Lena Roos, Professor, Study of Religions, Södertörn University
Did the covid 19 pandemic accelerate already existing processes of change within religious communities in Europe? Can a study of changes during the pandemic thus be used as a tool to look into the future? This article will address those questions based upon a series of studies done the Church of Sweden.
Sweden did not have hard lockdowns during the pandemic. Rather, the main strategy was to issue “recommendations” such as working from home when possible, avoiding travel during peak hours and when possible conducting meetings and other gathering online. Some restrictions were however imposed. From March 12th, 2020, gatherings of more than 500 people were forbidden. A little more than two weeks later, on March 29th, the maximum number was lowered to 50. November 24th the maximum was further lowered to eight. Funerals were excepted and allowed 20 participants. As an increasing number of the population had been vaccinated, and the pandemic seemed to have started to abate, the restrictions were gradually loosened, the final being removed on September 29th, 2021.
The restrictions affected the religious communities of Sweden, even if less so than in many other countries. Less, because the restrictions were less strict, but also because in reality, many congregations, especially outside larger cities, rarely gathered more than 50 worshipers at the same time. When the maximum number was lowered to eight, however, all congregations were forced to seek alternative strategies for their activities.
A few studies have already been published on the effect of the covid 19 pandemic on a selection of religious communities, mostly Christian, in Sweden. Most data have been gathered concerning the largest denomination, the Church of Sweden whose members comprised 52,8 per cent of the population in 2022. These studies generally indicate that most congregations preferred to find alternative forms for their gatherings, rather that cancelling activities altogether. This is also similar to what has been found in most international studies. I most cases, the Swedish congregations adopted what Heidi Campbell calls a ‘transfer strategy’, meaning that they simply transfer their regular format to a digital format, for instance by setting up a camera in the church and filming the service or streaming it online. In some cases a ‘transform strategy’ was employed, meaning that the analogue format was abandoned and a completely digital format adopted, for instance through online meeting rooms. Some studies seem to indicate that congregations in the Church of Sweden have been less creative than churches in other countries when it comes to finding alternative forms for their activities, possibly due to less restrictions.
Two sets of questionnaires were sent to vicars in the Church of Sweden in 2020. One was part of periodically gathered statistics by the Church of Sweden research unit; one was part of the international research project CONTOC, Churches Online in Times of Corona.
Many of the vicars describe that the most difficult members to reach during the pandemic were those belonging to risk groups, e.g. elderly or/and living in different kinds of assisted living facilities. Although Swedes by international comparison have good internet access, it is estimated that about one million Swedes rarely or never use the internet.
Generally the vicars report on three different types of strategies: 1. Activities were cancelled. This was often the case for activities for senior members, for instance sewing gatherings and Bible study groups, as well as activities for new immigrants. 2. Activities were postponed. This was mainly the case for baptisms and weddings, that were postponed until the restrictions were lifted. 3. Activities were continued in a different form. This was usually the case for the main service of the week, that was often digitized, but 4 out of 10 congregations also report having transferred their youth groups or confirmation classes to a different format, often online. The reason is obvious: since the younger members are more comfortable with and generally have access to digital meeting forms, it is easier to digitize those activities, even if the need may be greater for other groups, such as the elderly, who were more isolated during the pandemic, and generally also more active members of the church. A contributing factor may also be that Church of Sweden staff working with youth had an online presence already before the pandemic, e.g. through the so called ‘net wanderers’ (nätvandrare), who are present on various social fora where young people might risk bullying and other forms of abusive treatment.
One part of the work of the Church of Sweden that was greatly reduced was that done by volunteers. In some cases, less volunteers were needed because activities were cancelled, in other cases, it was because the volunteers themselves belonged to risk groups. This seems to strengthen a trend that was visible already before the pandemic, that the number of volunteers decreases.
There is an interesting difference between female and male vicars concerning pastoral counselling during the pandemic. Whereas many male vicars report that they have reduced the time dedicated to pastoral counselling due to restrictions during the pandemic, many female vicars report the opposite, that they have increased this time, by using digital forms like WhatsApp, Skype, Messenger or regular phone calls. This difference can be linked to differences in their use of social media before the pandemic. Previous research has shown that women use social media more, and in a different manner from men, in order to maintain and deepen already existing relationships. It can also be related to differences between female and male clergy that has been shown in a recent study of young clergy in the Church of Sweden and the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland. In this study the participants were asked to evaluate what aspects of their profession they thought most important. Women ranked being a listener, a companion and an enabler as their most important roles, whereas men gave priority to skills in preaching and liturgy.
There is also an interesting difference between younger and older vicars. Younger vicars as a group state that the worship service in the local church, especially the communion, has become more important for them after having experienced the Covid restrictions. They stress the centrality of the service, whereas they believe that other gatherings, such as meetings with coffee whose main purpose is social will be less important for them in the future. Older vicars, however, say almost the opposite, that the physical church building has become less important for them during the pandemic, and that they hope to continue some of the activities that replaced regular services in the church during the pandemic, for instance meetings in smaller groups and outdoor activities such as communal walks.
There have also been gains in the move to digital formats. Out of those congregations who have used different kinds of digital formats, more than half (54 percent) report reaching new people. This was especially true for those congregations who had digital activities several times per week. 70 percent of these congregations also report that they want to continue with activities in alternative forms, digital and others, after the pandemic as well. 
So, if we try to use the developments during the Covid 19 pandemic as a lens to look into the future, what are some possible developments?
– That the use of alternative forms, digital and others, will be greater than before the pandemic.
– That the number of volunteers will remain on a lower level than before, and possibly continue to decrease.
– That as older vicars retire and those who belonged to the younger group of vicars during the pandemic remain, there will be an increased emphasis on liturgical services, mainly communion services, possibly with a decrease of other types of activities in the congregations.
Lena Roos, Professor, Study of Religions
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Image credit – Generated by Leonardo.ai using the prompt “Hybrid Worship Gathering: Create an image of a congregation in a church building with some members physically present while others join remotely through digital means, representing the potential future of blended worship experiences.“