I'll have Claytons, thanks

  
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It’s an ad that Aussies of my generation grew up with. Jack Thompson, in his ruggedly good-looking larrikin phase, says to the barman, “Claytons thanks, Brian”.

A dumbfounded onlooker responds, “On the wagon, Jack?”

“Nah” drawls Jack. “When I don’t feel like alcohol, I have Claytons.”

(Voice-over): “Claytons: the drink you have when you’re not having a drink”.

And so an expression entered Australian vernacular. When you can’t have the real thing, but you have to make do with a less than adequate substitute, it’s a Claytons. This is often derogatory, of course (in typical Aussie fashion). You really don’t want to end up with a Claytons car or work for a Claytons boss or (worst of all) be described as a Claytons husband.

But it doesn’t have to be negative. Sometimes, because of the situation you find yourself in, you just have to say, “I’ll have Claytons, thanks”.

I think that’s where many of us are at with church, in this surreal coronavirus moment.

We’re genuinely thankful for the technology that allows us to connect with our church communities online in the various kinds of simulated Sunday things that many churches are doing. And yet we also can’t help feeling the Claytons nature of it all—in the lack of physical presence with one another, the diminished communicative power of the preaching, the absence of communal singing and the Lord’s Supper, and so much more.

We miss the real thing, but we’re grateful in the meantime for the ‘church you have when you’re not having church’.

I think both of these impulses are healthy—the sadness at no longer having the real thing, and the gratitude for the Claytons substitute. In fact, I think embracing both of these attitudes will be important over the coming difficult months.

On one hand, the benefits of gratitude are obvious, and I won’t dwell too long on them. Thanksgiving in all circumstances is one of the basic characteristics of the redeemed life. And now, in these particularly difficult circumstances, there is much that we should thank God for—for the opportunities some of us have to spend more time with our families; for the undoubted gospel opportunities that are opening up as we interact with friends and neighbours whose secure worlds have been rattled; and for our pastors, who are all working long hours under stress, scrambling to minister to the flock when most of their normal tools for doing so have been suddenly withdrawn. Let’s be thankful and positive about the extraordinary technology that is allowing us to stay in touch online, to hear each other’s voices and to see each other’s faces, even if in a mirror darkly (when the webcam is positioned facing the window).

On the other hand, it will also do us good to openly embrace the fact that what we’re doing online is not the real thing—that it’s Claytons church—for at least two reasons.

Firstly, I think it’s spiritually healthy for us grieve the loss of our local church gatherings. It’s good to miss meeting together as a congregation, to long for its return, and to realise (perhaps for the first time for some of us) just how precious, unique and important the weekly gathering of a local congregation is. I wonder if this will be a Hebrews 12 moment for us, in which God disciplines us as his children to appreciate afresh something that we frequently take for granted. (And I don’t think we want to convey the opposite theological lesson over the next several months—namely, that church-without-actually-gathering is still pretty much church, so long as you catch up with an online sermon and sing along with some Christian music in your lounge room.)

Secondly, if we embrace the Claytons nature of what we’re doing online on Sundays, it may actually help us do a better job. I don’t just mean that it will motivate us to lean harder on the ‘one-another’ aspect of ministry during the week (as I suggested in an earlier Payneful Truth)—although it will. I mean that if we embrace the fact that it’s not possible to re-create the reality of our Sunday gatherings in an online space, it may liberate us to use the technology at our disposal more flexibly and effectively. In Claytons mode, we can experiment with various ways to achieve as much as possible online with each other, without feeling like we have to re-create ‘Sunday’ for people—something that the circumstances and the medium make impossible.

Let me give just one example: I strongly suspect that online ‘sermons’ will be more effective if they stop trying to be a real sermon (of the live-audience, preached kind) and embrace the character and limitations of the online video medium.

Live, preached sermons are a form of ‘hot’ media (to use Marshall McLuhan’s term). They require the full engagement of the listener in the communicative event—to follow the argument being laid out, to imagine the story the preacher is telling, to picture the imagery he is referring to, and so on. This is partly why physical presence is so important for a sermon. What a sermon requires of its listener—which is a high level of engagement—is made possible by the physical nature of the experience: sitting quietly together with others who are also listening, the physical presence of the preacher, his eye contact, mannerisms, gestures, variations in pitch and tone, and so on.

Trying to translate this form of communication to online video, straight to camera with no audience, is a media mismatch. It’s a tough ask, both for speaker and hearer. This is partly because video is a ‘cool’ medium, that functions by showing rather than telling, by creating feelings rather than arguments, by tellings stories rather than expounding texts—all of which is why you never see anyone on TV talking directly to camera to explain something for more than about 30 seconds. But it’s also because preaching is crowd communication—it has a voice and rhetorical character that assumes a largish bunch of people in front of you. An online straight-to-camera talk, on the other hand, is directed just to the one or two people who are watching. It’s like preaching a sermon in someone’s lounge-room to two people—to do it well requires a personal, conversational voice that most of us aren’t used to employing.

In practical terms, I suspect that for straight-to-camera Bible teaching to be effective over the next 3-6 months (and it could be that long!), we will need to keep adapting its form. If we want our people to stay tuned in and engaged, Bible teaching may need to be delivered in significantly shorter chunks—perhaps in two or three bites of 8 minutes each, rather than in one continuous 30 minute exposition.

Will these adapted forms achieve all that a good quality sermon achieves? Almost certainly not. It will be a Claytons, and a temporary one at that. But it will likely be a more effective way to teach the Word in this current weird situation.

As I round off this week’s edition, the Queen has just delivered a short message to the British people, encouraging them to show the good-natured fortitude that the Brits were known for during the Second World War. She concluded with an allusion to the famous Vera Lynn song of that era: “We will meet again”, she said.

We will indeed meet again. And as we long and pray for that day to come, let’s embrace the Claytons nature of our current experience—with sadness and hope, with thankfulness and grace, and with some creative flexibility to make the most of what God has given us.


PS. Thanks for the comments and feedback on last week’s edition about one-another evangelism. Two different people—John Lavender and Dave Pitt—got in touch to point out that in the Gospels we see a version of this one-another evangelism in the testimony of people who can’t help telling others what Jesus has done for them. They both gave the same two examples: the Samaritan woman in Jn 4:39, through whom many of her fellow Samaritans believe; and the leper who is told to say nothing to anyone about his healing but ends up “talking freely (Gk. kerussein)” and spreading “the news (Gk. logos). Nicely spotted.

PPS. Something else worth checking out this week: The Centre for Christian Living at Moore College (my former esteemed employers) have just put out their 2019 Annual. It contains essays, podcast transcripts and student articles—all the best content from 2019. And it’s free (or very nearly free).

PPS. And this week’s image is not as random and tenuous as usual.