What does the phrase “new normal’ mean, anyway? It seems that “new normal” has been applied to almost every aspect of our culture since 2007, when the US economy faced its most challenging downward shift since the Great Depression of the 1930s. To my way of thinking, “new normal” carries a negative connotation. It means that our robust American quality of life has taken a big step backward, and it is not going to return to its previous, presumably healthy, levels of enjoyment or accomplishment. Therefore a different, less vital, more difficult way of life has ensued which is here to stay, so get used to it – this is the new normal. The Church has certainly experienced its own downward shift over the last decade or so, with yearly membership numbers declining in all mainline Protestant churches, and disdain for Christian beliefs and values being the norm in our culture. Is this the Church’s “new normal”? Dr. Ingram’s book helps us to consider this question.
In his book, The New Normal – A Diagnosis the Church Can Live With, Dr. Tom Ingram demonstrates that skillfully researching a patient’s health history, ordering appropriate tests, determining a diagnosis and designing a treatment plan to establish a “new normal” for an ill individual can be life changing for the patient. Dr. Ingram also uses this medical model to evaluate the ailing 21st century Christian Church in America. In his concise and witty book, Dr. Ingram observes the Church’s overall health, both by looking at some of the history of the Church’s past challenges, and also by using data collected from a website he created recently called the tenthingsproject.com . This website provided a space where non-Christians could vent their frustrations with the Church and Christians. In compiling and comparing the past and present information in the church’s health history, Dr. Ingram skillfully helps us see the parallels 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 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”. As is stated in the book, “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 book we read that this same question, “Are you ready to get better”, can be asked of the Church. Dr. Ingram emphasizes this point by relating the story in 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 does not want the dis-ease of being made able bodied, and therefore held accountable for his actions? Might the Church have the same paralyzing affliction, and be hesitant to get better for the same reasons? Is the Church’s “new normal” one of inaction and powerlessness in our culture?
Not necessarily, according to Dr. Ingram. The Church can still chose to be obedient to the One who is our source of life and health, and with the Holy Spirit’s help, we can initiate service to the ones most in need, most alone, most marginalized in our communities, and there bear good fruit to the Lord. In the chapter called Treatment Plan, Dr. Ingram offers some ideas for activities to get Christians moving, active and involved in rehabilitation, knowing that when we have served “the least of these, we have served the Lord.” In this way, it might happen that followers of Jesus could turn the idea of a “new normal” in the Church from a negative to a positive statement. Will this rehabilitation be easy – no. Dr. Ingram admits that asking the post-modern person to exchange self-absorbed living to 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. We aren’t left alone by the One who assures us, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matt 28:20. He will be with us as we follow Him in the way, he will enable us to see Him as the truth we need to guide our choices, He will ultimately be our source of life during the tough times. He will be our “new normal” and our source of joy. That is definitely a “new normal” the Church can live with.