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Can the church hold on to pandemic-inspired innovation?

Maggie Alsup wonders if we should resist the urge to “go back to normal.”

Photo by Antoine Peltier on Unsplash

There is an old saying, “Fish don’t know they are in water.” It comes from a joke in which one fish turns to another and asks, “How’s the water?” To which the other fish responds, “What water?” As a college chaplain, I consider myself to be church adjacent and therefore have a slightly different perspective. In this role, I often feel like the first fish, looking to the other and asking about the water. I am constantly describing what the church has meant in the past, looking at how it is in the present, and working for its future in my job. This type of critical analysis can be daunting for those steeped in the church. When you suggest change or innovation, it is hard to move past the rebuttal, “We’ve always done it this way!”

But if there is something that we learned from a global pandemic, it is that change and adaptability are necessary. As a church, we need to let go of the things we’ve always done if they don’t work anymore. And we now know we can do this. We saw in the pandemic how we can find new ways to be a community when we try.

I know we all have those stories of anxiety. Of working to keep things going. Of trying to find a glimpse of the kin-dom of God in the middle of uncertainty. And while I do not wish that upon any of us ever again, I do wish that we would stay in that creative mindset. I wish we would continue to live into the innovation and joy we found in those days.

As society has moved on, and the church, too, we have lost that creativity. We have lost that drive to reimagine what worship, what community, what life together can be. Some aspects stayed. Most have gone away. And many of us have gone back to the way things were before.

We have lost that drive to reimagine what worship, what community, what life together can be.

When someone is ordained in the PC(USA), they are asked, “Will you pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?” The day-to-day work, the ordinary moments, the meetings, the emails — they often drain our energy and creativity. They cause us to just go through the motions of ministry without innovation and creation. I say this as someone who can be guilty of these actions.

And while I can get bogged down by the pattern of daily life, I find the joy that sparks something new when I take time to wonder. We saw that happen repeatedly throughout the pandemic. The church was alive and transformed in ways we didn’t think possible.

I wonder what it would be like if we kept that spark of imagination going. If we kept dreaming of life and ministry in new or different ways. We have done it before. We can do it again. We just need to be open to change and to journey into the unknown or unexpected. That is scary, but if the pandemic taught us anything, it is that we can take this journey and it is transformative.

Think about those victories. Think about those moments of success. Think about the new community that was built.

As we move into the summer, I encourage you to think about the journey that you went on through the pandemic. What worked surprisingly well for your congregation? What fun and new ways did you find to build community and support one another? What new models and ministry ideas are still bringing joy to your community?

Think about those victories. Think about those moments of success. Think about the new community that was built. Dwell in that hope and joy. And then take that energy and dream big about what this next year can be.

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