Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Anticipating a New Season: What Will a Post-Pandemic Faith Community Look Like?

By Scott Thumma, PhD

It is absolutely clear that the global pandemic has accelerated the pre-existing patterns and long-term trends that existed prior to Covid-19. As a Seminary professor, I have for years been encouraging, even imploring my students to prepare to address these challenges. However, given the crisis of the past year and a half, change is now an imperative rather than an option. This post summarizes a few thoughts about what that new season will look like whenever it does arrive.

There is a good chance that it will be marked by the loss of quite a few small churches. This trend was happening prior to the pandemic and is likely to accelerate. Not only were many smaller churches in a precarious position before without the resources to adequately weather the virus realities but they continue to have less technology for virtual options, less will to innovate, more people over the age of 65, and congregants in “at-risk” categories who will likely be very hesitant to venture out as the pandemic wanes.

This decline will also lead to a greater number of part-time clergy and a corresponding increase in bi-vocational religious leaders. Such a reality could be positive if the laity takes a more active role in and ownership of the life of the congregation, but it could conversely further hasten the decline of some of these communities.

Likely, the longer a church goes without physically meeting for worship the harder it will be to regather face-to-face. According to current data, this means that more Mainline Protestant churches and congregations of color, especially Latino and African American, will be more greatly affected by this dynamic than Evangelical, Catholic, and non-Christian ones.

Certain aspects of pandemic worship such as online giving, Zoom committee meetings, and streaming of the physical service, are certain to remain in many congregations. Though the continuation of other more creative, less building-centric adaptations to congregational life will be a challenge to maintain. The inertia of “the way we always did it” will drag the faith community back to tried and true methods even while those methods have been increasingly less effective over the past 20 years. It will take a determined and forceful leadership team to keep this from happening.

As a result of this pastoral effort and the inevitable ensuing conflict, it is quite likely that a large number of clergy will retire, resign, or relocate to another profession in the coming years. The stress and exhaustion from the past two years, coupled with resistance to greater innovation will take its toll on clergy. 

A more positive possibility is also likely, that those congregations with the initiative, vision, and resources to continue the spirit of innovation and creative flexibility of the past 18 months stand a greater chance of adapting to this altered reality with new congregational models and spiritual approaches. This is most likely to happen among larger faith communities with over 250 attendees, but recent Faith Communities Today data suggests that at least a third of congregations of any size are spiritually vital, visionary, and willing to adapt. Perhaps this is the opportunity for communities to become less building-centric and expand their efforts to 24/7 technologically-aided ministry to their entire congregation rather than just those who can attend the few hours each week the physical service is offered. Perhaps this moment will redefine who is included in the membership, what counts as active participation, and how the scope and vision of congregations can be redrawn to encompass a broader and more diverse understanding of its community.

Finally, it is clear that the post-pandemic congregation will have to be an intentionally welcoming and user-friendly place if it intends to return to its pre-Covid numbers. When folks return, they will all be newcomers. Congregations will have to be intentional about their hospitality teams. This outreach, even to long-time participants, will have to include a re-schooling in new routines and new ways of being a community post-pandemic. The congregation will have to focus intentionally on community rebuilding and perhaps learn how to include the virtual cloud of witnesses on Zoom. The post-pandemic faith community will not only need to intentionally concentrate on processing the past two years of grief, loss and absence due to the sickness and deaths of Covid, but also the loss of those unable or unwilling to venture back. In a word, not just return back to Egypt, but press on with intentionality and creativity to reach the Promised Land of post-pandemic vitality.