Longhurst: It won’t be the same

COVID-19 is a game­changer in so many ways. It has impacted the way we work, shop, study, travel, socialize — and do church.

Longhurst
Longhurst

In Canada, when provincial governments mandated lockdowns due to the virus, places of worship almost universally complied. Most went online, offering pre-recorded services on YouTube or interactive services through platforms like Zoom.

Today, as restrictions across the country ease, some places of worship are beginning to hold small in-person gatherings while still offering online services.

Even as people return to in-person services, everyone agrees things won’t be the same. I asked some scholars who study religion what they see for the future.

For some, the shutdown of services has shown churches have been putting too much time and energy into Sunday mornings.

“If ever we had a moment in which to learn that the main business of being the church is not summed up in the once-a-week main meeting, this is it,” said John Stackhouse, professor of religious studies at Crandall University.

Churches that invested in small groups prior to the pandemic will find themselves better prepared to weather this crisis and might “emerge stronger and happier than ever.”

For others, the pandemic will not result in Canadians returning to religion.

Joel Thiessen, who teaches sociology at Ambrose University College, and Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, who teaches sociology at the University of Waterloo, study the rise of the “nones” in Canada.

“We are not holding our breath for a large religious revival among the nones anytime soon,” they said, noting only 8 percent of the 18- to 35-year-olds in North America who say they have no religion indicate they would be open to more involvement with a faith group.

Added Sam Reimer, a member of the Mennonite Brethren conference and a professor of sociology at Crandall University: “I really doubt that people will flock back to organized religion once they can. If they are not looking to organized religion to deal with their anxieties now, they are unlikely to do so because of COVID-19.”

What will be the effect on attendance with all the churches closed or severely limiting in-person attendance?

Interestingly, 17 percent of Canadians said they attended an online worship service in April. That figure was 18 percent in June. This compares to 11 percent of Canadians going to religious services before the pandemic.

And yet, some who had weak connections to faith groups may fall away during this time. As Stackhouse noted, “Many of those barely bothering to attend will stop bothering at all.”

Kevin Flatt, a professor of history at Redeemer University College, agreed. “Many marginal affiliates and some regulars will fade away from regular involvement as they get used to having no services,” he said. “This will happen across traditions but will probably hit the mainline Protestants the hardest.”

But not all is doom and gloom. David Guertzki, executive vice president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, has “seen anecdotal evidence that disabled people and shut-ins are actually enjoying, ironically, new accessibility to their church homes” through technology.

Of course, nobody knows what the future will bring. All I know is the important thing is to be open to change and to never waste a good crisis.

And with that, this is my last North of the 49th column. It’s been a privilege to share perspectives from Canada. I look forward to continuing to share news from the north as Canadian correspondent for Anabaptist World.

John Longhurst is a freelance writer and communications and marketing consultant in Winnipeg, Man.

John Longhurst

John Longhurst was formerly Communications Manager at MDS Canada.

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