What Will Post-Pandemic Church Look Like?
The coronavirus pandemic shifted nearly every aspect of life. As vaccines are rolling out and the hope for a return to normal looms, a question remains: How much of the social and cultural changes that were made during the pandemic will last?
When the pandemic began, we collectively stayed at home and logged in to our videoconferencing apps. Personally, I have attended virtual meetings, virtual parties, virtual game nights, and a virtual wedding – and probably many more that I’ve blocked out of my mind because of all-too-familiar Zoom fatigue.
Recently, Gallup conducted research in the United States about work-from-home preferences. Lydia Saad and Jeffrey M. Jones highlight two points in their article about Gallup’s findings that are relevant for consideration. The article says the number of people working remotely in 2021 was almost the same as 2020 – and that “four in 10 white-collar workers prefer remote work.”
Freakanomics Radio contributed to the discussion on the potential for post-pandemic remote life. The station cited that some estimates show that moving forward up to 20 percent of work may be remote. Another factor discussed by Stephen Dubner is the hybrid model, where people may work remotely for part of the time and in the office for the rest.
The research points toward a trend of remote life staying remote even after the pandemic. But during the pandemic, work and social gatherings were not the only kinds which shifted online. For many of us at some point in the last 18 months, we have experienced church, small groups, discipleship, prayer, and Bible studies remotely on the computer. When gatherings are allowed again, how many of these meetings and gatherings will remain on the computer, and how many of them will go back to in-person?
These challenges force us to rethink methodology and practice. Though we know God is sovereign over the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, we can still ask how and why we gather as a church in light of the pandemic. The data listed above show that, in some sectors, remote life will continue. Should that have any influence on the way the church will gather?
As we move toward life after the pandemic, it is natural to ask the question: Will life return to the way it was before? Will there come a day when masks and vaccines aren’t on the forefront of our minds? To be candid, I do not have all the answers. I have asked – and am asking – many of these same questions myself.
Various organizations have conducted research in the area of congregants returning to in-person services once the pandemic has passed. The Associated Press reported on a Pew Research Poll about post-pandemic church attendance in the United States. The poll found that 92 percent of people who regularly attended services before the pandemic would continue at the same or higher a rate, once allowed. This figure gives hope for the church that people will come to church once restrictions allow gathering again.
Lifeway Research conducted a study related to this topic that provides great insight into the mindset of the American churchgoer. Lifeway found that 91 percent of surveyed Protestant churchgoers will return to in-person services once the pandemic is no longer a threat to health. Nearly the same percentage of churchgoers as in the Pew Research study reported that they will return post-pandemic. People are moving to livestream and remote church options like never before because of the pandemic. In 2019, Lifeway found that only four percent of churchgoers reported having watched a livestream rather than attending an in-person service. In 2020, the number grew to 83 percent of people, who were watching a livestream rather than attending an in-person service. These numbers are staggering. And though people are not attending in-person services because of the safety and restrictions during 2020, these numbers show that churchgoers were still engaging remotely.
What does all this mean for church leaders and church planters — especially in light of the earlier data which showed that remote opportunities may extend beyond the pandemic? I would venture to say that though technology can be a good supplement, once in-person gathering is allowed, technology should not be a replacement. Even though we may suffer from Zoom fatigue at the end of the day, technology has afforded us many opportunities to continue with life in a socially distanced, safe way during the pandemic. I often wonder how different life during the pandemic would have been if it occurred even just a decade or two ago, before the widespread use of videoconferencing. The church has been able to benefit from this technology, as we have gathered remotely for worship and discipleship. But I will attest to the fact that as we “gathered” remotely, something seemed to be missing.
Over the course of the last 18 months, there were a few seasons where our church was able to gather in-person, and what joyous occasions those were! Being reunited with brothers and sisters, singing together, partaking in the Lord’s Supper, and simply going out to lunch afterwards were a joy to have after being isolated on the computer for so long.
How should the church move forward then? Should we meet, should we do hybrid service, or should we stay remote? David Grundersen wrote an article called “10 Reasons to Come Back to Church after COVID-19” which succinctly articulates why the church should gather in-person when it is able to. The gathering restrictions and timeline may look different based on location and demographic of the church. In speaking to such a widespread, global audience, we will need to contextualize the information for our personal places and seasons of ministry.
We started this article asking how much of the social and cultural changes made during the pandemic will last? Economic and social science data showed that in the business sector, there are plans for companies to keep some jobs remote moving forward. And while I have as much Zoom fatigue as the next person and long for in-person gathering, there may be wisdom to having supplemental church activities which stay remote even after the pandemic. In urban spaces, where commutes and traffic can make a one-hour meeting a three-hour round trip, it may be prudent to remain remote for certain meetings.
As I close out my thoughts, I want to encourage you with Grundersen’s eighth point from the aforementioned article. “You have a job to do…when we stay home, we can still listen and give and call and text virtually. But there are many ways we simply can’t serve or encourage or build up Christ’s body unless we’re physically present.” Companies and organizations are basing their decisions to stay remote or not on productivity and economic factors. As the church, the factor which should influence us is the ability to serve and build up the body of Christ.< This may look different based on where we are, but let us hold as the highest filter the ability to glorify God and the ability to serve the church.