Updated: Apr 28
Everything was fairly normal a few weeks ago. We knew that there was a new virus, but there have been new viruses in the past. We continued going to work, the store, and church. There was no reason to change vacation plans. There was no need to postpone weddings. Then, suddenly, everything was not normal. Everyone’s daily and weekly routines were completely transformed almost overnight. Going to work could no longer be taken for granted either because of stay-at-home orders or unanticipated layoffs. Weddings have been postponed indefinitely, and vacation travel is strongly discouraged or illegal at the moment. Nothing is “normal” anymore. Could it be that we are going through a type of culture shock?
Paul Hiebert defines culture shock as “the disorientation we experience when all the cultural maps and guidelines we learned as children no longer work.” (66) In other words, nothing seems to work like we expect it to work. Nothing makes sense to us.
Professors teach about culture shock in missions classes. When a missionary experiences culture shock, it is because they leave one cultural context and enter a different one. They are immediately confronted with different sights, smells, and sounds. They automatically start trying to place things in familiar categories in their minds. Problems arise when they encounter something that doesn’t fit into an already-existing category. They either have to create a new category or modify an old category. This experience can be exciting at first but quickly becomes tedious, burdensome, or even frustrating.
Over the last few weeks, the COVID-19 crisis has shifted our societal norms so fast that we struggle to keep up. Most people feel confused, emotional, anxious, and exhausted. They are simply trying to make sense of all of this. Perhaps our entire society is collectively going through culture shock at the same time.
The Phases of Culture Shock in Our Current Crisis
Culture shock traditionally includes four phases. The first phase is the “honeymoon” phase. During this phase, everything seems new and wonderful. Some people are excited about the opportunity to work from home. Some enjoyed the slower pace of life that had been imposed on them. Others rejoiced about the return of family dinners without the distraction of school and community activities. Of course, this phase does not last forever. There is a moment when the cultural differences become very real.
“The COVID-19 crisis has shifted our societal norms so fast that we struggle to keep up. Perhaps our entire society is collectively going through culture shock at the same time.”
The second phase is variously called “Anxiety,” “Frustration,” or “Disenchantment.” In the current crisis, this happens when we realize that the COVID-19 crisis is going to drag on for a lot longer than any of us suspected or hoped. We become aware that we must adjust to living within new cultural norms. Especially challenging for us is that externally, this culture appears very similar to our old one, but we are acutely aware that the external similarities simply mask the radical transformation that has happened. Our lives have changed, but we haven’t gone anywhere. In response, we feel frustration, anger, sadness, anxiety, uncertainty, and a variety of other emotions. These are normal emotions, but remaining in this phase is not healthy for us.
The third phase is “Adjustment.” In this phase, a person begins to adapt to the new culture. It may seem unthinkable right now, but we are going to discover new rhythms of life. We will find new routines that work for us. Some of us may discover that our new routines work better than the old routines. Some of us may still miss the old routine, but we begin to get comfortable with the adjustments.
The fourth stage is “Acceptance.” Hiebert explains, “The final stage of culture shock comes when we feel comfortable in the new culture.” (76) No one is going to jump straight to this stage, but hopefully, most people will arrive at this stage and even thrive in this crisis. Making adjustments and reaching a point of accepting our current circumstances can help us to be flexible enough to do whatever is necessary to both thrive in the current situation and end the crisis as quickly as possible.
Responding to Culture Shock
There are some tangible ways to push through culture shock. First, remain active. Do not sit in front of the television all day or spend hours consuming social media. Read books, exercise, or write something—even if it’s just for yourself. Make a few phone calls a day, especially to older folks who are at home by themselves. Start an art project and finish it. Find an activity that you truly enjoy and spend some time each day doing that. Pick up the guitar you haven’t played in years or learn a new skill from YouTube videos.
“While we can never go back to the way things were before the crisis, we can learn and grow in our current circumstances, keeping our eyes on Christ, as he transforms us into his light for an anxious and sad world.”
Now is also a good time to develop healthy spiritual habits. These spiritual disciplines are especially important after the honeymoon phase. Hiebert suggests, “How we relate to the people and culture at [the adjustment] stage is particularly crucial, for the patterns of adjustment we form here tend to stay with us.” (76) Begin praying for people who you know are far from God. Develop a pattern of home Bible study and worship with your family. Memorize favorite passages of Scripture. Commit to telling a neighbor about Jesus. Whatever you do, the habits you develop now will likely stick with you when this crisis is over.
Finally, extend grace to yourself and others. Recognize that people will spend varying amounts of time in each stage of culture shock. They will respond to culture shock in different ways. Offer them love. Don’t despair your current situation. Give yourself and others a break.
Can We Ever Go Back?
We might be tempted to anticipate the day when things can go back to the way things were before the COVID-19 crisis. While this crisis will end, everything will not magically go back to the way it was before. COVID-19 will have lasting impacts on our societies and us as individuals. While we can never go back to the way things were before the crisis, we can learn and grow in our current circumstances, keeping our eyes on Christ, as he transforms us into his light for an anxious and sad world.
Matthew Hirt has a Ph.D. in International Missions from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has served in both pastoral ministry and international missions. He is currently preparing to serve in a theological education capacity in Sub-Saharan Africa where he will train aspiring pastors and missionaries to be obedient to Christ in fulfilling the Great Commission. He is a contributing author and co-editor on the forthcoming book Generational Disciple Making: How Ordinary Followers of Jesus Are Transformed into Extraordinary Fishers of Men. Follow him on Twitter.