For now the COVID-19 pandemic has created a new normal of social distancing, hand sanitiser and closed churches (amongst many other major changes to our lives) but as we slowly see restrictions ease, many will be asking what will life be like on the other side of the pandemic. Scott Guyatt examines the key questions and considers what the future might hold for church and community.
So, we find ourselves in the midst of this coronavirus pandemic, and the temptation in the midst of all of this, of our former life being taken away from us is to say, “When can we get back to normal? When can we have our life back? When can we go back to work, to church, to school, to sports, to restaurants, to travel? When can we return to normal?”
These are the questions we hear over and over. And they’re completely understandable, and totally appropriate questions.
Increasingly though, there are other voices saying things like, “Well perhaps we don’t want to go back to normal, but forward to a new way of being that takes into consideration, pays attention to the kinds of lessons we’ve learned along the way.” We might think of this as our “next normal”.
So what would be some of those lessons, what would be some of those stories that we would carry forward with us on the other side of this experience into a next normal? What would be the changes that we would make, that we would take, that we would apply? How would we think about all of this?
For some there would ideally be no change, simply a desire to get back to normal, back to life as I know it—as quickly, and as efficiently, and as unchanged as I can. There is the sense that I love my life and I want to get back there. The question here is, “How do we get back to normal?” We might call that approach to change beyond the pandemic as Level 0.
Level 1 might involve small practical changes. I might wash my hands a little more often. I might be more conscious of not going to the shops or to work or to school when I’m sick. Maybe I hold a little more distance to the people around me when I’m in public. This approach to change is thinking about practices. In a church situation, for example, perhaps we might think about the notion of 100 people all touching the same loaf of bread one after the other as we share communion. Maybe that’s a practice we can’t carry forward from our old normal to our next normal. That’s the kind of thing I’m thinking of as Level 1: small adaptive practice-based changes or modifications to our old normal that we take into our new. Think of this as bottles of hand sanitiser on every corner—but otherwise life as we knew it. The question here is, “What are the little things that we’ll incorporate into life?”
Taking a Level 2 approach might see us thinking about the kinds of practices and experiences that have sustained us, have been valuable, appreciated, over these last few months. Again If I were to think about congregational life, I might consider the the way we’ve moved to offer significant parts of that life in an online digital setting—streaming worship, online small groups using video conferencing platforms, and so on. These are ways for people to engage in the otherwise normal life of church without having to be physically present. There are stories of people who for a range of reasons are unable to physically participate in Sunday morning worship. This new time, this new experience has enabled for some an active participation in parts of church life that were otherwise unavailable to them. Some of us might like to take some of these practices forward, recognising that they’ve been really valued parts of this experience, and we don’t want to go back completely, to lose this new practice. We want to take it forward. The question here might be, “What have I valued that I can carry forward to make the old normal better?”
If we thought about a third level beyond that, we might start to wonder if we’ve only been exposed in part to some of our new practices. We’ve been exposed in part to streaming events, or to video conferencing, but perhaps we haven’t made the most of those possibilities. Perhaps all we’ve really done is broadcast our old practices, our old patterns—the ways we meet, the interactions we pursue, the events, small groups, conversations, church worship services—largely unchanged. We have just broadcast the existing forms and activities. So we might ask, “What does this new medium, this new possibility enable for us if we put all of that on the table?” Rather than just saying “Let’s broadcast our Sunday morning worship,” would we be so brave as to ask the question: “What different ways, different approaches, different practices of worship could be enabled by this digital, streamed, live, remote kind of connection?” Let’s not just keep doing what we’ve always done, our old normal, and broadcast it, let’s instead find new possibilities that these new tools and experiences open up for us. This might be what we describe as a third level of response. The question we’d consider here is perhaps, “What new possibilities have I seen hints of over the last few months?”
I wonder too if there is a fourth level that goes beyond practices, beyond possibilities and goes really into the realm of values: what is it that we have learned through this experience that is important to us, that might shape the way we relate to each other at a very fundamental level, that might influence the way we practise politics, the ways leadership is exercised or understood, the way we choose to shape our society from a consumerist or financial perspective? What have we seen that opens up discussions about the very nature of the kingdom of God? Are there some lessons, some opportunities to consider whether the very shape of our society, the very nature of our communities are quite right? Does this experience of these last months offer an opportunity for something of a circuit breaker—something of a complete reset? This might be what we consider to be a fourth level response, a place in which the question becomes “What if we put everything on the table?”
If I think about the people I know, the conversations I’m hearing, the questions being asked, all of these responses are out and about:
“I just want to get back to normal.”
“I’m going to make a few changes.”
“I like some of the things we’ve been able to do and want to carry them forward.”
“I like some of the things that have happened, but we haven’t made the most of them so lets think deeply about them.”
“This experience, this time has opened up some really significant questions for me about our life, our community, our values, and I want to explore all of those.”
I guess what I’m left wondering is what’s the right question to help us each find the right conversations as we consider what comes beyond “let’s go back to life as we know it”? What would be the question that helps you be discomforted enough to think maybe about the next level up of possibility than you’re currently considering?
Maybe you don’t need that at all—maybe what some of us really do need is that sense of comfort and known-ness—of what is normal, proper everyday life. My observation though, is that there are enough of us around who are wondering “where do we go from here?” (in the sense of “where forward” as opposed to “how do we go back”) that make this consideration worthwhile.
What’s the question for you? What’s the kind of change you’re wanting to experience, explore, inhabit, encourage for you, your family, your neighbourhood, your church or community group?
What will help you find your next normal?