Editors’ note: The following article was first published in 2006 in Momentum Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 5 (published by Justin Long at http://www.justinlong.org/index.html) and is the result of a conversation between four people in late 2005 on this critical subject.
The world had just faced the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003 and Generous Mind convened this group to capture lessons learned and prepare ministry staff for future pandemic events. The event was called a Generous Mind Conversation (www.generousmind.com) and its purpose was to bring people together to share what they know in a compelling, useful, and generous way. Throughout this article that resulted, you will see initials in parenthesis. These identify the contributor who shared that particular thought. Please see the end of this article for a short bio on each of our Generous Minds.
The streets are quiet except for the distant sound of sirens echoing through the rows of high-rises (CW), across the rice fields, through the villages, and resonating across the waves as jumbo jets soar in the sky above. Those sirens ominously represent the darkness of a day when disease would quiet the voices of the saints—those who are usually joyfully vocal. On the day when a pandemic darkens the door of this world and threatens the work of God’s people on every continent, will the only sound be the sound of sirens?
Who will be singing songs, who will be writing poems, and who will be telling the stories of faith? (SN) This is not a philosophical question; it is all too practical. At the same time, it is not the question that appears on our agenda as we consider the potential of a global pandemic on our work for the kingdom. We are talking a lot about education and we are making our emergency plans. These things are important, but it is easy to reduce our preparation to a list of medicines to buy and emails to send.
The deeper question to ask is, “How do we remain a strong light if indeed the darkness looms in the form of disease?” This is really a question of resolve and effectiveness under circumstances that are above and beyond what our world would expect us to endure. But God has different expectations than this world, and we must ask him what things he would have us do to prepare for the possibility of Avian Flu or other global diseases that could impact every facet of our ministry.
And we do need to prepare. Everyone in global outreach is only a few people away from the center of a pandemic. We travel on planes, we attend conferences, we visit remote villages, and we interact with all levels of society. Unless we are willing to consider what the world would look like in the grip of a global pandemic, we are not being realistic about our lives in ministry. So, let us look together at the impact a pandemic would have on our relationship with God, our relationship with others, and our relationship to our work.
Our Relationship with God
Strength and resilience in the crisis of a pandemic do not simply appear. The crisis is a test of what should already exist in our spirits. So how do we settle our spirits (CW) and engage our God about an issue as catastrophic as this? James 1:2-6 gives us some powerful insights into what we must do to have a settled spirit. James starts out with the goal—to “[c]onsider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds . . .” Then he gives some valuable insight into how we can be in a state of mind to do something that sounds ridiculous from a human perspective. Is he referring to asking for trials? No, the meaning in James 1:5 is many times obscured because it is often quoted in isolation, “If any of you lack wisdom . . .” James wasn’t talking about generic wisdom. He was talking specifically about the kind of practical “wisdom” (insight or good sense about what to do, think, and feel) it takes to cope successfully with an attack or crisis. (SN) He says that we must ask God for the wisdom necessary to persevere in the situation that confronts us.
Our close walk with God, our willingness to face trials, and our desire to ask God for wisdom and understanding will produce a settled spirit in the face of fear, isolation, sorrow, and doubt. Yes, doubt is one of Satan’s most powerful weapons in a time of crisis, working through the heart into the mind and ruining the whole person.
If we really believe James chapter 1, then we must come to grips with the fact that God uses physical illness and tragedy to bring spiritual healing (DD) and even growth. In fact, another key to settling our spirit in the midst of a global pandemic is our dynamic relationship with God through prayer. During the 1918 flu pandemic, millions died in one of the earth’s most violent health emergencies. But while death was surrounding the people, God used the crisis to raise up movements of prayer and revivals of faith. Many powerful movements, dynamic organizations, and vibrant churches sprouted out of this seedbed of prayer. (SN) Those movements did not just ignite out of dead relationships with God. The prayer lives of faithful, focused believers helped settle their spirits and prepare them to ignite their faith into action as the crisis descended around them.
We must ask ourselves some simple questions about our relationship to God:
- Do we have a James 1 faith that seeks wisdom in the face of trials?
- Is our life full of doubts now, in a time of relative security and safety?
- Do we have a vibrant life of prayer that is seeking wisdom from God?
- Would God find our hearts ready and available if such a health crisis were to occur?
- Do we believe that God can bring spiritual growth out of physical devastation?
Our Relationship with Others
Just like the true nature of our relationship with God is revealed in the face of crisis, the depth and health of our other relationships is also made very obvious. (BL) There are many levels of relationships that come into play when faced with a health crisis
During the SARS epidemic, the government required anyone with a fever to report it and go to the hospital. There were cases of fathers being taken away in an ambulance and never seen again. (CW) As various countries and local governments implement levels of quarantines, checkpoints, and border closings, the chance of getting separated is very real. Families should ask key questions to be prepared for similar situations.
- How could we be split up and can we prevent this?
- When are we as a family separated? Examples: children in boarding schools or parents traveling for ministry work. How will we stay in contact during these times? Do we have more than one medium of communication? (Email, phone, IM)
- What will we do if we are not together and we hear that a health situation is escalating?
- What measures will we take to stay together or get back together?
- Who can family members stay with if there is danger?
It is critical for families with small children to talk through the possibility of a deadly pandemic and the implications. Children did not choose to be in the way of danger; however, the family may be called to put each other’s lives in the hands of the Lord. Counting the cost of a ministry life before tragedy is crucial to having settled hearts during the trial. (CW) This can only be done through prayer and a deepening relationship with Christ. If open communication with God does not exist before danger, it will be more difficult for us to seek him in the middle of the crisis. The concept of settling your spirit relates to our relationship to God talked about in James chapter 1.
Another reality is the isolation that will come if a health crisis erupts. SARS kept millions locked up in their homes. Schools were cancelled. Businesses closed. (CW) What can a family do if they are cut off from their regular routine? Fuses will be short, and many will not know how to cope. What activities and family routines can you develop or continue that can be done in this sort of isolation? What can you prepare and set aside if this were to happen? It might be similar to being on a deserted island—what will you wish you had for your family to cope? (BL)
Many times frightening alarmist issues like a health pandemic can be talked to death within the community of ministry people, but not mentioned at all to extended family. The dangers of the job almost become business talk and we turn off our work brains when we phone or email family. But unless your families are aware of the danger and prepared, it could create a dangerous situation if you are quarantined or out of touch.
While you don’t want to scare your family, especially those who may not have a relationship with Jesus, if they don’t understand the reality of the crisis and how to support you, you will be missing out on a crucial support network. If your family network is prepared, then they will be with you in prayer, encouragement, and very importantly—information. Family may become an important source of information during a crisis.
Having a context for dealing with this challenge as a family will help your relationships. (BL) If there is a global pandemic, there is a good chance your family back home will be impacted as well. By involving them in your preparations, you could be a blessing to them by helping them work through their own plans in the case of a crisis.
Team Members and Fellow Workers
There are many dynamics among ministry teams and fellow workers. During a crisis, all of the personal conflicts and team synergies will be magnified. All that is good within the team will have the opportunity to shine. In the same way, all the negative dynamics will also be revealed. It is critical to work on conflicts between people during the preparation period rather than ignore them and watch them blow up in the middle of a health emergency.
But even if all the wrinkles are not ironed out, there are a few key things to help build unity during crisis:
- Apologize quickly.
- Share pain. This helps in the grieving process.
- Allow people around you to live out as normal a life as possible during the crisis.
- Focus on people’s resilience, building our strength through God.
- Realize that grieving is unique. Allow room for each family to grieve in their own way. (BL)
Similar to your family network is your network of donors and prayer partners. Most churches have not talked about the potential of a pandemic yet. If you are to have a strong network of prayer support during an emergency, you should make a point to educate and update them now. (CW)
Some things to consider:
- Devote a prayer letter to the issue and give specific information and prayer requests.
- Set up a conference call with several pastors of your key churches to share with them and plan how they can help you.
- Make your partners who receive email aware that you will use this medium to give updates if a health crisis emerges.
In global outreach today, there are unspoken divisions between expatriate and local workers. Many of these divisions come out of centuries of missionary activity. For example, many times expatriate workers send their kids to different schools than local workers, live in different parts of town, or have a different standard of living. While many of these things are simply a reality of two different cultures intersecting, each person must find ways to build commonality and relationship in order to be about the work of evangelism and discipleship. These relationships are the foundation for much of the outreach work going on around the world, but could be jeopardized if there are not clear expectations set about how ministry partners will interact in a health emergency.
Local partners and expatriate workers need to ask key questions such as:
- If there is an opportunity for evacuation, is that appropriate? (SN)
- Will the work continue if an emergency erupts?
- If a party must leave, who will pick up their responsibilities?
Our Relationship to Our Work
During the Plague outbreak in Europe in the 1300s, the priests were the ones to risk their own lives and collect the bodies each morning. Imagine the impact that these brave servants had on the living as they walked from house to house. (CW) It may be that in times of great suffering, our ministry will have greater opportunity to broadcast the message of God’s love. When people are surrounded by pain, the example of a Christian serving others in spite of great personal risk will shine brightly. (DD)
The incredible thing is that a pandemic may be closer to your work than you would ever imagine. Recently, a Christian teaching ESL to Chinese migrants had a student return from a week home with his family. He attended class the evening he returned and he shared that his home area had been hit with Avian Flu in the bird population and one person had contracted the disease and died. The teacher was far from that village, but the proximity was astounding. (CW) This example brings home the fact that any work is only days, hours, or even minutes away from being impacted by a health crisis.
With this realization in mind, work cannot move forward with planning until you decide at what point you would leave. It is also crucial to consider the impact that leaving would have on the work you are involved with. It is not always the desire of the people you are ministering to, for you to stay at great personal risk. However, there are times and situations when this is required for long term impact. One example is a worker in Albania who stayed even as the economy of the country fell apart. Many other workers left. The fact that he stayed created great trust and opened many new doors. (SN)
On the other hand, sometimes the local leadership would prefer that you protect your family and return after the crisis. Having a strong relationship and open communication now is the only way you will be able to determine whether a specific pandemic is grounds to leave your ministry.
Outreach in a Pandemic
Believe it or not, there are ways to prepare your work to run under pandemic conditions. Some of these conditions include isolation, fear, panic, quarantine, infrastructure stoppage, and lack of communication. Everyone involved in outreach must consider which pieces of their work could continue under conditions such as these. For example, could you set up a hotline (or SMS number) to counsel the people at your church plant? Or could you create packets with information and lessons for your ESL students so that you could continue to work with them via email or the phone? (CW)
But what if your work isn’t possible at all? Does that mean that there won’t be other work to do? Sometimes when we are pulled out of our normal routines, the most impacting and creative opportunities arise. (DD) How our life witnesses the love of Christ in crisis could sprout whole new initiatives.
One example to consider is a seminary full of students. In the face of a pandemic, school would be cancelled, but that doesn’t mean that other opportunities would stop. (SN) We must be training our partners to think about how we can mobilize the body of Christ to respond in love during health emergencies. Those seminary students could become the only hope that many people see as they try to survive each day.
Sometimes we believe that if we do not have full schedules, that we are not involved in effective work. However, much of our witness is the attitude we display. Do we have the courage to give thanks to God for the situation we are in? (DD) One example would be sitting in a bread line waiting for your turn to pick over scarce food. Our attitude in that moment is worth a thousand hours of meetings and sermons.
During a pandemic, each person will have to decide whether they will write the songs, speak the truth, and live God’s love in the face of such darkness. The sum of these choices will add up to the intensity of God’s light in that particular community. The best way to get into position for a global flu pandemic is to intensify our work on what we should already be doing anyway—improving our relationship with God, our local partners, those we serve, and those who support us. This is a no-lose investment of time and energy. If the pandemic materializes, we’re ready to shine. If it doesn’t, we are stronger and more mature, ready to shine. This “ready for anything, able to endure anything” character is God’s gift to his church, made possible by the presence of the Spirit of Christ. (SN)
Editors’ note: Please visit www.generousmind.com to find out more about how you can be generous with the insights God has given you!
(CW) and her husband are now retired. At the time of first publishing they served with TEAM in Asia; where they had been for 26 years. The first 14 years they were in Taiwan doing church planting. In 1993 they moved with their children to another East Asian location where they worked with an international team reaching out with the gospel and discipling mainland China contract laborers.
Brent Lindquist, Ph.D., (BL) is a psychologist, and the president of Link Care Center. He works with international membercare leaders, consults with organizations regarding membercare issues, and develops programs and services in the same arena.
Richard (Dick) Douce (DD) serves as a physician at SpectrumHealth Lakeland in Michigan. At the time of first publishing he served as an internist sub-specialized in infectious diseases, who worked as a medical missionary in Hospital Vozandes Quito. He has participated in treating epidemics of cholera, rabies, diphtheria, yellow fever, meningococcal meningitis, and influenza as they passed through Ecuador and West Nile fever, influenza, and AIDS as they passed through the United States.
Stan Nussbaum (SN) serves as the president of SYNC (https://www.syncx.org). At the time of first publishing he served as the staff missiologist at GMI (Global Mapping International—NOW CLOSED) in Colorado Springs. A researcher and writer, in 2005 he coordinated a major study on churches’ response to AIDS in seven countries. He has long experience in southern Africa and England as well as growing involvements in India and Central Asia.
Jon and Mindy Hirst are the creators of the Generous Mind Conversation and own a think tank called Generous Mind (www.generousmind.com). Since 2005 Generous Mind has worked to foster generosity among everyone who has a thought to share. We desire to see a day when people have the understanding, the capacity, and the tools to share their ideas with the world.
Jon Hirst is also the Director of Program Innovation for SIL International. Jon and Mindy live in Colorado Springs, CO and have three amazing children.
Image credit: Marlon Sommer from Pixabay
Are you enjoying a cup of good coffee or fragrant tea while reading the latest ChinaSource post? Consider donating the cost of that “cuppa” to support our content so we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.