To say the least, the year 2020 has had its challenges. More than a million people have lost their lives to the COVID-19 disease which is not yet under control, millions more are unexpectedly out of work, many others cannot make the rent or the mortgage, thousands of small businesses have closed their doors, and many industries, such as tourism, have been decimated.
Bad as the situation is, it does provide an opportunity for people of faith, and for the church overall, to provide much-needed leadership. After all, the church’s message never has been about material prosperity. We see that our secular leaders have all too often failed to respond to the events of 2020 — in fact, they have not actually been leaders in most cases. Maybe now is the time for people of faith to step up to the plate.
Direction for the Church
A blogger whom I follow is Ugo Bardi, a professor of chemistry at the University of Florence in Italy. In an earlier set of posts Bardi showed how Augustine of Hippo developed a successful theology that successfully provided the intellectual basis for the medieval church. (The need for a new theology for our times is discussed toward the end of this post.)
But Bardi’s latest post 2020: The Collapse of the Christian Church suggests a different outcome for the church. He argues that the church has been mostly quiescent during the pandemic, and that church leaders have meekly followed instructions from the civil authorities. I agree with him on that point, but this does not mean that the church cannot provide leadership from this point forward. However, if the church is to provide leadership in a post-pandemic world, what form can that leadership take? I suggest that we consider three issues as a starting point.
1. What the Virus Has Taught Us
2. The Need for Ritual
3. The Need for Theology
What the Virus Has Taught Us
Organizations of all types have learned that they don’t need physical office space as much as they once thought. Most managerial and back-office functions can be carried out remotely. The same goes for the church. Virtually all of our activities are now, well, virtual.
There was already a trend to a model where the church has a small number of central buildings (cathedrals and large churches) and a large number of home-based congregations, with not much in between. It is likely that this trend will be speeded up. The large central church will mostly communicate with the smaller units through Zoom and other electronic media.
This model is fine for business activities such as vestry or finance committee meetings. But this model is not so good for those activities which call for worshippers to gather together in community. Which brings us to . . .
The Need for Ritual
Bardi claims that Zoom has had the effect of making both Universities and Churches irrelevant because they have lost their fundamental ritual — the purpose for which they were created. In both cases that ritual revolves around people gathering together and sharing in certain activities as a group.
We need not go as far as Bardi in his gloomy assessment as to the future of the church to realize that he makes a good point. As we enter the post-pandemic world it will be important for the church to emphasize the importance of ritual, rules and discipline. Two-dimensional windows on a computer screen are not going to be sufficient.
These challenges mean that we need a new way of thinking, which brings us to . . .
The Need for Theology
A theme of this series is that we need to develop a theology that is appropriate for our times. An example is Methodism and the Industrial Revolution. There is nothing in the Bible that tells us to completely avoid the consumption of alcohol (there are many admonitions about drinking too much alcohol, which is not quite the same thing). Yet 250 years ago reformers such as John Wesley preached that we should not drink at all. They were responding to the widespread drunkenness and degradation brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Belief in abstinence became a foundation stone of their faith system.
In future posts we will consider what a theology for a world that has been transformed by climate change may look like. How will we respond to resource shortages, destruction of ecosystems, gross pollution and climate change? The church needs to work on a response. It could be that, in future years, the church will consider it sinful to drive a vehicle powered by gasoline or diesel, just as earlier reformers considered that it was sinful to drink alcoholic beverages. Or maybe it will be a sin to use Facebook.
We will see.
The year 2020 has been one that we are all glad to see the back of. But, bad as it may have been in so many ways, 2020 has offered us some ideas as to how we may have to live in a world of climate change. In particular, 2020 has provided people of faith, and the church overall, a sense of mission and opportunity for leadership.
Of one thing we can be sure — there is no going back to the ‘Old Normal’, nor should we even want to return to those times.