We all know the legend of Rip van Winkle, the man who fell asleep for decades only to wake up and discover his wife dead, his family gone, and time having passed him by. You can imagine his consternation. “But I just sat under this tree for a nap!”
Well church, I hope you are ready for the Rip van Winkle experience.
In an excellent New York Times article, Ross Douthat opines that the pandemic has accelerated the pace of cultural, social, economic and institutional change in the West. What we thought 2030 would be, is what 2020 has become.
Here we were talking for the past few years, and attending conferences on “2020 Vision”, but nobody saw 2030 coming around the corner, arms laden with all sorts of toxic packages and parcels ready to fall.
We’ve skipped ahead ten years to 2030. And 2030 is a different story to 2020. More to the point, it’s a couple of chapters further on than 2020, and most of us, including the churches, are struggling trying to fill in the narrative from the missing chapters.
The gist of Douthat’s article is this: the pandemic has accelerated everything. And the pace of change is going to kill off some struggling institutions and change others irretrievably.
… there’s a feeling of acceleration, of changes that might have otherwise dragged out across a decade piling one atop the other. The George Floyd protests and their electoral consequences, the transformation of liberal institutions by internal agitation, the changes happening to cities and corporations and colleges and churches — in each case, trends that were working slowly have seemingly speeded up.
This means that when the coronavirus era finally ends, there will be a Rip Van Winkle feeling — a sense of having been asleep and waking to normality, except that we will have time-traveled and the normality will resemble the year 2030 as it might have been without the virus, rather than just a simple turn to 2021 or 2022.
He’s on the money.
Of course, astute church leaders knew this was coming. And as Douthat points out, there are going to be some expressions of church that take a fatal hit. He says:
In religion, the pandemic may strengthen certain forms of faith, but that won’t save institutional churches from what Fordham’s David Gibson calls a“religion recession” caused by falling donations and shrunken attendance. Smaller churches may suffer most, for the same tight-margins, high-overhead reasons that restaurants are going under. But big religious bodies like Roman Catholicism and the Southern Baptists will probably decline as well, in a hurried-up version of the decay that awaited them with the next decade’s worth of generational turnover.
Let’s unpack that. Some things I agree with. Big religious bodies are going to struggle, in the same way that big actual bodies struggle when nimble action is required in an emergency.
Think of a fat bloke trying to get over a fence with a bull chasing him. “Pandemic 2020” is that bull, and bloated institutionalised religious organisations (along with every other bloated institution) are hugging and puffing on about rung two of the fence, trying in vain to get their leg up.
And Douthat is right that some smaller churches may suffer too.
Yet I don’t think all of them will. The smaller churches that suffer will be those churches that have spent a lot of time and energy trying to be bigger churches. Those that have bought the bells and whistles of “bigger church” but put all the costs on the fiscal and volunteer credit card. They’re in trouble.
And this is not just financial. This pandemic is circling us as if we’re prey. We’re already seeing that in Australia. Everyone was waiting for the starter’s gun, but the starter is holding us on the line. Will he pull the trigger? Won’t he? What’s going to happen next? Church leaders – and importantly, volunteers, – aren’t springing out of their doors singing “Up from the grave he arose!“. Everyone’s feeling gun shy and wary.
And if you’re a smaller church and pitched a (2025) vision for growing and reaching more people, and doing more and more of life together as proof that you’re missional, you may find your people completely exhausted already.
Don’t try to whip them up, you’ll lose them. Love them gently back into shape. People aren’t feeling the urgency of connecting with people they don’t know yet. They’re still struggling – and will continue to for some time – to re-connect with the people they do know. Don’t underestimate the sheer emotional and psychological damage that has been done to many people.
The smaller churches that will survive are the ones that were able to get back together a few weeks ago when twenty to forty people could gather, and who are pretty relaxed about what they can achieve. They’ll be the churches that have take the vocations of the scattered church members just as seriously as they take the missional task of the gathered church. As long as their leaders aren’t geeing everyone up to “get back into mission”, and just give their people time to regather themselves, they’ll probably do alright.
The next level of church size out might struggle, but if they’ve lived life like Australia the past few years (tightish budget, good health care system, welfare solid if not spectacular), rather than like the UK (fiscally all over the place, creaky health care system, welfare out of wack), then they will survive. In other words as long as you haven’t tried to create yourselves as a mini-Hillsong, they’ll be ok.
And the actual Hillsong? Well that will be interesting. It’s been hard enough keeping a group of just over 100 people connected. And they’re generally very connected people! Try doing that to thousands, especially when you have to do staff layoffs to keep budget. Unless you have a source of income outside the people who gather with you (and the actual Hillsong has through its music), then you are going to struggle.
(And I read recently too that there are 30 Sydney Anglican parishes without a senior minister. I’m keen to explore what that might mean for conservative evangelicals in wealthier parts of the country, but I’ll save that for next time.)
And none of this is even dealing with the cultural churn that has already been battering us! If Douthat is right, and the cultural pace of change will accelerate, then those churches that were slowly shifting to progressive (and secular) understandings of sexual ethics and human identity will accelerate their thinking to match the culture.
The push back from the Sexular Age will ramp up. Christian institutions and church bodies that are theologically uncertain, either due to their fear of conflict or their less than robust biblical vision of humanity, will be outed. They will have to decide which way to jump. And jump they will.
By contrast, churches and institutions that are very theologically certain because they were already going in that sexular direction, will be positively gleeful about skipping forward ten years culturally. They can revel in the politics of 2030 but still maintain the congregation size of 2020. My take is that that that will be a pyrrhic victory. Closure still looms, but probably in 2025, not 2030.
And if you’re committed to theological orthodoxy? Then you’re going to have to fast-track your theological fitness and intestinal fortitude. The Babylonians of 2030 have arrived, and they somehow look fitter, sharper, more confident than the Babylonians of 2020. If that were even possible. In the midst of all of that it’s good to know that our God is the Lord of time, and that if a thousand years are as a day, then ten years is just about time for a quick celestial coffee break before getting on with the task at hand.
In a sense it’s a good thing that this has fast-tracked. I mean we saw it coming, so we might as well get on with it. Whatever else it all means, it means that we better rub the sleep out of our eyes, get rid of our blurred 2020 vision and get on with life in 2030.
One bonus – it may be 2030, but I feel ten years younger than I thought I would.