Like most areas of our country, middle Tennessee is crawling out from under COVID-19 restrictions and inching our way back to some kind of normalcy. Some have thrown caution to the wind by fully engaging in their pre-covid habits. Everyone is so tired of having to stay home during the pandemic they’re going on extra vacations during the summer and staying out later during the week. Suddenly, everyone is acting like college students on spring break.

Others being more cautious. They’re still ordering their groceries online and haven’t gone out to restaurants yet. They’re still avoiding crowds and when they travel, they drive. Their return to church has been slower. While things might be better, for these friends, things aren’t normal yet.

No one knows what to make of these new realities. Are we back to normal yet? Is this the new normal? Will we ever get back to normal? What was normal anyway?

Every day, I get a call from someone who wants to know when we’ll get back to normal. The honest answer is we don’t know.

The real answer is “never.”

Here are few aspects of our new reality. First, there is one group of people who are never coming back to church. They were nominally connected and when they stopped coming to church, they didn’t notice a significant loss of anything meaningful. They’re doing fine without church and though they may not have told anyone yet, they aren’t coming back.

The second group who hasn’t returned to church are those who like the online service. They get up, fix their coffee, sit together on the couch and watch the service online. It works for them. They enjoy watching the service in their pajamas and not having to fight the traffic. It’s easy and less stressful on their family. They may come to church for the big services, Easter and Christmas, but other than that, they’re not coming back.

The rest of the congregation is on vacation. Everyone is taking at least one vacation this yer. Most people are taking several. We’ve been cooped up for so long, everybody is going somewhere. When the get back, they want to go somewhere again. They’re seeing family. They’re headed to the beach and to the mountains…who cares? We’re just not staying home. We’ll have to wait until school starts back before we find out who’s really coming back and who’s not.

Attendance in local churches won’t go back to pre-covid levels. We need to understand this. For one thing, too many pastors measure their self-worth by attendance numbers. Though few will admit it, part of the depression being experienced by many pastors has to do with preaching to empty sanctuaries during the pandemic and half-filled sanctuaries after things reopened. Second, churches need to rethink the markers of success for their pastor. Full sanctuaries can no longer be used — and never should have been used — as measurements for a successful ministry.

Now, where we are is where we are and where we are is a great place to start. How many times have we as pastors said to ourselves if we just knew who the committed members were, we could change the world.

Now, we know.

Disappointing, isn’t it?

Here’s the good news. Jesus has a way of doing miraculous work with whoever shows up. Look at the first disciples. Not one of us would have hired any of them. Yet, Jesus chose them. As Paul reminds us in I Corinthians, God chose the unimpressive of the world to impress the world. Yet, Peter did indeed become the rock. Thomas found his belief and those handful of Christ followers changed the world.

Jesus never chased anyone. Neither should we. Work with who shows up. Get serious about discipleship and serving your community. COVID didn’t break anything, but it showed us what was broken. I don’t know about your church, but we found out about 80% of our programs made no difference in the lives of their participants.

A handful of things make the most impact. We’re focusing on those things and letting the rest go. We’re shooting a lot of sacred cows and blaming COVID.

I know there were a lot of challenges during this past year. I’m not minimizing any of them. The pandemic forced us to ask some hard questions about our lives. That’s why we’re seeing so many people are resigning from their jobs and choosing new futures. The price they were paying in their quality of life could no longer be ignored.

Coming out of the pandemic has given us a once in a lifetime opportunity to change things in our local churches. I’m not sure we’ll get another one. Don’t waste this one.

Things are never going to back to normal…and that’s OK.