How Is Church Going to Change?

A year ago, the pandemic was upon us, states were declaring lockdowns and church services (along with most everything else) went online. It was a scary moment for anyone who loves their religious community, with lots of questions:

  • Would people find online church services satisfying?
  • Would they attend?
  • Would they take part in church life beyond service?
  • Would they support their religious community in a time of extreme dislocation?

The surprising thing is the answer has been more “yes” than “no” over the past year. As more religious communities move toward in-person gatherings (in Pennsylvania, such gatherings remains very limited, with communities either avoiding it wholly or severely limiting worshipers), my own sense is that the past year is going to usher in a very different world for religious communities in 2021 and beyond.

Here are the new ground rules that I see:

  • Church is multiplatform. In my community, people from as far away as Arizona and Texas attend Sunday service. Our Wednesday mindfulness program includes a person from New York state who has never been part of a physical meeting of our community. These people are part of our community, we think there are more people who would benefit from our values and approach, and I expect we’ll continue to find ways to connect with them. When the time is right, I expect we’ll return to in-person services, but the schedule may be very different. Maybe we go from two Sunday services to one, to reduce resources needed and complexity for the physical event—but we add a livestream component that has a significant audience, both people who live at a distance and others who are physically near but decide it makes better sense for them to attend remotely.
  • Church is a mix of live and produced events. This pandemic has questioned the need to meet physically, and I would not be surprised to see a move away from physical meetings every week and a hybrid approach that includes something like what church is right now for many people (a produced service pulled together ahead of time and made available on online platforms like Youtube and Vimeo) once a month. Maybe it’s the last Sunday of the month. Consider it the spiritual equivalent of work-from-home (which is another huge societal change due to covid).
  • Church is asynchronous. Like Netflix, you can tune into church when it fits your schedule. Rather than choose between a morning hike and Sunday service on a gorgeous weekend morning, you can time-shift service to later that day, or Tuesday evening, or whenever. Church is no longer “appointment programming” in the way that it has been.
  • Church remains about connection. The religious communities that survive and thrive in this environment will be able to meet people where they are AND provide a message and presentation that is valued and, to an extent, can outcompete the variety of experiences competing for attention. The message and execution need to be compelling and values-forward, in a way that makes spending the time either going to service or choosing it over other screen alternatives makes people feel good about their choice. There will be limited ability to guilt people into choosing religious community if it doesn’t impact their lives in some way.

In addition to screens, church will be especially challenged in the second half of the year, due to:

  • pent up demand to travel
  • pent up demand to see family and friends on weekends.
  • people changing jobs
  • people spending down money saved during the pandemic

It’s going to be a very distracted time, and religious communities that assume that as covid relents people will return to previous patterns are, I think, kidding themselves. The world has changed, and relevant religious communities will change with them.

Two summers ago, my community had a practice run on this unsettled time. We were displaced from our physical location and could not worship at our usual location for the summer. It felt like an existential threat. We  went “on the road” and spent a lot of good time, thought and effort on our community’s place in the world. I can speak only for myself, but it made me feel vulnerable for our community.

A year later, poof!, that physical site again went away. It was unavailable to us and, even more unimaginably, there’s noplace else to go. So we re-formed community on the fly, missing zero services in the switch from live to virtual services. We did it for a full year, with the sense that we can do this till we do what comes next.

I dearly look forward to “next”, but I also feel less threatened about living in this liminal, “between” time. I’m confident in our resilience and ability to work skillfully with the facts on the ground to create the next “next”. My prayer is that everyone is thinking about how to connect in a world where many people will not be comfortable gathering even after the epidemiological “alls-clear” is given, because there is a lot of healing that needs to occur before everyone is ready to gather in one indoors, physical space again.

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