The New Normal
A Diagnosis the Church Can Live With
by Tom Ingram
It seems the phrase, “the new normal,” has been popping up in conversations everywhere, especially since the US economy faced its most challenging downward shift since the Great Depression. I think the phrase “new normal” has a negative connotation. It means that what had been considered a robust American way of life has taken a big step backward, and it is not going to return to its previous, presumably healthy, situation anytime soon. A different, less vital, more incapacitated way of life has ensued , and we need to get used to it – this is the new normal.
The church has certainly experienced its own downward shift in the last decade or two, with yearly membership numbers declining in all mainline Protestant churches, and disdain for Christian beliefs and values being common throughout the culture. To Christians, these are signs that something is wrong, and that the church is ailing. Is this the Church’s “new normal”? Or is there some way that we can become well again and return to a thriving, effective, growing body of believers? Dr. Tom Ingram’s book, The New Normal – A Diagnosis the Church Can Live With, helps us to consider this question.
In The New Normal, Ingram draws a parallel between an ill person’s diagnosis and treatment by a doctor and a diagnosis and treatment which might be applicable to the church in the West today. He walks through the steps that a physician uses with a patient: skillful research of a person’s health history, ordering appropriate tests, determining a diagnosis and designing a treatment plan to establish a “new normal” for the ill individual. This process can be life changing, even life saving, for the patient. Ingram then uses this medical model to evaluate the ailing 21st century Christian church in America.
In his concise and witty style, Ingram notes the church’s overall health, both by looking at some history of the church’s past challenges, and also by using data collected from a website he created called tenthingsproject.com. This website provides a space where non-Christians can vent their frustrations with the church and Christians. In compiling and comparing past and present information in the church’s health history, Ingram skillfully helps us see the similarities that exist between the health challenges of an individual, and those of the post-modern church.
As is illustrated in The New Normal, when a diagnostician has completed the ill person’s physical work-up and meets with him or her to determine the next step in treatment, an important question is asked of the patient, “Are you ready to get better?” At this point the patient has a choice to make, one that could represent a “new normal” of improving health, or a static or downward trend in well being. As Ingram states in The New Normal, “It is a simple question, but the answer is anything but simple: for one answer requires nothing of the patient, while the other answer may take everything they’ve got.”
In The New Normal, we see that this same question, “Are you ready to get better?” can be asked of the church. Ingram emphasizes this point by relating the story in the gospel of John, Chapter 5, in which Jesus says to the paralyzed man by the Pool of Bethesda, “Do you want to be made well?” Amazingly, the paralyzed man does not answer Jesus with a clear “yes”. How puzzling. Why wouldn’t the man eagerly say yes? Could it be that the afflicted man is not ready to change? Perhaps he doesn’t want the dis-ease of being made able bodied, and therefore be held accountable for his actions? Might the church have the same paralyzing affliction, and be hesitant to get better for the same reasons? Is this the church’s “new normal” — one of inaction and powerlessness in our culture?
Not necessarily, according to Ingram. The church can still choose to be obedient to the One who is our source of life and health, he says, and with the Holy Spirit’s help, can participate in becoming healthy by shifting the focus of their concerns away from themselves and toward the ones most in need, most alone, most marginalized in our communities. In this way, Ingram believes, the church could begin the process of healing, and of returning to a healthy, growing church.
In the section of The New Normal called Treatment Plan, Ingram offers some ideas for activities to get Christians moving, active and involved in rehabilitation. The initial description of these rehabilitation ideas is taken from the way Christians behaved during the Plague of Galen which took place in the Roman Empire from 165-180 A.D.
Ingram says, “[In the early years of the church], Christians distinguished themselves from their contemporaries by caring for those who were sick in spite of the risks.
- They stayed when others fled.
- They touched the untouchables when the majority would not come near.
- They cared for the sick when a caring presence was not just hard to find, but essential for survival.”
How can the 21st century church offer healthcare assistance on the local level today? Ingram tells about a neighborhood church whose ministry to their community included a monthly free clinic. “The church provides the space for the volunteers of the clinic, which includes a physician, a physician’s assistant, nurse, and pharmacist. Non-medical members of the church participate in administrative functions in support of the clinic.” It may be that in offering services like these, followers of Jesus could turn the idea of a “new normal” in the church from a negative statement to a positive reality.
Ingram admits that asking a post-modern church to exchange self-absorbed living for sacrificial giving is only possible because “with God all things are possible.” (Matt 19:26.) He states that the powerful inducement for this change is that the way, truth, and life of Kingdom living, the person of Christ, is “with us” in all that he asks us to do in obedience to Him. The church has not been left powerless by the One who assures us, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:20.)
Because Jesus promises he will be with us as we follow him in the way, he will also enable us to recognize him as the truth we need to guide our choices, and he will be our source of life during the tough times. He will be our “new normal” and our source of joy and strength as Christians face the years to come. That, says Ingram, is definitely a “new normal” the Church can live with.