If you’re a church member, you’ve probably asked this question several times over the past year. If you’re a church leader, not only have you asked the question, but you’ve also likely been asked the question more times than you can count. As the pandemic approaches its eleventh month since it first upended our lives and the weekly routines of our churches, returning to normal is a frequent topic of discussion.
Not only is this a frequent question, but it’s also an understandable question. When churches across the country abruptly lost our “normal”, we entered the grieving process, even if we didn’t realize it at the time. There was the initial shock of canceling worship services for multiple weeks or longer. There was anger due to mask mandates. There was denial as many questioned if COVID was a serious health threat.
Throughout this process, there has been a sincere longing to put the pandemic behind us and get back to our normal routines and experiences. To end the grieving and get back to living. To return to normal patterns in our churches. To experience something as simple as passing an offering plate rather than dropping it in a box. To shake hands or give someone a hug. To see a fellow church member smile with their whole face, and not just their eyes.
When church leaders and church members express a desire to return to normal, I get it. It makes sense.
Before we go any further in discussing a return to normal, we need to agree on what we mean by “normal”. Webster’s Dictionary defines normal as “conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern: characterized by that which is considered usual, typical, or routine.”
When it comes to defining normal in our churches, I have begun to realize normal is a relative term. What is normal for me may not be normal for you. What is normal in my church may not be normal in your church. What was normal before COVID is probably not normal since COVID.
Please note that I’m not talking about those elements that are true in every church, whether we’re in a global pandemic or not. For example, preaching and prayer should always be considered normal for the church. After all, those were the two tasks to which the Twelve stated that they would devote themselves (Acts 6:4). Therefore, if you ever enter a time when those activities are no longer a normal part of your church gatherings, you no longer have a church. You might have a club or community gathering, but you don’t have a church.
So, when I say that normal is a relative term, I mean the patterns, routines, and methods that are used to carry out the mission of the church, not the essence of the tasks themselves.
New Normal is Now Normal
We’ve heard the term “new normal” for a while now. The “new normal” took effect the moment our churches began to deal with all of the rapid changes eleven months ago. The previous normal patterns were placed on hold in an instant.
And our new normal has changed several times since then. For a while, our new normal was to watch our church’s worship services from home. (For some, that’s still the case.) For others, the new normal soon became worshipping the Lord in your church parking lot. Still, for others, the new normal eventually became worshipping inside your church’s worship space, with significantly fewer in attendance and masks required throughout the service. For many, the new normal has involved participating in a small group or Sunday School class via Zoom.
The church has experienced a number of “new normals” over the past year. With each iteration, we are further removed from the old normal that we knew prior to the pandemic.
So, whenever we ask if/when our church will return to normal, we need to first acknowledge that our new normal is now normal. When we ask the question about returning to normal, what we mean is our desire is to return to the normal patterns and routines of a previous time.
Uncertain Return to Previous Normal
In my opinion, it’s likely that the church will never return to the pre-COVID normal, at least not entirely. I realize that may be a difficult statement to read. Let me explain why I think this is the case.
First, we have lost many to the virus. Some churches have witnessed some of their most faithful servants called home to glory. While we rejoice that death is gain for these precious saints, it means that our churches will have some empty spaces where they used to sit. We will have some open positions where they used to serve. We will miss their laughter and encouragement, if only for a short time until we are reunited in heaven. Still, if for no other reason, we won’t return entirely to normal because not everyone will return.
Second, the long-term mental and emotional effects on our behaviors are yet to be determined. I don’t know when empty arenas and stadiums during sporting events stopped looking strange to me, but I know exactly when I recently watched a highlight from a pre-COVID sporting event, and it seemed very weird that the crowd was packed in their seats like sardines, and no one was wearing a mask. It seemed almost unthinkable to me. I’m sure others feel the same way. It’s amazing how much has changed in less than a year.
The reality is that the pandemic has changed us. No one would have ever labeled me as a germophobe twelve months ago, but I’m much more cautious now, and I’m guessing I’m not the only one. The reality is that it may take a long time before masks are no longer necessary. It may be even longer before folks stop wearing them. For some people, they may wear masks in public for the rest of their lives, at least during cold and flu season. This is just one example of some of the changes that may continue to be part of our normal behaviors for the foreseeable future.
Third, some things that were part of your church’s pre-COVID normal experience may not need to come back. This will be unique to each local church context. For example, in some churches, you may decide to nix the fellowship/greeting time during the worship service permanently. For some churches, a particular event may not be added back to the church calendar. For other churches, you may have had to make the difficult decision to cut a staff position due to financial constraints caused by COVID, and you have no plans to refill the position in the future.
For these and possibly other reasons, it’s likely that your church will not return to your pre-COVID normal entirely.
Opportunity to Redefine Normal
For all of the negative effects of the pandemic on your church, the good news is that God is still on His throne. While we may not know all of His purposes for this moment, we can trust that He works all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). Therefore, COVID has provided the unique opportunity for your church to redefine what normal looks like in your local context.
Instead of returning to the way things used to be when the “all-clear” is finally determined, please don’t waste this opportunity. Take some time as a church to determine what normal will look like in your church in the future. Here are some questions to help you think this through:
- What lessons has God taught our church during the pandemic?
- In what ways do we think the pandemic has changed our church’s culture?
- What tasks and activities are essential to our church’s mission?
- If we could start from scratch with our church calendar, what ministries would we add?
- If we could start from scratch with our church calendar, what ministries would we take away?
- If we could start from scratch with our church calendar, what ministries would we change?
- How do we help our church members re-connect after a prolonged season of social distancing and isolation?
These are just some starter questions, but I believe they will help you to begin redefining what normal will look like in your church. Again, let me encourage you not to waste this opportunity that God has provided to seek His will for your church’s future ministry endeavors!
Have This Mind Among Yourselves
I know this past year has been difficult. I know that most who read these words would like nothing better than to immediately return to the way things were in your church before the pandemic. That would be your preference.
However, as I’ve just described, some things are probably going to be different in your church permanently, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If that statement bothers you, and you feel your blood pressure start to rise as you even consider the possibility that things may never be quite the same as before, let me encourage you to consider a familiar passage in Philippians 2:3-5, where the Apostle Paul instructs the believers at Philippi, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.”
In other words, don’t allow your preference and desire for your church to return to the pre-COVID normal to become a demand. Be willing to recognize your preference for what it is, and nothing more. Follow the example of Jesus who put aside His personal interests (namely, the comfort of heaven) to take on human form in order to die on a cross to secure our eternal redemption. When God became a man to save us from our sins, He put our interests above His own, and He wants us to do the same.
Therefore, if we refuse to allow our preference to return to “normal” to become a demand, we will be following in the footsteps of Jesus, and there’s no better place to be than that.