The challenge imposed by the pandemic to the Church in China affects mainly two areas: finance and stability. The pandemic's influence on finance is particularly serious to churches which are dominated by older believers, whose unfamiliarity and lack of acceptance of technology has largely reduced their keenness in making online financial donations. The result is that congregations with a large number of elderly have a much higher financial burden to bear.
For churches in general, the economic downturn caused by the pandemic has reduced job opportunities and the incomes of believers. In turn, believers’ ability to make financial donations is diminished.
The economic downturn is more stressful for churches that value large numbers. They face huge debts as they have to pay construction costs or for the rental of luxurious venues.
Another test for the Church is the increasing instability which would become higher as the mobility of believers increases. Before the pandemic, believers’ mobility was costlier because of the time needed to make changes. In the Internet age, however, it is clear that mobility doesn't require much effort. Click on the screen and believers are linked to other churches’ activities.
Another reason for the instability is that believers now have services at home, replacing the sacred atmosphere a church usually provides. The sense of sanctity created by religious rituals is weakened. Instead, there would be some level of worldliness in a mode like this. Consequently, the believers' recognition of their own churches is damaged.
A reduction in mobility and a loss of the sanctity of the church inevitably leads to instability within the Church. Facing these tests, the Church will need to make adjustments in the post-pandemic era.
First, the Church’s goals will change from promoting size and numbers to the spiritual growth of believers. In the past, a church’s success was evaluated based on the number of believers it had while the spiritual development of believers was largely ignored. From this perspective, a large church gives an impression of growth and revival, but during the pandemic there are very few believers able to cope with the crisis within the church. It's like when Jesus was arrested, all His disciples fled. The pursuit of size brought about weak spirituality. The relationship between believers and God wasn't well established or they were even alienated from God somehow. Perhaps one of the benefits of the pandemic is to return the Church to its original purpose. Thus, in the post-pandemic era, the Church has the possibility of returning to its original course—building spiritual life for believers and identifying with each other in the faith. Such a church could withstand difficult tests.
After the pandemic, large churches might still exist, but they would no longer be the trend and perhaps be more marginalized. Churches that continue to develop based on size might be forced to change because of accumulated debts. And it would be clear that the development of the spiritual life of believers would only be available in small churches. So small churches of twenty or thirty believers would become the trend.
As smaller churches became the trend, there will be a need for ministers to have more training. This would promote a new learning boom in the Church. The learning trend is not only about theology and doctrine but also other kinds of knowledge.
The second change would occur in the Church’s organizational structure. If small churches became the norm, the organizational structure of traditional churches might be changed. The traditional norm where ministers had the final say might not continue because the reduction in the size of congregations would inevitably lead to increased openness among believers. Small churches would necessarily be more democratic than large churches.
The third change would occur in the age of the congregations. The pandemic has demonstrated that youth have unquestionable advantages. Believers from churches with more young persons can quickly adapt to online services. They have no difficulty in accepting new forms of worship as an alternative to traditional patterns. It’s true that there has been a general decline in financial donations, but this is caused by factors that cannot be controlled. The advantages of being young are absolutely apparent in comparison to churches with more elderly. In addition, young people are more tolerant to stress, new things and changes. So younger churches might recover sooner from the disturbance brought by the pandemic than traditionally older churches. Their return to normal church life would be quicker. Therefore, the Church of the future might pay more attention to the development of the young and the Church would consciously pay attention to the age distribution of the congregation.
The fourth change might occur in the form of gatherings. The pandemic has broken the traditional pattern of gatherings, which were mainly on-site and confined to a particular space. The wide-spread acceptance of online services brought about by the pandemic would undoubtedly be a part of the richness of worship services in the post-pandemic era when there could be both on-site and online gatherings. The Church would also pay more attention to the integration of online resources and its Web based promotion. Because such promotion would increase the ‘mobility’ of believers, so the development of believers would inevitably change from face-to-face evangelism to Web based content. This requires the ministers and churches to have a better understanding of the Web and its users as well as a broader perspective.
The diversity how churches gather will definitely bring about a change in the Church’s stability. Its measures to maintain stability would change too. In the past, the movement of believers was restricted through persuasion, supervision and even suppression. Now, a church’s stability may be marked by the spiritual identity of its believers. Therefore, the Church might pay more attention to diverse collective events and like parties, group studies, day trips, picnics, family gatherings, or knowledge sharing, which help to construct a collective memory and strengthen stability.
These changes would require the Church to make adjustments. There is another possible change that cannot be ignored—the change in the interactions between the Church and society.
The pandemic has caused a crisis in the interactions between the Church and society. Crises occur mainly when disasters strike. During these times the Church is unable to play the main role in resolving the crisis for society as it used to in history. The Church’s actual situation could be far from its own position and vision. This would require self-examination and profound reflection on the part of the Church.
There have been changes in how the Church has interacted with society, for example, in its methods of evangelism and aid relief. Before this, its methods or attitude was rather hard-nosed. For instance, during the 2008 earthquake aid relief, those making donations had to believe in Jesus and this needed to be the reason that they gave money. The message that people conveyed was that believing in Jesus guarantees Heaven but otherwise persons will go to hell. The negative effects of this approach led the Church to make changes. These changes include the organizing and designing public welfare activities.
Although the aid relief that the Church has given during the pandemic is not ideal, it has changed significantly from the past die-hard evangelical approach in 2008. For instance, some churches have quietly helped the homeless during the Wuhan lockdown or quietly donated masks. This shows progress and change on the part of the Church in how it participates in public affairs for the good of society.
After the pandemic, the Church will definitely devote more energy to social issues and to finding ways and means for the Church to solve social problems. The Church will be more proactive in participating in social welfare activities and increase its engagement with society and give financial support. Of course, there would be more changes involving more details in the Church in the post-pandemic era. Any major event is an opportunity for the Christian community to change itself. The truth is fixed and absolute, but it can be presented in a variety of ways. Therefore, the Church should follow the teachings of Jesus to stay sharp and make adjustments from time to time. Witness the glory of God in the world. This is not only the responsibility of the Church but also the principle of its existence and development.
Limited by a word count, I cannot cover all the changes in this article. We look forward to seeing more changes and seeing the Church’s continuing leading role in history as it presents the gospel of Jesus.
- Translated by Charlie Li