Will Christianity survive the pandemic?
It’s been many months since I last posted anything to My Pandemic Journal. It was in April 2021 that I provided my thoughts in the changing trends in education, particularly the dramatic rise of homeschooling. Since that time, I have joined most of you observing what is happening around me and finding myself at a loss of words. What can you say about a pandemic? It is what I wrote in my second contribution, Unknowable. We are seeing unfolding an unprecedented period in history. Unlike any pandemic that proceeded it, this one is unique in that it has had a global response, with the full weight of science, thoroughly communicated and debated.
Some of my readers have suggested that I provide added perspective on the state of the Christian faith, at least in the small world that surrounds me. I am not going to dole out research books. I am not a sociologist or a theologian. Like many Christians, I am just a guy who attends church faithfully, doing what I can to apply the principles of Christ to daily living. It is Everyman Christianity.
In the first article on Faith, I asked four questions. What happened to the Christians during the COVID-19 pandemic? Taking away their churches, will they ever return? Have thousands left their ranks? Has their faith become lifeless, irrelevant?
The good news is that Christians are still around. I visited several churches during the past few months in Alaska, Missouri and Washington and what I am seeing are churches about 50-60% of previous attendance levels, with budgets and staff more or less intact. That, in my view, is remarkable. Our church in Alaska suffered a considerable drop in contributions, but given that no one was coming to church at all for several months, the faithful giving was enough to cover expenses plus support the staff. Government payroll assistance also helped stabilize things as well during mid-2020. As to attendance, much of the drop is attributed to a large segment of believers who are simply cautious about corporate gatherings. Yet in my church, the ones who appeared first were the older members of the congregation. A bit ironic. And an indicator of the powerful impact of the pandemic on the younger generation.
Yet attendance is steadily recovering. The pieces that make up church life are re-emerging. The thing I really missed the most during the pandemic was the youth and children ministries. The missing sounds of laughter and animated conversations made for a rather boring atmosphere. All you could hear were the mask-muffled conversations of older adults. When our pastor resurrected the children’s sermon, only four kids appeared. When you consider our church has a two-floor youth education wing, that was a sad sight to behold. Glad to say, after several months of prayer and trusting God, the children’s sermon is now one of the highlights of the church service as more than a dozen kids come forward. After the short lesson is over, they bound down the main aisle to be received by two teachers for the children’s church service. Their room has been customized for that purpose. Yes, things are coming back one step at a time. Almost all churches I visited were going through the same experience.
The next thing I noted on my first article on Faith was how churches, no matter how small, mastered the Internet. It was an amazing demonstration of adaptability. Even my father’s church, a small country church of about 3 dozen people, figured out how to use Zoom. They have survived the pandemic pretty much intact. Many churches, like mine in Alaska, learned how to stream the service utilizing social media. A few weeks ago, due to an ice storm, I attended my first Zoom-based service, the small country church I mentioned previously. I must say it was a bit more “organic”. With the small audience, there was a lot of chatter before the service started. The service itself was sort of like a continuing conversation.
In my previous article, I noted how American Christianity is highly church-centric. What I have observed is about what has been seen before in history. Whenever persecution, invasion or plague beset the church, attendance goes down. People are naturally cautious and this pandemic is no different. But history has proven that Christianity recovers. It is remarkable that during the early Roman era the church suffered brutal waves of oppression, yet affiliation with the faith not only grew amongst the civilian population, but amongst the military ranks as well. What is peculiar about this current pandemic is what I call the “mask factor.” It is odd how two pastors I talked to as well as one friend at another church mentioned, without my solicitation, how people left because of the requirement to wear masks. And here I thought the color of the carpet was why people left a church! Yet it ties back to the church-centric nature of American Christianity. People want to hold to the worship experience and the relationships that surround life in a church. The pandemic tore through that veil and some were not happy when church leadership followed community guidelines or independently requested that people wear masks.
Like most pandemics, COVID was no different in stirring up social, political and economic troubles. We often forget that certain trends preceded the virus and were basically exacerbated by the pandemic. The millennial exit from the faith continued. Christian morality continues to be assaulted on many fronts, particularly in our schools. Not only is the faith attacked directly, but the Western heritage. Since much of what has evolved to be the United States of America was, in part, a consequence of the Christian faith, it is alarming that we now have that heritage challenged by people who say it is of no value, that it is inaccurate history, and that it no longer needs to apply to the public square. It seems that we live in a dark time.
But I recall, not so long ago, that we lived through a similar time of despair. I had hair in those days and, at one point, it got to be shoulder-length. I wore bell-bottoms with quilted hems. The gals wore these “maxi” skirts and had beautiful, long hair. The streets were on fire, literally. Drugs were rampant. Racial tension was in every community. Radical ideas were penetrating our universities and our politics. Inflation was increasing. Unemployment in some parts of the country was in double-digits. We had gas shortages. Yes, it looked pretty bleak back then.
What appeared to be bleak on the surface was the foundation of the next wave of the Christian faith. Amongst all those new ideas, the new “morality” and New Left politics was a notable absence of two important things that make life worth living: grace and forgiveness. People wanted that. I wanted that and I decided in the 1970’s that God was real and what he had revealed to us in the life of Christ was real. It wasn’t an idea. It was an act of faith that transformed the way I lived. I saw one “hippie” after another discard nihilism and turn to the faith. This new wave of believers transformed worship and the nature of the local church. What we all received was forgiveness and unmerited favor, and what we gained was the hope that we did not have to continue living in an aimless moral void.
I believe we are in the same place today. Christianity took a holiday, in a way, starting in March 2020. What we have seen since that time is a remarkable decent. The further a community gets away from the faith, the worse is the homelessness and the crime. The confusion over something as simple as our biological sex has twisted our school systems into knots, destroyed women’s sport and even crippled the use of the English language. The advocates for critical race theory and gender identity have used tactics such as isolation, condemnation, threats, termination and cancellation to advance their cause.
Christianity’s response? Forgiveness and grace. People want that and they will receive that when they come to know Jesus Christ. It is not about rules and regulations. It is about the soul and the mind and the heart. The Scripture is filled with verses that refer to “rest” and “peace”. It is true. No IOU’s here. Simply change.
P.S. The evening I finished this article an interesting video was posted by PragerU on YouTube. It speaks for itself.
© Copyright 2022 to Eric Niewoehner