The church during COVID-19 is on a sojourn in a foreign land. At some point, like the weary Israelites post-Egypt, we hit a wall where we hated everything about the journey in the wilderness. All we wanted was to go home.
Now, as the pandemic trip winds down, we’re excited about what we’re going to do when we reach the destination. Hymn sings! Potlucks! Communion! Our eyes grow misty with nostalgia. How wonderful it will be to delight in old comforts.
It is natural to feel this way when we have been away from home for a long time.
Yet, when we return from our cross-cultural journey, things will not be the same. We have changed. The church has changed. Are we prepared for the reverse culture shock when our expectations hit the walls of new realities?
Like any cross-cultural experience, COVID has challenged our assumptions and traditions. It has disrupted our balance and revealed blind spots: discrimination in favor of able-bodied people, individualistic theology, weak ecclesiology, white supremacy.
To go back to Egypt — if that were possible — would be to deny that this sojourn has transformed us. The Spirit of God has been at work in our midst:
Many of us have been ushered more swiftly into the digital age. We are more attuned to the barriers some of us face in physically making it to our church building.
Many of us have a more expansive view of worship, inspired by the creativity that blossoms in transitional times.
Many of us are doing less, setting aside ineffective programming in favor of equipping members for practical ministry and social justice in the community.
Many of us have rethought our theology, affirming God’s presence at our kitchen tables, where we sit in our pajamas.
When we return together, after our initial euphoria, reverse culture shock will set in. We can lessen its impact by being aware of what to expect.
Reverse culture shock can be more powerful than initial culture shock, because the latter is expected. The pandemic shocked the system, and that was not surprising. But the emotions that accompany reverse culture shock may catch us off guard: the highs of reuniting in person, the lows of feeling like a stranger in a place we thought was home.
We would do well to overestimate how much our cross-cultural experience has changed us. If we fail to talk about what has changed and what needs changing, coming back together is more likely to break us than our parting.
It will take all of our patient, empathic presence — energy that we may not feel we have — to rebuild our collective wholeness in new ways.
Communal discernment about how to be together now, based on an honest assessment of how we’ve been reshaped by COVID, will increase the chances of flourishing. It will prime us to support each other through anxious, disorienting times, moving together toward a new balance.
The invitation now is to identify what has been — surprisingly, even — good about our time in the COVID wilderness. We can affirm the work begun in the “before times” that must continue while leaving in the past the things we no longer need.
The Spirit is delivering us through the wilderness. My hope is that we will step closer to the promised land, walking with confidence as changed people in a changed world.
Valerie Showalter is pastor of Madison Mennonite Church in Wisconsin.