In May, ChinaSource hosted a discussion with a number of people involved in various ministry and church-related work in China. The participants were a mix of mainland Chinese and others from outside China. The topic of the discussion was the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on churches in China.
We wanted to try to get a handle on how churches and individual Christians were weathering the crisis and the accompanying “lockdown” of society. What follows is a summary of some of the key points of the discussion.
The crisis has forced deeper study and reflection on ecclesiology. When meeting together is not possible, what is the essence of the church? An urgent and specific question has arisen regarding communion. While many church functions can be done virtually, the administration of the Lord’s Supper is not one of them, and there are differing opinions on this point.
The movement of religious life online has presented new opportunities. Pastors from around the country are able to connect online to encourage and pray for one another. This was something that rarely happened before the pandemic. The move to online platforms has also increased opportunities for churches to develop and strengthen training and discipleship programs. Security concerns notwithstanding, Zoom currently seems to be the preferred platform.
There are emerging challenges and concerns as well. One concern is the possible dilution of fellowships. Some report that while the number of those engaging in online activities may be up, the level of commitment seems to be dropping. Another is the strain that all this is putting on the pastors. Who is pastoring the pastors in this difficult time, and what resources do they have access to? Ministering to the elderly has been a challenge as well, especially since they are often the ones with the most needs but are the least technologically savvy.
The ripple effects of the lockdown are beginning to work their way through society. A psychological crisis is emerging as people have had to endure extended times of isolation in family environments that are not always loving or safe. Education for children has been disrupted; in a society where education is highly valued, the effects of this disruption are likely to last a long time. Many have lost their jobs, and younger people are wondering if they will ever be able to find work. These are forcing people to confront fundamental issues about life and death. Will the church be able to address these issues?
Many international students were not able to leave China during the crisis, and in some cases were confined to their campuses. Where local international fellowships remained functioning, they have been able to reach out to those stranded on campus with care packages and online study groups.
There is also uncertainty as churches look to the future. At this point, no one knows how long churches will remain physically closed, and some fear that the government (at least in some locations) might use the health crisis to keep them closed indefinitely. That said, in-person worship has resumed in a few areas on a very limited basis. Some churches in Beijing were set to resume earlier this month, but that plan was put on hold due to the recent outbreak. When things do relax, managing both in-person and online activities will be a challenge.
The health crisis emerged and continues in the midst of what had already been an increasingly stricter environment for religious life in China. There seems to be little optimism that things will change for the better, and instead a growing sense that there will be an increase in repression in the coming years, particularly in the run-up to the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 2021.
There is also concern that the downward trajectory in US-China relations, and growing nationalism/xenophobia both inside China (anti-foreign sentiment) and outside of China (anti-Asian discrimination) may have an adverse effect on the religious environment in China.
As you will have noticed, many of the effects of the COVID-19 crisis mentioned above have been experienced by churches and believers the world over; no doubt your own church is wrestling with many of the same issues. Perhaps now is a good time to find encouragement in the truths set forth by William Cowper in his hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.”
1. God moves in a mysterious way
his wonders to perform;
he plants his footsteps in the sea,
and rides upon the storm.
2. Deep in unfathomable mines
of never-failing skill
he treasures up his bright designs,
and works his sov’reign will.
3. Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
the clouds ye so much dread
are big with mercy, and shall break
in blessings on your head.
4. Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
but trust him for his grace;
behind a frowning providence
he hides a smiling face.
5. His purposes will ripen fast,
unfolding ev’ry hour;
the bud may have a bitter taste,
but sweet will be the flow’r.
6. Blind unbelief is sure to err,
and scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
and he will make it plain.
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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