THERE IS NO NEW NORMAL FOR YOUR CHURCH
by Trevor DeVage
My daughter turned 16 last week, one more reminder that everything in our family is changing. She’s driving now, and the other day she asked to drive us home—in my Jeep! My wife hasn’t even driven my Jeep yet! I said yes, and it was fine. My little girl is a good driver.
One more change: She has a boyfriend now. A boyfriend! Actually, I like him. (Could I have ever anticipated saying those words?) I like having him around. (I think he has a healthy fear of me, and I like that too!)
I know I can only imagine the changes we’ll experience in the next five or ten years. What our family has always known as normal has disappeared, and it’s tempting to long for the normal of the past. Or it would be easy to console ourselves believing a “new normal” will replace what’s changing. But it won’t. We’ll progress through one change after another in the coming years. Life will never settle into normal. The goal is not to settle into normal, the goal is to progress through life. And that’s how it’s supposed to be—not only in the life of a growing family, but for the life of a growing church, too.
NORMALCY LEADS TO COMPLACENCY
I hear church leaders talking about getting back to normal. And I’m afraid some of them will. In fact, I can think of some churches that have never left the normal of a 1950s approach to ministry that today serves few and reaches even fewer. These complacent churches like what they do, and they will do it again. Next year’s church calendar will look pretty much like this year’s. It’s only normal.
Of course, many church leaders would make fun of local churches stuck in ruts like those. But I wonder if some of us have unwittingly created new ruts we’ll rush to revisit when the pandemic threat is lifted. I fear some of us will insist on paradigms of the past instead of embracing abnormal approaches opened to us by the current crisis. Could God be using this pandemic to awaken us to new opportunities that look like anything but normal?
There’s no doubt that normal is easier. Progress requires risks, and risks can lead to failure. But risk is where growth happens, and healthy things grow. Complacency leads to stagnation, and stagnation leads to death.
NORMALCY HINDERS PROGRESS
I believe this pandemic is catapulting us forward, away from normal, to reach more people than ever. Online ministry is the most obvious example. I have a friend preaching in a small town out west who asked me some time ago to help him get his church services posted on Facebook. A year later his church of 300 was reaching 100 additional viewers online, an outreach increase of 33 percent! And that kind of growth isn’t normal in a small, Mormon-dominated town like his. Lately he’s started evening Facebook Live prayer times reaching between 300 and 400 people, far more than would ever attend a similar midweek gathering in the building.
Of course, we’ll all return to meetings in church buildings. But I’m expecting scores of local congregations to continue online ministry after being forced by this crisis to see what it can accomplish.
If we stay stuck on normal, we may miss the opportunities God has placed before us. A church without progression doesn’t reach the next generation. Where we go next in ministry (and online is only one example) will not be a return to normal if we stay open to moving forward.
YOU CAN’T GO BACK
We live in a time of such exponential change that every “new normal” becomes outdated before we can adjust to it. This is why we must always be looking forward. We can’t stand still, and we certainly can’t go back.
I remember my grandfather telling me he thought those Wright brothers were crazy to try building something people would fly. In fact, he was never in an airplane till he flew from Montana to Maryland to visit our family when he was 90 years old. When we met him at the airport, he said, “Boy, that was pretty good travel!”
I think of how many definitions of normal he had to leave behind. His family moved and settled to Montana in a covered wagon when he was a boy. In his lifetime he saw the first steam locomotive, Model T, airplane, jet engines, and space travel.
Of course, some things stayed much the same for him in all those years: love for family, hard work, daily meals, sleep every night. I’m not saying routine is bad or principles should be forsaken. We will always pray, read Scripture, share the gospel, sing, give, serve. But I believe we must pursue essentials in ways that may not seem normal at all. If we insist on returning to normal, we will likely slip into oblivion.
My 90-year-old grandfather could never have traveled cross country in a covered wagon a few years ago just for a short visit with relatives in Maryland. My daughter can’t achieve her goals without learning to drive. The church will never thrive if it’s not willing to abandon normal for the new possibilities ahead of us.