New UMC: Normal New

Not long after the pandemic began, and church changed in all sorts of ways, people began to ask, “How long before we get back to normal?” The question morphed into the sense that some things have changed permanently, and that we are moving into a new normal. The question became, “What will the new normal look like?”

I resonate with both questions, but I no longer see the future as getting back to normal or moving into a new normal. My reason for viewing things differently is with respect to the word ‘normal’ when it is the noun. Whether old or new, when ‘normal’ is the noun, it is the word where our thinking begins—in whatever categories our understanding of ‘normal’ exist. I no longer think the word ‘normal’ (old or new) as a noun is the way forward. I am moving it into the place of an adjective…

The Normal New.

I do not have this all thought out, but I want to offer it as a template for envisioning the new United Methodist Church. I offer the following ideas, but I do so as one who is still on the path of discerning what it might mean. A Normal New.

New is the noun. This means we are not engaged in recovering, restoring, reinvigorating, or remodeling anything. Or to say it another way: there are no sacred cows or status quos to protect and defend. If we are in Christ, we are new creations; the old must pass away so that the new can come (2 Corinthians 5:17). If we do not live in this truth, our default ‘normal’ will take over and inhibit the “new creation” journey.

E. Stanley Jones saw that inhibiting when he attended a conference in 1938 in Madras, India. It was a conference intended to bring the Christian denominations in India together, to restore greater ecumenism and cooperation. But it did not happen, and Jones left deeply disappointed, writing that,

“I missed a church which started from where Jesus started, the Kingdom of God, and found a church which started with itself and therefore, largely ended with itself…dangerously near to fulfilling the statement of Jesus when he said, ‘he that saveth his life shall lose it.’’ I missed a church which said the Kingdom of God is the hope of the church and of the world, and found instead a church which said, ‘I am the hope of the world.’ I missed a church loyal to the Kingdom of God and found a church loyal to its own fellowship.” [1]

This is exactly why ‘normal’ must not be the noun. It takes over before God has the opportunity to get in a word edgewise. We cannot avoid this, especially if we have hung out in the institutional Church for any length of time. It is just where our conditioned minds go. But to acknowledge this is where God’s future has a chance to be seen. The new UMC will become new if new is the noun. The sky is the limit when new is the noun.

So…what about normal? If it is the adjective, we can use it without it using us. As an adjective it is a servant, not a master. It holds in view the reality that movements cannot exist without manners, methods, and machinery. The content has to have a container. The first Christians soon discovered this after Christ ascended (Acts 2:42 onward). The emergence of the new UMC will require some kind of manifestation. Faith and form are distinct, but not divided.

So….here I am. In search of a Normal New—God’s new creation, the Kingdom of God. I have miles to go before I sleep. But I have awakened to a fresh vision that is cleaning the lens through which I am trying to look to see the new UMC.

A Normal New.

[1] Quoted in ’30 Days With E. Stanley Jones’ by John E. Harnish (Front Edge Publishing, 2022), 82. The statement was one Jones wrote in an article in The Christian Century magazine in 1938 entitled, “What I Missed at Madras.”

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 43 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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