I think we all sense that we’re not ever returning to the normal of, say, November 2019. We’ll remember these days as a defining turning point when beloved friends and relatives suffered and others recovered, when business dreams died and others were born, when families grew distant and others grew tighter than ever before.
At this early point in the quarantine, we’d be foolish to make any cocksure predictions about the aftermath of COVID-19. We don’t even know if the quarantine will lift in June 2020 or June 2021 or anytime in between, and how many thousands will die. So how can we know what God’s doing?
But a friend recently asked me how I expect life and ministry to change in the aftermath of COVID-19. And I’m sure many of you wonder the same thing. I claim no prophetic gifting. I just read and speak with experts much smarter than I am. Based on those interactions I generated five tentative predictions, phrased in seemingly contradictory pairs.
Beware anyone who offers simple answers about the way things will be. Most likely we’ll see arrows pointed in multiple directions, and it’ll be up to future generations to explain us long after we’re gone. Some things will improve. Other things will disappear. Nothing will quite be the same, as we gain new appreciation and new fears. For now, though, I expect we’ll change in these five ways.
1. We’ll lose trust even as we gain solidarity.
Never before has a single issue so quickly leveled the differences between nations, states, and classes. No one is immune—literally. The most famous actors and the most powerful politicians can come down with COVID-19, just like you and I can.
I saw the exact moment when Americans freaked out together about COVID-19. It was the evening of March 11. My wife and I were hosting leaders of small groups in our church. That morning I encouraged my wife to buy food and other supplies, because the coronavirus was about to hit. After the meeting I headed to my home office to catch any news I missed. In just 90 minutes, the NBA had suspended its season, President Trump had delivered a televised national address, and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced that they had contracted COVID-19. Immediately readership at TGC.org doubled. Suddenly millions sensed simultaneously the gravity of the situation. We had to take matters into our own hands. For some reason toilet paper quickly became scarce.
New, more trustworthy authorities will emerge, but not until the rich and famous ration their toilet paper.
That’s what happens when governments, media, and public health agencies around the world have lied or at least botched their initial response. They saw the briefings and still didn’t prepare us. We couldn’t trust them. And since we couldn’t trust our leaders, we sought to look out for ourselves. Nearly three weeks later, in the richest nation in human history, we still can’t get reliable, timely testing. No one can be safe from urban New York City to rural South Dakota. We’re all in this together—separately—because we endanger each other through mere presence, even if we don’t feel sick.
Going forward the richest and the poorest alike will look with jaundiced eyes at authorities—at least those responsible for the initial response. New, more trustworthy authorities will emerge, but not until the rich and famous ration their toilet paper.
2. We’ll depend on the virtual as we love the local.
Many of the rich have grown richer during the spread of COVID-19. The vaunted supply chain of Amazon.com has become a lifeline. Millions have learned to Zoom. Facebook Live rose from the dead. Google delivers our news and YouTube our entertainment.
Smaller local churches may feel like safer alternatives than megachurches that attract many visitors and commuters.
Meanwhile this economic depression will finish off many struggling Main Street retailers, and with them remaining lifelines of tax and advertising revenues for local governments and media. Small businesses with insufficient scale and margins, especially restaurants, will disappear. And yet these small businesses capture our primary affections. We can live without Red Robin; we’ll rally to save our local bakery.
The situation for churches will run somewhat parallel. Bigger churches will hurt, especially with restrictions on large gatherings for the foreseeable future. When will visitors feel safe bringing their children into these unfamiliar environments? But big churches can scale down their programming and staffing as long as necessary. Small churches won’t be so lucky. Many will close due to the broken rhythms of church life, especially since they couldn’t keep up with virtual options during the quarantine. Plus these smaller churches depend disproportionately on the vulnerable elderly, and their working-class members will be the hardest-hit by economic headwinds. A burst of enthusiasm for embodied community and worship would help when we finally gather again. But the survival of many churches will depend on the duration of our shutdown. If the quarantine ends this summer, smaller local churches may feel like safer alternatives than megachurches that attract many visitors and commuters.
3. We’ll gain global perspective with national protections.
From India to Indiana, COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate. We don’t care if the vaccine comes from South Africa or South America. We’re joined in this fight together. If Chinese leaders had operated with global perspective from the beginning, they could have prevented a world of suffering.
Now we’re in an unimaginable scenario where the borders between New England states are closed. The same can be said for the member states of the European Union. We’re unsettled by the sight of tanks in Los Angeles and armored jeeps in Chicago, even if they’re not (yet) enforcing quarantine. From now on the border gates will be able to close, from both directions, on a moment’s notice. Perhaps never again in our lifetime will we enjoy such ease of travel, inside and especially outside national borders.
We’ll grow more sympathetic and aware of global trends and neighbors, even as we worry more about protecting our local ones.
Several years ago in Alabama we suffered from deadly tornados and a crippling, rare snowstorm. Many children and youth had to sleep at school. Commuters were trapped in cars on impassible roads. Now, in response, even a severe weather watch causes cancelations. And I don’t think we’ll go back to normal soon. The trauma is still fresh, though the children have grown up. Likewise, when do you think churches will again feel comfortable sending youth on mission trips to places where COVID-19 could flare, and they could be trapped with few hospitals and uncertain food sources?
We remember how 9/11 changed airport security. Our new normal will include masks and temperature checks, as we see now in Asian megacities. Everyone’s in the same kind of boat, on their own side of the water. We’ll grow more sympathetic and aware of global trends and neighbors, even as we worry more about protecting our local ones.
4. We’ll see spiritual hunger with naturalistic hopes.
Every crisis produces heroes. We can already see them in the medical researchers and caregivers. COVID-19 has reminded us there’s no vulnerability like health. And the collective response will invest our faith in planning, preparation, supply, and treatment, so this can never happen again (it will).
Yet we will never lose this sense of exposure. We’ll never quite shake the trauma of uncertainty or settle into safety. Not even a vaccine will make that feeling come back completely. So we’re left with many spiritual and practical questions: What happens when I die? Why am I so anxious and afraid? Who will take care of me?
Far more spiritual fruit will be born in communities that directly address serious questions of life and death.
Normally in crisis we gather together for assurance in ritual meetings, especially religious ones, which confer shared meaning and purpose. But the coronavirus has pushed religion even further to the margins of the private family at home. Mecca is deserted. The pope stands alone at St. Peter’s. So where will masses seek comfort? Will they return to Rome when the pope has told them, to Protestants’ delight, that it’s ok to confess to God directly?
When COVID-19 has been defeated, will we credit God? Will we rejoice instead in our medical saviors? Or will we return to temporal distractions upon their eventual, exuberant return? I’d love to predict an end to the charlatans whose guarantees of healing and riches are no match for the pandemic. But like the lottery these scams seem impervious to facts as they tap into our predilection for quick fixes. Some churches that aim primarily for spiritual and emotional uplift may rise the tide of immediate post-quarantine excitement. Far more spiritual fruit will be born, however, in communities that directly address serious questions of life and death.
5. We’ll draw closer to families with fewer members.
Some debate erupted earlier this year about whether we’ve overvalued the nuclear family. That argument seems quaint now. The nuclear family is an essential defense and refuge. These are the only people you trust to infect you. COVID-19 may drive many singles toward the protection and camaraderie of marriage. And it may change many life patterns as young adults, forced by closed schools and lost jobs to live at home, fear to venture far away again.
At the same time the toll exacted by the coronavirus on parents will be steep. As parents are infected, without help from neighbors and extended family, who watches the children? Parents are homeschooling while they’re also supposed to be working. And homebound children have lost their outlets for friendship and organized activity. No wonder it’s been said that if the quarantine produces a baby boom it will consist only of firstborn children. Love will deepen in the long run where absence would sooner make the heart grow fonder.
Love will deepen in the long run where absence would sooner make the heart grow fonder.
Economic depression hits young adults worst of all. They can’t find jobs to build their careers. During the last recession the fertility rate fell and never recovered. Children consume scarce emotional and economic resources. An uncertain future makes parents wary of bringing more children into the world. Even as family takes on greater importance, the trend toward smaller families will accelerate. The cultural narrative, however, will hail the family as the place of first affection and last defense.
Whether any or all of these predictions come true, we know God has his own agenda, which we can only know in part. Whatever he’s doing, it’s “to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). If God can work good from the cross of Jesus, he can work good from COVID-19. Only God can make known to us the path of life. Only in his presence do we find fullness of joy. At his right hand are pleasures forevermore (Ps. 16:11). Nothing, not even COVID-19, can rob us of that promise through union with Christ.
Whatever our God ordains is right. Someday, thanks to Jesus, we’ll even understand how.