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What have we learned from COVID-19?

Someday the extreme dislocations of COVID-19 will end.

The question being asked throughout American society, economy and politics is: What then? What will be the new nature of things?

Many hope that everything will “return to normal” — whatever your world was doing in February, that’s the way it will be in August or November or next year when a vaccine appears.

Don’t count on it. The “old normal” is long gone. For one thing, it’s quite likely we will emerge from COVID-19 into a depression unlike anything since the 1930s — with high and persistent unemployment, shuttered restaurants and stores, entire companies gone, irresponsible banks again in crisis and inequalities of wealth and privilege more severe.

Moreover, the lockdown has changed many minds about the fundamentals. Parents and children are in new relationship. Many have found better ways to shop. Congested urban living no longer looks so desirable. Many workers have delighted in working from home.

Only a fool would make firm predictions. My read is this: Many won’t have the money to do the old normal, and many won’t have the appetite for it. Rather than strain to re-open the old normal, smart folks will imagine a “new normal” into being, one that takes into account financial dislocation and changed behaviors.

This will be a crisis of identity and a test of leadership for every enterprise, but none more so than religion. Churches have been the very essence of in-person, high-touch venues. The old paradigm, however, wasn’t working in February. Why would it start working now?

The question we should be asking is this: Has the virus dislocation revealed anything that would guide us forward to a new normal?

I think we have clues. People have discovered their introverted sides. They have found meaning in simple activities like baking, cooking, gardening, walking and reading. Many have settled into quieter socializing. Many are glad to be separated from the phony dramas of insecure bosses, playground bullies, the look-at-me set and, yes, church conflicts.

A church that expects to resume frenetic Sunday mornings might find people uninterested in frenzy. Even beloved habits like hugging everyone in sight will seem jarring, maybe unwelcome.

In fact, churches could find that people don’t want to be together in one place — not because of health worries, but because of revealed temperaments. This could be a time for personal faith, not group religion; for reflection and meditation, not for Sunday worship; for sharing with a few, not for clinging to the many.

Church leaders will behave more like nurses and less like business people; more like friends and less like cruise directors. The needy voice seeking fealty and applause will give way to the servant voice asking: What do you need?

In this time of COVID-19, I think we have found our human sides, and the smart religious entrepreneur will do what Jesus did: walk with the wounded, inspire the willing, feed the many and forsake the building of walls, institutions and wealth.

TOM EHRICH is a publisher, writer, church consultant and president of Morning Walk Media, based in New York.

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