The story goes that a couple trying to find a country inn got hopelessly lost, so they stopped at a local store to ask for directions. “Sure,” the clerk offered. “Just go down this road for a couple more miles. You’re going to turn right at the Jackson place, then go along until you come to the place where they tore down that old green barn last year. Turn left and you’ll see the inn straight ahead.”
The “Jackson place” and “where that old green barn used to be” were markers that made sense to the people who lived there. For anyone else, not so much.
The mix of people in your building – and the mix of people meeting you online – is likely different than it was three years ago. Some of these people don’t know anything about the so-called Jackson place in your community of faith. And a lot more than just that old green barn has been torn down since the world got turned upside down at the beginning of 2020.
Norms shift; old ones lose their meaning. Church boards have both the opportunity and obligation to nurture new norms and to clarify their meaning for the congregation.
In a recent column, Seth Godin lists just a few cultural norms that have shifted in past years. Norms for cars and coats. Norms for expressing generosity and attending meetings. Norms for marking the status of companies and of cities. “Norms seem normal,” Godin muses. “Until they’re not.”
Increasingly, it seems, they’re not. Norms are losing their normalcy fast.
How does this impact your congregation and your church leadership?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus uses a rhetorical pattern that, without directly naming it, speaks to changing norms.
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment. (Matthew 5:21-22)
And three more times, Jesus begins, “You have heard it said … but I say to you.” Each time he addresses religious ‘rules of the road’ that are being changed by his very presence. What is lifted up, after Jesus’ words, is a larger world, a deeper context, and a much more radical call to discipleship. Norms, especially in the presence of Jesus, never stay normal for long.
How do you help visitors to your congregation find their way, in the church and in the liturgy? (When was the last time you asked a newcomer how it feels to navigate either?)
Can you name one or two norms that have shifted decisively for your congregation in the past three years? Who feels lost—and who feels found—in the wake of these shifts?
What used to show that a church was ‘on the move?’ What will show that a church is ‘on the move’ in 2023?
Where on your church board agenda, this month, is there clear and focused attention on nurturing new norms, vs. propping up old norms that no longer serve?