Dr Agnes Abuom
Trends and Developments during the past six months of 2020 and their Impact on Church Life and Communities

1. Introduction

Let me once more welcome us on behalf of the leadership of WCC to this executive committee meeting. Each one of us has a story to share regarding experiences during these past months, that are challenging but also stories of resilience (of yourself, family, church and country) that ignite hope in the midst of desperation. Humanity and not least men and women of faith stand today on the edge of a cliff of life and are called to decide whether to jump or strive to climb upwards and discern the risks and strategies to manage. Allow me to highlight a few issues that from my vantage point, churches and communities are confronted with as they seek to accompany members and communities. The aim is for the executive committee to find relevant approaches of listening to and consulting with churches in order to be a voice of reason and support.

When the global community ushered in the year 2020, no one could imagine that the world would be brought down to its knees by a virus that was slowly spreading late in 2019. Fast forward and we have over 14 million confirmed cases and over 600,000 deaths globally. The virus has not only devastated healthcare systems, but also triggered socio-economic effects that will take many years to recover. For the church, the coronavirus has exposed and exacerbated deep ecclesiastical problems in the identity and witness of the church. Measures to mitigate the pandemic have made Christians abstain from physically attending sermons. It is a painful time where we can only show love for one another by staying away from one another. A contradiction in terms indeed from our understanding of fellowship! As some observers have noted, the fragility of life and for that matter the web of life, is threatened across the globe more than ever before. Many people, communities and countries are witnessing vulnerability, destruction of building blocks of life such as community life, sharing and nurturing values together and devaluation of human dignity. Current economic, political and religious dilemmas and challenges that all countries face in varying degrees seems to impacting the understanding and concept of life which seem to undermine the very values that form and safeguard the sanctity of life; a critical issue that the church and not least the ecumenical movement is called upon to revisit drawing lessons from past work, e.g. Integrity of Creation. It is important to note that though the church has tried to innovate ways to spread the message of hope during this pandemic, there is no doubt that it has been severely hindered. Here are some emerging challenges for the Church this year and which may continue the coming years. 

2. Emerging challenges facing the global Church/community

2.1 Economic Crisis

COVID-19 has created a devastating setback to economic growth across the globe. The economic crisis it has unleashed is hurting economies, regardless of income level. The most recent data indicate that both lower and upper middle-income countries have been significantly impacted by COVID-19. As this disaster plays out, the rich are getting richer and the rest are being left behind. These inequalities are rising compounded by loss of employment due to closure of industries globally. In lockdown situations, where people are out of work and congregations cannot meet together in person, church incomes have rapidly dwindled. This has had a knock-on effect on giving to Christian organisations and institutions and their operations.

2.2 The rise of authoritarian governments

One emerging trend that is indeed a big challenge to churches globally is the rise in authoritarian tendencies by governments. As a response to COVID-19, most governments have imposed harsh regimes on their citizens. Though directives such as lockdowns and travel restrictions are welcome to fight the spread of the virus in the short-term, this tendency is providing leeway for governments to infringe on human rights even in future. Will governments let go of these extra powers they have enjoyed in recent months? The likely chance that most governments will try to consolidate these strict rules is worrying to the church considering some of the rules could be used against religious minorities, and particularly Christians.

2.3 Rising SGBV and violence against children

We are experiencing a significant increase in violence against women and children during this COVID-19 period. The increase is driven by several factors. Financial hardship due to restriction of movement and curfew affects livelihoods, especially for those working in the informal sector. Confinement at home under heightened levels of stress, uncertainty and fear, can produce stressful environments that precipitate violence. At this time, children are at heightened risk of all forms of violence, including violent discipline by family members and emotional abuse. Families in highly pressured situations may also resort to child labour, transactional sex, female genital mutilation and child marriage. Removing children from a protective environment such as school exacerbates these risks. COVID-19 infection rate between male and females indicates men are slightly more infected than women. However, studies of past outbreaks indicate that women are greatly being affected as compared to men. This is evident through the following indicators:

- School closures in response to pandemics can increase women’s childcare responsibilities, as women still bear most of the responsibility of child-rearing, also impacting their livelihoods and employment options; women’s participation in work outside the home is likely to fall.

-Health resources normally dedicated to reproductive health go towards emergency response.

- When women have less decision-making power than men, either in households or in government, then women’s needs during an epidemic are less likely to be met.

2.4 Growing nationalism, leading to racism and even xenophobia

COVID-19 has surely strained societies with many people spending time under lockdown. With so much stress piling up, we are witnessing a situation where people are turning on themselves. Societies are starting to regroup around racial, ethnical or national identities, shaped by religion, culture and history. This “worship of an identity” takes the view that one identity exists at the expense of all others. For instance, patriotism is a love of one’s country, which all people should have. But so-called patriotism or “worship your country” can lead and has in some instances in the past led to destructive nationalism. This is against the Christians’ belief that there is only one God, the universal Triune God who has created all humanity.

2.5 Electronic surveillance

COVID-19 has necessitated fast tracking of surveillance technologies under the guise of measures to “test and trace” the contacts. Governments are rapidly deploying new systems of digital surveillance which are not just to control the virus, but also to control the populations of certain countries, particularly in China and India. This then poses a clear risk to underground churches and Christians living in places of extreme persecution. There is rising fear that this trend could spread to countries where Christians are free to worship. If these systems are not kept in check, we are likely to see misuse targeting Christians and other minority groups in the future.

2.6 Rise in religious extremism due to misinformation and political/economic interests

It is disheartening how people have misinterpreted by conspiracy theorists and religious extremists to achieve their own objectives. For instance, the Somalia-based terror group Al-Shabaab, declared COVID-19 to be Allah’s punishment sent on unbelievers. Their spokesman called on Muslims to rejoice in the “painful torment” inflicted on non-Muslims by COVID-19. He mocked the Somali government’s lockdown measures, which included closing mosques and Islamic seminaries. Islamic State and Al-Qaeda also celebrated the virus, describing it as a “small soldier of Allah” sent to attack his enemies. According to reports, some even believe that fighting jihad will guarantee protection from becoming infected with the virus. Attacks on Christians in Nigeria’s Middle Belt soared during lockdown, as extremists exploited the fact that the authorities had diverted security resources to combatting the virus and Christians locked down in their homes were a sitting target.

2.7 Rising conflict and fading civility

COVID-19 has put more pressure on already existing tension between societies. Societies are undergoing the great stress of lockdown, deadly illness and the related pressures, which are widening cracks leading to internal conflict and even violence. Where societies are under pressure, historic ethno-religious loyalties and values can come to the surface. Then minorities, such as Christians, are vulnerable to blame and attack. Even if they are not targeted, Christians can be caught in the middle of a conflict between others.

2.8 Authorities and organizations using aid as a weapon (instrumentalization of aid)

It is not new that humanitarian aid is being withheld by some organizations or authorities as a form of geopolitical control. With many people now jobless and inequality rising, it is sad that aid could be used as a weapon. Though it is common in parts of the world to see aid being distributed based on the religious aspects, it is against humanity. Furthermore, governments are supposed to help all their citizens regardless of their religion. Discrimination mostly occurs at the distribution level; governments should be strict and streamline the process to ensure that all vulnerable people get aid when available.

2.9 Growing mental health issues

Earlier this year, when the pandemic spread, not many could have imagined mental health challenges as probable impact of COVID-19. Fast-forward and we have a situation where people are locked down with no food in the house, loss of jobs, domestic abuse, depression, anxiety and even panic attacks. When you combine these with the pressures of home schooling and even some people losing relatives due to COVID-19 and we have a situation where people’s mental health is worsening each day. This stress is leading to an increase in suicides. For Christians who might normally look to their church for love, care and acceptance when struggling to cope, this support may be unavailable due to lockdown.

3. How churches are responding to challenges

3.1 Within the church

3.1.1 Churches are continuing to innovate in search of the right service format

With social distancing a key factor in fighting COVID-19, there are no more congregations and churches have resorted to online services. It has to be noted that online serves feature a different format from normal services. This desire for innovation is also reflected in a shift in the kinds of resources churches are looking for during this season. This shift has thus created a necessity for adjustment of technology usage for churches. While most churches have successfully transitioned to livestream and conference calls, churches are looking for help in leveraging new technology to create engaging experiences for their people and/or to reach out to those spiritually interested in their communities.

3.1.2 Responding to decreases in offerings

The impact of the crisis on economy is out there for anyone to see and with such a diverse deepening, church members faced unemployment something that in turn limit contributions during sermons. For these churches, this level of financial recalibration, if prolonged, will have significant and ongoing financial implications. Even as some churches are doing well financially, many are struggling. It is critical at this juncture in the crisis for established churches to begin or continue to support church plants and missionaries.

3.1.3 Promoting safe gatherings

It is vital to keep contact with local civic and health authorities, to follow their directives on the limits on how many can gather for religious services. As of now, most countries have banned mass gatherings or restricted gathering to a maximum of 100 or less. In some countries only five people are allowed to meet and in some there is a total ban on meetings. These restrictions mean that normal church services cannot be held until the pandemic has abated.

3.1.4 Adopting global safety measures as churches open

With some governments easing restrictions on movement and even allowing churches to open, it is upon the church to provide adequate space (two meters or six feet) between each other, and open larger spaces with proper ventilation; or organize multiple worship services to reduce crowds where allowed. Churches should also stretch their budgets towards recommendations to have sanitizers and labour to clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces where we worship, especially those shared, using regular household cleaning spray or wipes. Encourage those who feel sick to temporarily stay away from gatherings and send messages for intercession prayer and support.

3.1 Outside the church

3.2.1 Enhancing the advocacy role of the church on health matters

We can promote accurate and reliable information. We depend on evidence-based information on prevention, care and supportive treatment. So, let’s alert the faith communities of this. We know how to contain this pandemic, and the prevention efforts hinge on minimizing person-to-person and object-to-person transmission. Still, there is a plethora of wrong or inaccurate information that spreads fear and ignorance. Such fear and panic can promote essential item hoarding and panic buying. Faith communities and our leaders must speak up, to counter irrational fear, to promote truth, dignity, love and fortitude.

3.2.2 Increasing awareness

The church has the integral role of informing the public on the impact of the virus and especially on how spreading can be curbed. As such, nationwide sensitization of citizens and businesses on sanitization initiatives and control/prevention measures are key which will also demystify most of the misinformation around the virus effectively control the emotional contagion.

3.2.3 Mobilizing local agencies to safeguard livelihoods and progress on the SDGs

Churches have always been on the forefront in mobilizing resources to help the vulnerable. Though times are tough, it is important that churches liaise with local NGOs, faith based organizations and even government authorities to consolidate resources and help in the distribution. Urban slums are hotspots for the spread of disease, and so targeting these areas of extreme poverty through health interventions alongside other forms of sustainable development would offer a longer-term solution to preventing the spread of future outbreaks and reducing impoverishment

3.2.4 Economic empowerment during and after COVID-19

Develop targeted economic empowerment strategies and social safety nets to protect those who are the worst affected and most vulnerable. These safety nets, which could be in the form of cash or in-kind transfers. These should be accompanied by intervention by health and nutrition officials, because investing in the health and nutrition of vulnerable populations could lower the mortality rate of diseases such as COVID-19, as nutritional level and mortality rates are intricately linked. Social safety nets are also crucial in the post-epidemic period to drive "reconstruction" efforts.

3.2.5 Act as a watchdog against stigmatization and discrimination

Ensure that migrants and refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons are included in national surveillance, preparedness, and response plans and activities. It would be helpful to engage with them to ensure that aid distribution and even adherence to laid down measures in the fight against COVID-19 is successful.

3.2.6 Advocate for incorporation of anti-gender based violence (GBV) efforts in the fight against COVID-19

Increase advocacy efforts to ensure that emergency preparedness and response plans are grounded in sound gender analyses, considering gendered roles, risks, responsibilities, and social norms, and accounting for the unique capabilities and needs of other vulnerable populations. This includes ensuring that mitigation and response measures address women’s and girls’ caregiving burdens and heightened GBV risks.

3.2.7 Investments in the health sector especially in developing countries

Churches have a track record in the provision of social services and quite a number remain major actors in health as partners with government. Churches should engage in advocating for longer-term investments to build a stronger and more resilient health systems’. COVID-19 has exposed the inadequacies in the health sector in many a country not least in the global south – such as public health services, human resources, facilities including transformation of certain aspects of culture/traditions and religious practices likely to contribute to death. Thus a long-term investment perspective makes sense both from a health and an economic perspective. Putting more resources on the front lines to detect and treat conditions early, before they become more serious, saves lives, improves health outcomes, reduces healthcare costs and strengthens preparedness for when outbreaks occur.

4. Conclusion

COVID-19 has been unsettling not just to the Church but to the rest of global structures. The numbers are still rising with little hope for a vaccine or drug from scientists. It has changed the way we live and life might never be the same again post-COVID-19. While we understood the gravity of COVID-19 when it began, few could have anticipated – and indeed many still do not fully appreciate – the depth of change we are living through. With changing contexts all over the world, the church too is impacted adversely. In this article, I highlighted some of the trends that will continue to inform church operations as they have this year. The rise of authoritarianism, racism, xenophobia, misinformation, GBV, etc. will surely unsettle church structures globally. I’ve also shred some of the ways in which the church has been responding to the changes and also ways through which the church can respond to maintain its role. The Church is central to spread of hope through God’s powerful message of love and care for everyone regardless of their orientation. A lot can still be done, though with strained finances, to help respond to these changes caused by COVID-19.

I close by reading from Psalms 1:1-3:

“Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked; or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord; They are like trees planted by the streams of water; which yield their fruit in season; and their leaves do not wither. In all they do, they prosper”. (NRSV)

Thank you.


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