When Toilet Paper Becomes More Relevant Than Churches

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Arriving at Costco at 2:55 a.m. on March 18, Ben and Mariam Cole joined 20 others in line to be among the first to enter the store when the doors opened at 8:00. By the time they got in, the store was already out of the baby wipes they needed for their two-year-old son.[1] This is because reports of an emerging pandemic and a potential quarantine drove hoards of Americans to panic buy supplies. To maintain order, stores across the country began limiting the number of shoppers allowed inside at any one time and the quantities they could buy of high-demand items, such as wet wipes, rubbing alcohol, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper.

In scenes reminiscent of Black Friday, shoppers were willing to wait in line for hours in the hope of securing toilet paper! Ironically, nothing about the coronavirus pandemic requires an increased use of toilet paper. Nevertheless, “Toilet paper has become a metaphor for safety, if not the symbol of this coronavirus crisis,” according to a psychology expert.[2]

Weeks later, toilet paper shortages continue to plague the nation. Despite manufacturers breaking production records and some distribution centers increasing their shipments by 120%,[3] manufacturers are rationing deliveries to meet the illogical demand.[4] Not surprisingly, this phenomenon has inspired myriads of memes and parodies.[5] Bakeries are selling toilet paper cookies[6] and cakes,[7] police are handing out toilet paper rolls instead of tickets,[8] and new e-tools help calculate how long people’s toilet paper stock will last.[9]

On YouTube a viral video clip shows a man ordering takeout coffee. Instead of a wallet, he pulls out a roll of toilet paper and tears off several sheets for payment.[10] On Twitter people share jokes, such as Janis Neufeld’s tweet, “Some people aren’t shaking hands because of Coronavirus. I’m not shaking hands because everyone is out of toilet paper. #COVID2019 [sic] #toiletpapercrisis.”[11] And “baby’s first pandemic” photos are trending on Instagram with infants surrounded by rolls of toilet paper.[12]

Incredibly, there have even been a rash of toilet paper thefts, prompting some cities to threaten arrests and misdemeanor charges for those caught.[13] Besides obvious targets such as hotels[14] and public restrooms in parks[15] and rest stops,[16] some are breaking into cars just to nab unattended rolls of toilet paper.[17] In North Carolina a tractor trailer loaded with 18,000 pounds of toilet paper was stolen.[18] And police in Oregon have urged people to resist the temptation to call 911 when they run out of toilet paper.[19][20]

Incredible as it may sound, access to toilet paper has become one of the most relevant issues for Americans in 2020. Faced with an unprecedented threat, Americans opted to turn to toilet paper—something previously taken for granted—for a sense of safety and security. How is it that when confronted with the prospect of death, society’s first reaction was to line up in the parking lot of Costco instead of their local church?

It has long been believed that Americans may take church for granted when times are good, but times of crisis will draw them back to God. After all, American churches were filled in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks,[21] but it seems that in the decades following these attacks, many Americans have given up even on the idea that church has any meaningful merit in times of true crisis. Instead, there has been an outcry across the nation pleading for governments to classify churches as non-essential services and to compel them to close their doors to keep the public safe.[22]

Churches are branded as being “in the business” of helping people cope with death, meeting physical needs, and providing hope. Why then does society consider them to be non-essential in a time of national distress and plague? Why are people lining up for toilet paper but lines to get answers and direction from the local church are sparse?

It is time for the church to reconsider its ministry model. Any church that has not experienced a flood of new faces or a barrage of e-mails and phone calls seeking help, assurance, and spiritual guidance should re-evaluate its metrics for determining success. When God’s people lose to toilet paper for relevancy in a time of national crisis, something is dreadfully wrong! Let’s begin having this conversation.

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Timothy Zebell

As a former missionary to Asia for twelve years and the author of several books, Timothy is passionate about helping people understand the relevancy of God's Word in today's world. His goals are to help Christians discern truth from error, empower Christians to speak into cultural matters with relevancy, and to help Christians capitalize on the opportunities that these matters provide for sharing the truth about God and His gospel message.
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1. Ormseth, Matthew. “The Line at This Costco Begins at 2:55 a.m. As Coronavirus Spooks Shoppers.” California. Los Angeles Times, March 18, 2020, 3:51 p.m. https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-03-18/coronavirus-pandemic-shopping-lines-costco-anxiety.

2. Dege, Stefan. “Toilet Paper as a Symbol of the Coronavirus Crisis.” Lifestyle. Deutsche Welle, March 20, 2020. https://www.today.com/parents/baby-s-first-pandemic-photos-are-trending-amid-coronavirus-t176149.

3. Woolfolk, John. “Coronavirus: Why Is There Still No Toilet Paper in Stores?” Mercury News, March 26, 2020, 3:03 p.m. Last updated March 27, 2020, 1:45 p.m. https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/03/26/coronavirus-why-is-there-still-no-toilet-paper-in-stores/.

4. Gardizy, Anissa. “We’re Still Hoarding Toilet Paper Because of Coronavirus, and for No Good Reason.” Nation. Boston Globe, March 30, 2020, 2:49 p.m. https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/03/30/nation/were-still-hoarding-toilet-paper-because-coronavirus-no-good-reason/.

5. Tenbarge, “The Toilet Paper Shortage Has Become a Meme During the Coronavirus Quarantine, with Posts about Stockpiling or Substituting It Going Viral.”

6. Porotsky, Gena (@GenaPorotsky). “Lol the bakery I work at made toilet paper cookies.” Twitter post, March 20, 8:40 a.m. https://twitter.com/GenaPorotsky/status/1240981582929944578.

7. Brooksbank, Tommy. “A Philadelphia Bakery Is Selling Toilet Paper Cakes.” Food. Good Morning America, March 19, 2020. https://www.goodmorningamerica.com/food/story/philadelphia-bakery-selling-toilet-paper-cakes-69683243.

8. McCarthy, Kelly. “This Is How Americans Are Responding to Coronavirus-Induced Toilet Paper Shortages.” ABC News, March 20, 2020, 3:27 p.m. https://abcnews.go.com/US/americans-responding-coronavirus-induced-toilet-paper-shortages/story?id=69684127.

9. How Much Toilet Paper? https://howmuchtoiletpaper.com. Accessed April 2, 2020.

10. “Paying with Toilet Paper for Coffee Coronavirus Pandemic.” YouTube video, 0:29. Posted by “Coronavirus: News & Live Updates,” March 15, 2020. https://youtu.be/zrKn-YgKYdE.

11. Neufeld, Janis. “Some people aren’t shaking hands because of Coronavirus. I’m not shaking hands because everyone is out of toilet paper. #COVID2019 #toiletpapercrisis.” Twitter, March 26, 2020, 4:40 p.m. https://twitter.com/jsneufeld/status/1243276615238455310.

12. Peters, Terri. “‘Baby’s First Pandemic’: Cute Photo Trend Brings Smiles in Coronavirus Crisis.” Today, March 17, 2020, 11:45 a.m., EDT. https://www.today.com/parents/baby-s-first-pandemic-photos-are-trending-amid-coronavirus-t176149.

13. Wegman, Catie. “Toilet Paper Thieves Steal Rolls from Public Parks, Business Restrooms on Treasure Coast.” News. TC Palm, March 25, 2020, 1250 p.m., ET. Last updated March 25, 2020, 12:55 p.m. https://www.tcpalm.com/story/news/local/2020/03/25/coronavirus-people-stealing-toilet-paper-public-bathrooms/2901567001/.

14. GStalter, Morgan. “Florida Man Arrested after Allegedly Stealing 66 Rolls of Toilet Paper from Hotel.” News. Hill, March 21, 2020, 8:38 a.m., EDT. https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/488778-florida-man-arrested-after-allegedly-stealing-66-rolls-of.

15. Wegman, Catie. “Toilet Paper Thieves Steal Rolls from Public Parks, Business Restrooms on Treasure Coast.”

16. Rall, Brittany. “Toilet Paper Being Stolen from Rest Stops in Nebraska, Officials Forced to Restrict Access.” Coronavirus. News. Fox News 8, March 18, 2020, 7:39 p.m., EDT. Last updated March 18, 2020, 10:52 p.m., EDT. https://fox8.com/news/coronavirus/toilet-paper-being-stolen-from-rest-stops-in-nebraska-officials-forced-to-restrict-access/.

17. Murdock, Jason. “Thief Breaks into SUV, Steals Two Cases of 30-Roll Toilet Paper.” News. Newsweek, March 18, 2020, 8:05 a.m., EDT. https://www.newsweek.com/oregon-eugene-police-department-toilet-paper-suv-theft-coronavirus-covid19-1492921.

18. Aaro, David. “Police in North Carolina Find Stolen Trailer Full of Toilet Paper.” Coronavirus. US. Fox News, March 20, 2020. https://www.foxnews.com/us/police-north-carolina-find-stolen-trailer-full-toilet-paper.

19. Klar, Rebecca. “Oregon Police Department Urges People to Stop Calling 911 for Toilet Paper.” News. Hill, March 17, 2020, 10:03 a.m., EDT. https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/487968-oregon-police-department-urges-people-to-stop-calling-for-911.

20. Curl, Joseph. “Police Beg People to Stop Calling 911 When out of Toilet Paper, Offer Creative Solutions.” Daily Wire, March 17, 2020. https://www.dailywire.com/news/police-department-tells-people-to-stop-calling-911-when-out-of-toilet-paper-says-mayans-used-corn-cobs.

21. Ferreri, Eric. “After 9/11, a Short-Lived Rush to Church.” Duke Today, August 19, 2016. https://today.duke.edu/2016/08/after-911-short-lived-rush-church.

22. Inazu, John. “Close the Churches.” Atlantic, March 18, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/close-churches/608236/.


Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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