The New Normal … Ain’t Going to Be Normal (PART 1)

Dr. Reggie McNeal

This week and next week we will feature a guest blog by Dr. Reggie McNeal. I believe it was Wayne Boyer who first introduced McNeal to the CGGC years ago through the book, The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church (Jossey-Bass, 2003). Reggie was instrumental in the development of the Missional Leadership Initiative (MLI) that was launched under Ed Rosenberry’s leadership in 2010. Over the past 10 years, Reggie has become an advisor, mentor and friend and I was thrilled when he graciously offered to share some thoughts on this culture shifting moment and what it might mean for the followers of Jesus.

Christ’s Peace,

Waiting on the world to snap back into place on the other side of the COV-19 pandemic promises to be a recipe for dashed expectations. In many ways the pandemic is accelerating 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. In each case the world was forever changed. The same is true for the digital revolution.) 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. What was normal in the church world is never going to be normal again.

The technical capacity to digitize information has disrupted and relentlessly challenged institutions and sectors of society to adapt, to transform. 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, or visit a theater as the only way to take in a movie. Not to mention arranging one’s schedule to be available to watch a TV show the ONE time it aired, or being forced to stand next to a kitchen counter or bedroom nightstand in order to place a phone call. Who wants to watch a sports event with no instant replay? Or be limited in shopping options to what currently sits on the shelves or hangs on the racks of local retailers? Not to mention waiting on mail for several days or being unable to visit visually with people distant from us when we talk with them? 

So why limit people to have to go to a specific place at a specific time in order to practice their spiritual journeying? Why force them to accommodate to church scheduling and congregational rhythms that may not suit their lifestyle or availability? I’ve been asking that question to church leaders for years now, with only a few of them taking it seriously enough to shift their ministry approach. Now it’s not merely a speculative exercise in imagination. It is a present reality, a future fast-forwarded from an unexpected turn of events.  

Bottom line, the current pandemic has made obvious now that the church can and must engage our culture in a different way. A growing number of people are not susceptible to being congregationalized as a prerequisite to their spiritual development. This dynamic goes way beyond begging simply for technological solutions. Just adding online worship services and ramping up giving options is a tactical move that some will pull-off better than others. 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 for a different reason than the church currently offers. It’s not 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 digital age challenges every institution to change or to die, to adapt or to become irrelevant.  This is the challenge the church now squarely faces. The pandemic has just made sure that everyone now knows it and understands that the church has to figure this out. 

Another way of stating the challenge facing the church is to ask 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. In fact, 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. In a kingdom narrative, church becomes more a verb – a way of being in this world, rather than religious goods and services we consume in terms of institutional activities and programs.

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.

Part 2 next week…

CGGC eNews—Vol. 14, No. 21

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