The Six Other Pandemics We Need to Talk About

For about two years now, “pandemic” has become one of the most common terms in our vocabulary. It’s true that most of the time we think of a pandemic in relation to a disease like COVID-19. But a pandemic doesn’t only apply to sickness. As a missiologist, I’m convinced there are six other pandemics we have faced over the past couple of years, all of which have impacted the North American church. 

1. A Pandemic of Mental Illness

During the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen an increase in mental health issues, and we will continue to see the impact for decades. Pastors are also experiencing a higher level of mental health issues. The rise in mental health needs has far outstripped the ability for mental health-care workers to keep up. In many regions of our country, counselors are so overwhelmed that they can’t take new patients.

According to Mayo Clinic, “Surveys show a major increase in the number of U.S. adults who report symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia during the pandemic, compared with surveys before the pandemic. Some people have increased their use of alcohol or drugs, thinking that can help them cope with their fears about the pandemic.”

 Kaiser Family Foundation reports that anxiety and depression have increased fourfold during the pandemic: “During the pandemic, about 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, a share that has been largely consistent, up from 1 in 10 adults who reported these symptoms from January to June 2019.”

This reality calls for attention from the church. Pastors can address this from the pulpit, we can increase our focus on pastoral care, and we can make any local mental health facilities available to our congregations. 

2. A Pandemic of Distrust

We are seeing the highest level of distrust toward institutions, the media and other entities in at least a generation. Most of us are experiencing the highest level of mistrust in our lifetime. This has huge ramifications for how we relate to others, especially those with differing ideologies.

This pandemic of distrust has been greatly exacerbated by the way many leaders have handled and talked about the pandemic. Additionally, having two vastly different presidential responses to COVID-19 adds to our confusion.

“We need to resolve afresh to love people and to show kindness in the face of our disoriented world.”

We’ve all seen the images of politicians who have been advocates for official mandates not follow the mandates. We’ve also heard how several leaders pretended the virus wasn’t a real threat, compared it to the flu or gave it a racially charged name. Many have struggled to understand the science or data behind a lot of the mandates and restrictions as well. We also see media play political sides and not report the news.

Such behavior, miscommunication and mixed messaging breeds a culture of distrust. People simply don’t know what or whom to believe. 

3. A Pandemic of Division

This is one of the most divided times ever in the church. About 96% of churches ceased public gatherings when President Trump declared a national shutdown. But when you came back, how you came back mattered. If you required masks, many considered you a compromised coward. If you didn’t, others said you lacked compassion for people at risk.

The issue of race emerged as another cause for division. Did your church mention George Floyd last summer? If so, many were grateful and yet many others were unhappy. If you mentioned Floyd but didn’t also mention the summer riots, people got upset. If the riots were discussed but George Floyd was not, others got upset.

Pastors tell us they have never experienced this level of conflict in the life of the church. I often train pastors, particularly those who are working to bring revitalization to churches in decline. I used to say that if 5% of your church wasn’t mad at you at any time, you probably aren’t doing anything significant as a leader, but if 75% percent are upset, you need to slow down. Today it’s pretty normal to have 25 to 30% of your people upset with you simply because of the division we are seeing today. That takes a toll.

I have heard from pastors from churches of every stripe that they have no idea how many will eventually return to church because they’ve never seen so many people so upset for so long.

4. A Pandemic of Defamation

We’ve never seen social media become so vicious so quickly. I’m not sure there are that many more angry people today, but social media has made it easier for them to find one another. People––including far too many professing believers––click “send” too quickly and with too much outrage.

The combination of never-ending 24-hour cable news, the constant newsfeed on our phones and the ubiquity of social media has afforded people the opportunity to trash one another at an unprecedented level. 

If you make a misstep, you can suddenly find yourself in the middle of a social media firestorm. People have far less restraint toward damaging the reputation of others. And pastors tell me it’s becoming more common for church members to say hurtful things at a level not seen pre-pandemic.

I wonder when we will reach a saturation point. And I wonder if we will soon take seriously the eighth commandment about bearing false witness toward others. 

5. A Pandemic of Disorientation

Many things have changed quickly in our culture—some good, some bad. But the rapidity with which these changes have come has left little time for people to thoughtfully reflect on and engage these changes. The result has been widespread disorientation, not only in individual identity, but also in national identity. Disorientation can prompt fear and anxiety.

The change in views of marriage has been astounding. If you track the time from the Stonewall riots in 1969 to the Obergefell decision in 2015, where same-sex marriage was legalized, you see it took over 45 years for change to occur. Today, surveys show most Americans support Obergefell.

“Our culture is resetting, and we must be prepared to respond to the new normal with the gospel in ways that are effective and life-giving.”

But the shift in views of gender identity has accelerated exponentially with changing attitudes coming in a matter of months. Questions like the following have changed for many today: Who am I? What is marriage? What is sex? What is a family?

On the other hand, many of the events that brought racial injustice to the forefront have rightly prompted corrective action, including removing statues of Confederate leaders and adjusting educational material to cover the history of racial injustice. As a result, many people are worried we are “erasing the past” that they knew and “rewriting history” in order to include the stories of the oppressed. We are becoming a nation that some no longer recognize, and it has disoriented many.

6. A Pandemic of Disruption

COVID-19 created the greatest global crisis since World War II. Along with it came great disruptions in the way we go to school, work, travel and relate to others.

The way we relate and engage with one another changed; some people may never again see as many people each day as they did before the pandemic. For many, their work shifted from a work office to a home office. In-person meetings became virtual meetings. Some businesses and vocations flourished while many others suffered.

Events we anticipated attending or leading were canceled. Travel, especially international travel for short-term mission trips, has become uncertain.

These disruptions brought about a new normal we will have to learn to navigate. 

Becoming the Cure

The culture is fragmenting and fraying. We need to resolve afresh to love people and to show kindness in the face of our disoriented world. These issues won’t suddenly end when the COVID-19 pandemic ends. Cultural convulsions like the ones we are going through have patterns and tend to last four to six years. Our culture is resetting, and we must be prepared to respond to the new normal with the gospel in ways that are effective and life-giving.

In 1 Chronicles 12:32, we read how the men of Issachar “had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do.” How we need such men and women today. In a similarly confused time in the first century, Paul’s exhortation to the Roman church in Romans 13:11–14 applies as well to us: 

“[Y]ou know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. … The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.  Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

In all the division, distrust and disorientation we face today, let us be aware of our times but keep our focus on our sure salvation; let us cast off the darkness of culture-copying and display the light of the gospel; and let us put aside sinful habits and put on Jesus, showing and sharing Christ to everyone around us.

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