It’s a year since the first lockdown. How did that happen? As we have a day of reflection it had made me think about the impact of COVID on some of the social trends we see and their impact on our congregations. Lockdown has vastly accelerated social trends and as churches we need to recognise this and the impact it may have. And think carefully about how we respond to them. Here are a few where I think the last year will have vastly accelerated social trends.
Isolation. Nothing isolates like a stay at home order. Millions of people not leaving their houses for weeks at a time except for one mandated form of exercise a day. And even whilst on that exercise crossing the road to avoid others and the danger of infection they pose to us or we pose to them. A year of that message will have vastly accelerated the trend towards isolation that was already present in our society. As we emerge from our COVID protocols we have to reckon with this. We have been reshaped. Our church fellowships will have been reshaped and we will have a lot of rebuilding to do and the extent of that reshaping will vary from person to person and family to family. It has practical implications. Our churches will be divided over the protocols we should have in place, whether we should sing or follow guidance, and so on. And the echo chamber of social media will entrench them in their views and potentially make them less tolerant of others. Will we snap back to life like before or gradually look to ease people into it? Will we move chairs closer by increments? How do we do so in a way that both loves those who are incredibly anxious about ending isolation and those who have had enough and just want everything they had before back now or at the earliest opportunity?
Professionalism. There was a trend to give jobs to the professionals in society before our COVID year and that has been exacerbated by the events of COVID. More than ever we have been forced to just do our jobs and let others do theirs. But it also seems to have accelerated a trend to outsourcing things to the professionals. Statistics on pupil engagement with online learning seem to point to that, with a significant percentage of pupils not engaging with online learning and parents feeling it’s either the teachers job not theirs, or that they have enough on their plate with their own work from home let alone educating children. That was the case before the pandemic in many areas – we may take on small DIY tasks, but get professionals in to do the big jobs. That trend seems to have accelerated and spread. Add to that as churches that one of the results of COVID secure protocols is to have fewer people involved from the front, no refreshments and welcome teams, a minimum number of people on PA and the like. Many of the teams we had before have been paused. Many areas of service are in mothballs. More of the ministry that can be done is being done by the “professionals’. How will we as churches move away from that? How will we reengage our teams and when?
Valuing the virtual. There have been lots of good innovations to the pandemic. Zoom, Teams, and so on have really made a difference to the ability to stay connected. More churches than ever have a YouTube channel and a presence on FaceBook, and that is a good thing. And has resulted in a shift in thinking. Those who prefer virtual church because it’s easier, more convenient, and fits into their way of life. Its easier for the children as they can play whilst the adults hear a sermon. Those who prefer online bible study because it saves significant travel. It’s good that churches have adapted quickly to provide online content. But as we face the future what are we going to do with our online services and provision? What if it becomes a hinderance to people returning to church when they can because it’s just easier to have church at home in my front room? What if in valuing the virtual people have come to dismiss or minimise the benefits of the physical gathering? After all I don’t have to put up with someone I find hard to talk to in virtual church, I don’t have to put any effort into serving and setting up, I don’t have to bear with, or in fact do any of those one anothers that I find so hard. I can just tune in online on Sunday and meet up with one or two people I like from church for a walk, or eventually in a home during the week and that’s fine. I can even choose to hear great preachers, not our churches average preacher, and still meet friends from church during the week. I don’t think we should underestimate the impact of the pandemic on church voyeurism, growing disconnection, increased consumer mentality, and a general discipleship malaise. How will we respond to those challenges as a church? How do we reconnect people? How can we create a sense of longing for the physical? What role will virtual content play going forward? How can we use it well to support rather than subvert church?
As the country begins the journey on the roadmap to unlocking we need to be ready to lead our fellowships through similar journey. There are lots of other social trends that have been accelerated in this pandemic. Denying their impact will only bring harm. There is a challenge but also an opportunity as we lead God’s sheep to lead with lessons learned and challenges faced and see again what God in his word calls his people to be.