In recent weeks, more Americans have come to acknowledge that the COVID-19 crisis isn’t going away anytime soon. While social distancing regulations are slowly lifting across the nation, the impact of the pandemic can still be felt in many areas of daily life and on a nearly daily basis. Church leaders across the country continue to not only wrestle with when or how to hold in person worship services, but also with how to best care for their people’s well-being.
In light of this, ChurchPulse Weekly hosts Carey Nieuwhof and David Kinnaman invited Andy Crouch to join them for the most recent ChurchPulse Weekly episode. Crouch, author of The Tech-Wise Family, speaker and partner for theology and culture at Praxis Labs, shared his thoughts on the pandemic, and what pastors and their people can be doing to care for their heart, soul, mind and strength right now.
The Difference in How the Church Handles Suffering and Affliction
Over the last six months, Barna has been checking in on America’s pastors on at least a biweekly basis via a nationally representative pastor survey. The trends that have emerged, regarding pastor’s and their people’s emotional and spiritual well-being have been sobering, but also highlight opportunities for positive change. Why is church leaders’ optimism diminishing the further the crisis sticks around? Crouch shares his thoughts on what might be attributing to some of these downward trends.
“I think the Church is pretty good at [handling] acute situations, even highly acute. [For example,] if someone’s kid gets cancer, the church community will mobilize. [If] a hurricane comes through, whole cities will rearrange themselves to serve their neighbors. But [the Church] is not good at chronic,” says Crouch.
“My friend Tish Warren talks about the difference between suffering and affliction,” Crouch continues. “[The Church] knows how to comfort people in their suffering, but affliction is suffering that is not going to be resolved anytime soon and we are not very good [at handling] affliction.”
So where should pastors turn to learn how to better deal with and support their people through affliction? Crouch recommends reading the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
“[Read about] the exilic prophets,” notes Crouch, “specifically the prophets who are there at the moment that Israel is coming to terms with the fact that Babylon is not going away. Anyone who’s young, promising, has any capability has been carted off to be reeducated. It’s attempted cultural genocide. But here are Jeremiah and Ezekiel giving this unbelievably rich, no holds barred, prophetic critique of Israel, but also [offering] incredible hope. I think re-reading those prophets show that there’s something faithful for us to do. That’s the deepest well we’ve got to go to right now.”
The Pandemic Isn’t a Blizzard; It’s an Ice Age
On March 20, 2020, just a week after the U.S. national government issued social distancing guidelines and many states implemented safe at home orders, Crouch co-authored an article on Praxis sharing why the crisis wasn’t a blizzard—something to simply “get through.” The article details how the effects of the pandemic will be felt for years to come and would drastically shape history and culture, categorizing it more as a mini ice age. Read the full Praxis article here.
Crouch shares the biggest need he believes leaders need to be trying to solve as they continue caring for their people even once the most immediate threat—rapid spread of the disease—has been mitigated.
“Winter is sort of a moment of seasonal variation that comes around every year. But an ice age is a change in the whole climate that alters life for a long time,” notes Crouch. “So even long after the epidemic is dealt with by herd immunity or vaccine or treatment, the economic ramifications of this are going to [continue]. And yeah, I think five years from now, will we say ‘Whew, it’s all done?’ Well, some things will be done. But in other ways it will not be the same world.”
“Here’s the number one thing I’m paying attention to. I don’t have a solution for it but I think solving this might be the greatest act of leadership in our time,” Crouch explains. “I think what we’re seeing is incredibly rapidly shrinking circles of trust. Whom do you trust in your life? Whom do you trust to care for you? Whom do you trust enough to have conflict with them?”
“Human societies run on trust. Institutions run on trust. Churches run on trust,” concludes Crouch, “Right now, we are basically spending the trust we accumulated before the circumstances changed. How do we actually build trust in this new environment? How do I add to my circle and add to my store of trust in this time when all the ways I would have done that are not available? Whoever figures out how to solve that question, how you actually build interconnecting networks of trust in this environment, will have solved the big leadership challenge of our time.”
What to Do About Digital Fatigue—Especially When Church Is Online
Recent data from a pastor survey (July 30-31, 2020) show that while 86 percent are worried about the increase of tech use among young people, the same percentage have no to teach on wise tech use in the near future. The tech problem is not only tied to teens and kids, though. During a recent webcast on Caring for Souls in a New Reality, new Barna research showed that U.S. adults have admitted to increasing their time online or on social media since the pandemic began earlier this year.
Crouch, author of The Tech-Wise Family, shares on the importance of encouraging social interaction—even through Zoom—and how people’s spirits are raised and trust is built when they feel like they are being cared for.
“There’s better Zoom and worse Zoom,” begins Crouch. “We, as human beings, are interpersonal beings. To be a person is to be intersubjective. I find out how I am through you. We need other people to tell us who we are. And [you tell other people who they are] by the way you attend to them, through your gaze, through the way you listen, in the tone and words you use to respond.”
“The problem is that the more human beings I have to attend to simultaneously, the less effective my attention is,” notes Crouch. “When we’re present in the flesh the way we were created to be, the maximum number you can fully attend to in the way we need as human subjects is about 12. [Online, that number] shrinks down to about maybe four or five.”
Crouch concludes, “There are ways to actually do large group engagement that people report are quite satisfying [through Zoom or other digital platforms]. The problem is we’re probably not experimenting enough or not willing to realize how limited this medium is and [take the time] to figure out the handful of things we can use it for well.”
About the Research
COVID-19 Data: Barna Group conducted these online surveys among Protestant Senior Pastors from March 20–August 31, 2020. Participants are all members of Barna Group’s Church Panel. Minimal weighting has been used to ensure the sample is representative based on denomination, region and church size.
Data Collection Dates
Week 1, n=222, March 20-23, 2020
Week 2, n=212, March 24-30, 2020
Week 3, n=195, March 31-April 6, 2020
Week 4, n=246, April 7-13, 2020
Week 5, n=204, April 14-20, 2020
Week 6, n=164, April 21-27, 2020
Week 7, n=167, April 28-May 4, 2020
Week 8, n=165, May 5-11, 2020
Week 9, n=184, May 12-18, 2020
Weeks 10 and 11, n=191, May 19-June 1, 2020
Week 12, n=203, June 26-29, 2020
Week 13, n=256, July 9-14, 2020
Week 14, n=285, July 24-26, 2020
Week 15, n=336, August 13-17, 2020
Week 16, n=315, August 27-31, 2020
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2020