Blizzards, Winters, and Ice-Ages
(Michael Osterholm is an infectious disease epidemiologist. Below is a fleshing out of an analogy he presents concerning the COVID-19 crisis. My goal is to take his illustration and apply it to the local church.)
Storm of the Century
March 12, 1993 a superstorm formed over the Gulf of Mexico. With winds equal to a category 3 hurricane, this storm came ashore stretching from the Louisiana coast to the panhandle of Florida. Once onshore, it slammed into a cold front that turned the torrential rain into snow. The panhandle of Florida received 4 inches of snow. By the time the storm entered Tennessee, West Virginia, and Virginia, buildings collapsed under the weight of the snow. After pummeling Nova Scotia, this storm finally went out to sea. In its wake, were more than 208 fatalities and over 5.5 billion dollars of destruction.
As quickly as this storm came, it also went. Within just a few days, spring weather returned, the snow melted, and repairs began on collapsed buildings. While this storm was labeled the storm of the century by the Weather Channel, things quickly got back to normal for most of the affected area.
Many churches are working from this premise concerning COVID-19. They believe the current situation is just a storm, albeit the storm of the century. When it is over, we will emerge, take stock of the damage, and get back to normal very quickly. COVID-19 is truly a terrible event, but it is just that, an event.
Long, Hard Winter
Compare the blizzard of 1993 with the winter of 1978-1979 in Tennessee. During this winter, temperatures were much below normal. The average temperature in Nashville for February is normally 52 degrees. In 1979 it was 18.6 degrees. Many schools across middle Tennessee closed in January and February of 1979 not because of snow but because they could not heat the schools. After months of cold and snow, spring eventually came again, and things slowly returned to normal.
Many churches adhere to the long, hard winter approach to COVID-19. Whereas a blizzard lasts for a few days and impacts communities for a few weeks, winters are longer and more difficult. “Winter” churches believe several months will pass before spring comes and things eventually return to normal or close to normal. The goal is to hunker down for the next few months until the season passes. Spring activities will resume eventually.
Somewhere around 1300AD a mini ice age occurred that lasted until 1900AD. For 600 years the earth was colder than average. This affected farming practices, house designs, and pushed Europeans to search for warmer areas and more fertile lands to farm, such as in North America. This was a multi-generational event that shaped the history of the world. People lived their entire lives in this ice age.
Some church leaders believe the results of COVID-19 will usher in an ice age for the church. This does not mean the end of the world, but it does mean the end of many things the church and culture had grown accustomed to prior to COVID-19. The changes that will come from COVID-19 will affect the rest of our lives and our children’s lives. This event is ushering in a new era for churches as well as the rest of the world.
The question comes, which analogy most closely resembles what we will look like after the immediate crisis ends? Are we in a blizzard, a winter, or the beginning of an ice age? The answer is, no one really knows because no one can accurately predict the future.
However, reading our current situation does provide some interesting insights. First, it is apparent that our current situation is more than just a blizzard. Most churches believe that we cannot, we must not go back to the PC (Pre-Corona) normal. This crisis has been a wake-up call for the church and for the nation. Most pastors I talk to consistently say that the church must not return to business as usual. The church has an unprecedented opportunity to speak to a wounded and confused nation about the love of Christ. Whatever is ahead, it is a new normal for the church and for the nation.
Is our situation a winter or an ice-age, no one can say with certainty. However, it is becoming apparent that COVID-19 will have long term implications on how we do church in the future. We must begin to look at how to adapt to the new normal that we will be facing when the immediate crisis is over.
With all this in mind, I believe that the goal is not to get back to a PC normal. The goal is not to look back, but to look forward, assess the situation before us, and seek new ways to reach and disciple people who are genuinely interested in spiritual things for the first time.
One note of encouragement. Tennessee survived the long, hard winter of 1978-1979. The world survived the mini ice-age. We will survive COVID-19. Our job at this point is not to help our churches survive. The task at hand is to help our churches thrive in a difficult time. My prayer is that God will use this terrible event to bring about a revival that will result in a great harvest of souls.