In March 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, church doors were closed—most voluntarily in response to the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) recommendation—for the sake of public health and the unknown. Unfortunately, in retrospect, we are learning that closing churches for extended periods hurt public health in some ways, even as it protected it in others. Studies by the CDC now show that depression and suicide rose dramatically for teens and young adults, an age demographic considered to be at lower risk from COVID-19.
As the pandemic progressed, churches that had closed their doors voluntarily remained closed by state and local government mandates, with the aim of slowing the spread of COVID-19 and hopefully saving lives. Although most pastors willingly cooperated at first, it was not long until they began to see the negative repercussions of a prolonged closure, and many decided to reopen in spite of government mandates.
As the media pushed their round-the-clock coverage of COVID-19 deaths, they failed to address another health crisis facing the United States: death by suicide. Due to isolation, loss of jobs, fear, and other factors, depression, anxiety, and suicide rates skyrocketed in 2020, especially in teens and young adults. CDC Director Robert Redfield discussed in a Buck Institute webinar that suicides and drug overdoses have surpassed the death rate for COVID-19 among high school students. However, it was not just high school students that were being affected. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that:
substance use and suicidal ideation are particularly pronounced for young adults, with 25% reporting they started or increased substance use during the pandemic (compared to 13% of all adults), and 26% reporting serious thoughts of suicide (compared to 11% of all adults).
In May of 2019, 11 percent of adults 18 and over suffered from symptoms of anxiety disorder and/or depressive disorder, according to the CDC. In May of 2020, this number tripled as the CDC reported 34.52 percent of adults 18 and over suffered from symptoms of anxiety disorder and/or depressive disorder. Thus, the COVID-19 pandemic created a secondary crisis that the church could do little to help resolve while being shut down.
In a world full of hopelessness, the Bible offers genuine hope. Churches across America provide this hope by preaching the Word of God while also providing peace, community, encouragement, and so much more. Yet, their doors were closed during the pandemic, hampering their ability to fellowship and to serve. Theologically speaking, this is why Hebrews 10:25 commands us to gather for corporate worship: “And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.” As the pandemic and the mandatory closures stretched on, there was a need for churches to be open, and many pastors saw this and began to take a stand.
Pastor Jack Hibbs of Calvary Chapel Chino Hills addressed the increasing mental health issues as the church doors remained closed. On May 5, 2020, in a message directed towards all pastors in California, Hibbs observed that although churches can reach an immense amount of people online, “our local community has been spiritually starving.” He also underscored how the church needs to be a community again and be together now more than ever to provide prayer and hope for all those struggling. Opening his church in May of 2020 was difficult for Hibbs, as he defied California Governor Gavin Newsom’s restrictions, which were unjustly singling out churches and burdening them more extensively than their secular counterparts.
However, the response to the reopening of Calvary Chapel Chino Hills was overwhelming. His congregation grew quickly by the thousands, drawing people desperate for hope and Christ during the nationwide shutdown. While reaching people online was possible and important, our souls yearn for an in-person community. It is now clear that forcing churches to close for so long has had unintended consequences.
Thankfully, in February 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the complaints of California churches like Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena that claimed they were being unjustly discriminated against, lifting the state government’s ban on indoor worship.
While the world focused on the physical health crisis created by COVID-19, many overlooked the mental and spiritual health crisis it also created. In God’s gracious provision to His followers, He gave us the church. If the pandemic has taught us anything, surely it is that gathering for corporate worship and fellowship with other believers is essential—and a privilege we should never take for granted.
Damon Sidur is a Communications intern at Family Research Council.
Sophia Lorey is a Brand Advancement intern at Family Research Council.class="paragraph">Damon Sidur is a Communications intern at Family Research Council.
Sophia Lorey is a Brand Advancement intern at Family Research Council.