• Ian Sutton

The Post-Pandemic Faith Community: Synthesis

Updated: Mar 27

The COVID-19 pandemic is still with us, but there are hopeful signs that the vaccination program and continued use of masks are bringing it under control. This being the case, communities of faith are starting to think about their post-pandemic organization.

One way of thinking about this challenge is to use the dialectic model — sometimes referred to as Hegelian synthesis. The basic idea is that you have a starting point — in this case the church before the pandemic. This is the “Thesis”. In response to problems and stresses that the current system undergoes an “Anti-Thesis” develops. In this case, the community of faith during the pandemic represents the Anti-Thesis. The Anti-Thesis is then followed by a “Synthesis” which contains elements of the Thesis and the Anti-Thesis, but is not identical to either, as illustrated in the following sketch.

Faith leaders need to be imaginative enough to determine what the Synthesis may look like. What is to be avoided is the following, a return to the “Old Normal”.

Before the pandemic hit, most churches were undergoing chronic and quite rapid decline. The following chart shows membership of the Episcopalian church, but most other denominations show a similar profile.

Return to the “Thesis”, the “Old Normal”, means a return to the decline just shown, the gentrification of congregations, and disinterest from the broader community.

It is not possible to fully understand the “Anti-Thesis” because we are still living in that time; we have not reached the end point. Although current trends (March 2021) are encouraging, there remains the possibility that those trends could reverse. Indeed, it seems likely that the COVID-19 virus will never completely disappear; new variants are likely to require an on-going vaccination program. However, even though were are still living inside the “Anti-Thesis”, some features of this new mode of religious life are emerging. Some of these features are good, others not so good.

One positive change is that the faith community has become much more adept at communicating electronically and at live-streaming worship services. New and potentially exciting mission opportunities have opened up. A not-so-good change is that many churches are in serious financial difficulties as a result of declining attendance and giving.

We do not yet know what a successful Synthesis may look like. But it will probably incorporate a theology that speaks to the issues of today’s world. It is quite likely that issues that have roiled the church for the last two or three decades will become less prominent. For example, discussions to do with same-sex unions may become diminish in importance and passion, whereas concerns to do with climate change and the environment (“eco-theology”) could become higher profile.

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