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Stronger will for change

With places of worship closed during the coronavirus crisis, the church came up with creative alternatives. Instead of sermons from the pulpit, there were prayers on the Internet. Is the digital church the opportunity this traditional institution needs to prepare itself for the future?

The church is in transition: new ideas are to attract more members of the community to evangelical church services, new formats such as open-air sermons and lakeside christenings are to breathe fresh air into the centuries-old institution with its fixed traditions. "For a long time now, there has been much consideration given to changing the church," said theology professor Uta Pohl-Patalong, who has been giving lectures on this subject for many years and is experiencing a "very intense contemplation on innovations". "Many of the ideas have already been tried out and implemented." But not yet on a grand scale, not yet for fundamental changes affecting the whole institution right down to the smallest community.

It is important that the church modernises its structure and organisation, which dates back to the Middle Ages and the 19th Century, in order to be equipped for the future. After all, the institution has problems to be resolved. The skilled worker shortage has reached the alter, too. The church lacks a younger generation able to take over positions that have become vacant. By 2030, there will be 900 available positions for pastors in the Nordkirche (North Church) alone. Only two thirds of them can be filled. And these are primarily in urban areas. Member numbers are falling, too. By 2060, church communities will halve in size due to demographic change, death and members leaving the church – and this in turn will have serious effects on church tax revenue. Now there are the (financial) effects of the coronavirus crisis, too, which no one can put a figure on yet.

Nevertheless, it is clear to the theology professor "that the church has a future. In my opinion, that is without question," said Pohl-Patalong. "The job of the church is, as before, to help people find and experience evangelism, the message of God and his love of people," she said. The way in which faith is lived, how and where church services are held and other matters besides these must change, however, in order to continue to reach people, she added.

The knowledge is there, but often there was simply not the time to implement new and great ideas in the past: "The traditional ‘normal programme’ takes up an unbelievable amount of time and energy. That was always an obstacle in the past," said Pohl-Patalong. In this respect, the coronavirus crisis is proving to be an opportunity, because normal work did not happen during the pandemic, there was suddenly room for contemplation and for creative innovations.

Over the last few weeks and months, believers experienced how modern formats of church services could look: there were sermons, prayers and hymns on paper to take away or download on the Internet. Entire church services were broadcast online. Pastoral care functioned via video chat or telephone. Is the digital church the big solution for the future, one that can solve the problem of the skilled worker shortage and falling revenue, too? "It is definitely an option," said Pohl-Patalong and explained: "The time of coronavirus is both a challenge and an opportunity for churches to try out digital formats on a much larger scale than before. The response was surprisingly big. Online services were enjoyed both by many older churchgoers who – despite all preconceptions – showed surprisingly little reluctance to experience the church in digital format and by those who presumably would not have attended any church at Easter."

Despite the good support, however, it was apparent, not only in the church but across the whole of society, that important aspects of the community are lost when only digital methods are used – such as contact between people, the atmosphere and sensory perception. The theologian is certain, however, that much of what has proven successful in the time of the coronavirus will be adopted afterwards – perhaps with adjustments. What has proven successful in the past will certainly be retained, too, "because we now know the value of direct contact even better." For Pohl-Patalong, this diversity is important: "Along with pluralisation of society, diversity in ways of accessing belief and the church has grown too, so it is important that there is diversity in the way the church is structured, as well."

It is hard to assess, however, whether and how this new impetus will be implemented, she added. "This will only become clear over the next few years." In any case, the coronavirus crisis has demonstrated that churches are ready and able to take on new forms and this is something that can be built upon.

Author: Jennifer Ruske