The world has been upended by the emergence of COVID-19 in late 2019. The changes it has wrought in our world are unprecedented in my lifetime. The loss of life has been staggering and personal. The loss of security is also profound. Furthermore, people’s faith in institutions and trust in each other has cratered!
What is your go-to metaphor for this season we’ve endured? Is this like a hurricane, where there’s a catastrophic event followed by an arduous clean-up? Hurricanes kill people and cripple communities. But we usually don’t blame each other for a hurricane. Is this like a World War where there is a huge build up of force, followed by a sustained struggle, followed further by an era of relief and existential shift? We are certainly fighting, but the lines of battle are atypical and the ultimate enemy non-human. I don’t know enough about other disease events to compare this to (Spanish flu, etc.). Nevertheless, this is the most significant event in my lifetime, surpassing even 9/11 in its scale and effect. I assume we’ll be talking about the pandemic for the rest of my time on earth.
As a result, there are vast changes in our world. Work-life has shifted profoundly. Millions losing their work. Millions more quitting. Others shifting to working from home and now trickling back under differing protocol. Elections have turned on the effect of government to address the impacts of COVID-19. Political players have pitted the allure of power against the sense of science: winning elections but rarely curtailing outcomes. COVID-19 has challenged both the mythologies of religion and politics. Technology has emerged in a prolific way: working from home, remote learning and ZOOM are all shared experiences.
The Church has also undergone tremendous change due to COVID-19. First, there were the initial shutdowns, which churches hardly had a reason to resist. Churches became the settings for super-spreader events. Technology has been embraced in a profound way. As in government, church leaders took on more authorities and responsibilities. The burden of various church decisions shifted more toward clergy and church staff and away from lay people. We rethought the sacraments: can we serve communion online? What about baptisms? (I said Yes to Communion, No to Baptism). We’ve struggled with the balance of safety and “stopping the curve” efforts and people’s emotional struggle with the effects of isolation. We’ve grieved losses, struggled to reopen, and redefined what it means to be a church outside of the building. Out of everything we’ve experienced, seven lessons emerge for me as features of our life in the era of COVID-19.
Our worship life has been totally upended due to COVID-19. Churches became early centers of spread. We took drastic measures to ‘reduce the curb’. We bought video cameras, learned how to use our phones and invested in streaming licenses. We taught seniors how to use Zoom and we donated old iPads to help people stay connected. We wondered about the effects of online Communion: do we stretch our norms to stay connected or do we discipline ourselves to remain true to our standards? And what is a church if a central identifying activity is no longer available? The changes to worship are still COVID’s #1 impact on the church. What, if anything, have we learned from it?
Governments, both civil and ecclesial, initially restricted all activity except for “essential services”. This was defined as food, medical and safety services. Churches offering none of these were simply closed. Some never recovered; others invented essential services; others supported other entities doing essential things. Admittedly, my congregation was in the first category. Nevertheless, the concept of “essential services” defined the Church’s activity in 2020. It is now an existential question for the church. Why are so many churches not feeding the hungry and sheltering the unsheltered? What do we do that is essential?
Technology became a way to keep people together during a prolonged season of isolation. It also had a splintering effect on our communities. The haves were Zooming and LiveStreaming. The have-nots were lucky to get a phone call. Churches have now invested serious money into Audio-Visual equipment and even small congregations are online on Sunday. Worshipers can Zoom in from Mount Hood. And quitting a church is as easy as changing the channel. In what ways does technology impact the church? And in what ways is the church impacting technology?
The COVID-19 crisis has under-girded the political strife of the last two years. And a once-fringe issue (anti-vaxx) became a legitimate societal challenge. Government trust and competence has been a feature question. Churches have had to contend with political divisions over mask mandates, vaccine mandates, misinformation, etc. We have had to deal with political strife within our congregations and have had to deal with them from behind our screens. Our values have been challenged. There are significant issues of rights that call the church to action and witness. What is our witness in this season of upheaval? In what ways is COVID-19 affecting or challenging our witness?
COVID-19 has brought us to an existential tipping point, as mass-death events are wont to do. The shift in work: mass resignations, lay-offs, the work-from-home phenomenon…these shifts are reminiscent of post-WWII when women entered the workforce in new ways. The questions being asked are actually age-old: What is fair pay? What makes for a meaningful and fulfilling life? What are employers responsibilities to workers? What is the actual value of work anyway? COVID-19, however, has changed the answers. Many countries paid people to stay at home during lock-downs, experimenting with the idea of Universal Basic Income. The church has age-old values on work. In what ways can the Church’s ideals impact this global shift?
People’s Sense of Purpose
COVID-19 has disrupted people in all phases of life. The isolations highlighted our need for other people. Families suffered profoundly painful separations. Children took on education without classmates to play with. Seniors spent last days, weeks, months utterly cut-off from their loved ones. Those in care facilities are still facing lock-downs of drastic measure. Weddings, funerals, baptisms etc have been delayed or seriously curtailed. The meaning of life has emerged from the shadows of the personal to an actual public conversation. What would it mean for the church to offer its 3000 years of accumulated wisdom to this contemporary crisis?
The losses experienced throughout COVID-19 are profound and traumatic. Morgue trailers in NYC, healthy young adults dying within weeks of transmission, millions of children grieving the loss of parents. Add to that people watching their anti-vaxx children, siblings and parents die unnecessarily. This is undoubtedly a grief-filled era. We have a book in our Bible about profound, unthinkable loss (Job). We have at least some imagination on world-ending events. We understand grief. We are often the last in the room with families when their loved-ones die. Our world is seriously traumatized. What would it mean if the church offered a campaign helping people process the various losses COVID-19 has brought? What does it mean for the church if we are unable or unwilling to help people in this season?
These are the categories of effect I am witnessing in our COVID-19 era. There are likely other effects I am overlooking.
What about you? What are the most profound effects on the church you have witnessed in this COVID-19 era? Do any of these trigger any lessons for you? Are there angles I am leaving out?