In a phone call with a faith leader this morning, we discussed the “Jobian” feel of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reflecting together on the life of Job, we wondered about suffering and how this might be the first moment in modern history where suffering is the simultaneously shared experience of the entire world. We discussed the casualties of both the practice of rhythm and the myth of certainty that many have taken for granted. We analyzed the landscape of pastoral leadership and the likelihood that the coming era will require pastors to help their people navigate perpetual uncertainty. We concluded with a conversation about his young dominant-culture congregation and how many of them, now unemployed, returning to their parents’ homes, and agitated, are suffering for the first time in their lives.
He pastors a millennial church. The average age is thirty-six and he reasons that the majority are between the ages of 25 and 35 years old. This is the contemporary demographic of “emerging adults” that sociologist Christian Smith analyzed nine years ago (2011) for his book, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. Observing that there existed a gap between adolescence and adulthood, Smith and his researches launched a project to understand the gap, analyze how it emerged, and explore how we tend to those who are navigating this season.
Throughout their study which included 230 interviews with young adults (18-23 years old), they uncovered five common characteristics:
- Morally Adrift: The existence of a shared moral code is restricting. Each individual should be free to determine if a decision is moral or not and should not be held responsible for the consequences of their decisions.
- Captive to Consumerism: The world and its resources are designed to be consumed without regard for the implications of unchecked consumerism.
- Intoxication’s “Fake Feeling of Happiness:” Routine intoxication and drug abuse are a normative and defining practice.
- Shadow Side of Sexual Liberation: Casual sex without concern for physical, mental, and moral health is prevalent.
- Civil and Political Disengagement: There exists a general ambivalence and disregard for civic and political life.
Smith, et al discover that these characteristics were cultivated by six macro, sociological contributions that include factors such as extended education, global economic instability, accessibility to birth control, and the onset of poststructuralism and postmodernism. The author concluded that emerging adults seem to have a stunted morality in that they are incapable of thoughtful discourse regarding neither the shaping nor defense of their moral positions. In conversation with Smith, David Brooks of the New York Times suggested that “many of these shortcomings will sort themselves out as these youngsters get married, have kids, enter a profession or fit into more clearly defined social roles.” Put another way, “Don’t worry! Life will mature emerging adults.”
Yet, based on my conversation with my pastor friend this morning, I wonder if that’s true. As we discussed the challenges of pastoring both “emerging adults” (18-23 years old) and young adults (23-40) in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, three of Smith’s characteristics came to life.
- Morally Adrift: “Many didn’t see the need to quarantine. They reasoned that it was just old and sick people who are dying and that they were somehow immune to COVID-19.” This comment exposes the fierce individualism of many within his congregation. Among other things, it reveals a lack of awareness as much as it does a lack of compassion and personal responsibility for the well-being of others. From his point of view, they seemed incapable of seeing self-quarantine as a morally good decision that could benefit many. Not to mention, 40% of Coronavirus confirmed cases are in the 20-54 years-old category.
- Captive to Consumerism: “One congregant said, ‘Call me a hoarder, but I’m going to stock my house like the world is coming to an end. And when I run out…thank God for Amazon Prime!’” While also revealing individualism, this sentiment reveals privilege and a lack of concern for others who may need access to the resources that are being hoarded. Further, it exposes a disconnect between consumer and supply chain as well as a misunderstanding of the economic (& consumer) implications of the pandemic. The comment seems to suggest that unchecked consumerism is his/her right and that it will continue throughout and beyond the pandemic.
- Intoxications “Fake Feeling of Happiness:” “#PandemicHappyHour is probably the trending hashtag within my church.” While the responsible consumption of caffeine and alcohol may be helpful for navigating the uncertainty of the pandemic, that an experience designed around drinking (relational as it is) would be the leading trend within the congregation says something that is worth understanding about the priorities of the congregation.
While our conversation was about so much more than these three comments, they navigated us away from the “how” of the contemporary church. Ultimately, we found ourselves remembering together why the church is so important, especially in times of catastrophe. Just before we concluded, my pastor friend offered this: “I think we’re learning that we’re excellent at providing a worship experience…in person and, now, online. Yet, I fear we have failed in the work of true transformation. The pandemic is teaching us about who we really are.”
Transformation is what Kenda Creasy Dean is alluding to in her book, Almost Christian. Throughout its pages, she asks faith leaders, especially of the emerging generations, to consider our purpose. Is it cultivating “almost Christians” who are nice, morally intellectual, and socially satisfied or people of “consequential faith?”
An indicator for pastors within the pandemic of whether we’ve cultivated the former or the latter is the extent to which we are observing self-preservation or self-sacrifice in the lives of our congregants. In this moment of global suffering, are we watching the “missional imagination” of our congregations come to life? While they are tending to the challenges of work, and family, are our people getting creative in love in wise and sacrificial ways? Or are they too busy stocking up, organizing #PandemicHappyHours, and consuming the virtual spiritual goodies that are being delivered to them?
While painful for some and inspiring for others, an analysis of our congregations is essential at this time. A post-COVID world in need of a post-COVID church will emerge. While the common experience of suffering will change us all, it will transform those of us who see the pandemic as the necessary crucible for us to become faith leaders for the future.
 Christian Smith, et al, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. Oxford University Press. 2011, 69.
 David Brooks, “If It Feels Right….” The New York Times. September 12, 2011. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/13/opinion/if-it-feels-right.html?%20%20_r=3&hp. Accessed April 1, 2020.
 Pam Belluck, “Younger Adults Make Up Big Portion Coronavirus Hospitalizations in U.S.” The New York Times. March 18, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/18/health/coronavirus-young-people.html. Accessed April 1, 2020.
 Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers Is Telling The American Church. Oxford University Press. 2010. 90.