How religions are dealing with the corona crisis: Protestant churches and their environs
A guest article by historian and theologian Dr. Johannes Wischmeyer
Johannes Wischmeyer has a doctorate in history and theology, and, as a senior executive with the Church Office of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), is responsible for research, analysis, and reform issues.
It is probably the case that no event since 1945 has occupied the Protestant churches in Germany more, and has played a greater role in how they perceive themselves and others, than the corona pandemic. Current studies and reports on the situation help us to gain an initial view of the developments since the beginning of March 2020.
1. Avoiding theological interpretations of the crisis: patterns of preaching in the church mainstream
Since the corona pandemic began having an impact on public life in Germany, church representatives at all levels have focused public communication on pastoral care. Attempts to give religious meaning to the crisis have concentrated mainly on the believing subject with her experience of loneliness and the loss of power to act. In contrast, attempts to explain people’s experiences systematically within the framework of the dogmatic principles of faith have been made much less frequently. (1)
In response, conservative Lutherans in particular have accused official Protestantism of withdrawing into “trivialities of cultural Protestantism” when its only contribution to solidarity in the crisis is to emphasize the suspending of all communal activities for the common good. (2) In contrast, the tradition of Lutheran theology would interpret the pandemic as an “example” of the ambivalence of God’s actions, and the subjective experience of the evil as a “challenge”. (3) However, the dialectical pattern of interpretation that Lutheran theologians had used in the past to deal with the old interpretive conflict between God’s omnipotence and his goodness has apparently lost its power of persuasion. Instead, leading representatives of the Protestant church have insisted that the pandemic is certainly not to be seen as “God’s punishment”; (4) in adopting Karl Barth’s Christocentric theology, they see God’s role as being that of a loving companion linked to humanity in its weakness. (5)
The tenor of preaching in the Protestant mainstream has therefore aimed at practising the individual tolerance of ambiguity, and keeping alive a rather abstract ideal of community and solidarity, but not at contributing at the cognitive level to coping with contingency in a religious manner. (6) Initial non-representative studies of the language used by church ministers in their online preaching indicate that the semantics of preaching has calmed down considerably in the course of the ten-week lockdown, with word fields such as “panic” and “fear” receding into the background. Overall, a corpus of 450 online video sermons feature the semantics of “trust” twice as often as the semantics of “crisis” – the exact opposite to the frequency with which they were used on the talk shows of public television. (7)
2. Institutional self-reflection and innovation: religious practice and accompanying discourses during the crisis
In the course of the official restrictions on public life, the churches experienced an unprecedented suspension of their group-related activities. Although the entire and extremely diverse circle of social gatherings was (and in some cases still is) affected, the main focus was initially on the forced foregoing of actual church service. Building on the digital competence acquired by church institutions over the past two decades (the level of which varies greatly both locally and regionally), the church responded to this with a real “push to digitalization”, i.e. a commitment to digital preaching that, according to the providers themselves, would extend beyond the duration of the crisis. (8)
The church congregations that have become active here have been able to more than triple the number of participants in digital church services compared to traditional Sunday service. The trend is clearly moving away from text-based content to audiovisual formats on a variety of social platforms, especially YouTube. Although mostly initiated by the pastor in charge, the digital formats (time-consuming rather than cost-intensive) almost always involved teamwork with volunteers. There are opportunities here to connect with a generation that combines its willingness to do voluntary work with the demand for a participatory structure and selective commitment in terms of how much time its members are willing to spend and what they are willing to do. (9) During the Holy Week and Easter time, the traditional church services broadcast on national and regional television and radio (both public and private) were also much more popular than usual. However, new impetus was provided above all by the sudden diversity of what local churches could offer: from making the liturgies more flexible, to interactive experiments, to digital forms of the Eucharist. For the first time in Germany, a significant number (although not the majority) of regional church congregations put such digital forms into practice during the Holy Week of 2020. Pastors as liturgists will see themselves challenged in the future by the desire to offer more hybrid forms of worship. At the same time, they are becoming increasingly aware that digital church services will make the field of preaching much more market-led and encourage people to compare the liturgical-theological performance of individuals. (10) Overall, only 21.1% of Protestants missed attending church services during the Holy Week and Easter period. (11) What remains unclear is how far this need was at least partly met by what was offered digitally, and whether digital church services were also popular among those not connected to the church. (12)
Church officials have also shown much creativity in the area of non-digital preaching. Symbolic community actions such as the “balcony singing” initiative were able to develop a certain broad effect during the weeks of the lockdown. They show what can and cannot be done by a church that aims to be seen less as an organization and more as a social movement. At the same time, the crisis clearly strengthened the church’s institutional character: working closely with the state authorities and meticulously implementing the regulations at all levels meant that most church officials faced the crisis professionally, i.e. above all in the areas of planning and monitoring.
Beyond the area of public sermons, there was often a lack of attention and incentives for genuinely religious patterns of reaction to the crisis. This is in line with findings that show that the majority of the population does not attach great importance to religious resources in the face of crisis, with only 30.7% of the Protestants surveyed during the Easter period of 2020 seeing their own faith or spirituality as a help in the current situation. Although this figure is slightly higher than for the Catholics surveyed, it differs only slightly from the cross-section of the population (26.9%). (13) Since the beginning of the easing of the lockdown, these figures have declined further, and to a much greater extent than in the cross-section of the population. (14) A current analysis from Austria (which is only comparable to a limited extent due to its denominational structure) shows an almost dramatic decline in general religiosity among the population: under the current effect of the pandemic, 68% do not consider religion and church to be important, and 41% state that they “never” pray. (15)
So far, the crisis in Germany has not led to a lasting change in the general emotional context, which the medium of religion could react to more clearly. The sense of anxiety among the population already clearly decreased again in the course of the lockdown, and the corresponding indicators continue to follow a downward trend. (16) A good two thirds of the population missed family closeness during the lockdown, especially during the Easter holidays, and this proportion was again 8% higher among the Protestants surveyed. (17) As things stand at present, however, this was a temporary problem, and has generally been superseded in the meantime. Data from Austria show that religious people are coping with the crisis in a more active, problem-oriented, and community-based way overall than non-religious people. But what different generations will experience in the long term as a result of the pandemic in terms of traumatization, social fears, and loss of control remains a challenge for future pastoral care. (18)
Due to the severe restrictions on their social field of activity, full-time church representatives have felt their professional self-image being abruptly called into question. Persons in leadership positions in the church are certainly trained in reacting to crises, but they had clearly gained very little experience in how to react under the conditions of physical absence and personal distance. Respondents frequently cite as a learning experience that the crisis has reinforced tendencies and effects that were already strong beforehand. This applies, for example, to the social stability of church congregations, which varies greatly from place to place. At the same time, the church community as an institution represents an ensemble of personal relationships. In times of crisis, members and sympathisers increasingly expect action from the leadership. On the basis of internal evaluative discussions, we can conclude that up to 30% of the pastoral staff responsible felt overwhelmed by the crisis and were unable to react to it in any way. Although staff found it mostly a relief that the church proved itself to be institutionally stable as an employer during the crisis, not a few cases of short-time work in the church sector have placed fears about the future as a new issue on the agenda of church staff. (19)
The crisis-ridden perception that the institution of the church has of itself soon became the subject of a dense journalistic and media discourse, with the role that the churches should play in the crisis still being discussed in many areas. Here, the patterns of argumentation are mostly identical, whether it is the Protestant or the Catholic church that is in focus. Self-reflection was given at least a temporary focus in the question of the church’s “relevance to the system”, which was mainly answered in line with a pragmatic self-restraint and concentration on the tasks directly assigned. We can cautiously conclude that the younger and also the middle generation (who have gradually entered the leadership offices) perceive the limits to the effectiveness that church institutions have for society as a whole. (20) Only in one field is there a clear unease in the church mainstream about the restrictions enforced politically and then often rapidly implemented by church bureaucracies: the fact that the restrictions on contact and access also brought church pastoral care to a standstill in many fields was often felt to be unjustified. This speaks for the highly professionalized self-perception of this field of church action, which was able to develop strategies for dealing with the lockdown situation very quickly. (21)
Committed members, however, provide a predominantly positive answer to the question of the church’s relevance to the system: two thirds of those with a high degree of attachment to the church had a positive perception of the church’s contribution to overcoming social crises. (22) The logic perhaps works more clearly in the opposite direction: plans have long since begun under the well-established idea of “Crisis as Opportunity” to use the current experiences for structural reforms, organizational flexibility, new thematic priorities, and the regaining of spontaneous possibilities for action in a bureaucratized church. (23)
Still lacking are analyses of the diaconal initiatives taken by church communities. Although these diaconal activities are often one of their central functions, a similar increase in creativity and attention as in the area of preaching can probably not be expected here – the professional diaconal agencies continued to work silently and professionally in the background, so that so that congregations did not meet as much additional demand as some had expected. (24)
3. The extreme margins: apocalypticism and conspiracy theories
Conspiracy theories on the corona pandemic can only be found on the extreme margins of the Protestant regional churches and in parts of the free-church milieu. In contrast to the Protestant mainstream, an unselfconscious apocalyptic interpretation is common in the entire Evangelical spectrum. Here we should differentiate between an extreme interpretation that tries to classify the pandemic in the course of the events of the Last Days, and an interpretation that sees in the corona pandemic a catastrophe caused or permitted by God to shake humankind and its sense of repentance.
The extreme interpretation finds its points of reference in the apocalyptic tradition of the Bible – for example, in the semantics of the crown (“corona”) in connection with the prophecy of epidemics at the end of time (Revelation 6:2,8). In this view, the mask recommended for reasons of hygiene is interpreted as a mark of recognition among those under ungodly rule (Revelation 13:16-17). (25) The extreme apocalyptic interpretation of the pandemic can be linked to the common conspiracy theories (“the virus as a weapon of mass destruction created by anti-Christian elites”). (26) It is precisely in the form of individual media reception (YouTube videos) that this proclamation of belief has an effect even in conservative church circles. (27)
However, the extreme form of apocalyptic interpretation is clearly rejected by the overwhelming majority of the organized Evangelical spectrum – several established free churches (e.g. the New Apostolic Church and the Seventh-day Adventists in Germany) have also officially distanced themselves from it, but not the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Protestant church views this as a sign of the “de-secting” of those groups. Actors on the Evangelical periphery of the regional churches usually seek to distance themselves from conspiracy theories when they address the corona crisis – in contrast to what was partly the case with the issue of refugees or gender. However, the impression arises that formulaic compromises are sometimes found here in order to defuse smouldering discussions among members. (28) It would be worth investigating whether the subdued appearance in this matter is also due to the fact that especially Evangelical-charismatic prayer meetings and services have proven to be “super-spreading” events.
Both varieties of apocalyptic interpretation sometimes show a clear proximity to the right-wing populist political spectrum. The alliances on refugee and gender issues have paved the way for this constellation. The rejection of democratic statehood and administration is combined with criticism of the “premature obedience” of church leaders on the question of the official suspension of worship. Other Christian milieus and a younger generation are attracted by the escapist apocalypticism surrounding the “hygiene demos”, which, adopting the approach of a “Third Position”, partly crosses conventional political lines. (29)