I gave this talk at a symposium hosted by the Christian Council of the Capital (Ottawa) Area on November 2, 2022 along with the Rev. Hilary Murray (Anglican), the Rev. John C. Perkin (Baptist) and the Rev. Karen Dimock (Presbyterian).
The Impact of the Pandemic on the Church and Challenges for Congregational Life.
I want to start with statistical data collected over the two years of the pandemic that piqued my interest. The data comes from a research group called Flourishing Congregations Institute (www.flourishingcongregations.org) out of Ambrose University in Calgary. This data consists of the latest studies, research, polls and surveys (primarily from Statistics Canada, Angus Reid and other research groups such as WayBase and Halo Canada Project).
Keep in mind that these data points act more like snapshots of our very present circumstances, and at best they are suggestive of current trends. We are still living in the throes of a rapidly changing environment. So we cannot conclude anything now with certainty.
To begin with, I group this data into three areas of impact. There’s good news, some surprises, bad news and some red flags. I’ll conclude with personal reflections which are challenges that flow out of this data. These challenges I organize around three important questions—what I like to call, “Origin Questions”—Why?, Where?, Whom?
Impact #1: on the work of the church itself—who’s doing it and the support for it.
First, leadership. Amidst reports of “The Great Resignation” across other sectors, the overwhelming majority of leaders in the church are staying.
Adjusting for those who are retiring, 90% of leaders intend to stay in their current role for the foreseeable future. So, for one thing, pastors /priests /ministers are committed to their communities through this challenging time. The news isn’t all good. Leaders under the age of 40 were twice as likely to consider leaving.
Regarding volunteers who often run programs in and for churches, not surprisingly most respondents indicated they had decreased their volunteer time significantly and reduced the number of hours they spent involved with the church compared with before the pandemic; 22% said that they dedicated more hours, and 43% said that the number had remained the same.
During the pandemic, no surprise here, the church as a whole realized a significant drop in financial resources.
Institutionally speaking, the pandemic has shrunk the Christian sector in Canada by 6% — just over $1B, of which churches account for most of this loss. The news isn’t all bad, however, and nuanced.
Two groups of donors I wish to highlight. First, where donors indicated an increase in giving in the first year of the pandemic, their contributions appear to have been directed slightly more to religious charities (28%) than congregations (26%). Second, where those who had not donated to any charity at all before the pandemic and chose to do so during the pandemic, local congregations received the greatest benefit from these donors.
Regardless of how you flip that pancake, 85% of ministries, programs, activities will operate differently in the future because of the pandemic. This is a significant impact, with 37% of respondents classifying these changes as major and long-term. Ongoing adaptation and innovation need to become part of the culture of the church, and a priority for most organizations.
So, what are some ways these ministries and programs are changing?
As of earlier this year (February 2022), two-thirds (66%) of churches in Canada are now part of groups and organizations that cooperate to address local, community and neighbourhood needs. Closer partnerships with religious charities and neighbourhood organizations are being formed; churches are not fulfilling their mission by themselves. Congregational activities beyond Sunday morning are done in collaboration with other groups who share a similar mission. This goes hand in hand with the stat that shows 50% of churches promote volunteerism beyond their church on a weekly or monthly basis.
Moreover, three out of four churches (78%) have maintained or increased their giving beyond their walls to local and global needs. This is good news. Even with declining revenues, the majority of churches were generous beyond their own institutional needs. They maintained their giving to other ministries as best as possible, with more increasing than decreasing their financial support.
Impact #2: on the place where Christian activity occurs
Not surprisingly, when asked what the greatest challenge to ministries of the church during the pandemic was, 82% of respondents said it was the inability to meet together in-person.
Consequently 87% of church leaders acknowledged the potential and opportunities of technology. They recognized how technology could help their ministry. At the same time 71% said the #1 challenge of using technology for their ministry was a lack of people in their communities with the right skills. 52% of surveyed leaders said they intend to invest in more digital ways to connect with people.
Surveys conducted by private firms suggested that the online broadcast of religious services may have partially, but not completely, replaced in-person attendance.
Prior to March 2020, only 10% of churches in Canada had an online service. As a result of COVID, 71% of churches in Canada had an online service during the emergency phase of the pandemic.
But, of churches running online services, only 44% plan to continue offering this service past the pandemic. While churches know that technology is an important part of doing ministry, especially when it comes to engagement and evangelism, it appears that more than half of the churches in Canada don’t view online services as meeting these ministry needs into the future.
Impact #3: on mission priorities; the goal of church work; the target audience; with whom the church primarily relates
Not surprisingly, in the population as a whole and for members of churches, the degree of participation in group, religious activities decreased from 47% to 40% in the pandemic. The pandemic clearly impacted relationships in and around the church.
The data also suggests that the pandemic had a greater impact on group religious practices of people whose general health was poorer. As a precaution, they may have been more likely to avoid gatherings because they were at a higher risk of catching the virus. It was observed that from 2019 to 2020, the decrease in the proportion of people who did not participate in a group religious activity varied based on the individuals’ self-reported health.
Among those who reported having fair or poor general health, the proportion of people who participated in a religious activity, in person, at least once fell from 43% in 2019 to 34% in 2020.
Admittedly, it also decreased among those who felt their health was good (47% to 37%), and for among those who felt their health was very good (from 49% to 41%).
However, among those who felt their general health was excellent, there was no significant difference between 2019 and 2020 in the proportion of those who had participated in group religious activities.
So perhaps there is a correlation, albeit subtle at this point, between healthy people and in-person meeting. Those who self-identify as vulnerable in some way—whether due to ageing, physical disability, or poor mental health—are then likely to opt out of in-person group events and/or choose to connect via other means.
Ministries serving with vulnerable populations, locally and globally, need now more attention and commitment. Because the majority (over 60%) of Christian leaders reported not being clear on the needs of vulnerable people in their community.
Finally, contrary to what was observed for group religious practices, the pandemic does not appear to have had a significant impact on how often respondents engaged in religious or spiritual activities on their own (e.g., prayer or meditation at home). The responses from 2020 on this topic were similar to previous years. In addition, some people reported that, because of the pandemic, they prayed more or their faith got stronger. The spiritual needs of people in general did not dissipate because of the pandemic and to a degree increased because of the pandemic. Yet, the collective expression and practice of faith has suffered.
Challenge #1: Ask “Why?”
During the pandemic churches had to react quickly to the changing realities. The public health protections put pressure on churches to ask questions they never before had reason to ask. They had to evaluate what in the past was taken for granted.
Nevertheless in this time of disruption lies an opportunity to practice asking these questions to determine priorities and bring focus to the work of being church.
A decade before the pandemic, Simon Sinek wrote a book for leaders called, “Start With Why”.Who knew that his argument would carry even more weight ten years later? Start with why. Good advice.
Put everything on the table—ask why? “Why do we this?” And the answer needs to go beyond – “Because we’ve always done it this way.” We need to get at the root of any activity’s function and purpose, honestly.
Why do we hold our monthly council meeting online? Why do we hold some meetings in person? Why do we offer refreshments after a service? Why do we spend so much money in this area and very little in that area of the church’s work? Why do we do what we do? What is the purpose? We may or may not have an immediate and clear answer right away. But ask it anyway.
Bishop Jason Zinko of the Manitoba Synod in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada recently wrote that he regularly meets with congregations who are “unable to express their purpose.” This is due partly, he claims, because “they focus … on the wrong things.” Not bad things in and of themselves. But the wrong things, at this time.
“They want to know,” he writes, “how to keep the doors open a bit longer, or how to get ‘the young people’ back. My question back to them is often, ‘Why?’ Why do you need young people, specifically? Because none of those things is actually what is required to be the Church. We need to gather, grow in faith, and practice at being disciples. We can do that with seniors as well as with teenagers … The important thing is that we don’t lose sight of what makes our church the Church—the gathered disciples of Christ, growing in faith.”
We are about growing relationships of faith and in faith. That is all. That is the function. The form will follow in your particular context. I learned years ago in seminary that form follows function, not the other way around. In answering tough questions in tough times, before dealing with ‘how’ we need to start again with ‘why’.
Challenge #2: Ask “Where?”
Obviously, online must be part of a strategy for ministry moving forward, whether this is social media activity, live-streaming onsite worship, and/or creating an online church environment (‘virtual church’).
But none of the research I saw had anything significant to say about meeting outside. One thing many of us did, in our families, at home and as the church during the pandemic, was spend more time outside. It was a safe place to be with others.
Churches gathered in parking lots and at conservation areas. Instead of gathering inside a building they met at a local park where they prayed and sung. Outside, they considered what was revealed to them in faith. In my own congregation, I appreciated and enjoyed very much our Good Friday stations of the cross pilgrimage around our church grounds. Our building is located on a beautiful, large, treed lot, offering many places to stop and pray.
We cannot deny our deep connection with the outdoors. At some level we are drawn, if we are able, to go outside—to garden, to ski, to play, to swim, to paddle, to hike, to walk, to rest, to breathe, to listen, to observe. Why not to pray and worship together? It is a holy place.
And it comes from our scriptural heritage and narrative of faith. After Jesus’ resurrection, he appeared to his disciples outside—not in the temple, not indoors. But in the garden outside the tomb with Mary, on the road to Emmaus, on the mount of ascension, and for breakfast by the water.
Would Jesus, would God, not also appear to us outside?
The word wilderness is mentioned some 300 times in the bible. Rather than simply a harsh backdrop for the biblical story, the wilderness is the place that speaks. Wilderness is the place from which and through which God speaks to us.
Challenge #3: Ask “Whom?” or “For Whom?” or “With Whom?”
And this ties in with the ‘Why’ and ‘Where’ questions. It’s concerning that at least initially in person activity appears to be accessible mostly if not exclusively for the able-bodied and people who say they are in excellent health.
Many buildings today remain inaccessible for anyone other than able-bodied persons. And for half of Christian churches in Canada who have stopped their live streaming/online services recently, the elderly and those who identify themselves vulnerable for any reason are cut off from these options offering connection with their religious group.
I know some who are disabled (blind and mobility challenged) who welcomed the pandemic if only to expose the in-person bias for those who are ‘healthy’, and who reminded the mainstream that the challenges the general public faced during the early lockdown stages were part and parcel of the challenges disabled people experience all the time never mind the pandemic.
With whom does the Christian church identify? The strong, perfect-bodied, glamourous, healthy, glorious? The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the message of the Cross ought to challenge us otherwise. That God is revealed among the vulnerable.
Buildings need to be made accessible. Air quality in worship spaces needs to be improved. Health protection measures need to be respected. To be true to our identity as Christians who worship a God who is love. And for the sake of our neighbour.
So, Why?, Where?, Whom?
 The Next Normal: The Future of Christian Ministries and Churches in Canada (WayBase: 2022 National Survey Summary Report)
 Such as Canadian Lutheran World Relief (CLWR) and the Canadian Christian Meditation Community (CCMC)
 Halo Canada, 2020.
 The Next Normal: The Future of Christian Ministries and Churches in Canada (WayBase: 2022 National Survey Summary Report)
 Simon Sinek, Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. New York: Penguin, 2009.
 Bishop Jason Zinko, “Those Lutheran Confessions; they are still important”, Canada Lutheran Vol 37 Num 6 (Winnipeg: Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, September 2022), p.27
 John 20-21, Luke 24
 Victoria Loorz, Church of the Wild: How Nature Invites Us Into the Sacred (Minneapolis: Broadleaf Books, 2021), p.54
 Loorz, ibid., p.61