Does the church dare to move forward?


I don’t want to return to ‘normal’

by Donna Frischknecht Jackson, Presbyterians Today | Special to Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Donna Frischknecht Jackson

PUTNAM STATION, New York — As a pastor, I am fielding calls now about getting back into our sanctuary for worship. It seems this desire to get back to “normal” is becoming the new virus sweeping the nation. In a way I can understand the longing to return to worship in a sanctuary. I have a rural congregation with older members who have not been all that quick to embrace virtual worship. I’ll admit, though, I’m in no hurry to return to traditional church. I find something exciting in what God is doing with video devotionals and sermons.

Case in point: This past Maundy Thursday we were going to have a dinner followed by a Tenebrae service. There would have been anywhere from nine to maybe 13 people attending. I would have spent about 15 hours planning the service, doing bulletins, coordinating music and then actually driving an hour to the church to lead the worship.

COVID-19 changed that. Instead, I did a video devotional from the porch of my Vermont home and put it on Facebook. By the following morning, more than 100 people watched and 15 shared the message. Traditional worship would have gathered 13 people max. Virtual worship welcomed many more. When I mentioned to my husband how I didn’t want to go back to traditional worship-in-a-sanctuary only, he replied, “Good luck with that. What church would pay for just a virtual pastor?”

It always comes down to money it seems, especially in the church. But I think the opportunity God is presenting us with is a new way of getting the Good News out beyond the cloistered four walls of our sanctuaries — sanctuaries we have made into a god itself. We’ve already begun doing so with virtual worship. Why stop now?

Why? Because the god of traditional church has a tight grip on its children, and as its grip tightens, I feel my heart racing because it just doesn’t feel right to go backwards. (The phone rings again as write. It’s another parishioner wanting to get back into the sanctuary for worship.)

Worship on demand and other new normals

Early this week I began working on an agenda for a church meeting. As I did, I noticed something unsettling. There were many pre-pandemic business items on it. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t discuss replacing the church furnace. Not at all. But am I the only one who hears these conversations as a bit strange in the time we are in now? What happened to the time we have been given in our divine timeout to discern a new way forward? We have been presented an opportunity to reboot our lives, rethink our churches, reassess what’s really important — yes, we need a furnace, the parking lot needs to be repaved, the church steps need repair. These are important items, but I don’t want them to take over our discussions, our time, our energy, our resources as they have in the past. I want the space to breathe in the Spirit of newness.

Today, I woke up sad because of all the talk of reopening our world and getting back to business as usual. After three cups of coffee, sadness gave way to a startling realization: I don’t want normal.

I don’t want to go back to what was. I want what can be. I have been wanting that as a pastor for a long time. I’ve been wanting to use technology to share the “old, old story of Jesus and his love” with more people beyond our little community.

I have also been campaigning for us to see our time of corporate worship beyond traditional Sunday morning. After all, studies show fewer and fewer people are wanting to give up their Sunday mornings to go to a church building. They want to sleep in. Read the paper. Have brunch. Go for hike. They’re not saying they don’t want God. They just don’t want access to God to be so limited — only available at 10 a.m. on Sunday at the church building.

I can understand this because it’s like how I now watch my favorite TV shows. I no longer have to stop what I’m doing to make sure I have the TV on at 8 p.m. on Sundays to watch “Outlander.” (Lord, in your mercy, when can I travel to Scotland?) Rather, I can watch this 18th century time traveling romance with links to Scotland and Colonial America on demand when I am fully present and able to truly take it all in. Why can’t we see that perhaps “worship on demand” through virtual devotionals and sermons is opening the doors to a new normal — and an amazing opportunity — for the church?

Normal was never normal

Yes, I want that crazy new future God is presenting to us. I want it for the church. And I want it in my personal life as well. I want to dream again — and dream big. I want to finally take that leap of faith and get that 18th century house in another state that I have been lusting over, the one with the huge open hearth to cook over and a rustic post and beam barn for the goats that I have been wanting for a decade now.

The truth is, I don’t want to get back to normal, because that normal was killing me. It was zapping my creativity. It was trying to measure success by how much I took on and got done. It affirmed my worth by the accolades I received. Normal was not normal. It was a half-life. It was shallow. It was wearing me down. Yet we seem to be rushing back to all that is not life-giving.

I have a church meeting tomorrow. I wonder how I will share with my dedicated elders that their pastor doesn’t want to be normal. I wonder if any would want to join me in discovering a richer, deeper, bolder life. I wonder if they will want to call a new pastor, one that is content with the old way of being the church. I wonder …  Am I the only person who doesn’t want “normal?”

Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today and a part-time rural pastor in upstate New York.

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