USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Pandemic Year 3 Predictions: Adjusting to New “Normals” in 2022

Pandemic Year 3 Predictions: Adjusting to New “Normals” in 2022

Pandemic Year 3 Predictions: Adjusting to New “Normals” in 2022

Since 2016, CRCC has shared the trends in religion and society that we see shaping the coming year. What started as light-hearted predictions has grown more ominous over the years.

Anybody surprised by the QAnon Shaman in 2021 has not been reading along, as the past year’s events follow our predictions of people turning to cults (2017) and the supernatural (2018).

Hearing a lot about “healing” lately? We have been watching this trend grow for more than five years. In 2018, we said activists would rebrand as healers. Then, we wrote that “2019 is the year of the entrepreneur as healer.” We continue to see people hawk products to “cure” whatever ails you and practices to help your business grow. An automated zen garden may be an innocuous enough sign of capitalistic co-optation of wellness, but this year, we predict that the very institutions causing harm will adopt the language of healing.

Finally, in early 2020, we predicted the decade would bring global disaster, and were shocked that it would come true within months. Calamity has not helped us overcome our divisions, which is where we start this year.

Midterm elections set up the country to fall into authoritarianism

Last year we predicted the GOP would be looking for a circus master to replace Trump and unite establishment Republicans with its restive right. By the end of 2022, we are seeing Democrats as the embattled and fractured party. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) continues to foil Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. Reforms to promote racial justice in the criminal-legal system have yet to be enacted. The “religious left” may be able to put on a good show with a march on Washington organized by The Poor People’s Campaign, but it will do little to inspire people to vote. Without Trump to oppose, the left simply lacks steam.

As the midterm election season ramps up, the religious right will set the agenda around culture war issues. The fate of Roe v. Wade could motivate voter turnout on either side, but generally, abortion unites the right and puts the left on the defensive. The focus on reproductive rights will effectively keep the “religious left” sidelined, faith institutions fractured, and political actors hoping to protect democracy hamstrung.

Meanwhile, what we missed last year is that the GOP no longer needs a circus master. It has pushed aside establishment voices in favor of those spouting the “Big Lie” that Trump actually won in 2020. White Christian nationalists have gotten a taste of power and want to keep it. Republicans have “reformed” election laws and gerrymandered districts such that the GOP will be able to suppress and disenfranchise voters who disagree with them. And voters may not be able to turn to the court system for protection, as it remains filled with Trump appointees.

At publishing time, the big question is: Can Democrats unite to enact voting rights legislation?

If not, the right will handily win the midterm elections and consolidate its power for years to come. As former President Jimmy Carter warns, American democracy “has become dangerously fragile.”

The Metaverse is dystopia come to life

While the right grabs power, the rest of us are busy playing on billionaires’ playgrounds. (TIME Magazine said the same in naming Elon Musk person of the year.)

While Musk and Jeff Bezos look to manifest their destinies on Mars, Mark Zuckerberg seeks to colonize our consciousness, planting a flag and naming the new virtual world “Metaverse.” He has tried to paint a pretty picture of the virtual reality that we will soon inhabit, yet Zuckerberg is so disconnected from reality that he does not realize he is creating dystopian worlds in which the worst of humanity will flourish.

How will religions respond?

As Paul Brandeis Raushenbush writes, people will be able to not just go to a religious service in the Metaverse, but meet Jesus, Moses or the Buddha. Christians will jump into this new mission field with zeal, arguing that they must go where the people are. Perhaps we’ll see a papal encyclical on accompaniment in the Metaverse.

Certainly, there also will be a backlash from those who see spirituality as grounded in (physical) community, nature and embodied practices. But what do embodied practices look like when we can circle the Kaaba, do yoga in Yosemite or pray at the Western Wall without leaving our living room?

At first, content–including religious experiences–will be increasingly curated by our corporate overlords and whomever they turn to for advice. Ultimately, technology will allow each individual to build their reality as they like it. Our virtual meditation or Bible study groups may just be AI-designed avatars rather than actual people. In other words, people will follow in the meta-footsteps of a Jesus of their own making.

As Émile Durkheim argued, religion without the social cohesion of its rites is just magic. And while it may be fun, magic will not help us solve conflicts, combat climate change or care for orphans and widows. That’s the work of religion.

“Healing justice” comes to a police department near you

In 2020, all types of organizations–from churches to corporations–rushed to say, “Black Lives Matter.” The past year saw the launch of diversity, equity and inclusion projects. As racial justice initiatives fade from the mainstream popular consciousness and struggle to gain funding, a new buzzword will fill the air: healing justice.

Healing justice is a spiritually informed framework developed by Black radical feminist organizers to sustain and empower communities impacted by state violence. Similar to the ways in which the concept of “self-care” has been commodified to serve hyper-individualism, this powerful concept will be increasingly co-opted and divorced from its connection to social justice.

Has your local megachurch issued a statement on healing and justice? Have you attended a corporate meeting that begins with a “grounding” exercise or Indigenous land acknowledgement? Has your local law enforcement agency attempted to organize a “healing justice commission” with community and clergy?

We expect to see a lot more mainstream gestures (often hollow) toward “healing justice” in 2022. These sanitized versions will seek to capitalize on the term’s resonance with their audiences.

Healing justice networks across the United States will continue to grow and contribute to the flourishing of communities directly impacted by state violence in the movement for Black lives. Organizations like Dignity and Power Now, The Nap Ministry, Harriet’s Apothecary and Generative Somatics have been on the forefront of creating this trend. Instead of receiving credit and support for their work, though, they will experience increased competition and co-optation from many of the very institutions that their work has critiqued.

Pandemic brings an end to the professional pastoral class

Congregations experienced years like none other in 2020 and 2021. Now, faith leaders will realize that congregational life will never be the same again–and have to adjust accordingly.

The worship space as the primary gathering place for congregants–and the collection plate as the primary source of financial support–have all but gone away due to COVID protocols. The new normal constitutes a huge shift to hybrid virtual/in-person worship and online giving. Churches that were already struggling to maintain high mortgages are being sold (including a megachurch associated with a big-name preacher), and both denominations (and non-denominational churches) are unloading unused and under-used properties.

These radical changes have done more than complicate place and plate; they also affect the placement of the spiritual leader. Like faith leaders in other parts of the world, American pastors and spiritual leaders will have to diversify their sources of income. Many who were already bi-vocational now must become tri- or quad-vocational. We have spoken with several pastors who are taking on day jobs or returning to the academic space to teach.

Clergy will need to leverage their influence through entrepreneurial ventures, social media content creation, coaching services, curriculum development and professional consulting. We are without a doubt in the emerging era of TBN 2.0. Now, the 24/7 Christian TV Channel is spread across countless social media networks—and soon across the Metaverse (see above). Sustaining a digital ministry will take a different set of skills—some will succeed, but not at the same levels as they did passing a physical plate among worshippers every week.

Additionally, pastors are being called to “service” work. Community engagement offers clergy the opportunity to do relevant work as congregants deal with COVID, unemployment, underemployment, instability in local and national politics, housing insecurity, food insecurity, homelessness, and health and economic disparities. For instance, the size of Pastor Jamal H. Bryant’s New Birth church in Georgia prohibits it from opening fully, but he is still providing relevant ministry through weekly food banks, COVID testing, vaccinations and a myriad of give-aways to serve families in the community. Bryant also stays on the front line at rallies and protests on social justice issues impacting the community.

Spiritual influence is still there, but it is no longer limited to the pulpit.

The reality is that faith leaders who have chosen to remain faithful to their call have to find ways to support themselves, while still helping people find solace and healing as we continue to struggle with a global pandemic, racial injustice, inequality, climate change and more.

Workers seek meaning and purpose by quitting their jobs

In recent years, companies have tried to replace the sense of meaning, community and identity that their employees previously got from religion with corporate wellness programs and other self-care perks. Why go home when you can meditate, eat dinner or bond with your work wife?

Human resource departments have tried to maintain these trends in the age of COVID, but those perks and office friendships just do not translate via Zoom.

In the past year, people from the top to the bottom of organizations have resigned from their jobs in droves. They no longer have an emotional attachment to their workplace, and they are done with unfair labor practices and toxic leadership. Labor is striking, workers are posting their resignations on Quit-Tok, and wages are rising. More than a few more dollars an hour, essential workers are demanding dignity and respect.

This Great Resignation may be a sign of the “collective emotional crisis” that we predicted in 2020 would “compel over-wired young people to seek new sources of purpose, meaning and stable identity.”

Is this an opportunity for faith organizations to meet a need? Perhaps, though the pandemic has also made those a stressful workplace (see previous trend). A set of predictions about churches expects departures of pastors to increase by 20 percent, and attendance to be 80 percent of pre-COVID rates.

More likely, people will double down on finding meaning closer to home (following in Thoreau’s footsteps). Relationships with family or a small group of friends—perhaps a micro-church for people of faith—will be more important than what one does for a living, as we continue to adapt to a new normal of life with COVID and its variants.


Photo by Bradley Hook from Pexels