say “for when two or three gather together in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20). Nowadays thanks to the wonder of technology those two or three could be literally thousand of miles apart physically but united spiritually through prayer.

Online praying provides us the opportunity to pray with those who we may never meet on this earth. It also means that the house bound person or the parent who cannot go out due to childcare arrangements can also participate in prayer with us. It allows us to pray with our missionary friend when they are away overseas.

Although the prayer meeting I attended was conducted via typing into my laptop, of course you could use tools like Skype and pray out loud as you would normally do in a prayer meeting. There are so many ways that one could use technology to assist them in online prayer meetings. I don’t think that Christians should abandon “real-life” physical prayer meetings and replace them with online ones. But instead these could supplement them.

If you are interested in online praying why not give it a go!


A Digital Sabbath

A digital sabbath is the title of one of the chapter’s in David Robertson’s book: What Would Jesus Post?

For Christians the sabbath is a day of worship in which we specifically endeavour to focus on worshipping God. Some might describe it also as a day of rest from work. Although in our modern culture there are many who do have to work on that day.

David Robertson aims in this chapter to get the reader to focus on the idea of a digital sabbath. He asks us to consider how we might change our online behaviour on the sabbath to mark the day out as holy to God.

I expect that the idea of a digital sabbath is one that many of us have not previously considered. We naturally go online every day without thinking anything about it. This comes as naturally as breathing to us! Should we though try and make this day different and have a break from online activity?

One of the problems we face is that it’s very easy for us to start making up “thou shall not” rules to govern behaviour both offline and online on a day of rest. However, I don’t believe that this is the right way to approach this. Instead a better way is to ask the questions that the author ponders:

  • How should we use our time on this day?
  • How do we make this day different?
  • How do we use this day to reflect the nature of God?

The author challenges the reader with the thought that if our sabbath day is no different to any other day then we are being conformed to the world. Whereas we need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2).

He also asks how quickly do we expect replies to emails and postings we make on a Sunday? I must confess if I email someone or message them on a Sunday I do check regularly for a reply.

From a personal prospective I think it is good to consider having a break from the online world. There will of course be occasions when that is not possible for various reasons. For example: we may be awaiting an urgent message from someone or we might be using our phone as our sat-nav whilst on a car journey.

Last Sunday I decided to have a digital sabbath and apart from replying to a text I received the phone was left alone. I found it very liberating to be free from my phone and enjoyed the experience. I am hoping to do this on a regular basis as it’s so easy to be addicted to our smartphones. It’s nice to have a day that is different.

I think David Robertson has again raised some important questions in his book which would be wise for us to ponder and act upon. Hopefully more of us will consider now taking a regular digital sabbath.

Are we addicted to our smartphones

I wonder how many of us have been asked the question “are we addicted to our smartphones?” If so what would our answer be? Would we have the courage to be honest with ourselves and say yes?

One of the things that frequently amazes me is watching groups of people sitting in a restaurant together ignoring each other and staring at their smartphones. Sometimes I see two people in a restaurant, who are obviously out on a date, and instead of talking to each other they are both engrossed in their smartphones.

Last week Apple at their Worldwide Developers Conference spoke about ways to make people use the iPhone less. They are going to introduce features that will show how long we spend doing various things on our phones. Google have also been talking publicly about this too.

Why are we obsessed with constantly looking at our smartphones? Why is there the constant need to keeping checking social media updates? Are we afraid of missing something? Will our lives be worse off it we are not looking at our smartphones?

I remember the BBC speaking to some school children about their use of social media. It was suggested to them that they switched off their smartphones for an evening.  The feeling was if someone did this they would not know what everyone was talking about the next day at school, as they were usually discussing what was posted on social media the previous evening.

Six ways to break our addition to smartphones?

    1. Switch off notifications on your smartphone – it’s not compulsory to have notifications switched on! If we switched them off our phones would not constantly keep going off. We therefore would not have the urge to check what the latest notification was?
    2. Switch off your mobile data on your smartphone – again it’s not compulsory to have this switched on. If it’s not switched on then you will not be able to check what’s happening on-line. If anyone wants to contact you they still can by text or a phone call.
    3. Switch on aeroplane mode on your smartphone – this is my favourite! No-one can contact you if you switch this on. You can still take photos on your phone and you will save battery life too. I always use this when I go to bed so that I will not be disturbed!
    4. Have short breaks from using your smartphones – Richard Madeley wrote last Saturday in the Daily Express that “starting today (9 June) I’m switching my phone off at weekends.” If a weekend seems too much why not try an evening per week?
    5. Stop using your smartphone – Simon Cowell said last week he has not used his phone for 10 months and he felt the better for it. Maybe for most of us this is a bit extreme and not practical but it’s an interesting observation from him.
    6. Practice self-control – Ultimately it is all about self-control. Will you let your smartphone dominate your life? The apostle Paul when writing to the churches in Galatia listed self-control as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:23). God has given us the means to beat this addiction (or any other one). We need to seek Him for the fruit of self-control in our lives.