Pandemics are not a new phenomena, and Dr Nicholas Christakis suggests several patterns can be observed in society as we pull out of pandemic situations. Exploring these, here are a few observations the church should heed to be alive in 2021 and beyond.
Firstly, whilst all the stats suggest people will not return to church gatherings in anything like the numbers pre pandemic, and this decline will continue, it will be initially masked by the huge desire people have for what Christakis calls “extensive social interaction”. Like the rise of online interactions saw with churches moving online, we must not be fooled into a false sense of security that everything is going to be fine post pandemic. The predicted increase of religiosity which is usually seen, during the pandemic was played out in the rise of online visitors, and hopefully some churches will be able to build on these relationships and capitalise on the desire for interaction as lockdown eases during late 2021, but it is unlikely to stick. Beyond 2022 and going forward the nature of the social interaction observed after previous pandemics is more hedonistic in nature, so it is unlikely people will look to the church spaces as a point for gathering longer term, particularly young people. So the impact for stronger decline with an already aging profile of traditional church shouldn’t be underestimated.
However I am hopeful that the desire for social interaction accompanied by the more conscious awareness of millennials (I know there’s generalisation issues here) will provide an opportunity for the church to connect through its myriad of great social action and social interaction initiatives, such as Toddler groups. But churches will need to shift their approach to attract this group and engage them beyond the social space and the critical posture that needs to be adopted is that of missional humility. The need for this missional humility should not be underestimated when we consider the rise of Trump, his evangelical alignment and the months people have had to think more deeply about who they are and how they want to be. So perhaps we need to plan parallel approaches utilising one approach for the early millennials, now with young families, that builds on the assets of groups that already took place pre pandemic. Then we will need a second approach for those younger, who if Christakis is correct will be “relentlessly seeking social inactions”, seeking out hedonistic opportunities, with more access to money thanks to a recovering economy who will be increasingly rejecting religiosity. Perhaps we need to develop something far more akin to the emerging church of the early 1990s who were able to engage the generation emerging from the early 80s HIV and AIDS epidemic reaching them in very different creative ways. These emerging expressions were rooted in the real relationships people were seeking and held a missional humility that made space to journey with people in ways that had rarely been seen before.