We're talking about the way that culture drives conversations, touching off of a twisting of the once-sacred narrative of 9/11 to make culture's latest point. And that brings us to this term that we all know and don't particularly love - the "new" normal.
Of course, we know that things change - and that they're supposed to - but when we talk about what a new normal looks like, we have to consider what kind of sacrifices we are willing to make and what we're going to declare is untouchable. What is essential for us? What are we not willing to give up?
This question becomes even more important when it comes, as it is already coming, to the church itself. And now, all of a sudden, all of this talk we've done about how we respond to culture's narrative makes sense. It comes down to the very heart of who we are as a people of God.
We started having this conversation last year at the start of the pandemic, and I wrote about it then and a lot of persons - even a lot of pastors - called me crazy. I was blowing things out of proportion, they said. It was never going to get here. But here we are.
We are living in a world where one of the first things our culture called into question was the church. They told us we didn't really have to meet in person. They threw our own theology against us - can't you be the church anywhere? You don't really need a building.
So we said, sure, we can be the church without a building. We can be the church without actually meeting together in person. And now, here we are more than a year later. Many of our members have not come back. Most of our churches continue to stream services online. Those that have gone back to meeting in person have sometimes adjourned again over new outbreaks or new concerns. They are requiring masks. Or vaccines. They have moved their seats so far apart that you still aren't attending church together; you are just a bit closer to being in the same space. They have removed their fellowship times and non-Sunday morning activities. All in the name of "safety."
Welcome to the "new" normal.
The church has simply agreed to become this, without considering what it means for us to be a people who meet together. And the truth is, our culture has been pushing this for awhile. A not-insignificant number of Christians have left the church because they "still love God but not so much His people." This is how we got our "spiritual, but not religious" nonsense. This thing where a bunch of Christians proclaim they don't have to be part of a church to be a Christian, despite what God has to say about us being part of a body of believers and not neglecting meeting together.
This conversation around "new" normal, then, has major implications for the church. Who are we? Who are we willing to be? What are we willing to sacrifice, and what do we demand to hold onto? These are the questions we will have to answer moving forward. These are the questions we have to answer now. These are the questions we should have been considering from the very start of this whole thing, eighteen months ago.
Because here's what happens - the world tells us that we don't need to meet together, so we stop meeting together. We have attempted to build a church without meaningful physical connection for more than a year, but the truth is that under this model, the church is becoming a service. We are becoming a group that meets the needs of those affiliated with it, that reaches out when we become aware of something. We aren't familiar to one another any more; we are names on a prayer request or blurbs in an email. We have become projects to one another. We have become needs that others can step up to fill.
And when the church becomes a service, then its people partake of it only when they need it. Need a bill paid? Call the church. Need a ride somewhere? Call the church. Need a funeral performed? Call the church. Looking for a wedding officiant? Call the church. We are becoming a 'call the church' people in a culture in which it's harder and harder to call us the church...because we aren't connected any more. We aren't a people; we are persons.
Soon, we reach the point where a person goes to the church for a wedding the same way one goes to the library for a book or goes to the DMV to renew a driver's license. Nothing more than a place of service. Nothing more than somewhere to get a need filled. Even many of our members have not returned. And as the era of livestreams has waned, so has our viewership. Fewer of our former members are tuning into our live online services. Fewer are sitting in our pews. Just as many as ever are asking for our help.
There is a disconnect building in our churches, and we have to talk about this. We have to figure out if this is a "new" normal that we're willing to accept or if we're going to demand more from ourselves. If we're going to demand more for the glory of God.
Listen, I get it. It's complicated. We cannot be attached to a physical building, but we cannot be so separated from a meaningful, life-giving community. We cannot pretend there is anything special about what happens on Sunday mornings, but we cannot deny that something powerful is happening there. We cannot think for a second that what God wants from us is for us to be in a pew, listening to a sermon, clapping along with the worship but we cannot forget or neglect how often God calls us to "one another." One anothering is the main function of the church, and we do not do that in fundamentally the same way in what our culture is already willing to call our "new" normal. We have to do better. We have to fight for more. We have to put our foot down and declare what the church is, what it will always be, and what we aren't willing to let go of, not even for something the world is trying to sell us as "life."
We know better.