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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

What COVID-19 May Be Telling Us About Us

Written by: on April 1, 2020

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Captive to Consumerism: The world and its resources are designed to be consumed without regard for the implications of unchecked consumerism.
  3. Intoxication’s “Fake Feeling of Happiness:” Routine intoxication and drug abuse are a normative and defining practice.
  4. Shadow Side of Sexual Liberation: Casual sex without concern for physical, mental, and moral health is prevalent.
  5. 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[1] 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.”[2] 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.

  1. 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.[3]
  2. 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.
  3. 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”[4] 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.

~~

[1] Christian Smith, et al, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. Oxford University Press. 2011, 69.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers Is Telling The American Church. Oxford University Press. 2010. 90.

About the Author

mm

Jer Swigart

11 responses to “What COVID-19 May Be Telling Us About Us”

  1. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    Jer,
    As I read your words, I wonder if the congregations simply reflect the leadership of the church? So many leaders disciple in ways that basically stroke their ego and feed their need for position and power. Keeping congregants spiritually immature maintains a sense of dependency upon the leaders fo the church. The lack of true discipleship is evidenced by the examples you’ve given above. I’ve been watching pastors online the past two weeks. They are scrambling to fill the virtual spaces with content for their people; devotionals, bible study groups, zoom hangouts. Its almost like they don’t think their communities would be ok without them? Like the faith of the community is so fragile that it won’t survive separation from them for even a couple months? It’s sad, and I don’t think it’s what Jesus had in mind for his Church. I mentioned in my sermon on Sunday, the way we handle crisis is determined long before the crisis hits. Its clear in many ways the church is ill prepared for this global crisis. What would these first few weeks of this pandemic look like for the church that was well prepared for crisis on a global scale? What about the weeks that follow? And after, how do you see these events shaping the church, specifically the younger generations?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Darcy.

      I agree that churches reflect their leadership. I would also add, as you do, that the leaders have been groomed in a specific way to lead exactly as they are in this moment.

      The churches that I’m observing were well prepared for this pandemic were already small, interconnected, savvy, and local. They already knew their neighbors and were proximate to the most vulnerable communities before teh pandemic hit. Their missional imaginations had been honed through practice and pastoral leadership. And, their existence was not based on the economics of tithes, budgets, and mortgages. That is, the impulse of the leadership is to accompany and care rather than to mass-produce electronic consumables for their congregation.

      I do wonder if in the near future we won’t have churchless pastors because many churches won’t have survived this. If that is the case, we may have a huge community of pastors no longer tethered to the institution, paycheck-less, and still being called upon to pastor their people. They will be both terrified and liberated. Perhaps with the death of the trimmings as they’ve known them, the resurrection will look like post-Pandemic churches with a set of values built around self-sacrifice.

  2. mm Greg Reich says:

    Jer,
    Great insights gained from your conversation with your friend. You stated “Don’t worry! Life will mature emerging adults.” There is a level of truth to the idea that time heals all wounds but does it really? Speaking from experience emotional wounds run deep. Just when you think they are dealt with and put them aside something happens and another aspect of the wound pops out.

    My wife and I grow a garden every year. We at one time tried to grow cabbage. We were so pleased. The cabbage heads looked awesome until we cut them open a found that slugs had laid eggs as the cabbage grew. As the cabbage grew and the layers of leaves developed so did the baby slugs, damaging the head from the inside.

    Hurting people hurt people. Healing takes time! An ounce of prevention when young can save a lot of healing when your old. This is why one of my focuses in my Life Management class in Canada is understanding the cost of our choices and decision making skills and how to use failure to propel you forward. We do mature as we grow older but maturity doesn’t guarantee wholeness. What can the church do to assist emerging adults in seeing the ramifications of their daily choices? When bad choices are made an damage is done how can the church assist in the healing process?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Greg,

      Largely speaking, I don’t see the demographic of “emerging adults” that Smith speaks of in the church. Of course, there is a smattering of them within the pews of American Christendom, but by-and-large, they aren’t there. So what can the church do to accompany this life stage through poor decisions? Right now, I suspect that the church has forfeited her ability to do so.

      Also, keeping in mind what Dean suggests. Namely that it is the church that has contributed to the cultivation of the morals/ethics of “emerging adulthood” that Smith identifies.

      Perpahs the best work that churches can do now is to equip parents of the next generation to take seriously the responsibility for the discipleship of their children.

  3. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Compelling soundbytes for each of Smith’s areas of focus. I like your metaphor of the crucible. I think this will be a watershed moment for organizations. Either they will pivot and remain (or become) relevant, or sink their heels in and lose relevance. In addition to immersive presence that you mentioned on our call, what other postures do you see as essential in a COVID/Post-COVID world?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Shawn,

      I project that it will be far more permanent than irrelevance. I think we’ll watch many churches fail to survive this pandemic.

      I’ve wondered much about the organization of the post-COVID world with colleagues throughout the country over these past weeks. We imagine that the org of the future will be future-proof in its economics, led by a truly diverse team, prioritize systems change through intersectional deliverables, and embody their commitment to solidarity over charity.

      What are you seeing/hearing?

      • mm Shawn Cramer says:

        “Future proof” seems ideal, but more economically resilient for sure. I’m steeped in Design Thinking literature as you know, so I’m biased to highlighting deep incarnational solidarity with those in need and rapid prototyping or experimentation as two key postures. In short, I’m saying “adaptive,” but when we are in tune and in sync with what people are needing and willing to try to co-create those solutions, it’s nearly impossible to be irrelevant. The problem is when organizations marry a solution and force it to fit in changing times. This is a real temptation. Imagine Amazon going out of business. Sears, the Amazon of its day, is all but irrelevant at the moment because they couldn’t pivot.

  4. mm Dylan Branson says:

    Jer, as I’ve watched the pandemic unfold in the US from afar, I’ve wondered how local congregations will be affected in the aftermath. I saw quite a few posts from pastors within my denomination saying they would do their best to keep the church doors open and it wasn’t until Trump formally banned large public gatherings that they canceled their services. We’ve talked a lot about the consumeristic nature of the church and I’m wondering if pastors are realizing that the current way of “doing church” is crippling their congregations from actually allowing the Gospel to transform their lives. My friends in Hong Kong and I have posed the question of ourselves that if the churches were to shut their doors, what would happen to the congregation? Would they know how to move forward? Or would they stall out and wither? I ask the same of the church in the US (and the global church): With doors closing, what does it look like to move forward? What does it look like to no longer consume what’s fed to us, but rather to take an active role in our faith? What does it mean to find meaningful community in a time when relationships are on the black market due to social distancing?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Good reflections, Dylan.

      I project that the great surprise is that people will recognize their own agency to pursue spiritual formation in community and on mission. Rather than suggesting the irrelevance of pastors, perhaps this will rightsize the job of our pastors to genuinely caring for the flock rather than acting as its CEO.

      I interpret this moment as an incredible one for the future of American churches. I project that many institutions will die and with their deaths, the new life that’s been waiting to emerge will finally bloom.

      How about you? Do you see this as a positive or negative for the church in Hong Kong? How about the church of your upbringing?

  5. mm John McLarty says:

    Really appreciate the in-depth analysis here. I see lots of folks navigating through this with a nod toward the communal experience it is, but with behaviors that seem to be driven mostly by self-centered, individualistic concerns. Churches and pastors, mine and myself included, are all scrambling to make sure people are feeling ok, but I’m not sure we’ve really accomplished much more than reinforcing that our ultimate aim is to remind people of the existence of God, help them make good choices, and make sure they feel good about themselves. I’m fascinated at what will emerge out of this, besides the massive gravitational pull from some to just make everything go back to exactly the way it was.

  6. mm Jer Swigart says:

    Thanks for your honest analysis, John. I truly empathize with you and am so grateful for the pastors who, like you, are doing the best that you can to provide a sense of normalcy in the midst of the chaos. Reminders of hte power and presence of God in the midst of the pandemic are crucial.

    I’d love to hear you reflect on what your stated accomplishments thus far communicate to you about your church.

    You offered, “I’m not sure we’ve really accomplished much more than reinforcing that our ultimate aim is to remind people of the existence of God, help them make good choices, and make sure they feel good about themselves.”

    In relation to Dean’s text and her critique of the US American church’s schlepping of Moral Therapeutic Deism, do you see that in your analysis?

    Further, I’m curious about how you imagine the future. My personal hunch is that the future will require leaders who know how to navigate perpetual uncertainty as I don’t think anything will be like it once was. What does your church look like on the other side of this? What will you value then that you don’t know? What will be required of you as its pastor then that hasn’t been throughout your tenure thus far?

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