When Charles Dickens stated that another era was “the best of times, it was the worst of times,” little did he know that his description would align perfectly with the times in which we are now living.1 We find ourselves caught in the clutches of a paradoxical era. It is one of complex and confusing peril yet great opportunity.
Before COVID-19 struck suddenly and without warning, congregational life in the United States was reeling from forces that threatened the very survival and sustainability of the church. The fastest-growing religious group or category in the country at the time was the Nones—those who claimed no religious affiliation while asserting they were deeply spiritual. The pandemic upended every aspect of life, especially the religious aspect. It affected church buildings, and the social distancing restrictions challenged fellowship among believers—the very foundation of the Christian faith. The contagion resurfaced theological questions about pain and suffering, with families watching in horror and helplessness as loved ones succumbed, often in isolation, to the deadly, mysterious virus.
As we emerge from the darkness and uncertainty of the past three years, the church now wrestles with crucial questions, such as, What will the postpandemic church look like? What will postpandemic ministry entail? What should the critical competencies of the postpandemic pastor be? How much of the past should the church seek to recover as it plots a path forward?
I read Fareed Zakaria’s book on what the world may look like beyond COVID-19. Titled Ten Lessons for a Post-pandemic World, it examines and analyzes 10 phenomena Zakaria believes will be significantly affected by the coronavirus. Eminently qualified to author the book, Zakaria is a political and social scientist, TV show host, and author.
As I read Zakaria’s important contribution to the discussion about what life in the era after the coronavirus may look like, I could not help but think about the church. What are some lessons we have learned? And what elements of church life has the pandemic affected?
I think the lessons run the gamut from the simple to the profound. The simple lessons remind us that life is unpredictable and full of surprises. Did anyone see COVID-19 coming? The profound lessons force us to recognize that the postpandemic world and church will be markedly different from what they were before the virus began its deadly march around the world. We can view the pandemic as a watershed event.
A groundbreaking study titled “The Pandemic’s Impact on Congregations, Clergy, and Seminaries” revealed that the pandemic only amplified several trends already in existence.2 Without a doubt, the pre-COVID church was already in decline. Interestingly, the church was not inoculated against COVID, as church members tested positive for the deadly virus, and a significant number of the congregations surveyed lost at least one member to it.
The coronavirus caused us to ponder and probe the very church itself. What are its nature and purpose? Why do people attend church? What is the call or mission of the church today? What impact will COVID have on the demographic profile of our congregations? Where is the Spirit of God at work today? Where is God present? These are deep theological questions that cry out for answers as we seek to recover and stress the meaning of church in the post-COVID era.
The purpose and future
On a practical level, what will church leadership look like in a postpandemic world? What new realities and pressures will reshape pastoral leadership? Which does the church need more—a rediscovery and growth of professional competencies or a focused and intentional nurture of biblical spirituality?
As the dean of Oakwood University’s School of Theology, I ponder the purpose and future of theological education. How may theological schools best prepare pastors for a changing church? What must we teach students that will not only inform them but also, more importantly, transform them? And how will we inspire them to grow their relationship with God, recognizing that He is the source of all knowledge, which we access through our relationship with Him and His creation? In the end, knowing God is what the church and theological education should be all about. Jesus should be the core and content of congregational life and Christian education. To know God, we must get to know each other, and knowing God and His love naturally leads to mission and service.
Thing of the past?
One of the profound lessons of the pandemic is the emergence, growth, and dominance of digital culture. When churches had to close their doors in March 2020, many had to scramble to procure technology and increase the technological literacy and competency of members to deliver services virtually. Virtuality is neither temporary nor fleeting. It is a phenomenon that has redefined and continues to redefine life, and hybrid worship services are here to stay.
The pandemic underscored that the people of God compose the church, not a building. Philosophically and theologically, Christians have known all along that the church is not a physical structure. The pandemic may have dealt a deadly blow to the idea that majestic cathedrals and elegant buildings are critical to congregational life. During the pandemic, buildings remained, for the most part, closed. Yet the church rolled on, and in many instances, the stewardship of members did not wane or suffer. In fact, tithe and offerings increased almost across the board in the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists.3 There was a time when a successful church-building program set a pastor apart as being specially gifted. It may be too early to tell if the centrality of a building or the building-centric nature of some ministries is a thing of the past or still necessary in the present. Successful ministry will require a willingness to function well in either scenario, with building or without.
Calls for what the postpandemic church should look like include that it somehow returns to its prepandemic days. If we are to go back to the prepandemic church, I contend and urge that we should go all the way back to the apostolic church and recover and retrieve perspectives and practices that caused it to explode in growth and numbers.
Without a doubt, we are at a dramatic moment in history, and the contours of tomorrow are not as clear as we may wish. Ours is a time of diversification that faces the threat of polarization. The task we have is one of reordering our steps in the Lord, of revisioning the future so that we pursue and achieve essential purposes and mutual goals.
It is the best of times, and it is the worst of times. Change is not easy and often takes time. Yet this moment shows the need to adapt and calls for freshness and innovation that is informed and shaped by the Spirit of the Living God. Now must be a time for collaboration. Credible and compelling ideas of togetherness will yield rich and riveting pathways to a future of triumph. As we willingly risk transparency and vulnerability, mission and ministry will become robust and compelling.
Business as usual?
Since relocating to Huntsville, Alabama, I have had to seek a haven in my next-door neighbor’s tornado shelter on two occasions. I have been intrigued by the drill and particularly struck by how, after the warning was called off, my wife and I returned to what we were doing before it was issued. On both occasions, we picked up exactly where we had left off, continuing into the evening with business as usual. Is that what we are going to do in terms of ministry and church leadership after the scare of the pandemic? Or will the experience fundamentally alter at least some of what we do moving forward?
When Noah and his family exited the ark, the world they encountered was unlike the one they left behind when they entered it. In a sense, the world the church is facing has changed, perhaps like it did post-9/11 or after the two world wars of the twentieth century. We are facing a new landscape that requires a new set of assumptions and vision.
- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (London, UK: James Nisbet, 1902), 3.
- See the “Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations” project at https://covidreligionresearch.org.
- Christelle Agboka, “NAD Treasurer Randy Robinson Testifies to ‘the Goodness of God’ in 2022 NAD Year-End Meeting Report,” Seventh-day Adventist, North American Division, November 4, 2022, https://www.nadadventist.org/news/nad-treasurer-randy-robinsonjon-testifies-goodness-god-2022-nad-year-end-meeting-report.