Written by Grant Harris

The chatter of a new normal

As we inch closer to November 2020 there is a lot of background chatter here in New Zealand about what a new normal might look like when the COVID19 pandemic starts to ease. Will we simple get back to life as we knew it or will there be new ways of living and working as a result of how we’ve had to adjust to living during different levels of lockdown or at least with restrictions in the way we interact. With alert levels currently dropping (which of course is subject to change at any time should new clusters emerge) the new normal could be on our doorstep.

The consideration of a new normal is being discussed in all parts of our society, including the context of the church to which my context is grounded.

The new normal revolves around how we will continue to adjust to the new rhythms that we’ve had to embrace related to digital communication, digital learning, working from home, social distancing and phygital environments – a new word that brings together the best of how we function physically and digitally.

The history of a new normal: The Spanish Flu

As we inch closer to life beyond COVID19, it’s interesting to reflect on how the world changed following the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 that claimed the lives of at least 50 million people, or 2.5 per cent of the global population at that time, including 675,000 deaths in the USA. Was there a new normal a century ago?

The statistics of mortality for unfortunately named Spanish Flu (it became known as the Spanish Flu because Spanish King Alfonso XIII contracted a nasty case and as Spain was one of only a few major European countries to remain neutral during World War 1 there was no wartime censorship of their news, and the flu first made headlines in Spain, well after it had spread globally) are simply staggering in comparison to any other pandemic in modern history, including COVID19. Young adults who felt fine in the morning were ill at noon and dead by the evening. This flu killed more people that World War 1 and I have a personal connection with my great-grandfather succumbing to the virus, aged 47.

It is difficult to compare the new normal of 1919 to what a new normal might look like in 2021 given the massive societal changes over the last one hundred years. It would be fair to say that that world has changed at a faster rate over this time than at any other time in history. The following two examples illustrate this fact:

Eugenics: in 1918 eugenics was a mainstream view and privileged elites looked down on workers and the poor as inferior categories of human being who lacked the drive to achieve a better standard of living. Thus, the poor and working class were not afforded the same level of care and compassion that today’s more egalitarian society at least postures (acknowledging that there is still a vast gulf between the privileged and the underprivileged, even in New Zealand).

Public Health: One hundred years ago, healthcare was much more fragmented and in most industrialised countries doctors either worked for themselves or were funded by charities or religious institutions, and realistically most people had no access to them at all. Even the concept of a virus was relatively new, and when the flu arrived medics were almost helpless. There was no access to diagnostic tests, no effective vaccine, no antiviral drugs, and no antibiotics – which might have treated the bacterial complications of the flu that killed most of its victims in the form of pneumonia.

Of course I could provide numerous other examples, but you get the idea.


Healthcare reform

The biggest pivot that we see coming out of the 1918 pandemic was an almost global reimagining of healthcare availability. The 1920’s saw many governments embracing the concept of socialised medicine – healthcare for all, free at the point of delivery. We might well be surprised to learn that Russia was the first country to put in place a centralised public healthcare system which it funded via a state-run insurance scheme, but Germany, France and the UK eventually followed suit. The USA took a different route, preferring employer-based insurance schemes which began to proliferate from the 1930’s onwards. But all these nations took steps to consolidate healthcare, and to expand access to it, in the post-flu years.

While we pride ourselves on our state-funded welfare system here in New Zealand, we were actually late to the part of a more expansive healthcare system which only originated with the passing of the First Labour Governments 1938 Social Security Act, which was actually never fully implemented due to ongoing disputes between the medical profession and the Government at the time – and we still wrestle with some of the inequalities that our healthcare system presents.

With such great strides being taken within global healthcare systems we can see that societal pivots are possible following such mass upheaval.

But what about the church?


Reform in the church

There are only nominal accounts that show the church implementing any new sense of normal following the Spanish Flu of 1918. Certainly it’s clear that churches responded in similar ways to our current time through the closure of church services or the limiting of congregations to small numbers, and the communion cup was also commonly dispensed with and funerals were held at night so as not to alarm people.

Maybe the closest we can see to adaptability and change entering the church due to technological advancements could be reports we see in the Birmingham News (Alabama, USA) of the church offering to print sermons, service outlines, scriptures and announcements that were sent in by various clergy and then made available to help people worship at home. But following the easing of restrictions the church appeared to return to its normal liturgy as expressed through in-person gatherings.

The huge advances in technology and the shifts that have occurred in the organisation of the demographics of our society today do afford the church the opportunity to significantly pivot into news ways of being the church and communicating the Gospel in more innovative ways.

Examples of these pivots have been well displayed during our current lockdowns when churches were unable to gather in sacred spaces. The advent of livestreaming church services from empty auditoriums, the prerecording of services and the streaming of same to a host of digital platforms, the ability to communicate through email, text, Zoom and various other interactive communication tools, and the utilisation of a smorgasbord of social media options has greatly aided the church to not only continue ministering to our existing congregations, but to substantially connect with those to whom church has not been part of their lives.

While we’re still in a state of determining the effectiveness of these new forms or worship, there is little doubt in the minds of church leaders that the digital landscape provides frontiers of mission delivery that we’ve generally never had before, or at least haven’t embraced before.

But will we have the courage and resolve to continue to pivot into new forms of missional engagement, or will we revert to what we know and feel comfortable with, even when we know the outcomes are increasingly despondent as the church continues its slow decline in commitment and engagement. Like usual, history will record our willingness to embrace what we have experienced during a once-in-a-lifetime event.


The new normal in Corinth

When writing to early Christians in the city of Corinth regarding the practice of mission, the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians Chapter 9 Verses 19-23, Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

My hope is that we may adopt a similar vestige of mission transformation and be willing participants of new normal of being ministers of the Gospel. Rephrased perhaps we could let history see that we have the courage to change and adapt, to win as many as possible. In summary, to an online connected generation may we become like an online connected generation so that we may win an online connected generation, and on that analogy can be played out.

I hope that there will be a new normal, that for the sake of the gospel the church might have the confidence to be adaptable, courageous, entrepreneurial and inventive, that we may increasingly share in the blessings of the Gospel, to which so many of us believe and invest our lives in.

Might a new normal be in fact a new normal for the sake of the Kingdom of God.


Grant Harris is a reformed banker who has been the Senior Pastor of Windsor Park Baptist Church in Auckland, New Zealand, for twelve years. Grant’s passionate about seeing people catch a glimpse of who they are in Christ and living out the difference that makes. He loves not only studying leadership, he loves living leadership out. You can contact Grant at [email protected]