Shepherding to Herd Immunity

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We got to know Curtis Chang through his compelling videos at Christians and the Vaccine, which have recently caught the attention of Christianity Today and the New York Times. Curtis is passionate “to help Christians recognize the surprising authority and relevance of Jesus for parts of life that are often left to the secular world.” He’s on the faculty of Duke Divinity and Fuller Seminary with ministry experience as an InterVarsity campus minister, senior pastor of an Evangelical Covenant Church, and now, founder of an award-winning consulting firm to nonprofits, Consulting Within Reach. He’s also one cool guy. —Greg

In your experience as an evangelical pastor, and particularly your work with Christians and COVID-19 vaccinations, what’s the importance of trust?

Trust is crucial, and to address that topic let me start by speaking a little biographically. I became a Christian in a conservative—you might even say fundamentalist—Christian church in in the Midwest, and so I imbibed the cultural tendencies of conservative evangelical culture. And I want to be precise… one of those is to be on your guard against the dominant secular institutions.

When I got into Harvard, I attended with the full blessing and support of my church. As an undergraduate there, I experienced first-hand why Christians need to be somewhat on guard with all the prevailing dogma that gets pushed out by secular institutions. But that didn’t stop me from engaging healthily and critically—and even using that tendency to be on guard—to ask critical questions and even perhaps make helpful counterarguments.

Right now, that very cultural tendency to be on guard has gotten transmuted in the last five years into something totally different. It has gotten exploited by external forces to the church to become mutated into distrust of any secular influence.

And here’s the problem. If you’ve been conditioned to distrust anything, you will believe anything, even the craziest theory that might come along, right? Because there are no guardrails, down the road, you distrust everything and all institutions. You are vulnerable to believing anything, and that is what I see right now in the evangelical community. That vulnerability is getting exploited especially by the anti-vaxxer movement, which very deliberately, in a highly organized way, is targeting conservative evangelicals to buy into the anti-vaccine conspiracy and fear.

This is why I think the moment is now for Christian leaders, Christian scientists, Christian pastors, to step up and say, “No, we’ve got to stop this.” We’ve got to protect our flock from what Jesus says in John 10 about the thieves and wolves who would come “to steal and kill and destroy.” We need to recapture the hearts and minds of our people for the truth, for Scripture.

We’re facing the limits of American individualism and the dangerous side of over emphasizing the individual.

Right now, with each additional person that gets vaccinated in the church, our vulnerability goes down. It’s like Philippians 1:27, where Paul encourages the church to stand unified in that image of the Roman phalanx. It’s that same idea. My shield is not only going to cover me. I’m depending on the person next to me to take on the shield of the vaccine. That will protect that person, but also my exposure such that, if the majority of a church gets vaccinated, the risk to any one member of getting infected and becoming sick goes down dramatically, almost to minuscule numbers.

  • Here you can view all of the Christians and the Vaccine videos we discuss.
  • The New York Times interviewed Curtis and Science for the Church advisor Elaine Howard Ecklund.
  • Here are two links to the research behind the 95/55% discrepancy between shepherds and their flocks with additional insights from Christianity Today on Black Protestants and the vaccine.
  • Evangelical leaders Russell Moore and Walter Kim address how to counter conspiracy theories and welcome the vaccine.
  • Check this out, if you want to go further in understanding herd immunity.

How do pastors lead when there’s a diversity of opinion?

To answer this, let me take a slight digression here because this is important for the point. There’s a survey done in January: 95% of evangelical pastors say they will take the vaccine when offered to them. That’s in contrast to only 55% of the congregational members. There’s this massive gap between the pastoral leadership and the congregation, who have been exposed to external forces of distrust that are trying to exploit the distrust that I’m talking about.

Pastors are outgunned. As a pastor, I have my people for maybe an hour and a half on Sunday morning. TV news has them for twenty-four hours, and social media has them at their fingertips in a way that I don’t have. So, pastors understandably are really nervous about coming out when they know their members are hearing and being influenced by all these external forces.

This is why we created the Christians and the Vaccine website. We very deliberately pursued the strategy of creating short, shareable videos. That’s for the pastor’s toolkit. A pastor could say, “I think this is a really great video. I may not agree with everything in it, but I still think it’s really helpful.” And that starts the conversation.

It’s the problem of misinformation plus distrust. The answer is correct information delivered via a trusted relationship. So, we want to provide the videos as trusted information. We’re inviting pastors and other leaders in the community to be the trusted relationship that’s passing this along, especially through social media, where a lot of this battle is being waged.

One last takeaway?

I want to speak to the pastors and the scientists—this is the moment for us, for you, to step up.

We have been in an era where it’s been so discouraging in terms of how polarized and divided we are—either within our congregations, or in our extended family and friend networks. The temptation to pull into our own shells is so strong. And I understand that. But I want to say this is the moment for us to say, “No more. No more.”

That doesn’t mean be combative. It doesn’t mean just to argue. But it does mean expressing interest, asking questions, seeking to understand and empathize with our people, and then looking for ways to engage.

For pastors, this really is the moment for us to protect our flock from the thieves and wolves that would steal the very health of our congregation and our individual members. It’s our moment to take on the role as shepherds of our flocks.


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