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  • Writer's pictureIan Sutton

COVID-19: The Church’s New Normal

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

Church members spaced apart due to COVID-19 concerns.

In many parts of the world the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be winding down. There is, of course, always the chance that new variants or insufficient vaccination could create a new wave. But, for now, it appears as if we are moving into a post-pandemic phase.

Over the course of the last year many church people have anxiously expressed a desire to return to “Normal”. But is that what we really want? At least, do we really want to return to the “Old Normal”. Isn’t this a time to work out what a “New Normal” may look like? After all, the “Old Normal” for many churches consisted of declining congregations, gray hairs, and financial stress. Is that what we want to return to?

The following chart illustrates the difficulty and the challenge. It shows membership for the Episcopal church in the United States, but most other churches are seeing the same type of decline.

Decline in Episcopal church membership. Following the COVID-19 pandemic many church members want to return to the “Old Normal”. This is a mistake. A “New Normal” would express the concern that young people have regarding climate change.

The Episcopal priest Dwight Zscheile told the Episcopal News Service.

The overall picture is dire – not one of decline as much as demise within the next generation unless trends change significantly. At this rate, there will be no one in worship by around 2050 in the entire denomination.

If we are to create a “New Normal” that brings in younger people then the church needs to identify what it is that most concerns them and then “speak to their condition”. Many young people are exhibiting a passion on this topic that is rarely seen inside a church. The best-known spokesperson for their generation is probably Greta Thunberg. She is not just passionate, she is angry.

Young people are passionate and angry about climate change. This provides an opportunity for the church to provide leadership.
The anger of Greta Thunberg

Correlation is not causation. But young people know two certainties. The first is that, if we continue on our present climate change trajectory, we are heading toward catastrophe. The second certainty is that the older generations have not taken the situation seriously. It is fascinating to witness the applause that Greta generates when she speaks words such as the following to leaders of the United Nations and other bodies.

You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say, we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up, and change is coming whether you like it or not.

A theme of this site and blog is that the climate change crisis provides an opportunity for the church to provide leadership. Any serious attempt to address the climate crisis will require that people reduce their (material) standard of living. We have to accept that infinite growth on a finite planet cannot happen. We cannot have our planet and eat it too.

This is something that most politicians and secular leaders cannot say. Indeed, any politician that says, “Elect me and I will reduce your standard of living” soon becomes an ex-politician. But the church can go there — indeed, the concept of sacrifice is integral to Christian theology.

Therefore, if the church is to create a “New Normal” that attracts young people it would make sense to develop a theology that is appropriate for the challenges that climate change presents. Attempting to revive the “Old Normal” is likely to be a futile exercise.

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1 Comment

Mar 27, 2021

Ian, I completely agree with you in that we have much to reimagine as we restructure the ways we worship, and the things we find relevant. Personally, I think there has been some unexpected praises that have awakened us to more core values. An appreciation and awareness of the needs of family, friends, and neighbors that has brought forth more of a sense of personal responsibility. It is my prayer that this spills in our action and care of all God's Creations, there seems to be signs to suggest this positive outcome. An ideed, it is our Baptismal covenant. It is my prayer that our Religious leaders will take a greater role in educating us all from a faith …

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