As I write this it has been over four months since COVID-19 was declared to be a pandemic by the World Health Organization. And during this short period of time it seems like the whole world has been turned upside down. Much of what we once took for granted now seems like only a distant memory.
Everywhere people are looking forward to getting ‘back to normal’, whatever that is. And the longer this goes on the greater that desire grows. But what if we never get back to normal as defined by 2019? What if the measures introduced to stop the spread of this virus become a new normal? What then?
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A New Normal
I am not a prophet. I don’t have a crystal ball. Nor do I have any deep insight into dealing with pandemics. It could well be that by this time next year, COVID-19 will simply be an unpleasant memory. I certainly hope that is the case.
But there is no guarantee that we will ever make it back to 2019. Some of the more pessimistic voices in the infectious disease community warn that COVID-19 could be around for a long time. And that immunity to the virus may only be short-term. In addition, there are other similar viruses in existence that could have the same impact on us. We need to be prepared for the new normal that may be in the process of being thrust upon us.
What this new normal will look like will vary from place to place, just like the old normal. But imagine a world where masks become a part of everyday attire. Just another article of clothing that we don each day. Imagine a world where social distancing is an established way of life. That hugs and handshakes go the way of cheek kissing. Imagine a world where most of your interpersonal contact is done via Zoom or some form of virtual reality. A world where big cities lose their appeal and people move further apart.
Church and the New Normal
This new normal that I described in the previous paragraph may well never come about. But if it does, it will impact nearly everything that we currently do, including the workplace, recreation, and worship. And that is what this article is really looking at. How will we be the Church in a world where large in-person gatherings of people are dangerous and not allowed?
We have gotten a taste of that over the past few months. The church I am part of has been very active in using available technology to facilitate our joining together virtually. Worship times, Bible studies, small groups, prayer meetings, and business meetings are all being handled online now.
But even for a hard-core introvert like myself, this has been less than fully satisfying. And for the more social members of the church, as well as the less technically inclined, it has been a real struggle. We are social creatures and crave a more personal connection with other people. And, maybe more significantly, we are accustomed to meeting together in a certain fashion and dislike any disruption to that comfortable routine.
Won’t God Protect Us
A common reaction to COVID-19’s impact on the church is to believe that God will protect his people from this virus. That if we are being faithful to him, then nothing can harm us. Yet time after time, the news reports on churches and individuals who ignored the medical advice to isolate, trusting God instead, and have contracted this disease.
I do believe that God can indeed protect his chosen ones from anything that may come our way. But that is not to say that he will. We would not expect God to protect us while we sit in our building when it is on fire. So why would we expect him to deliver us from the impact of this virus when it is in our building and in other people around us?
He has given us a mind, and I think he expects us to use it. We need to follow the best medical advice that we have. Even when it is inconvenient.
Reactions to Limited Gathering
What will happen to the church in the U.S. if we cannot return to our traditional ways of meeting? I think that people will respond in a variety of ways. There are some who will simply find something else to do with their Sunday mornings. Those whose Christianity is only surface deep will likely not make any real effort to remain connected if it becomes challenging.
Others will adapt to whatever the future holds for us. But they will do so reluctantly, always looking in the rearview mirror and lamenting the loss of what was.
And there will be those who will embrace the change. They will recognize that the form of our worship and assembling is not what really matters. They will seek new ways to connect and be the Church.
What might it look like
Again, I will admit to not having a prophetic vision about the future of the Church and COVID-19. You may or may not agree with my thoughts. But regardless, I think it is wise to consider the time we are in and what the future might hold for us.
And, lest we fall into the trap of thinking that our way of worship is the only way, I would challenge you to look at places in the world where the Church is experiencing persecution. Where the types of gatherings we take for granted in the U.S. are not allowed. Where religious freedom is only a dream. Yet the Church is strong even there. Often even stronger than where we have so much freedom.
I am not comparing COVID-19 and our government’s response to it to the persecution that the Church faces in many places. They are not the same. And yet it does teach us that our ways of being the Church are not the only ways. And I believe that we can learn from that.
Technology is a tool today that we can use to overcome some of the issues with maintaining a safe distance from other people. Before the onset of COVID-19, I primarily used the internet to gather or disseminate information, or as a means for publishing my writing. But in the past few months, it has also become a way of staying connected with the local church body and with loved ones. Facebook live feeds, Zoom meetings with church and family, and Messenger video chats with distant family members have become a common occurrence in my daily life.
Technology itself is not a cure-all for the issues that we will face in this potential ‘new normal’. But it can be very useful in helping to keep us connected. And the technology that is available to us will improve in capability and functionality in the future. I believe that, even if we return to some normal approximating 2019, the knowledge we gain from this time will be useful to the church in staying connected and reaching out beyond our walls.
Increased Focus on Small Groups
The Church, at least in the United States, seems to have put much of its focus on large gatherings. Building structures that will house hundreds, or even thousands, of people. And then measuring the health, or success, of the church by how many people they have in the pews on Sunday morning.
But that was not true of the early church. They had no buildings, meeting in homes instead. And it is often not true in many places of the world today. In some places, the church meets in secret and in small groups. And God blesses them.
While there is some focus on small groups within some churches in the U.S., I believe that an extended need for social distancing will force the church to look more intently into this model. Rather than small groups just being an optional experience for some members, what if it becomes the primary way that we gather to study, worship, and fellowship? It will require a significant shift in our thinking. But one that I believe we should seriously consider.
What will 2021 be like? Will it look more like 2019 or 2020? Or something else altogether? I, for one, have no idea. But rather than mourn over the struggles we face today as a church, I would encourage us to learn from what is taking place today. To prepare for whatever the future may hold. And to continue to be the Church of God in the midst of a lost and dying world.
Whatever may come, we can rest assured that God is sovereign. Nothing that is happening this year has caught him off guard. And we can rest assured that he will continue to equip his church and people to accomplish his purpose on earth. This may or may not be a transformative time in the life of the Church. But one thing is sure. God is still in control.
The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.
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