I’ve always tried to be an optimist.
My natural tendency is to see the good in things, to find the silver linings even in the darkest clouds.
As a child, that attitude manifested itself in almost crippling naïveté. Because I wanted to believe the best about every situation and every person, I was blindsided when really bad things would happen and didn’t resolve themselves in a positive way, or when I’d find myself getting bullied by people I had previously believed to be friends.
Like many, my response to that as I grew through adolescence and into young adulthood was to adopt a kind of cynicism. I never became a hardened pessimist, but I did become much more cautious about who and what I trusted.
If the optimist saw the glass as half full, and the pessimist saw the glass as half-empty, I was the one wanting to know what happened to half the glass.
Luckily, I’ve outgrown much of that cynicism. But it’s been replaced by what I might call a hopeful realism.
No longer am I a wide-eyed optimist, even though my nature is still to focus on what is good and positive.
But I try hard to see things as they are, not just as I want them to be.
So as we continue to navigate our way through this strange new world of a global pandemic, I’m attempting to do just that…assess the reality of the situation and act in a responsible way.
That certainly means not giving into the doom and gloom possibilities that present themselves daily.
But it also means not being unrealistic about my hopes for what may come…and when.
The parking lot problem
Which is why I’m really struggling right now as a faith leader. Over and over and over again we have seen that people gathering for religious services has sparked new outbreaks of Covid-19.
Now, I have to say, I know many of my colleagues are struggling with this issue right now. And I know a lot of them are under immense pressure from factions within their congregations who refuse to accept the reality of the situation.
I know that a lot of them are living in the tension between being faithful to their vocational call to spiritual leadership and the dangers of returning to “normal.”
But I also know that this is a sneaky disease.
I heard about a case recently from a small, rural congregation that reopened its doors under very rigorous protocols…controlling entrance and exit from the building, keeping people spaced out, requiring masks, dispersing hand sanitizer, no singing, deep cleaning of all surfaces…everything they were supposed to do.
A day or two later the pastor learned that one of the people in attendance had tested positive for coronavirus. So the pastor dutifully called all of the 30+ people who had participated in the service to encourage them to get tested, just in case.
In the course of those calls, the pastor learned that, while people had followed the guidelines absolutely perfectly in the building, before and after the service in the parking lot they were hugging, shaking hands, gathering closely together and making plans for things like picnics and parties.
All of the extreme caution was for naught.
I never heard whether any of those folks became infected or not.
But the point is, even with the pastor and church leaders trying to do all the right things, the opportunity for spreading the disease was still present.
Which forces me to ask the question: What’s the hurry?
Playing the long game
Folks, this is a long game we’re in.
We have no idea when or even if the virus will ever be under control.
While there is some promising news about getting a vaccine sooner than later, we still don’t know when that will happen or how long it will be until it’s effective within the population. We have no credible timeline.
Some of the data behind so-called “herd immunity” is starting to look skeptical. We don’t know if people will be immune once they’ve been infected. Or for how long.
We also don’t know what the long-term effects will be for people who are infected and survive, even if they have mild to no symptomology. Will it be similar to viruses like chicken pox or HIV or herpes that stay in the body permanently, flaring up into recurring health issues for the rest of people’s lives?
It’s simply too soon to know the answers to almost all of the really critical questions.
Time for a paradigm shift
Which I guess gets me to the long-awaited point of this post (if you’ve stuck around this long, you deserve the payoff!!).
At the beginning of quarantine, churches were basically forced to learn how to repurpose their existing content (weekly worship services) from one medium (a church sanctuary) to another (Zoom, YouTube, Facebook Live, etc.).
For the most part, they did a really good job of that. Some even got pretty creative with it. It was a necessary step.
But it was one that was taken, in my opinion, without the long game in view. It was taken with the assumption that it would be a short-term solution. A band-aid, if you will.
A stop-gap to hold things together until regular routines could resume.
The real challenge, in my opinion, is to take the next step.
To go beyond simply repurposing content for different media.
To begin to re-think both the media and the content.
To create whole new paradigms for what faith communities can look like in a world where proximity is not only no longer a given but is not even necessary.
To realize that it’s okay to let go of some of our traditions and practices—as beautiful and beneficial as they may be—and embrace whole new ways of helping people find an authentic experience of the divine that has the power to transform lives.
Opportunity in crisis
In her brilliant book, The Great Emergence, author Phyllis Tickle posited that the church undergoes a massive paradigm shift about every 500 years or so.
Just over half a millennium beyond the last such shift, the Protestant Reformation (c. 1517), a lot of us were already feeling the sands shifting beneath our feet.
Of course, none of us saw a global pandemic coming.
But with crisis comes opportunity.
Our glass is neither half-full nor half-empty.
Our glass simply is.
And the sooner the church can accept and adapt to our reality, the more potential we have to actually make a positive difference in the world.