I call them my academic brain trust, scholars from across Canada who study the impact of religion on society — and vice versa.
Over the past couple of years I’ve consulted them on different questions and issues that impact religion in this country — MAID, LGBTTQ+, immigration, politics, the rise of the "nones," and, of course, now, the pandemic.
They are Paul Bramadat from the University of Victoria; Joel Thiessen of Ambrose University College in Calgary; Reg Bibby from the University of Lethbridge; Rick Hiemstra from the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada; Sarah Wilkins-LaFlamme from the University of Waterloo; Brian Clarke and Stuart Macdonald from the University of Toronto; Kevin Flatt of Redeemer University; Lori Beaman from the University of Ottawa; and Sam Reimer and John Stackhouse of Crandall University in Moncton.
In late April I convened a conversation with some of them about how they think the pandemic will impact religion in this country. A few common themes emerged.
No increase in attendance when it ends
While there will likely be a surge in attendance in the months right after the pandemic ends, they think the downturn in religious participation — which was underway before COVID-19 — will continue.
Wilkins-Laflamme thinks while will be an initial increase in attendance, just as "there will be a bump in everything when the pandemic over"—concerts, sporting events, theatre, travel and more. "How long it lasts is the question," she said.
Said Reimer: "The pandemic, coupled with congregational closures, likely creates new habits, and returning to regular attendance is less likely. I think this will be particularly true of young families and emerging adults, who are less likely to attend already."
Going back will be hard even for those who are regular attenders, said Flatt. "Inertia is now on the side of not coming to church," he said.
Online is here to stay
"When places of worship do reopen, their members will expect their congregation to continue to have an active and interactive online presence," said Clarke.
Noting that older people are the most enthusiastic about online services, Thiessen noted that suggests to him "issues of inaccessibility, such as health and mobility, are top of mind, and congregations should heed this point carefully."
And yet there are important questions about class to consider, said Wilkins Laflamme. "Going online opens up questions about who can afford to do it and those who can’t," she said.
While the pandemic will lead to many changes in how Canadians practice their faith, it will not be the cause. It is just speeding them up.
"The pandemic has not changed things as much as it has amplified realities which already existed," said Macdonald, noting many churches were already declining before the pandemic.
"I suspect that in the latter stages of the pandemic and post-pandemic we will see more of this," he said, adding some places of worship which might have had ten years left before the pandemic hit may now have only two, or even less.
Polarization within religious communities
While the vast majority of religious communities have followed public health orders, there has also been dissent within some of them about government restrictions.
"It has been fascinating and worrying to see deep divisions open up on my social media feed over these questions between people in the same sub-streams of Protestantism who otherwise share a very similar set of convictions and values," said Flatt.
In some religious communities, "the pandemic has exposed just how quickly fellow members can be turned against each other," he added.
Damage to the Christian "brand"
Churches — and it is mostly churches — that have defied health orders have caused many Canadians to view Christianity in negative terms. The actions of this tiny minority make it appear all Christians are selfish, self-righteous, anti-science and don’t care about others.
No existential crisis
For decades, some preachers have warned of some cataclysmic event that would compel people to return to God. Well, we have one and its not happening—even though there has been much loss of life, and economic and relational upheaval.
"I’m not seeing Canadians asking these questions," said Stackhouse. "There is very little theological reflection on the pandemic. I wonder if people are even looking to religion for answers about it."
This doesn’t mean some won’t seek spiritual answers. As Flatt put it: "The pandemic may create an opening for religious groups to connect with people who are now open to new perspectives . . . Religious groups with a clear sense of identity, strong local communities, and a belief in the priority of evangelization will likely be more interested and able to connect with such seekers."
Questions about religious freedom
The pandemic has raised important questions about religion and the state, and how authorities make decisions regarding things like worship services.
"Religious freedom matters," said Stackhouse. "You can’t just kick it aside."
Added Beaman: "Religious people are asking why its safe to go to Costco, but not safe to go to church."
Upsides to the pandemic
"It’s not all doom and gloom," said Thiessen, noting some congregations have really stepped up and found creative ways to connect with members and their community.
In fact, some congregations report an uptick in attendance as people who were once non-attenders, or only attended infrequently, are involved in online services. Some of these may stay connected when the pandemic ends. "It will be interesting to see if churches can stay connected to these individuals," said Macdonald.
Of course, as they acknowledge, they could be wrong; we haven’t had to deal with something as major and upsetting as a pandemic for a long time. But their ideas provide food for thought.
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.