Given the events of 2020, 2021, and 2022 that have dramatically impacted and changed the landscape in which churches operate, it’s important to address three persistent questions I hear church leaders asking. In last week’s blog, I shared each of the three questions, as well as an important shift in perspective that the church can make to allow us to better take advantage of the time before us. The first question on most people’s minds has been, “When do things go back to normal?” This week, I’ll share what we can learn from pandemics past, as well as the answer, from a 2022 perspective.
In the church, normal means greeting each other with hugs and handshakes and singing together in worship. Normal means taking Holy Communion in the company of others. It means returning to live, in-person worship with the same people we were used to seeing before, while also welcoming new folks. Normal means getting back to the ministries we used to offer and traveling freely without fear. Normal means recovering from the shutdowns, coming back together, and getting past the pandemic. So, when do things go back to normal?
Many churches have journeyed back to the familiar. Others are quickly making up for lost time. I’m all for in-person worship and relaxing in the company of others. After all, we are social creatures. Being together like “before” nourishes the heart and is good for the soul.
There’s just one problem with going back to the familiar, but most people don’t want to hear this. “Normal” doesn’t exist anymore. There’s no going back to 2019. And, even if churches could go back to normal, the rest of the world wouldn’t be joining us. That’s because lives have changed. People have picked up new habits and established new patterns. Life, in general, is not magically going back to a time before COVID-19.
The Forgotten Problem with Normal
So, the old normal of 2019 no longer exists. Life has evolved along with the virus, showing up in all kinds of new variants. Today we find ourselves in brand new terrain. While you could try to go back to the same worship service, meetings, discussions, and debates, if you did, you would also return to the forgotten problem with “normal,” which is that the normal way of doing church had actually become a model for decline.
Long before the pandemic erupted, churches were already worried about their health and vitality. Younger generations and their parents weren’t as interested in church as previous generations. Boomers fretted about how to attract more children and their parents while resisting changing the worship service to meet those needs. The Pioneer generation worried if their congregation could stay vibrant long enough to ensure that at least someone would be there to conduct their funeral, even if the congregation didn’t outlast them by long.
That’s what “normal” looked like before the pandemic hit. The normal way of doing church wasn’t just a series of unfortunate dynamics. Instead, it was a pattern of expectations woven into the very culture of church life.
Simply resuming the “normal” way of doing things in church – Sunday worship + Sunday school classes + small groups + administrative meetings – won’t make the needed difference now. While we can all be forgiven the intense desire for normalcy, “normal” wasn’t a sustainable model for building a robust life of faith or for growing a vital congregation before the pandemic.
Medieval Churches Faced a Crisis Before the Plague, too
Before waves of the bubonic plague rolled across Europe, the church had already shifted some of its focus from the care of souls to gaining political power and amassing wealth. Religious and political leaders formed alliances similar to marriages of convenience to achieve their individual goals. This focus on political power weakened the spiritual power of the church by diverting its attention from the care of bodies and souls to worldly matters. This revealed the need for greater spirituality in the church and gave rise to a medieval version of the spiritual but not religious movement.
As the plague decimated the ranks of the clergy, the church trained new priests, but many of them were young, poorly educated, and ill-equipped to serve people well. People were left to find their own way to safeguard their souls from the plague they believed was a sign of the wrath of God. While still identifying as Catholic, because no other form of Western European Christian faith expression existed until the Protestant Reformation of 1517, people went around the church authorities and structures to create new ways of connecting to God. The development of the Reformation itself was an example of this yearning for more direct spiritual connection.
I used to think that the rise of the spiritual but not religious movement – people who were once associated with the church but left to pursue their relationship with God on their own terms – was a twentieth- and twenty-first-century phenomenon. But it’s clear to me now, looking back at how people responded to the plague, that this movement began much earlier than I ever suspected.
Embrace Spirituality and the Next Normal
In the quest to return to normal, many church leaders and members are operating from the assumption that the church as-is can grow past the impacts of the pandemic. These churches believe once the pandemic is over, we’ll go back to something recognizable. They believe, in the meantime, we need to get our programs back up and running, offer a full calendar, go invite people, and wait for them to show up.
While there is some validity to this approach, it misses the innovative opportunities before us. This is the perfect time to learn from medieval Christians and pandemics past to align ourselves with God’s unfolding future. It’s time to envision a new path forward beyond putting the coffee pot back on for the fellowship hour and passing the offering plate. The church today has a similar, contemporary version of the spiritual but not religious movement.
Even as religious affiliation has dropped over the years, spiritual affiliation has dramatically increased. The God of the Bible is a God of direct encounters. But, over the centuries, people of faith have taken this record of spiritual experiences and mined them for morals, lessons, and do’s and dont’s. We have recast these spiritual experiences as religious experiences by focusing on the beliefs and behaviors derived from them rather than the transcendent states being described in them. As a result, sometimes even church people think that a direct experience of God is out of reach.
Rather than fearing or dismissing the message that the spiritual but not religious communicate by leaving the church, let’s learn from them instead. They’re signaling the need for a shift in church culture we can all benefit from.
As we pay attention, I think we’ll find that the news is generally hopeful. People want to experience God and the transcendent. People want more of church, not less. As you move the church forward in this post-pandemic world, this is the perfect time to lead people to refocus on the spiritual aspects of the Bible, and to encourage divine encounters in their life. Not just to learn about Jesus, but to be in the presence of Jesus.
If you’d like to build deep relationships with fellow church leaders in spiritual community, consider joining a Creating a Culture of Renewal® cohort! Our three-year leadership development program will empower you to bring renewal to your congregation and community.
Excerpted and adapted from Rebekah’s new book, Forging a New Path: Moving the Church Forward in a Post-Pandemic World (Market Square Publishers, May 2022).
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