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Can anything good come from all of this?

Wednesday, 25 March 2020  | Sarah Judd-Lam

With all kinds of shortages and closures hitting the news at the moment, there is one commodity that remains in abundant supply: predictions of catastrophe.

It is important to take the significant risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic seriously, but it is just as important to stay calm and maintain a balanced outlook for the sake of our individual and collective wellbeing. I, for one, would like to add to the fewer but just as powerful predictions of hope that are currently doing the rounds. We will all need hope to get us through this.

Things are bad, there is no question, and getting worse. But if we all do our best to manage in line with official recommendations, this too shall pass. Every previous pandemic has done so and life has eventually returned to normal.

What excites me, and what has been keeping me from getting completely sucked into the mounting forecasts of doom and gloom, is the prospect that all big disruptions hold the potential for significant social change.

Not all social change is good, but time and time again throughout history we have see resilient, innovative humanity rise from the ashes and do things differently to their benefit. I truly believe this season will bring lasting, positive change to the way we do things, if we let it. So let’s lift our spirits by observing and predicting some of these trends.

I have already encountered some commentary about the positive impact of limited movement on our environment. There is also a growing movement on social media highlighting the small acts of kindness this crisis is bringing out in our communities. What I see coming out of this primarily is a revolution in how we relate to one another at work and in church.

The biggest change I foresee is our workplaces and churches coming up to speed with the technological resources we have at hand. Our social lives and consumption of entertainment have more or less kept pace with rapidly progressing technology but, for many of us, flexibility and innovation at work and at church have been slow and incremental.

When I was in high school, my textbooks told me that telecommuting would rapidly become the new norm. Fast-forward 20 years and most of my friends and family members still work from an office or other physical location, with working from home a technical possibility but a luxury reluctantly granted.

Suddenly, however, we have little choice. Those of us who can work from home should, and while for some people not much has changed in their daily work routine, many of us find ourselves rapidly adjusting to a very different work environment. Many others whose jobs can’t really be done from home find themselves out of work completely or forced to keep going in.

Without minimising the stress and uncertainty the majority of workers and job-seekers find ourselves in right now, I think the sudden spike in working from home will have long-term benefit for us all. Employees will rapidly learn what is needed to productively work from home. Employers will rapidly learn that working from home productively is possible. Those in work and those looking for work alike will, I believe, have greater access to flexible modes of work in the long run, and seasoned home-workers will experience less stigma and isolation and will be viewed as experts.

I am reminded of the world-changing impacts of women taking over much of the workforce during the Second World War; while women were already in some kinds of paid work, it was not really until after the War that society realised they could do the same jobs as men, even when they were married with families. What had started as incremental change rapidly fast-forwarded and ultimately propelled us towards the vastly different workforce we are in today.

Forced exposure to working from home will push our technologies to their limits and drive us all to think innovatively about how to share information, connect and maintain accountability without face-to-face connection. And it’s not only the workforce that is set to benefit.

Churches are currently undergoing a sudden, fast-paced technological revolution also, with many livestreaming services or creating online content for the first time. The challenge of maintaining community and providing pastoral care without physical contact is an overwhelming one for many ministry workers, and face-to-face fellowship can and should never be replaced in the longer term.

But for now, churches find themselves brought back to basics, as has always been the case across the world and throughout history at times of crisis: what is their purpose, and how can they achieve it with limited resources?

While for all congregations and pastoral teams the coming weeks and months will pose a major challenge to remaining connected, it is dawning on many that the move to an online presence also represents new and valuable opportunities. Not everyone who is spiritually seeking feels comfortable attending church; and not everyone who wants to attend church is able to attend physically. In times of crisis, people who usually wouldn’t think twice about listening to a sermon may just find themselves seeking out a message of encouragement.

My hope is that we do find effective and creative ways to maintain connection, instruction and encouragement and that, when this season ends, we will be more inclusive of the groups who are absent from our physical services. If livestreams and online content are able to continue, those who are elderly and frail, recovering from surgery, travelling overseas, caring for a loved one at home, struggling to manage with a newborn, experiencing debilitating social anxiety or prevented by family or spouse from attending church will be able to participate.

I don’t want to make light of the genuine and reasonable fear and uncertainty many are experiencing, or the sickness and loss already being experienced around the world and still to come. And I don’t wish to suggest that face-to-face engagement will no longer be necessary or valuable. But we have a unique opportunity to rethink our practices, make the most of the technological possibilities and turn our attention for a moment from the dread of things to come to the hope of a better future.

Sarah Judd-Lam is a woman of faith who loves writing about social issues and is passionate about understanding why we do things the way we do and how we can do them better. All views expressed here are her own.

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