Around this time each year, the “Word of the Year” is selected by various dictionaries. There is seldom a uniform selection, but there was this year. Both Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com both picked the same word:
Joining in the game of an annual selection are the lexicographers at Oxford Languages, the maker of the Oxford English Dictionary. In 2019 they chose “climate emergency,” and in 2018 “toxic.” This year, for the first time ever, they couldn’t pick just one. It was just that kind of year. So they decided to highlight dozens of terms along with “pandemic,” including “Black Lives Matter,” “Blursday,” “coronavirus,” “lockdown,” “social distancing” and “systemic racism.”
It was a wise choice. Culturally, 2020 was such a bizarre, unprecedented, multi-faceted conflation of events.
Consider the annual results just released from Bible Gateway, the world’s most visited Christian website. There wasn’t just one dominant set of searches, but four: social, pandemic, political and end times. All were searched at least 10 times more in 2020 than previous years.
Under the social theme, Bible search terms included such topics as racism, justice, equality and oppression. Under pandemic, dominant keyword/phrase searches included disease, pestilence and plague. Searches related to 2020 as an election year included praying for government and obeying government authority. Finally, in relation to the end times, people wanted to know how the present fits with Bible prophecy and Jesus’ second coming. So, they searched for the signs of the end times and end of the world.
I felt the whiplash nature of ever–changing “words of the year” acutely. As one who is charged to speak each week into the lives of people, I’ve never called more “audibles” in my ministerial life. Series long in planning had to be scrapped, and Tuesday-written talks (my discipline pattern) seldom made it intact to the weekend due to the seemingly never-ending bombshells in the news cycle.
A member of our staff, aware of the Bible Gateway search results release, emailed and said, “Those 4 themes from Bible Gateway are pretty much identical to the series or messages you gave during the March-Oct run.” I thought the same thing and whispered a prayer of gratitude.
If I had failed to speak to (at least) the four main themes people were desperately online searching for, trying to find “what the Bible says,” I would have been culturally tone-deaf at best or committing spiritual malpractice at worst.
And that is one of my fears for the greater church for 2020 – that people turned to the church in a time of cultural and personal crisis but didn’t hear the crisis truly engaged.
It brings to mind Jean Bethke Elshtain’s experience on the first Sunday following the attacks of 9/11. She went t a Methodist church in Nashville. The minister, who she describes as having a kind of frozen smile on his face, said, “I know it has been a terrible week.” Then, after a pause he continued, “But that’s no reason for us to give up our personal dreams.”
She thought: “Good grief! Shouldn’t you say something about what happened and how Christians are to think about it?” Her point was that a robust and deeply theological discourse on “evil” was precisely what the world needed to hear at that moment and would have been uniquely served in hearing. Following 9/11, millions flooded to churches across the nation to hear a word from God, or at least about God, to make sense of the tragedy. Sadly, many were left as empty and lost as before they entered, which is one reason why the millions who came left just as quickly.
In 2020, people flocked to online services, needing to hear the words “racism,” “pandemic,” “politics” and “end times.” And not just the words, but the Bible’s words on them. Sadly, my fear is that many didn’t.
So while there isn’t one word for 2020, my prayer is that we who spoke and taught the Word,
... applied it at the point of greatest need.
James Emery White
Reese Oxner, “Oxford’s Defining Words Of 2020: ‘Blursday,’ ‘Systemic Racism’ and Yes, ‘Pandemic,’” NPR, November 23, 2020, read online.
Leanne Italie, “Merriam-Webster’s Top Word of 2020 Not a Shocker: Pandemic,” Associated Press, November 30, 2020, read online.
Jonathan Petersen, “The 4 Main Themes People Engaged With the Bible in 2020 on Bible Gateway,” Bible Gateway, December 1, 2020, read online.
Jean Bethke Elshtain in the afterword to Evangelicals in the Public Square, edited by J. Budziszewski.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.