When friends and family back home ask about the coronavirus situation, the first word that comes to mind is “eerie.” My family and I live in a Chinese megacity of about 26 million people. Imagine if you shut down not just New York City but the nine largest cities in the US at the same time. That would be eerie.
The Chinese central government has called for people to remain home as much as possible and to avoid public areas. Most souls here only venture out of their apartments to run quickly for groceries or a breath of fresh air. We too, out of respect our host country, have chosen to stay inside as much as possible.
When we do go out, face masks are a must, an entry/exit pass from the neighborhood complex is required, and temperature checks are increasingly common in office buildings, public transport stations, grocery stores, and other public places. Even at our local wet market, guards with temperature guns man the entrance to make sure everyone entering has a mask and no fever. Most public parks in the city are closed, as well as many businesses. This megacity has turned into a masked ghost town.
Concerns and Challenges
The world is watching as China fights to contain the coronavirus. As the days and weeks of isolation drag on, Christians in China are facing unique challenges. For starters, most church services and weekly events are either suspended or have temporarily moved to some form of online platform. For many pastors, the technology is a “necessary evil” and is no replacement for in-person ministry and pastoral care. Pastors have very limited interaction with church members, which makes it more difficult to shepherd them.
Pastoral care and shepherding are especially needed right now because church members are at risk for emotional and spiritual harm. Some church members battle against loneliness and isolation. People who live alone can increasingly feel marooned in their apartment. Pastors and church members are working hard to stay in contact with their congregations and to make sure people have everything they need.
At the same time, each day we wake up to a flurry of news and rumors about the coronavirus. Many people can sit at home all day and soak in these stories, which can easily fuel a sense of panic. Pastors are hurriedly working to comfort church members.
There are other spiritual dangers. Pastors are worried less about government pressure at this time and more worried about the church’s internal disputes and disagreements over how to operate in this unique situation.
At first, the main concern for Christians was, since many churches cannot meet in person, how will they continue to meet and worship? “Everyone has their own opinion, and everyone backs up that opinion with their own ‘evidence,’” one pastor recently told me. For now, many churches have moved to meeting online.
Yet, the longer people are in isolation, the more complicated the questions and the more heated the debates. Some churches are now debating if church members can also celebrate the Lord’s Supper on their own. After all, the reasoning goes, if we can meet as a church online, why not celebrate the Lord’s Supper online too?
Disputes over such matters are growing. And these arguments threaten to rupture some churches. Pastors are focused on how to shepherd members through these disagreements over how to be the church when the church cannot meet in person.
But, many churches are not simply focused on their own concerns. In the city where I live, there are churches trying to mobilize support for people in Wuhan. They have a passion to do everything they can to help the people in Wuhan, yet they are running into obstacles.
Churches have raised funds for medical supplies to send to Wuhan, but they have difficulty locating reliable supply. There are reports of many tricksters and fraudsters selling fake supplies, supplies that are below standard, or even “recycled” supplies. Some people have bought medical supplies from people posing as suppliers only to find that the “seller” ran off with the money. Even when supplies are located, it is uncertain whether the shipment will make it to its destination.
Yet, the church continues to shine brightly in the midst of a coronavirus-crazed China. Although “normal” life is at a standstill, the church continues to be salt and light to those around it. Christians in China have an incredible opportunity.
First of all, the coronavirus gives Christians a chance to share with others the reason for the hope that is in them while they face coronavirus. We pray that God will use this situation to soften people’s hearts to the gospel. Recently, one pastor friend of mine optimistically remarked that we should begin planning for short-term mission trips to Wuhan once it reopens so that we can share the gospel with people there.
There is also an opportunity for the church to be the city on a hill that it is called to be. In the aftermath of the tragic 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, Christians poured in supplies and contributed to relief work, which was noticed and praised by their fellow citizens. Once again, Christians today have the opportunity to stand out and witness to their faith by contributing to medical supplies, relief efforts, and by praying for those in Wuhan. Christ continues to preserve and protect his church in China and to use it for his glory.
Images courtesy of the author.
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