Entering the New Normal

I want to talk a little about congregational life post-pandemic. The reality is the pandemic changed things for congregations across the world. Believers have changed too; we are not the same people we were a year ago. We are living in a new-normal. No matter where you are on your faith journey you are probably thinking about how life will be when social distancing is not necessary. At least for myself, I am hoping to get over how socially awkward I have become when someone tries to reach out for a handshake. There is a lot to consider, both as individuals and as faith communities. So, I want to talk to you about 4 things we should be thinking about in the new normal.

Identity:

What grounds your identity? This is a question for both individuals and congregations. During the pandemic, a lot of things stalled or shut down. For example, in January of 2020 I moderated an interfaith mental health forum on building healthy cultures for houses of worship. The plan was to begin working on a church strategy for families with mental health challenges, but all that stalled when the demands of the pandemic shifted everyone’s focus. During the pandemic, people found new things to do like painting, donating food, knitting, and mask making. Now as the world opens, people are reflecting on what they plan to keep and what will be left behind. It is questions like these that cause me to reflect on the things that I believe are important. What comes to mind, is my identity as a Christian, a pastor, and mental health advocate. As I reflect on what my new normal is going to be, I keep thinking about the things that move the Spirit of God within me. Those are the things I want to keep in the new normal. I am going to keep the useful self-care stuff I learned along the way too, but I am leaving behind those things that steal my flourishing.

Congregations have something to think about here too. It is my opinion that every congregation possesses a uniquely gifted identity. This is something I learned from my spouse, Rachel. She has a spiritual intuition that blows me away sometimes. Wherever your congregation is, God has gifted you for that neighborhood of the world. Congregations cannot live apart from the culture around them and continue to thrive. It is the churches role to speak as loving partners to their community. Does your neighborhood need a food pantry? Does your congregation have a heart for championing equality through social activism? Is your community in need of a safe space for hurting families? Wherever you are, God has a way for you to share the love of Christ in that place. So, what does the Burlington Church keep in the new normal? What does your congregation leave behind? How are we walking in step with the Spirit of God as communities of believers? These are important questions for the future. As you prayerfully pursue answers to these questions, I think you will find how God has uniquely gifted your congregation. From within that giftedness, you can walk faithfully with the Spirit. Whatever you take into the new normal, it should be things that embrace the uniquely gifted identity and mission.

Communication:

The Gutenberg Bible, printed in 1455, brought a new wave of communication to the West. Before the use of Gutenberg’s movable type printing press books were copied by hand. Printing books by hand made them expensive and rare, but with the invention of the printing press, books became cheaper and more accessible. Now centuries later, we are experiencing the same shift in communication. The internet and social media have changed things forever. Online: services, small groups, book clubs, social groups, access to e-commentaries and Bible apps, changes how faithful people express and access their beliefs. In years past, fewer congregations used a hybrid church model that included both online and offline services. For many congregations, online services were completely new during the pandemic. Ministers scrambled to learn technologies to help them connect with their members. Even though social distancing is rough, people are discovering that online community is community. The shift can be a bit daunting but there is huge potential for sharing the love of Christ. Imagine having an in-person worship service of 85 members and an online presence capable of connecting with 1000’s of people. Hybrid Church creates an opportunity to reach outward in ways not possible before. Rather than viewing an online presence as a funnel for in-person services, it can be a place where earnest people engage in community and healthy faith sharing. You may discover that your congregation has an impact far greater than your locality. The Burlington Church can bring its uniquely gifted identity to anyone God is guiding our way.

Mental Health:

If the pandemic taught the world anything, it is just how fragile our security is in this life. The psychological impact of the pandemic will affect people for years to come. Some are eagerly anticipating the day they can return to in-person worship, while others are working through some mental health challenges and may not be eager to return. As the Burlington Church and other congregations think about the new normal, one thing we must consider is people’s mental health. Right now is a time for us to consider how to support members and our community as they wrestle with a lot of internal dialogue. It’s not necessary for congregations to become mental health experts, but it is necessary for congregations to practice compassion and patience right now. We should also be thinking about how we can encourage self-care in our churches and communities. In years of ministry, I have seen a lot of people attend services with bad colds, because they would have felt guilty staying home. That is a culture of shame we don’t need to carry with us into the new normal. The Burlington Church’s unofficial motto this last year has been, “we want you to be comfortable with whatever choice you make.” We can carry this thinking forward. I have a personal interest in building healthy and inclusive cultures for families with mental health challenges. My nephew and niece have mental health disorders. In 2019, 1 in 5 people in the United States experienced mental illness. This should change what we consider “normal” or “typical”. Given the pressure of 2020, I imagine that number is much higher. Can we envision congregations creating more space for families to be open about their mental health, in the same way we ask for prayers for cancer patients, heart surgeries, and economical circumstances? I think we can, and I think congregations that do will discover a lot of people who need the love of Christ right now.

Stability and Flexibility:

The new normal is also an opportunity to consider the balance of stability and flexibility in congregations. As I see it, stability provides comfort while flexibility allows change. Congregations tend to lean into stability because keeping things stable is comforting. Consider the arrangement to worship: opening prayer, two songs, a sermon, another song, the Lord’s Supper, a closing song, and a final prayer. This is a common arrangement, but the order is not sacred. Yet Churches of Christ frequently do it this way. There is something comforting when you go to worship while traveling and the arrangement is familiar.  There is nothing wrong with doing it this way. However, there are more foundational things for us to rely on, such as the belief that Jesus is the Son of God. Stability is valuable. We are however, seeing cultures changing faster than ever before.  Microcultures are growing and shrinking all the time within larger communities. Congregations need greater flexibility to connect with these fast-changing cultures. Congregations that lean heavily toward stability, tend not to embrace changes that would help them connect with their community. The greater disconnect between a congregation and the community at large, the more insular a congregation becomes. Embracing the need for both stability and flexibility can help a congregation avoid rigidity and instability. Too much flexibility and people feel uneasy because those important foundational things do not feel so sure. Too much stability and people feel uneasy when something comes and disrupts things. It’s a practice in balance and spiritual orientation. Since we have had a major disruption to “life-as-usual” I think it’s important to regain this sense of spiritual orientation in congregations. As things head into the new normal people may feel the need to reinvent everything (instability) or double down on what is familiar (rigidity).

Life in the post-pandemic new normal will bring with it some changes to the life of the church, but not everything needs to change or should change. Instead, I think we have an opportunity to check in spiritually with what God is doing in the Burlington Church and the greater community at large. Some things to consider moving forward are: What unique giftedness has the Burlington Church been given and how do we embrace that identity? How does the Burlington Church appreciate the greatest communication shift since the printing press? How do we show compassion for a world changed, recovering, or still suffering from life during COVID-19?  What do we keep and what do we leave behind when we head into the new normal? One thing is for certain, we have a God who is greater than the challenges of our lives and who walks with us through any uncertainty we might have about tomorrow. May we put our trust and hope in God through Christ moving forward.

Psalm 25:4-10

Teach me your ways, O Lord;
    make them known to me.
Teach me to live according to your truth,
    for you are my God, who saves me.
    I always trust in you.

Remember, O Lord, your kindness and constant love
    which you have shown from long ago.
Forgive the sins and errors of my youth.
In your constant love and goodness,
    remember me, Lord!

Because the Lord is righteous and good,
    he teaches sinners the path they should follow.
He leads the humble in the right way
    and teaches them his will.
With faithfulness and love he leads
    all who keep his covenant and obey his commands.

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