For the past fifteen days I have pretty much lived in a world where internet was non-existent and mobile phone signals were variable to light (as they say on the BBC Radio four shipping forecast) and rather than experience a sense of loss or limitation the very opposite was true. Technology hadn't totally departed for my Bible and books were printed and electronic but not having a telephone ringing all the time and not being surrounded by emails and messages demanding instant responses or seeking solutions for yesterday's problem was, to be quite honest, sublime!
Speaking to a rather lovely retired cleric I found myself transported back into a time just after the war where there was indeed a Priest in every parish and the daily toil consisted of little paperwork and much visiting. 'In my day ministry was about people not technology,' he said, 'We didn't have mobile telephones or emails or computers - but we had a bicycle for the parish and a car for the town and when there was a need the people came a knocking or telephoned us or sent one of the family to fetch us. We were often there as people came into the world and there again when they left and were part of their life for everything in between. we rushed around much less than you youngsters today (haven't been called a 'youngster' for years - made me smile that did) and yet did much more parish work.'
This interested me and so I steered my companion round to what 'parish work' was and guided him to evangelism and missional thinking then and now. What he said was nothing new and yet it was revealing in the extreme because he told me how evangelism was necessary because when he was in parish ministry he had no need of an introduction because he was firmly part of the community's life. Evangelism is telling people about God, we both agreed on that, BUT to tell people about God you first need to have their ear and their confidence and the problem today, as he saw it, was that the Church has allowed itself to become too detached from the communities it serves.
'When I was a Priest,' he said, 'I was part of the community. There was Church, law, medicine and money and the four of us were there to keep the community alive, flourishing and safe. When things went wrong I was one of the first on the scene offering support, advice and Jesus. When things took a turn for the worse I was there offering tea, sympathy and Jesus. Today when things go wrong they ring the Samaritans or visit Advice groups because we don't have the primary care and family anymore and the Vicar of a place was indeed family.'
As the conversation contain used I was aware that my companion was actually grateful to have lived in a world where people not processes; where sharing across the parish rather than becoming fixated with the parish share and bringing Christ into the market place because they had the permission and the welcome of the people in that place to do so.
A while back I made the decision to do less emailing and more telephoning because I had become very aware of the fact that I was engaging with the community via a keyboard and a bit of fibre optic. I started responding to emails by telephoning the sender and discussing the issue before us. There is no doubt as to the tone behind a comment when you're hearing it and when there is a doubt over something then engagement, discussion, resolution and agreement are almost instantaneous. Nuances are made solid and combat can be robust and dealt with there and then.
The problem is that many seem confused when you ring as a response to an email - after all they expect a ping and a reply rather than a ring and a voice. Some people want the security of being sat at their desk and reading a response, but when you think about it the key element of the Christian faith is incessancy: Jesus took on flesh to bring about salvation for all humanity - perhaps there's a clue to be had in that. God could have just wiped the slate clean, pressed reset and sent out a global email (or rainbow as we used to call it) and it would have been 'job done'! But He didn't!
Many years ago, when in Industrial Engineering and management roles, I was taught about some groundbreaking new thinking from a chap called Tom Peters: Management by Walking Around (MBWA). I was also taught about a chap by the name of Elton Mayo and the increased effectiveness achieved at the Hawthorne plant when management got interested in the workforce, started watching how they worked and changed the work environment and listened to the workforce (The 'Hawthorne Effect' and also known as the 'Observer' model).
What we learnt was that people like to have the chance to chat and be known and to have their needs catered for: People like being engaged with in one-to-one encounters.
What I heard in the silence was the voice of those around me rather than those far away who contacted me through the ether with electronic words (visual and auditory). This is what I needed to tell one of my colleagues when he asked why people engage with me in my role as chaplain.
They engage because I am there in front of them and noticing things, asking questions, offering an ear and sharing the Haribo!
They engage with me because they know I am someone they can trust and because they trust me, and know who I work for, they will engage with me on the next layer of the onion skin (faith) and will ask some of the bestest questions ever!
They engage with me because I don't wear a watch! Other than services (which, like the Swiss railway, must run on time) I tell my meetings that generally I will be there with an ± 15 minutes window attached. The reason for this is that too many clergy rush from place to place governed by the clock rather than the encounter. This means that should I encounter someone with a need on my way to meet with you I will stop and be engaged rather than wave them off with the excuse that I have a meeting.
My encounter with God in the communications silence allowed Him to speak loud and clearly with me. My encounter with a man who was ordained in the days after WWII and in a time when having a telephone was high technology was God-given and timely.
So here's a challenge for October: How many people and situations can you deal with by face-to-face or telephonic communications rather than email? How many people can you engage with in your community because you are on the streets, in the café or the pub (I don't really drink alcohol but you'll find me in one of the local pubs when I get the chance because that's our market place; where is your Areopagus*?
* No George, that's not a medical term! Now put down the scissors and stop running with them ;-)