We recently reached out to three church leaders in China, asking them to reflect on their experiences of “doing church” in the midst of a health crisis and quarantine, and to offer words of encouragement and advice to churches worldwide that find themselves in the same situation.
Their responses are below, and have been edited for clarity.
Even though the quarantine was a necessary step, the entire population of the country has now been quarantined for too long to stay mentally, psychologically, and physically fit. And, even though we are hoping for relief with the arrival of warm weather, the light at the end of the tunnel seems far away.
As far as I can recall, this is the second time that church facilities have had to close due to natural causes. At first we thought this would end after a month or so; we did not expect the crisis to last this long. We promised to meet people online in different forms, such as streaming simplified Sunday services, small groups, and fellowships. Thanks to the Lord for his creation of the internet that allows people to continue to engage with and encourage one another. It’s also been vital for lay leaders in using various forms of online media to take responsibility for caring for brothers and sisters.
It is important for the church to keep the congregation informed and involved in helping and supporting their communities. One of the by-products of this experience has been that people are tithing more!
In our case, the senior pastor preaches online every Sunday and does training for the fellowship and small group leaders to equip them to reach out on behalf of the church.
Although the pandemic has slowed down, it has encouraged many Christians to ponder the question of why we have to face this challenge. Perhaps the Lord is determined to transform our way of life so that we will turn away from evil and back to him.
First of all, we as humans have fear. I would say everybody does. For this crisis particularly, there is no difference between “frontline” and “behind the lines.” So churches need to deal seriously with the fear. Without proper guidance, people will be guided by the abundant and mixed information on the internet.
After this initial time of chaos, we will eventually realize that the direct threat of this virus, although real, is not high. The church needs to respond to the calling from the Lord in the midst of the threat as the witness of Christ. We need to reach out to serve the often-neglected people in the community. One thing we have learned during our lockdown in China is that we need to serve people right next to us, not those who are “far away.” Our “neighbors” are not only the families living next door to us, but also people linked to us—the delivery people, police officers, security guards, etc.
Another area for us to practice is learning how to work together with other churches. We may have friends or find people in need through the internet who are impossible for us to pay in-person visits. We can probably invite a church closer to them to reach out.
Finally, staying at home with family members, particularly for such a long period of time, is something we need to learn today. Handling conflicts does not come naturally. We need to learn how to cope with confinement.
Most churches are doing their services online. From a how-to perspective, we need to realize the limits and advantages of using this online approach.
In my opinion, online is not the best platform for evangelism. It is, however, great for training and mentoring, particularly for people with whom there is already a relationship. There will also be different opinions and even theologies about this new practice, but now is not the time to fight.
It does open a new way to minister the congregation from a new perspective. What or who is the church? The online service is not. But the Sunday Service is not, either. Hopefully this crisis will force us to jump out of the “box” in both thinking and practice. In the past, we might have thought “church” is when we are gathered, singing songs together, and praying together. But today, maybe we think “church” is like salt being spread into the soup.
The crisis has also helped us identify potential leaders and cultivate discipleship ministry. Actually, an online approach is more exhausting than in-person ministry. Pastors, please take good care of yourselves, both physically and spiritually. But in the midst of all the tiredness, the Lord will remember and use the work that you are doing with the congregation in the midst of this crisis. It is the early rain in the drought.
Churches in China are very engaged in prayer these days (online method). Please pray for the churches to be more sensitive to the calling from the Lord. Meanwhile, as the crisis may last longer than we expect (perhaps more than 12 months), the economy will suffer and many people may lose their jobs. Please pray for leaders to be prepared for this change. For one particular program, we are in a critical stage to equip more leaders for churches to reach out to neighbors and communities. Many programs have been postponed. Please pray that the Lord will give clear guidance, and give the leaders courage to take necessary steps. We don’t know how the tightening control will go after this crisis. Please pray for mercy on behalf of Chinese Christians.
We’ve been stumbling our way through this crisis, so I’m not sure we have any great “advice,” but at the minimum we have a couple of months more experience.
All sorts of emotions are brewing below the surface, and it’s so important to help people recognize and deal with these. Some feel spiritual guilt because they are not “trusting God’ enough. Some feel anger that others are not taking it seriously; others are mad that nobody else seems to believe that God is their defender, instead of hand-washing, etc. Most of these emotions are not expressed, some not even recognized within. As a result, emotional care is so important.
It’s natural for people to become self-absorbed. This opportunity demands an others-centeredness. It’s important to provide some way for people to get out of their own heads and think about others. We have done a mask-distribution project to the street-sleepers in our city. We accept donations at the church, repackage them, and distribute them daily at 4pm at various trash depots in the city. This is not just for appearance, as the need is real, but the residual impact has been that it has helped our people remain somewhat aware/burdened for those with greater risks/needs than themselves. The gravitational pull is toward selfishness so it’s important to find ways to offset that in your context.
One of the greatest lifelines for me has been our citywide pastor’s network. We officially meet for prayer monthly, and this has continued online during the past two months. However, what has been especially helpful is our organic, sharing of notes, ideas, policies, etc. When subjective wisdom was needed, these people were so valuable. I appreciated so much the lack of territorialism or competition—the virus has only increased our “same team” mindset.
As for ministering to the congregation, we’ve had to move everything online. From the Sunday worship to small groups and children’s clubs, we’ve changed everything. We’ve mailed crafts to kids, who have loved getting mail from the church. We’ve made individual video greetings to every child in our ministry, done by their teachers.
We’ve organized a “touch-base initiative”, where the pastoral team touches base via social media with five people a day. It has been remarkable how it has opened up opportunities for conversation and prayer, and even led to giving to the church, since all of that has been done online as well.
Pray for our new normal. We hope that the re-set of life which we hope is within the month, will not simply be a resuming of all things as before, but rather a filtered, informed, re-boot that leaves some of the dross of life behind. We need not pick up the same old ways, but rather engage in a new rhythm that is healthier, more purposeful, less materialistic, less frantic, less presumptive.
Pray for gospel advancement. The goal is not survival, but that the crisis would allow the gospel to be implanted in a broader number of people. We’ve read Don’t Waste Your Cancer by John Piper and have adapted the ideas to “Don’t Waste the Virus.” It’s shaken every, single person to some degree, which opens up ways to reach their unstable hearts. We don’t want to be or appear tone-deaf, but we also want to be appropriately opportunistic in discussing the condition of the soul. We need discernment, empathy, focus, energy, creativity.
May we all look for ways to be salt in the soup.
Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio
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