When John F. Kennedy ran for President, he often stated in campaign speeches that the Chinese word “crisis” was a combination of characters that combined the words danger and opportunity, yielding the meaning of “dangerous opportunity.” Since then, many leaders of business, education and popular culture have quoted this sentiment. But in actuality, the Chinese word weiji is composed of two words: dangerous and change point. Though typically misinterpreted, the principle remains the same. Crisis points yield moments of decision. What we do at that change point is risky. To choose wisely can create opportunities. To choose incorrectly can bring disaster. But worse, indecision can be fatal.
The COVID-19 pandemic placed every church at the cross roads of weiji, a dangerous point of change. Unfortunately, many church leaders (pastoral and lay) have yet to seize the opportunity placed before them. Things are starting to loosen and open up, which is good. But there’s a red flag waving furiously every time I hear the phrase, “I can’t wait until things get back to normal, and we can go back to the way things were in February, 2020.” Many churches went into “sleep mode” in March, 2020, holding on for the magical day when they could go back to the way things were. The problem with that is that the world has changed and adapted, which has produced a new normal. Business has changed, education has changed, and most of all, people have changed. Business and education have changed and adapted to new futures. The pandemic has provided all of the above time to recalibrate their values and in some instances find contentment in simplicity. People who began working at home out of necessity may never go back to brick and mortar office buildings. Children who have learned virtually may never go back to the classroom. People and families alike have become more deeply connected with one another as they profited from discretionary time they never knew existed.
COVID-19 was and still is an opportunity for the church to change and adapt as well. The pandemic was a catalyst for change and adaptation for those who chose to view it through the lens of blessing and not burden. The past year could and should have been invested in observing culture and in honest self assessment. Was there something new to start? Maybe something that needed to stop? Were there new practices to learn? Or was there something in place to master?
For example, about a year ago I presented a list of opportunities to the last Church I served.* We had the capacity to live stream worship services on our website already in place so we did not need to struggle there. But there were opportunities to consider a host of things like reorganizing the staff to manage and keep pace with technology and digital communication, to enhance and promote access to online giving, the possibility to return to live worship with an additional worship service that featured contemporary music, to re-engage our growth consultant for guidance in updating our mission, values and strategy in anticipation of change to name a few. These suggestions were casually met with “when we get a vaccine, we’ll get back to normal.” Thomas Watson once wrote, “Storms will drive ships into the harbor.” And many churches responded to COVID just like that, waiting for the skies to clear and the waves to calm so they could safely return to sea.
Its late, but not too late for churches to seize the opportunity embedded within the pandemic. The future is wide open, and to paraphrase Thomas Freidman, “belongs not to those who can think outside the box. The future belongs to those who can think without a box.”
*I stepped out of the pastoral ministry on August 24, 2020. The transparent details of my personal journey from sacred to secular are forthcoming in my first series of podcasts at Out of Ur.