Long-term lessons for Aussie churches from Covid-19

ECU researchers Pieter-Jan Bezemer & Sten Langmann think Australian churches are missing an opportunity if they do not learn from what happened during the Covid-19 pandemic.

While for many people the time of Covid-19 lockdowns, mask-mandates and mandatory distancing already feels like ages ago, we interviewed 65 local church leaders from all large church denominations throughout Australia to capture the experiences of churches during coronatide.

This digital exploration took us from large city churches to small rural churches, from emotional conversations of hardship to unexpected talks about contemplation and renewal, and from doubts about the future of churches to instances of remarkable growth.

The primary goal of these conversations was to learn valuable insights from this demanding period and thereby assist churches in readying themselves for the future.

[The] same number of people and different faces.

Resilience in Australian churches

Our research revealed a lot of resilience in Australian churches. About 60% of the interviewed church leaders, such as priests, ministers, deacons, pastors and elders, observed that their church’s attendance either increased or returned to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2022. Interestingly, this often involved different people attending, with one church leader noting “[the] same number of people and different faces”.

Moreover, about 67% of church leaders indicated that the pandemic had little impact on the financial position of local churches. This stability was largely attributed to the financial support provided by the federal government’s JobKeeper program and churches’ swift move towards online giving at the start of the pandemic. We only encountered one church in Victoria that closed its doors permanently, although the pandemic’s influence on this closure was indirect.

These insights go beyond mere lessons from the past; they offer profound reflections on the essence of being a church …

Lessons learned

The resilience demonstrated by Australian churches during the Covid-19 pandemic raises two important questions: (1) what did churches do well during the Covid-19 pandemic; and (2) what does that mean looking into the future?

While both questions are complex and many factors shaped the experiences of local churches, the research highlighted three pivotal factors that significantly contributed to churches navigating the challenges of the pandemic. These insights go beyond mere lessons from the past; they offer profound reflections on the essence of being a church and present opportunities for enhancing communal life within local church communities.

Lesson 1: Collectively reflect on the purpose of the church

During the interviews, church leaders often spoke about the value of collectively reflecting on the purpose of their church: “who is the church, what are we here for?”. Actively engaging with these profound questions served as an anchor for decision-making amid coronatide, because it provided a clear lens through which challenges could be understood and dealt with.

Collective reflection on the church’s purpose was not necessarily about formulating a polished answer, but rather about stepping back from all immediate pressures and dedicating time as a church community to ponder about what was essential and indispensable.

Interestingly, many church leaders noted that the Covid-19 pandemic deepened their understanding of church as a “gathered community,” “community of care,” “embedded practice” and “living organism.” Thus, taking time to unite as a church and delve into questions related to identity and purpose was valued, as it served as an anchor, ensuring that the community remained grounded, thereby preventing any gradual drift from its core purpose during this time of turmoil.

Lesson 2: Work together with other churches

The interviews also revealed that the pandemic has created more appreciation for the advantages of working together with other churches.

Churches actively supported each other by co-facilitating online church services, sharing information, helping one another interpret government mandates, and praying collectively. Particularly, in remote and rural areas, church leaders noted how important informal meetings of church leaders from different denominations were.

One church leader explained: “We have to work together better, get out of silos and realise that other Christian groups, other churches have learned things that we have not.” Another church leader remarked that denominational boundaries should not be viewed as a barrier to these initiatives. They noted: “Same faith, same message, but a different style of expressing it. […] If different churches can support other churches, it works for both churches.”

The value of interdenominational cooperation extends far beyond the pandemic context. The research encourages churches to foster relationships, partake in collective prayer, and pool strengths and skills to collectively pursue churches’ shared purpose.

Simple and direct translation of physical church activities to online platforms often did not yield optimal outcomes.

Lesson 3: Critically adopt technology

The insights shared by church leaders suggested that the simple and direct translation of physical church activities to online platforms often did not yield optimal outcomes. One church leader explained the challenge as follows: “The problem with what we did was in not recognising that church services have developed over a long period of time and are fundamentally communal in nature, and therefore could not be replicated online.”

Interestingly, church leaders who expressed more satisfaction with their online presence often adopted alternative mindsets and strategies. For example, one church turned the traditional sermon into an interactive dialogue, encouraging church community members to participate by responding to ideas and asking questions during the sermon. Others established online spaces where small groups engaged in activities, such as with collective contemplative silence.

Church leaders embracing these approaches frequently referred to being open-minded and willing to discard elements of traditional approaches. One church leader explained, “[Online church gives] the ability to reach people that we have never been reached before, doing things in ways that have never been done before … I think one of the biggest challenges that faith people had was being told how they could do church.”

Thus, churches wishing to engage in the online realm will greatly benefit from taking the time to think through ways to minister effectively, rather than just streaming their regular service or mass – although that can, of course, greatly benefit those who are physically unable to attend.

We hope these insights will encourage church leaders and will be a starting point for further reflection about the underlying reasons behind current churches’ practices. If you are interested in receiving a digital copy of the full research report “Australian churches during coronatide: Lessons & Opportunities”, please reach out to Pieter-Jan via email at [email protected].

Pieter-Jan Bezemer and Sten Langmann are researchers working at the School of Business Law, Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia.

Pieter-Jan Bezemer and Sten Langmann conduct research into Australian churches during Covid-19

Pieter-Jan Bezemer (left) and Sten Langmann (right).

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