Seven Aspirational Post-Pandemic Shifts for the American Church
The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is in many ways an historic event. Whether it is really life changing and culture shaping is still unknown. Weather patterns change daily. Climate change is more enduring and significant. It is too early to tell whether the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic rises to the level of climate change. In historical hindsight it may be viewed as an overreaction to faulty epidemiological models and largely dismissed. We’d be naive to think that it will engender lasting social change. The human proclivity of returning to old habits and ingrained patterns remains strong. It is more than likely that few lessons will be learned from this experience and that the “new” normal will largely parallel the old normal. So hyperbolic predictions of significant social change in America following this pandemic are mostly wishful thinking. Or better yet they tell us more about the predictor than the predictions. Tony Morgan, author of The Unstuck Church, recently came out with a list of seven shifts that will impact the local church due to this epidemic. Some of his predictions are obvious, if also surprisingly superficial: the “shift from analog to digital.” One would think that churches’ immediate concerns should be on spiritual heart issues rather than technological delivery systems. If the pandemic has a spiritual purpose it is to loosen American Christians from their comfortable middle class forms of idolatry. Its saliency must include deep self-reflection. Even as an academic cultural analyst and social trend observer, I’m not in any better position to predict the outcome of the pandemic on society than the next person. Perhaps the safest prediction is that the changes in society will be minimal. This too will pass and we’ll go right back to the entrenched patterns of social behavior both inside and outside the church. We are too much creatures of habit to think otherwise. I wish this were not so, for there are lessons to be learned and idolatries for which the church needs to repent. But Tony Morgan’s list of impending shifts in the “new normal” does serve as an impetus to come up with one’s own list—however tentative. Mark Ryan at the Francis Schaeffer Institute challenge a number of pundits on church trends on Facebook to come up with their own list. After some reflection here are my initial musings about seven aspirational shifts we need to see in the American church from this pandemic—which as I have noted are hardly predictive.
1. Reframing vs. Status quo Churches and nonprofits will need to rethink or even reframe their status quo strategic plans. This virus has injected a large dose of insecurity and instability into society. Some of this insecurity and instability is related to health, more is related to economics, and even more related to social psychology. We will not soon forget the fragility of life and the unexpected turn it can take. If you’ve had a heart attack or stroke, you will know what I mean. The wisdom of Moses comes immediately to mind, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” A natural part of the aging process is the growing awareness that one’s days are limited. One begins to think of months and years instead of decades. The value in this is not simply in numbering our days, but in using this insight to gain a heart of wisdom. This will mean that we cannot simply go back to a complacent status quo. Wisdom will require reframing the assumptions that have for too long been taken-for-granted in our lives. If we can now face our hidden motivators and unconscious desires that dictate our behavior, then we will be far better served for having endured the pandemic. 2. Reliance vs. Security For most people the pandemic exposed their economic fragility. Many entered April out of a job unexpectedly. Many had no idea how they were going to pay for rent or meet their most basic human needs. Anxiety contagion spread as fast as the virus. While this crisis is real and not to be discounted, at an even deeper level the pandemic exposed our economic idolatry. Many were not well positioned to rely on God for their daily bread despite their weekly recitation of the “Lord’s Prayer.” So deeper than the economic crisis, what is revealed in this pandemic is a spiritual crisis. In fact, we don’t rely on God very deeply and we don’t know how to rely on God in the practical things of daily life when the metaphorical waters rise and winds blow. Jesus is very clear on this point that life here is binary: “No one can serve two masters…. You cannot serve both God and money.” So in spite of our lip service, the pandemic has exposed our fundamental reliances in a manner that is enormously beneficial to our relationship to God. Our inclination is to look first to the State rather than God for our economic sustenance. If we can repent of our false idolatrous reliance on expected economic stability and learn again to rely on God for our daily bread, then we will be far better served for having endured the pandemic. 3. Embodied vs. Virtual One hopes that the evangelical church would realize the importance of real presence instead of further celebrating Gnostic separateness. If the incarnation means anything to our theology—“God with us”—then one would hope that the Gnostic barriers of online “presence” would call attention to the human need for touch. Babies die for the lack of touch. And so do churches. We need the accountability, feedback, and community that can be realized when we are in the presence of the other. We would hope that the disembodied presence would be further questioned after weeks of mandated separateness. You would think that we would take to heart the added pain of Covid-19 patients being forced to die alone with out their families around them in their final hours. The same is true of our seniors who are isolated from families in their nursing homes. No, now is the time to celebrate real presence, human touch, and incarnational love. If we can learn again that presence means presence—not as an idea or image but as a physical body—then we will be far better served for having endured the pandemic. 4. Community vs. Individualism There is something to be celebrated in America as we have bent the curve of the pandemic and reduced the anticipated deaths by social distancing. The national application of public health guidelines of social isolation are unprecedented. None of the public health officials really knew how well this would work as it has never before been tried on this scale. Moreover, this public health mandate flies in the face of American individualism. And yet Americans largely rallied to the necessity of serving the common good over the individual self. This is a significant social achievement. We will be a far more neighborly society if we can maintain this lesson and live our lives with an awareness of our responsibility to the common good. If we can make this pattern a personal and social priority, then we will be far better served for having endured the pandemic.
5. Encounter vs. Belief We may also come to realize that spiritual words in a post-Christian society largely lack meaning. Apologist Holly Ordway warns, “Pastors, ministry leaders, and teachers may simply assume that terms such as ‘faith,’ ‘salvation,’ ‘sin,’ ‘prayer,’ and ‘resurrection’ have shared, real meaning for all those who have professed faith in Christ, when in fact this may not be the case.” In fact, the experience of this pandemic may have exposed the meaninglessness of these words in people’s lives. It is not enough to be able to give a Sunday School definition to the terms or quote from memory a relevant Bible verse, no the believer must have a personal encounter with the terms in a manner that are both objectively and subjectively meaningful. Ordway continues, “Before anything can be either true or false it must mean. Thus, only when something has meaning, which is generated by the imagination, can we begin to use our reason to judge whether it is true, or false.” Likewise sociologist James Hunter observes contemporary society’s challenge of “dissolution,” the disconnect between the words we use and reality. When words are disconnected from our lived reality, we can say that they are meaningless. They may have propositional definitions but their traction in our lives is gone. Hunter writes, “When the objectified and shared meaning of words is undermined, when we no longer have confidence that words signify what we thought they signified, then it is impossible to impute any meaning to words one desires.” We are in need of an actual encounter with the words we say we believe under the pressure of reality to determine whether they are meaningful in our lives and then true in our experience. The pandemic has put pressures on our beliefs at precisely this point. If we can acknowledge the gap between our professed beliefs and their meaningfulness in our lives under pressure, then we will be far better served for having endured the pandemic. 6. Questions vs. Answers Pastors and teachers within the evangelical church are expected to be the “answer man or woman.” We are not a community that is comfortable with loose ends. Unfortunately, reality is not so inclined. It is full of loose ends, unexplained paradoxes, and infinite mysteries. If we cannot get a comprehensive scientific explanation about something as common as light, then why are we surprised that a global pandemic will leave us with more questions than answers. The 37,000 now, to the eventual 60,000 families who have lost a love one to this pandemic may rightfully ask and with some emotional anger, “Where is God in all of this?” And before we go off in the direction of Job’s friends and provide pat spiritual Hallmark answers, we might do well to simply sit with the question. We are never guaranteed answers to all of life’s questions. In the end, this is the lesson of Job, who affirms, “You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” If we can acknowledge with humility our frailty in the face of nature and reality and embrace questions without answers, then we will be far better served for having endured the pandemic. 7. Diligence vs. Sloth Many have observed that the national lock down associated with the pandemic largely paralleled the Christian season of Lent. Historically, during these weeks sermons were preached in the Middle Ages on the seven deadly sins (pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust). They are collectively illustrations of love gone bad—perverted love, insufficient love, and excessive love. The evangelical church gets particularly worked up about the sins of the animal self, sex and the like. So what of the pandemic and the seven deadly sins? It may very well expose our sin of sloth or indifference. The attitude of “Whatever,” or generalized complacency is sloth. It’s Americanized version is what Francis Schaeffer described as “personal peace and affluence.” There is nothing better than a pandemic to put a finger in the eye of “personal peace and affluence.” Blaise Pascal wrote a great deal about sloth and indifference under the heading of diversion. He observes, “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.” Well if you have spent the last two months on a Covid-19 hospital ward, as have so many health care workers, indifference to mortality has been erased from their minds. In this same vein, Pascal writes, “I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” Thus to the degree that we have chafed from the social isolation may very well be the degree that we have become addicted to diversion. So as the pandemic eases and we get back to the “new” normal, will we also get back to those things that take our mind off of the weightier things of life, like death. Pascal warns, “The only good thing for men therefore is to be diverted from thinking of what they are, either by some occupation which takes their mind off it, or by some novel and agreeable passion which keeps them busy, like gambling, hunting, some absorbing show, in short by what is called diversion.” While unlikely due to human nature, if we can acknowledge our addiction to diversion and learn to sit quietly with unsettling questions, then we will be far better served for having endured the pandemic. The pandemic is evil. It must be fought with due diligence on all fronts. But we must also acknowledge that there are decidedly meaningful spiritual benefits and lessons to be learned from having endured the stress and trauma of Covid-19. This is resistance training for our souls. What will you take away spiritually from this experience? Hopefully, it is something deeper than a shift from analog to digital.