Thursday, May 18, 2023

David W. Scott: On the Post-Pandemic Church

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

The COVID-19 pandemic is over. That is to say, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the United States government, and other authorities, the COVID-19 virus no longer constitutes a public health emergency. It is, instead, “an established and ongoing health issue,” as the WHO put it.

On a practical level, the most visible signs of the pandemic – widespread lockdowns, restrictions on gatherings, extensive public masking, frequent testing, etc. – have been over for several months or a couple of years, depending on what measures and where in the world you are talking about.

As part of this end to preventative measures, churches around the world have returned to in-person worship. Churches everywhere ceased meeting in person in 2020, and most of them instead sought electronic ways to stay in touch with members, whether livestreaming, Facebook, WhatsApp, or other means. In most places, though, churches have been meeting in person again for a year or two. The WHO announcement merely recognizes what has already happened.

Yet, in almost no places has the church gone back to what it was before the pandemic. For some churches, that means continuing to provide electronic forms of connection that were adopted during the pandemic. For others, it means continuing the changes in routine regarding handwashing, communion, or fellowship food that were adopted during the pandemic.

And for many churches, it means reduced numbers of people showing up to church.

The decrease in church attendance in the United States in the wake of COVID has been well documented for some time. The Pew Research Center conducted a meta-analysis of five such studies earlier this year and found complicated but consistent findings that the COVID-19 pandemic correlated with a drop in worship attendance by any means.

This finding seems plausible, since it coincides with a long-term trend in the United States away from worship attendance and affiliation with organized religion. Again, the reporting on that topic has been extensive and consistent for over a decade. An NPR story earlier this week discussing the decline of religion in America (and citing the COVID pandemic) seemed less like news and more like a reminder.

What has been surprising for me, however, is learning that this phenomenon of reduced attendance and connection to church is not just a U.S. phenomenon or even a Western phenomenon.

Over the past year, as I have traveled to visit mission sites and had conversations with mission partners, I have consistently heard people talk about how the pandemic has set the church back. Churches around the world have lost attendance and momentum due to the pandemic. This is true in many different contexts – Korea, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, various African countries, Europe, and Latin America.

What’s more is that in several of these contexts, Christianity was doing well prior to the pandemic. Churches were strong and growing. That hasn’t completely ceased, as there is wide variation across congregations and denominations, and many churches that were strong prior to the pandemic are likely to rebound from pandemic setbacks.

Nevertheless, for churches that had been on an upward trajectory prior to COVID, the pandemic represents not the continuation of a long-term trend towards decline, as in the United States, but the interruption of a long-term trend towards growth. In other words, the pandemic didn’t just accelerate trends already underway; it also created new trends, at least in some locations.

It is too early to say what the long-term effects on churches will be from the pandemic, and certainly these will vary widely by contexts, Christianity tradition, individual congregation, and other factors. Some churches saw opportunity and increased connection during the pandemic, even if by different (and usually electronic) means. So, I do not wish to suggest that the pandemic is a universally negative force that will continue to weigh down the church everywhere.

Yet, as we mark and even celebrate the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must think about what it really means to be a “post-pandemic” church.

There was an English professor at my college who was fond of critiquing the term “post-modern.” “How can it be separate from modernism?” he would say. “The word ‘modern’ is part of the term “post-modern.’ How can it be beyond something that’s in its very name?”

Thus, as scholars of Christianity in various contexts around the world reflect on the “post-pandemic” church, they will do well to heed both parts of that name: The ways in which the church is “post-“ and has moved beyond the pandemic, and the ways in which the pandemic continues to shape the church and people’s engagement with it.

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