Five COVID-fueled Shifts in Our Religious and Spiritual Landscape
Amidst all the devastation of this remarkable moment, COVID is extremely clarifying. It reveals the pain of loneliness and social isolation. It uncovers how profoundly most people long to focus on what matters most. And it stimulates amazing creativity and resilience.
We see five major COVID-fueled shifts in our religious and spiritual landscape.
1. Meaning takes center stage. Tens of millions of people around the globe stay home to protect those who are most vulnerable. Younger folks choose to restrict their movement to protect elders. Every day now, people intentionally participate in the largest act of collective solidarity in the history of the world.
Every day, folks in cities all over the world stand on street corners and balconies to display appreciation for the health care workers. Neighbors write words of comfort on sidewalks. New rituals of appreciation and care are popping up to lend meaning and coherence to shared uncertainties.
A whopping 46% of young people are trying new spiritual practices.
Every day, stress, fear, isolation, and shear disruption casts clarifying light on what matters most. What we see is often hard. The devastation of economic inequality and differential access to health care is everywhere evident. At the same time, we are thinking hard about what matters most, who we love and who loves us, who we belong to, and who we want to become in the time we have. These are life’s essential questions, and people are asking them on a remarkable scale.
2. Traditional delivery pathways for religious life are breaking down. On Good Friday, hazmat-suited musicians play amidst the ruin of Notre Dame as the Catholic Archbishop of Paris says Mass and breaks bread. But no parishioners attend and those watching virtually cannot receive communion. The sacramental thread is broken.
Elsewhere, rabbis stand in empty sanctuaries delivering sermons via social media. Without congregations and the liturgical interplay of time, space, text, and music, vital dimensions of meaning get lost. Offering plates are empty. Congregations will close.
Increasing disaffiliation and decreasing membership began to threaten traditional religious communities long before COVID. Already weakened by years of financial decline, congregations of almost every stripe struggle to deliver value virtually. Doctrines, hierarchies, and liturgies that support time-spanning religious infrastructure don’t usually allow for rapid iteration and nimble change. COVID didn’t create these pressures, but social disruption and economic damage will accelerate damage to the precarious foundations of religious delivery systems.
3. Community can be home-based. On Sunday afternoons, the Corona Community Chorus sings together virtually. Song leaders in Brooklyn, NY offer melodies while each voice chimes in from solitary homes, together with a hundred others across the world. Jewish summer camp alums share shabbat dinners, each in their own home. Workplace teams share intentions for self-care.
These efforts and countless others like them are hyper-local—there is no more local than a person’s own living space—but they are also trans-local, connecting people across tremendous distance. Liberated as many are from the limitations of physical meetings, COVID teaches us that meaningful community can be based at home.
4. Spiritual leadership is de-professionalizing. As the trend towards religious disaffiliation deepens, fresh efforts have arisen among Millennials and GenZers to create community connection, sometimes filling the gap left by declining religious and social institutions. The leadership of new communities is almost always unauthorized by those institutions. Few are ordained, credentialed, or formally trained.
COVID lifts up new leadership doing community and spiritual jobs, as lay folks without lineage offer meditation on Instagram Live, faithful peers offer daily chapel services, and family members not pastors lead funerals. COVID may also de-professionalize these roles as production values soften, CEOs write pastoral letters, and anyone with a digital device can convene community.
5. Virtual connection can be surprisingly meaningful. Just after stay-at-home orders were issued, Sacred Design Lab began offering “family chapel” every weekday. Fifty folks of different faiths, ages, family configurations, and bandwidth share a simple 30-minute multi-religious service of music, text, and reflection in small groups. Most have not met in real life. People who never before used Zoom or shared in a small group are stunned to discover how deeply others receive their care and attention; how thoroughly presence survives in virtual spaces.
COVID is teaching more people than ever before that virtual connection can be meaningful when we take care to create containers of time and intention, when we ask folks to consider questions that are worthy of the moment at hand. The traditional religious world has been exceptionally slow to adapt to virtual environments, but so much of what humans have learned from that world—how to give shape to deep questions, create evocative environments, and invite connection—can thrive when offered virtually.
COVID will accelerate weakening of the traditional religious institutions and practices that earlier generations relied on for answers. But the virus is also exposing new pathways for meaning and connection in our bruised and hurting world.
Sue Phillips is a founder and principal with Sacred Design Lab. An ordained minister and former denominational executive in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, Sue is passionate about inspiring spiritual flourishing, equipping people for meaning-making, and witnessing the transformation that happens when we get all up in life’s biggest questions.
Sacred Design Lab (SDL) is a research and design consultancy working to create a culture of belonging and becoming.
SDL translates ancient wisdom and practices to help organizations develop products, programs, and experiences that uplift social and spiritual lives.