The New Normal … Ain’t Going to Be Normal
Reggie McNeal • Good Cities
[Note: See an exclusive P.S. from Reggie at the conclusion of this article]
Waiting on the world to snap back into place on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic promises to be a recipe for dashed expectations. Church leaders can either see this as the epochal turn that it is or hunker down waiting for the pandemic to subside and the storm to blow over. That’s just not going to happen. What was normal in the church world is never going to be normal again.
In many ways the pandemic is accelerating for the church significant dynamics that have already been set into motion by the fourth information revolution in human history – the digital information age. (The invention of writing, the book (codex), and the printing press were the first three such information watersheds.) The technological capacity to digitize information has challenged every institution to change or to die, to adapt or become irrelevant. Younger readers of this article have no recollection of a world where one had to go to a bank to bank, shop at a music store to get music, visit a theater as the only way to take in a movie, or make a trip to the library or bookstore to pick up a book. These industries reinvented their business models for the new world.
This need for reinvention is the challenge the church now squarely faces, but not just on a delivery or business model level. Just adding online worship services and ramping up giving options is a tactical move that some will pull off better than others. It’s not just a matter of making sure the church is accessible through technological application. It’s a matter of making sure the church is relevant through missional integrity.
The COVID-19 pandemic has catapulted the church into the world of the new spiritual realities of the digital age. By being suddenly and brutally thrust into the digital age by the pandemic the church has come face-to-face with the reality that people fundamentally want to be engaged spiritually in different ways and for different reasons than many church leaders were prepared to deliver. This new spiritual landscape has been decades in the making, but largely ignored by many church leaders, who (pre-pandemic) continued to prosecute a church ministry agenda that was pitched to the previous age – an age that can be characterized as having a church-centric orientation (more about that in a moment).
Just a few key examples show how significantly different the new world is than most church leaders realized. The reality is that increasing numbers of people are not interested in or willing to being congregationalized in their spiritual journeys. People’s faith expressions have become much more customized and less dependent on the sanctions of religious institutions and authorities. Contemporary spirituality is much more experience-oriented than mere passive participation in religious rites. And while people resist having their spiritual journeys scripted for them by the church, they are open to their journeys being shaped through processes and people they see as helpful.
Through the weeks of a pandemic that has ravaged the country’s health and economy, being church has eclipsed doing church as the way for the church to connect with the culture and enjoy missional vitality. Jesus-followers have been finding enormous spiritual satisfaction in their intensified efforts on loving their neighbors. Rather than a side-bar concern amid all the church activities and programming, serving others has become the main expression of the church. “Church” has become more a verb – a way of being in the world – rather than in its typical use as a noun designating a place or an organization.
This dynamic points to the way forward for the church: moving from church-as-institution as its primary expression to church-as-movement. The pandemic has fast-forwarded this future.
What shifts must happen for the church to move from the old normal (church-as-institution) to the new normal (church-as-movement). Nothing less than a church culture shift will do. This transformation will require that church leaders make three significant changes.
First, we must change our STORY. I’m not talking about the gospel. I’m talking about the narrative that we have constructed as the backbone and background for people’s spiritual pursuits. We imagined and crafted spiritual journeying largely in church-centric (institutional) settings. The prevailing assumption among church leaders has been that those serious in their pursuit of God would conform their lifestyle and habits to congregational expressions and rhythms, activities that would largely be supervised by church leaders, carried out on church real estate, and involve mostly other church people. The explosion of church programming over recent decades attests to this narrative: “come and get it.” We offer church “services” – not just worship gatherings, but everything from education to recreation to missio-tourism. In our gatherings we emphasize what’s going on “at church,” with the clear implication that church is something that exists as an institution that requires our participation and support.
The alternative narrative that supports church-as-movement is kingdom-centric. The kingdom story is the extent God has and will go to so people can experience the life he intended. Even to the point that he wraps himself in human flesh and visits the planet to show us the life he had in mind. This was the narrative of Jesus, God incarnate, who constantly talked about the kingdom of God (over 90 times in the Gospels) and instructed his followers to pray for the kingdom to come. In his one mention of church (when he established it), its very creation was tied to the kingdom, with the responsibility to introduce the kingdom to the world. The point was not the church. The reason for the church’s existence is to point the way for people to experience life as God intended, the life of the kingdom. Here and now. Jesus spent a lot more time bringing heaven to earth than focusing on how to get from earth to heaven.
A change of our narrative requires that we re-imagine what it means for the church to be church IN the world, not on a separate track from it. We focus on what God is up to in our communities, in the daily lives of people (not just the sliver of time they spend or are expected to spend at church), in how people’s spiritual gifts manifest at home, at the office, in the neighborhood. Our discipleship centers on how we live as viral kingdom agents (what it means to love God in every aspect of life, how to love our neighbors, and what it means to follow Jesus every day in every relationship and circumstance). Kingdom spirituality has much more to do with this life than the next.
Our narrative as church leaders – what we talk about when we gather, what we publish on our websites, what we mention in our private conversations – tells people what we think is important. The goal of turning people into church people is far less ambitious than the vision Jesus had for the movement he started. They must hear from us that expanding his kingdom is what God is up to in the world.
This is not a new path for the church; but it has been so long neglected that it will seem like a new trail leading to new territory for many church leaders and for those in their ministry constellations. The path and the destination are the same: the kingdom of God. Jesus wasn’t just making up scripture when he told us to pray that it come on earth and to seek it first. His frame of reference was the kingdom, and he expected his followers to share his priorities.
Second, we must change our Scorecard. By scorecard, I mean what we celebrate. Church leaders shaped by a church-as-institution narrative are driven to assess progress in church-centric numbers: how many show up for gatherings, how much money comes in for operating, the number of participants who support church programs, etc. I am not naïve – we will always count these inputs.
What I am arguing for is that we expand what it is we measure, and that we bring our scorecard in line with the expressed will of Jesus. He did not command that we make customers; he commanded that we make disciples. By definition a disciple is one who follows. If we follow Jesus it means we care about what he cares about. And that is the kingdom). We cannot arrive at any other conclusion if we read the red letters in the Gospels. Jesus did not come to establish a religion. He came to show us the kingdom. Not kingdom understood as a geographical/political/ religious entity, but understood as people experiencing LIFE as God intends. The LIFE that Jesus claimed to BE! The abundant LIFE that Jesus said he came to give us. To whet our appetites for a better world and to tell us how we can partner with God in making it happen.
Church leaders must find the courage to have a kingdom-biased scorecard for ministry. This means going beyond mere inputs (activities, participation) into measuring outcomes. We must look for and measure results. Meaning: how many people are experiencing life as God intends (spiritually, physically, emotionally, relationally, economically, every aspect of human experience)? This question includes everyone: those who already identify as Jesus-followers as well as those who are our neighbors.
We should certainly know the score for how those in our immediate ministry constellation are experiencing the life God intends for them. If we asked them, people would actually tell us whether they are growing closer to God, have better relationships with their spouse and kids, are loving on their neighbors. Why shouldn’t we know how many people are struggling financially, need some extra work to help ends meet, and how many are coming out of poverty (in case the congregation has poverty-stricken people in it)? The current pandemic has created financial havoc for so many, a situation that begs for churches to have a scorecard that keeps track of their challenges and the church’s response to these changing needs.
But kingdom concerns also extend into our communities. The obvious truth is that Jesus-followers are deployed in all domains of our towns and cities (government, education, business, health care, etc.). A church scorecard that reflects some of what they encounter every day would be more congruent and meaningful to their lives than the current one which just measures their church participation and support.
More data than ever before now exists to support our efforts to redo our scorecard to reflect more kingdom (quality of life) data. Harvard’s new Human Flourishing Index can be one way to access your own ministry constellation members to begin to chart growth in critical areas of well-being. GoodCities has produced a Neighboring project dashboard that can track need level and service delivery at a census-tract level – everything from checking on elderly to grocery delivery to health needs. This neighboring tool is especially important right now in a pandemic, but it can also be used to develop data points for a church’s impact in meeting needs at a neighborhood level in real time.
A kingdom scorecard honors the lives and efforts of our people, supports the Great Commandment, and creates the culture for a missional church.
Finally, we must change the scope of our Stewardship.
This shift focuses on the leadership agenda necessary to support church-as-movement. The efforts to change our story and our scorecard will never happen as long as church leaders prosecute an agenda concerned primarily with the concerns of church-as-institution. Our stewardship as the church extends much further. A kingdom agenda includes caring about what is going on in our communities. Not as a second-mile consideration, but as a matter of priority.
The ecclesias of Jesus’ day—the word that he chose to describe the role of the movement he was founding—had responsibility for the welfare of the community they were part of. Which means that God holds the church responsible for the well-being of the communities we’re in. This is why stewardship that only extends to the limits of church programming misses the point.
We should be concerned about whether the needle is moving and in what direction when it comes to big societal issues: racism, economic opportunity, literacy, just to get started with a list of issues that confront us as a country. How many more third graders know how to read at a 3rd grade level (since this is a determiner of every life-health indicator)? How many jobs are we creating (since having a full-time job is the number one correlative to a sense of well-being, according to Gallup)? How many kids in foster care are finding adoption/secure home situations?
“Wait a minute!” you might be saying, “we’re not responsible for these results. We have a school system, and government agencies, and a health-care industry that focus on these things.” That’s true, but why not figure out how we are helping these enterprises and domain-focused organizations get their job done? Kingdom stewardship would push the church to support community efforts to improve the lives of people who may never worship with us, but are part of our responsibility as the ecclesia (and, while we’re at it, why not include the number of volunteer service hours our people invest in our community as part of what we celebrate in our scorecard, as well as how many readers/mentors/tutors we have deployed into the school we’ve adopted, or how many organizations we are partnering with).
Adopting an expanded kingdom sense of stewardship would also help overcome the sad competition between “churches” as we figure out a way for “the church” to express itself as an advocate for a better community. Since none of us can tackle and solve these large issues on our own, we will be driven to collaborate. We will figure out how each congregation brings its own unique contributions to the mix. We can quit trying to best one another on who has the better youth program for church kids as we figure out together how we can serve the youth of our community.
Shifting to kingdom stewardship carries significant impact for church leadership. We currently recruit and train leaders to focus on skills that are demanded by a church-centric ministry agenda. By changing the scope of church stewardship, a different leadership paradigm is called for than the current one, which presumes that the church exists to enfold and care for the flock of believers, with shepherd as the predominant motif for pastoral leadership. Once you move to a kingdom scope of stewardship, an additional set of competencies for church leadership portfolios come into play. These would certainly include community development knowledge as well as collaborative skills at a minimum.
We would also build leadership teams with a different composition, driven by a different ministry agenda. After all, if you build an anteater it looks for ants. A church-centric stewardship calls for leaders who are drawn to support a church-centric agenda. Moving to a greater scope of stewardship for the community would probably result in an enhanced recruitment pool both in talent and quantity as leaders reflected a larger bandwidth of personal interests and community engagement on top of spiritual elements.
Church leaders could start right where they are. Flip the script. Start elder meetings with prayer for the community and exploring church engagement and initiatives that manifest in the community-at-large. Move church-as-institution items to the bottom of the agenda. Invite community leaders in (or go see them) on a regular basis both to leadership meetings and worship gatherings. Have them share their perspectives, needs, challenges and opportunities. Doing this will support both the narrative and scorecard changes you are making. Make sure that stories of leaders’ engagement in the community are told. Conduct an influence audit by surveying the congregation on their current involvement in community agencies and boards to figure out where you already have people in leadership. Ask them how you can help them achieve the mission they are invested in.
Church leaders can move forward with confidence. When Jesus gave his church this assignment – to partner with God’s redemptive mission in the world – he said that hell would collapse as the kingdom advances. As a friend of mine says, we are taking back what hell has stolen!
God is not caught off guard by COVID-19 outbreak nor the digital age revolution. He is not struggling to catch up. But he is waiting on the church to do just that. These critical shifts by church leaders will help us get there. The post-pandemic church in America has a chance to thrive if it realigns with God’s mission in the world—expanding his kingdom. The pursuit of the kingdom alone will position the church to be both relevant and robust in our unfolding world.
An Exclusive P.S from the author . . .
• WHY ~ rethink everything?
RM: Because we have entered the digital age, an information revolution that has altered every institution in our culture, from banking to music to medicine to education . . . . to the church.
All those institutions have had to reinvent themselves. The church can do no less. The spiritual landscape of the digital age demands it - people will no longer let us script their spiritual journeys (just like they won't any longer buy 12 songs to get one they like or go to a bank to bank), but they are open to conversation and coaching. But NOT on the church's terms; on theirs, in terms of time, topic, belief. The COV-19 pandemic has catapulted the church into this new landscape,
both technologically and in terms of the new spiritual realities.
We have moved into the post-congregational church expression. We will need to increase the bandwidth of what we think church looks like. It will look like church as business, church as restaurant, church as sports bar, health club, neighborhood house church and inner-city missional community. Because this is what is necessary to have cultural relevance and missional integrity. Church-as-movement vs. church-as-institution.
• WHAT ~ does a "reimagine" process look like and what makes it difficult?
RM: The process is difficult because it often requires deconstruction of some deeply-ingrained paradigms, practices, perspectives, and prejudices.
• WHERE ~ do I begin?*
RM: Start where you are. Start loving neighbors. Start asking people who are in your relational constellation what would be meaningful and helpful to them. Don't try to "get back to normal," reinstating old programs, habits, ways you spent your time in the previous world. Create margin for something different.