“If we are wise, we will not go back to the old normal. . . we will go forward. Dreaming a new normal.” Brian McLaren
Throughout this pandemic, I have indeed been praying for wisdom. Not only do I believe we should not try to go back to the “old normal,” but that we cannot go back because it simply does not exist anymore. This pandemic has changed us, opened our eyes to see with greater clarity, forced us into new ways of doing. We must move forward and “dream” a new normal, a new way of being church.
I offer these reflections as I dream, contemplate, and wrestle with the new normal or new way that God is calling us to be the church. This is not a theological dissertation on the meaning of church, an indictment of the past practices and traditions, or even a prescription or blueprint for building a new church. I share these thoughts as a way of inviting you to begin “dreaming a new normal” with me.
It is also taught among us that one holy Christian church will be and remain forever. This is the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to Gospel. (Augsburg Confession, Article VII). And, I would add to this definition - to send the people of God out to be the body of Christ to participate in God’s mission to love and heal the world. The church is the gathering of believers. It is in this gathering that we hear the gospel, not just read about the good news, but hear the gospel proclaimed as an objective reality. It is in this gathering that we share in the sacraments, not simply as an individual gift of grace, but as a way that connects us to whole body of Christ, something more, something larger than our own individual agendas. It is in this gathering that we are called and empowered to participate in God’s mission in the world, a mission we cannot undertake on our own. The gathering is not incidental to being the church. It is of primary importance.
In these days when we have not been able to “gather” in person in the same way before the pandemic, we have indeed found new ways to gather through technology. While I deeply appreciate the creativity of gathering in new ways as well as recognize the necessity of fathering this way in order to keep neighbors safe, I do not see this as a replacement for the in person, physically present, gathering. What I have learned during these days is that we need community that is incarnational. We need to be with people not just through technology but in person. Think about why we use that phrase to describe being physically present.
It has certainly been convenient for people to be able to stay home on Sunday morning and watch a number of worship services on-line, but it seems that more is going on than convenience. People are really being touched and fed. The “gathering” has expanded. What might we learn from this experience of “gathering” on line that we can bring into our “in person” gatherings? How can we be more intentional about creating space, opportunities, freedom to simply be (although that may not include showing up in your bath robe!) so that our gatherings are communities where people experience the reality that all are welcome? How might what we have been doing through technology invite people into community that is incarnational? We need the incarnational community just as Jesus was sent to be the incarnate word.
I know there is concern that people have gotten out of the habit of “coming” to church and when we can fully open our doors safely, worship attendance will significantly drop. I dream of a new normal where our gatherings are valued and vibrant, spilling outside our buildings. We have stayed away out of love for neighbor. I pray that we will show up for love of our neighbor for we know this gathering enables us to be the church in even richer ways.
I also dream of a new normal where advocacy is not seen as incidental to the work of the church, something that we still argue even has a place in the church, but as a primary way of living out our faith. We have always seen the importance of doing charity, of feeding and clothing people, visiting the sick, housing the homeless, and so forth (read Matthew 25:31-46). This is absolutely the work the church must be engaged in, but just as this pandemic has challenged us to expand our understanding of gathering and community, so it has revealed the deep fractures in our society that cannot simply be bandaged over with acts of charity, however much those are needed. Jesus certainly called us to feed the hungry, but his first sermon was a call to repent, to change directions, for the reign (that is a political term) of God, has come near. The gospel, the good news is that God’s reign has broken into our world, calling us into a new way of life. Advocacy is about addressing the structures, policies, and laws that have contributed to and sustained a status quo where justice does not reign for all. Advocacy is a way for us to participate in God’s mission to heal and reconcile the world, for us to participate in the salvation Christ won for us on the cross.
Advocacy does mean getting involved in “politics” but not in the way we have so often experienced it, a bi-partisan, drawing lines, shouting down opponents way that can add to the fractures we experience. The church is in a unique position to stand in the center, to hear the different voices, to both respect and challenge opposing views as we work together to address the complex issues of our day. We know that community goes beyond those who agree with one another. It has many parts (If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? 1 Cor. 12:17) and when one member suffers, all suffer together with it. (1 Cor. 12:26). If we took seriously this call to work for justice, to change the world, I dream that we would gather even more people who care about their neighbors, who want to make a difference in meaningful ways, who do want to change the world.
All of this leads me to dream of a way of being church that gathers us together to hear the gospel and sends us out to do justice and invites us each individually to spend time with and simply be with God and deepen our own spiritual lives. This time of not traveling and being constantly on the go has given me the opportunity to walk in the mornings, to be more engage in more spiritual practices, and “hang out” with God. This time has called me to put my trust not in my own wisdom or ability to figure things out, not in the government or even other people, but in God. For it is God who sustains us and who will sustain the church not in the “old normal” but in a resurrected, reformed, new way. And is that ultimately what faith is – trusting God and boldly moving forward to love.