Why Going Back to “normal” Church Seems so Compelling and Can Be so Dangerous

So you would love for everything to go back to normal.

Especially at church.

I get it.

There’s so much about the current disruption that’s unsettling, exhausting, frustrating and challenging that it would be great to throw open the doors of your church, not worry about a virus, and have everyone come back.

Just like it used to be. Maybe even better.

But of course, as you know, that’s not exactly happening, and with return-to-church attendance well below running between 20-60% of pre-COVID levels (even among mega-churches) any sense of normal might not be happening for a while to come (if ever).

That said, many pastors and church leaders are rushing back to normal…trying to restore what was lost as quickly and effectively as possible. Which again, I get and in many respects empathize with.

The challenge is that it’s not working particularly well, with reopening attendance generally being a fraction of what it was pre-COVID and disengagement (online and in-person) being higher than ever.

Even with any health risks removed (which currently, sadly, is not the case), going back to normal only works if:

Normal was working before

Normal still exists

It’s hard to go back to normal when normal no longer exists.

Which brings us to some deeper questions. Two to be exact.

First, why is it most church leaders seem to want to re-open, go back to normal and resume where they left off?

This appears to be the dominant mood and action taken by many leaders of small and large churches, some even publicly stretching or defying government guidelines and directives.

I wrote about why stepping back into the past when you step into your building is a mistake in this post, but having had a little more time pass, I want to probe deeper and ask why that seems to be happening so widely.

The second question is this: What are the downsides of returning back to “normal”? Is it possibly dangerous to the future of your mission?

Understanding the answers to these questions for yourself can help you probe the real reasons for your behavior and longings (which in my experience, are often hidden from me until I take the time to probe more deeply). And, once you see the reasons, you can adjust your approach accordingly, hopefully toward a stronger future.


So question one: why is going back to normal and resuming where you left off so compelling?

Here are three possible reasons your instinct to go back to normal runs deep.

1. Your Skillset Was Designed For The Old Normal

If you look back on your training, life-experience and skillset, they all prepared you for the world that existed prior to March 2020.

Your seminary and/or schooling, years of experience and all the training you took prepared you to lead in a world that, without notice, disappeared with the disruption of 2020.

And now, your skillset has you perfectly prepared for a world that no longer exists.

Whether it’s online preaching, an enhanced social media presence, connecting with a congregational you can’t see or gather in person, or hosting services with all kinds of restrictions and the anxiety that surrounds the moment has got you feeling like no one prepared you for this. Which is true.

And which also explains why you just wish it would all go back to normal.

If you take a moment to reflect though, you’ll also realize that the world you were trained to serve in was already disappearing pre-COVID thanks to massive cultural, generational and technological shifts.

Crisis, being the accelerator that it is, poured steroids into that.

The real question then becomes, do you hope that conditions return to normal where you can thrive again, or do you prepare yourself and your team for what’s ahead in the future?

The choice, of course, is yours.

In many ways, leadership is change. And as hard as this set of changes is, it provides great promise for those who are ready to embrace it.

The world has never seemed more disinterested in the Gospel, yet has never needed it more. Leaders see that as opportunity.

2. The Past Doesn’t Make You Panic Like The Future Does

Most of us as leaders tend to romanticize the past, or at least remember it as less arduous than it was.

The past has a nostalgia the future never does.

Some researchers call this ‘rosy retrospection’—the phenomenon where we tend to minimize the negative moments of a particular experience and accentuate the positive.  As Chip and Dan Heath explain, your family trip to Disney might have been expensive, hot, full of long lines (in the old days), irritable kids and ended with blisters on your feet, but you remember it as a family highlight because you tend to remember the peak moments.

The same is probably true for your leadership so far. Yes, there have been struggles. And yes, you almost quit. But, you didn’t. You made it.

And that can make going back to the past very attractive. The past doesn’t make you panic like the future does.

The future, on the other hand, is unknown. If you can get the same set of circumstances ‘back’, then you can control it.

The future? Completely unknown and completely out of your control.

The best thing you can do as a leader is to learn from the past, not live in it.

After all, you can’t go back. You can only lead in the present and prepare for the future.

And your job as a leader is to take people from what was and move them to what will be. Returning to the past won’t get you there.

3. Your Success In The Past Makes You The Most Motivated To Preserve It

This is just an observation about human nature, but one worth thinking about.

Those who succeeded most in the past are most motivated to preserve the past or recreate it.

History is replete with well-meaning people who opposed change.

From analysts who thought the horse and carriage would always be around, to taxi drivers who sued their city over allowing Uber and Lyft to operate, to people who thought streaming would never eclipse the CD and the desire to ‘own’ music, history is filled with people who got the future wrong.

In 1903, Horace Rackam, President of the Michigan Savings Bank famously told Henry Ford’s lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Company. His argument:  “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad.”

His wasn’t an unreasonable position.

Horses and carriages had transported people for thousands of years—literally since Old Testament times. It was rational to believe that this mode of transportation wouldn’t disappear overnight.

Until, of course, it did.

The more successful you’ve been in the past, the more motivated you are to believe that the future will be exactly like it.

Which is a perfect strategy until it’s not.


So, in light of all the uncertainty, why is pushing for everything to go back to normal dangerous?

1. Things Aren’t Normal And May Not Be For A Long Time

A normal strategy in an abnormal world is a recipe for frustration and potential ineffectiveness.

Which leads to a deeper question: should you diagnose the current low reopening attendance numbers as a medical issue?

Polls suggest some people won’t return to church as long as social distancing and masks are required, or until there’s a vaccine. After all, even Disney appears to be struggling with low attendance after reopening.

And, you think, well that could turn around in weeks on months or as soon as there’s a vaccine. The challenge is that’s what everyone has been thinking for months.

As I shared in this post, consider the pre-COVID weekly church attendance findings below from Barna.

In every age category, weekly church attendance has dropped over the last 20 years.

What if the current church attendance crisis isn’t medical, but cultural?

Crisis is an accelerator. Trends that might have taken years to materialize arrive almost overnight during times of crisis (like, for example, the widespread adoption of working from home or the much deeper adoption of online shopping).

You can make a strong argument that the current low return-to-church attendance numbers reflect where the church might have ended up a decade from now. We just got there a lot faster.

As much as you may wish that weren’t true, ignoring it, arguing against it, pretending it’s not happening and arguing it shouldn’t be the case will not reverse it.

Stubbornly clinging to the past makes thriving in the future a lot harder.

2. Focusing Most Of Your Resources On Facility-Based Gatherings May Leave You Doing Nothing Well

I’m guessing you don’t have unlimited resources.

If that’s the case, one of the key jobs you have as a leader is to allocate those wisely and strategically.

If it’s actually the case that in-person attendance numbers will continue to be lower even after COVID is completely a non-issue (which could be months or years from now), then that creates a challenge.

Namely, that many churches have the highest level of staff and budgets invested where they’re seeing the lowest returns.

Sure, in-person worship and gathering isn’t going away. As long as there are people, people will want to gather in person.

But in the same way, almost every CEO is rethinking how much office space they really need in light of how well their teams are working from home, church leaders may want to rethink why they’re spending the vast majority of their time, budget and human resources at in-person services that very few people attend.

If your mission is to fill buildings, then keep going with your current strategy.

But if your mission is to reach people, it might be time to rethink things.

The trap you want to avoid is spending your time, energy and money on something that’s producing low results.

Which, depending on your situation, means you may want to even think about closing your church after reopening it to focus on online or other strategies.

All the people who aren’t in your building are online.

3. Not Gathering In A Facility Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Gather

For the record, I am 100% in favor of honoring the restrictions on public gatherings.  I’m not a conspiracy theorist and don’t think we shine best when we complain the loudest.

The challenge with a lot of the dialogue around worship gatherings is the assumption that gatherings have to happen in the central church facility.

That’s binary thinking: all or nothing. A zero-sum game.

Just because the church can’t gather in a central facility doesn’t mean the church can’t gather, legally or appropriately.

It’s important to think more broadly than that.

I love the direction J.D. Greear recently announced for his (large) church. He’s pivoted the entire church strategy for people to gather in homes.

Says Greear:

“We are going to gather, it’s just not going to be in large groups of 500 to 1000 on the weekend in our facilities.” Instead of The Summit Church being 12,000 people meeting in 12 different locations on the weekend, now we are going to be about 15,000 people meeting in about 2,400 locations.”

Greer’s approach is smart because rather than just hoping people are watching, he’s mobilizing his church for a mission.

His approach goes way further than “hey catch us if you can from lakehouse if you have a moment” that online church can so easily default to.

Similarly, many jurisdictions allow gatherings of 10, 25 or 50. While that’s not enough for church as we know it, it’s more than enough for distributed gatherings in backyards, homes, restaurants or other venues, compliant with any and all health guidelines. It actually feels very first and second century. Apostolic even.

And in an approach like this (when large gatherings aren’t legal or optimal), the gathering strategy dovetails nicely with your online strategy. You’ll gain some helpful focus.

Rather than seeing COVID as an intermission, rethink your strategy to get back on mission. Instead of going back, move forward.