Has the pandemic rejuvenated Christianity?


Judging from the media coverage, the only religious tendency to originate in California during the pandemic was conservative evangelical denial and defiance of COVID.

A California church, South Bay United Pentecostal in Chula Vista, has filed one of the first lawsuits challenging state restrictions on inner worship, a case that ultimately reached the Supreme Court. Last summer Grace Community Church, a decades-old Los Angeles mega-church led by a former evangelical statesman named John MacArthur, filed a lawsuit to block the county’s public health guidelines. MacArthur, who said in a sermon, “There is no pandemic,” garnered public support from President Donald Trump and has become a famous cause for conservative Christians around the world.

But away from the headlines, a very different trend has taken shape.

California has always set the tone for American religion. Home to waves of migrants from all over the world and from all parts of the United States, California is one of the most religious places on the planet. Diversity and cultural disaffection force religious institutions to innovate and adapt. This was especially true during the pandemic.

In my interviews around the state as a religious journalist, I began to discern a pattern that helped me understand how COVID was transforming religion across the country. The vast majority of believers responded to the pandemic with a resilience and creativity that both surprised them and endowed them with a new set of skills and reinvigorated purpose. Forced adaptations herald a counterintuitive post-pandemic future: religious revival.

The pandemic administered a year-long stress test to religious institutions. The in-person worship has been discontinued. The congregations were beset with death, disease, job loss and dispersal. Tight budgets. The need for pastoral and social services skyrocketed. The clergy burned down. Politics has divided believers.

A subset of conservative evangelical churches and some conservative Catholics have chosen to view all of this as an existential threat. They responded by defying authorities, staging protests, resisting vaccines and embracing conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus and the motives of government officials. Religious anger over the pandemic restrictions contributed to the end-of-term campaign to install Justice Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court and helped motivate Christians to storm the United States Capitol on January 6.

But this division has not translated into gains for evangelical churches. The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical denomination in the United States, lost members during the pandemic and is now embroiled in a fierce struggle for leadership. Thom Rainer, a church consultant and former chair of the convention’s research arm, predicted an upcoming wave of clergy resignations. “The vast majority of pastors our team communicates with say they are considering resigning,” Rainer wrote in a blog post last year. The 2020 Census of American Religion found that the number of white evangelicals in America has declined to an all time high. Regardless of their continued political influence, conservative Christians are emerging from the pandemic and facing serious demographic, institutional and reputational challenges.

For everyone else, the future looks surprisingly bright. Polls show that the vast majority of believers in the United States, including evangelicals, have not protested, stormed the Capitol or refused to be vaccinated.

What they did was scramble to adapt. They lost their high production value in-person services, but adopted new technologies on the fly and boosted government departments. They have lost some members but have reached new ones with online and outdoor worship services. They rediscovered their inner spiritual resources and the advantages of a united religious community. The same poll documenting the decline of white evangelicals also recorded a rise for other Protestant traditions and a reversal of the recent surge of unaffiliated religious. Another investigation, by the Pew Research Center, found that the pandemic has strengthened religious faith for nearly a third of all Americans, especially evangelicals and Catholics.

For Christians, the pandemic has sparked what could become a mini reform.

For Christians, the pandemic has sparked what could become a mini reform.

“It forces us to ask ourselves the question: what is the most important thing? said Tod Bolsinger, vice president and head of leadership training at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. “What really matters? What is the gift we give to a community?

In answering such questions, churches have undergone sometimes surprising changes.

The Mariners Church in Newport Beach has been described by a local reporter as “the Dallas Cowboys of the churches,” a reference to the congregation’s richness, consistency and popular Sunday services. But over the past several decades, Mariners has sought to become a leader in multicultural ministry, with diverse membership and outreach programs in less affluent communities in Orange County.

“How do you serve a community when the way you have served it historically may no longer be viable?” Church spokesperson Cathi Workman said. During the pandemic, sailors began hosting pop-up services in parking lots and other unoccupied spaces across the county. Members have provided childcare for essential workers, provided workspace and technological assistance for families adapting to online school, delivered over a million meals, organized blood drives and helped local adults with special needs.

In Sonoma County, evangelicals have resisted their religious tradition’s hostility to the government and formed an alliance with local authorities to provide shelter and meals to residents in need. A coalition of about four dozen churches, formed four years ago in the aftermath of devastating forest fires, have met regularly with county officials to coordinate services and develop local ordinances so as to maintain safety without unnecessarily weigh down places of worship.

“We are convinced that the long-term impact of trying a collaborative approach with local government and key community actors will be better than the short-term gains of trying to achieve it in a more antagonistic way,” former pastor Adam Peacocke said. , who now heads the coalition. The partnership, he said, has helped raise the public profile of churches.

Although white evangelicals are among the most vaccine-reluctant groups in America, moderate evangelicals have played an important role in vaccine awareness efforts. In November, Rick Warren, bestselling author and founder of Saddleback Church in Orange County, partnered with the US Department of Health and Human Services to broadcast an online vaccine interview with the director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins, who is an evangelical himself.

Curtis Chang, a former evangelical pastor who now teaches at Duke Divinity School and heads a church counseling organization in San Jose, formed Christians and the vaccine, a national media campaign that partners with government agencies and health advocates to allay religious concerns about immunization. Chang said he designed the campaign after conversations with local public health officials convinced him that many in government do not understand how conservative clerics, including white evangelicals and Spanish-speaking Pentecostals, respond to crises. sanitary facilities. “The vaccine risks being sucked into culture wars in the church,” he said.

The most lasting change brought about by the pandemic will likely be the churches’ new self-understanding. When people are sick, dying, and scared, Netflix’s frenzy doesn’t go away. For anyone inclined to religion, a spiritual community is an irreplaceable source of support and consolation. The dilapidated immigrant places of worship already knew this. Many Christians had become doubtful or forgotten, perhaps blinded by the role that money and politics came to play in their operations.

COVID has forced American Christians to question themselves. Some shrank from introspection and demanded their old routines. Others have intensified. They are now less afraid of change, more confident in their role in their community and more certain of the invaluable personal value of their faith.

My own prediction is that politically motivated Christians will continue to struggle, bringing with them the overall reputation of religion. But there will be a countervailing force, as the makeshift adaptations COVID has imposed on churches are no longer needed, and they must decide what to keep and what to give up. Smaller, more spiritually engaged places of worship will cling to fortified social service ministries and more confidently proclaim answers to life’s difficult questions. They will experience digital awareness and display a persistence and relevance that no one could have predicted before COVID. Such changes are particularly visible in California. But they are happening everywhere.

Alan Cross, pastor of Petaluma Valley Baptist Church, which is part of the coalition of evangelical churches that has partnered with authorities in Sonoma County, said the pandemic reminded him of a vibrant future for religion in America depends on the core values ​​of compassion and public service. His church’s efforts to help struggling neighbors have attracted people and helped their congregation continue to diversify to reflect the surrounding farming community. “You have to sacrifice yourself. But in this, God will raise up something beautiful, ”he said.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.