Editor's note: As Pastor Rick Warren said, the year 2020 is special as this was the first time millions of churches were going to be unable to meet this Easter due to COVID-19.
Christian Times, a Shanghai-based Chinese Christian newspaper, interviewed four guest speakers from different areas, asking them to share their insights on the pandemic's impact on churches. They all observed that the virus has brought many challenges to local churches, such as the inability to meet in-person for worship, financial stress, and ministry difficulties.
What is the greatest challenge the pandemic has caused the church? What are the special things the church can offer in the post-pandemic era? The four speakers give their answers.
Rev. Jacob pastors a church in eastern China. He has practiced online ministry for five years and is zealous in doing charity work.
Since becoming a Christian in the 1980s, Rev. Wang Yiyan has worked in rural and urban churches and been involved in charity and social work.
Brother Elliot is a Christian media professional.
Sister Jennifer is a Christian from a Chinese church in Malaysia.
Christian Times: What are your observations on the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on the church? What are the reactions of churches around you?
Rev. Jacob: We used to gather in apartments and offer live-streaming services to those who were unable to attend. Since the outbreak of the virus, we have begun online services. The past months we have seen how our previous experience has helped us in carrying out online services. Every day I serve at home. I hold a prayer meeting from 6 to 8 in the morning and Bible studies in the evening. I preach on Sundays.
We generally stayed at home in the previous months without contacting any of our neighbors. I know little about whether other churches have gathered on-site or not. I have learned that some three-self churches have suspended gatherings. Some house church meet in homes.
I believe what many people care about the most is the livelihood of pastors and the support of churches during the pandemic. Indeed, we have to look upon God during this period and go through it under his guidance. Because of meeting online, our income has declined much more than before as many brothers and sisters are unable to attend services, but the decline has pushed us to trust in God.
I am grateful that we have seen God’s amazing providence throughout the months. Unexpectedly, some unknown Christians donated funds to us because they believed donations were necessary for those of us who have three children. A sister who lives far away in New Zealand aided us from time to time, though we did not know her well. Facing great financial pressure, we prayed and eventually paid our house and car mortgages.
I truly felt that I should look upon God alone through the pandemic. The epidemic has played a positive role in encouraging every Christian to put more trust in God and seek his face in prayer.
Christian Times: Rev. Jacob mentioned financial pressure. I have observed that many urban churches who rent office space yet receive few offerings and pastors who cannot supplement their income are under severe stress.
Rev. Wang Yiyan: I think this discussion is meaningful. It was a shock when we saw how the pandemic brought financial difficulties to the church. Churches suspended on-site gatherings early in the outbreak. Urban churches held online services, but rural churches were not able to do so. Rural pastors did not know how to get access to the Internet. Without any experience in online ministry, some pastors panicked, asking me what they should do. I replied that God must lead us through this. We pastors have preached sermons to every member by using the phone for the past two months.
Pastors have been worried about members becoming weak in their faith because they have been accustomed to on-site gatherings. However, we have found that their faith has increased. They have saved their tithes and offerings and plan to give them to the church when we are able to meet face-to-face. They were not told by pastors to do so, but they did this to show the faith and trust that they have in their hearts for the church.
This raises a question: should church buildings be built bigger or should we look at other options? Many Chinese pastors agree that the bigger churches are, the better. In cities or the countryside, both Three-Self and house churches built large churches. Most of the money was spent on the construction of buildings. The pandemic has raised questions about what church buildings should be like in the future. I do not object to large church buildings, but they are not suitable for China and likely to lead pastors and congregations astray.
Sister Jennifer: The virus also came suddenly to Malaysia. I travelled from Beijing to Malaysia in January, but my church, which has more than 4,000 members, had faith in gathering despite the government’s suspension suggestion. However, the situation became worse in mid-March. The government ordered everyone to self-isolate. There was no other way but to stay at home. This has been the seventh week we are not permitted to go out.
With more than 4,000 members and 55 staff, my church in Malaysia is very stable. Our members feel that the virus has brought them closer to God as they spend more time in prayer and Bible reading. The dependence on God has grown. We were very busy with our work and domestic issues, but the pandemic has made us feel helpless at home. We have to trust in God through our daily devotions. This time can help us to build a more solid foundation and increase our faith so we can embrace the future and life’s uncertainties.
The second change has to do with family. Our pastors launched online ministries. They offer Sunday service videos that contain worship, prayers, and sermons. We ask believers to watch the videos at the worship time. Even if there are those in your family who are not Christian, you are free to play it and he or she will hear it. The second ministry is a short clip to be played on Wednesdays.
The third one is a ten-minute daily prayer at 10 pm. Our members can use this in their prayers. So many members set a special time for their family to pray. Not until after the ten-minute prayer will they go to sleep. Many members confess that they rarely prayed more than this and there were little communication among family members. Now that they stay in the same house, they pray together and dig deeper into God’s word. Relationships within the family have become more pleasant.
The third change is that “community” is viewed as an entry point for evangelism. The lockdown has increased psychological, work, and family challenges. Pressure, helplessness, and financial loss gave birth to true fear, irrational panic and anxiety. People had too much time on their hands and suddenly became confused. They were seeking both dependency and hope. This became a good opportunity to share the gospel and build relationships. Our church members responded according to their different capabilities and talents. For example, some greeted their friends, relatives, neighbors, and colleagues and asked for prayer requests; some sent messages and videos to non-Christians on Easter; others cooked meals for poor communities... The actions did not require too much effort and those who received the services were touched.
Brother Elliot: Earlier the speakers talked about financial problems. I was not so concerned about paying the rent, but the key is the livelihood of pastors. Since the church closure will not last long, it is important that pastors can survive this time period. If churches can pay the rent without taking good care of pastors, meeting places cannot be well used when the pandemic ends. It is not just churches who face financial problem, but also businesses and industries.
The church is not merely space, but it is more about people. The problem lies in whether pastors can continue to do their work and whether they are able to receive the funds necessary to live.
First of all, pastors need to be able to survive. Although congregations cannot use the church building, pastors can continue to meet the needs of their congregation. I believe God provides for them and believers can support them, but pastoring is more difficult. Many churches in left-behind areas are unable to use streaming platforms at all. This makes it difficult to carry out the ministry of the church. Some churches say that believers need to pastor themselves, but this is difficult to do. It ends up that many people are not being cared for.
Our brother who is in charge of providing streaming services received requests for assistance from hundreds of churches, but only a dozen agreed on the further necessary training. The difficulty of conducting online service in left-behind areas leaves a lot of room for the growth of cults and heresies.
The picture is different in urban churches. Some offer online ministries so they can support their congregations, but the problem is that sermons may be limited because there are cyberspace restrictions in China. In cities, I see a trend that pastors are good at publishing their audio and video sermons, but that is not the same as providing meaningful help in person-to-person relationships.
Christian Times: Elliot shared that the biggest challenge for the church was not financial, but carrying out ministry. Pastoring includes sharing sermons but in reality, it also concerns developing relationships. With regard to how ministries are taking place during the pandemic, especially online ministries, what insight do you have?
Rev. Jacob: Some time ago a pastor from Jerusalem said that the pandemic is similar to a “sieve” - shaking the churches across the globe to the extent that some would be sifted out as weeds in contrast to wheat.
After months of gathering online, my reflection was that those Christians who were “casual” or “nominal” suffered in their faith life. They never attended online services or joined any ministry. Nobody received calls from churches; but those who love the Lord became more serious in their faith through online services and their relationship with their pastors and brothers and sisters deepened. “Casual” Christians no longer related to any congregation.
We truly knew God’s justice and righteousness. Don’t worry about newcomers because God will lead those people to us. I truly feel that God is using the pandemic to “sift out” Chinese and global churches to make them more orthodox and holy. Without holiness, it is impossible to come to God. We should focus on the church’s orthodoxy and holiness rather than its size and scale.
Online ministries have a great advantage. Last Sunday I participated in a 72-hour global online worship. An estimated ten million people took part in it. In an era without the Internet, the cost of a gathering of ten million people would be too expensive and logistically difficult, but the network makes it very simple. This method will become normal, making worship in a city, a country, or even the world possible.
Another reflection was that God gave more to his children through the Internet. I can be accessible to anyone 24 hours in the day. I don’t need to have face-to-face conversations. I’m with my brothers and sisters every day. The network makes our relationships closer. More people have come to worship God through the Internet. I deeply felt that every meeting we had was worship. We need to give up the mindset that the pandemic only brought huge harm to churches. On the positive side, it is helpful, testing churches to make them more holy.
Christian Times: The revival went viral in Europe and the United States. Rev. Nicky Gumbel from the U.K. said he never felt souls so hungry and Bible sales unprecedented. The Bible is viewed increased by more than fifty per cent and the downloads were the highest this Easter.
Rev. Wang Yiyan: As the Bible states, “in all things God works for the good”, the pandemic gave us both good and bad things. I found out that my congregation grew more in their faith during the crisis. No single member of my rural church dropped out. Why?
First of all, people wanted something to depend on when the epidemic became worse. Naturally, Christians turned to God. Second, many believers could do little at home, so they began to come near to God. A brother whom I know for 30 years lives in Japan. He told me that as Japan started to implement a home isolation policy, he studied Japanese in the morning, read the Bible in the afternoon, and watched TV dramas in the evening. About 20 years ago, he used to read the Bible once a week; but he reads it every day out of fear and because he has plenty of time.
However, online ministry cannot replace face-to-face gathering because pastoring is about relationships, our relationship with God. There are diseases in believers’ souls. How could the doctor prescribe a cure without checking his patients and communicating with them? Online ministry is only supplementary. Pastoral ministry involves visits and hand-in-hand prayer. Spiritual growth is best done through relationships, similar to students receiving education from their teachers. If online courses replace real schools, students and their parents won’t like this.
On the other hand, if we raise the role of the Internet too high, pastors are likely to become Internet celebrities. Even so, I don’t think most Chinese pastors could be very famous. Most pastors do their duty, preaching sermons and providing pastoral care for their members. If they all preach in front of cameras, they may lose their jobs because they are unable to speak well. Speaking to audiences and speaking in front of cameras are different. Perhaps foreign churches can be more balanced in this area because they have much longer experience with online ministry. Chinese churches are prone to extremes. They may get too stuck in doing online ministry.
Will there be a situation in which one pastor becomes vain and stops his or her ministry after their video sermons go viral on the Internet? It’s not easy to be a pastor with only ten people on one site. It requires visits and face-to-face talks. In contrast, it will be excellent if videos could pastor 10,000 believers online and solve all their problems. I think that pastors must be realistic about their work and ministry. I tell myself, “It’s okay for me to bring ten people to the Lord who are saved upon his return." Some may lead 10,000 to Christ, but my ten believers are true disciples. I know them very well as their spiritual problems don’t disappear after Sunday services.
Christian Times: The pandemic acts as a mirror which reflects many things. It especially shows both the good and bad side of the human heart.
Rev. Wang Yiyan: This is very evident. For example, people don’t hold hands any more when they meet; we may naturally feel scared if someone is from the epicenter of Wuhan or other cities of Hubei. In the face of the virus, selfishness and self-preservation have become evident.
Fundamentally speaking, major global religions deal with the problems of life and death. Truly religious people get the point of life and death. Last month there was a report of more than 50 Catholic priests who died because of their visits to affected patients in hospitals. On one hand, they were criticized as stupid persons, but I explained to people that they did that because of their faith. I cannot do that, but I respect them. It is a matter of when it is one’s time to die. I believe that churches should focus more on the issues of life and death and then the problems of pastors' salaries and the debate between on-site and online gatherings will not be problems.
Since the outbreak, numerous people have been infected and lost their lives. I was wondering where the spirits of those who never heard the gospel went. Our churches can reach out to people who lose family members because they will need the gospel the most. We cannot get to them through the Internet but through trusted personal networks.
Sister Jennifer: I would say that we should look at the pandemic through the eyes of God. Many people are asking why it happened and why God allowed it. These are difficult questions, but I believe God is gracious and loving. Confronted with the circumstances, we should reflect on three points. The first point is that God intends us to use this time to correct our bad habits, adjust our rapid pace of life and to establish better character habits.
Second, we are obligated to seek new discoveries and opportunities to serve God. Online ministry is a new direction.
Third, we need to ponder where we will be personally and where our churches will be post-pandemic. For instance, who does the church really served and does it prefer an on-site gathering or offline. As Christians, our mind should be focused on the long-term, knowing that God is in control of everything and we should look forward to the time when we will enter his promised land.
We need to equip ourselves during this time of quarantine so we are able to break through by following the work of the Holy Spirit.
Brother Elliot: I'm not sure if online ministry will become mainstream in the post-pandemic era. However, the cost of online ministry is lower than that of on-site. In addition, online ministry results in the production of “celebrity” churches and pastors. This trend is already visible.
The challenges brought by the pandemic are the products of the larger environment, not the chief challenge confronting churches. The primary challenge lies in what the church is and how it responds to the situation.
Recently, I often think that crises are always there in any era, like the Black Death and the era of wars. In Jesus’ time, evangelism was not very smooth. There was much persecution. We should not follow questions, but God calls us to be churches and to be prophets among nations. The same solution comes from the Bible and our faith.
Our focus should be on how to respond to these circumstances and live out our faith. How should churches respond? Should churches focus on their own problems or respond to the calling of the current time period? There is no answer in the crises alone. We should return to God’s will and think about the church's responsibility to society.
As Rev. Wang mentioned, many people turned to faith out of fear, so can churches offer help to them? Since many people became mentally depressed or financially burdened, can churches give a hand? Can churches provide peace in this disturbing world? When Germany dropped bombs on Britain during World War II, C.S. Lewis shared theological truths and experiences through a series of BBC radio talks, giving the whole country hope and the strength to fight. Later the talks became the book Mere Christianity.
Can the Chinese church offer such strength in this turbulent age? Apart from taking care of our own churches, we have the ultimate burden of caring for souls. I believe the good news God entrusts to the church gives people life. Amid fear, financial worries, and uncertain turmoil, can churches become this era’s ark where people taste the Lord’s grace and peace over the fear of death?
Meanwhile, churches need to live out the love of Christ. The message of the gospel gives faith, which expresses itself through love. Similarly, the service that churches offer to the world is the specific testimony of the gospel. If churches only worry about their own problems, they will not have any credible witness. Jesus shares with us the story of the good Samaritan who loved his neighbor and the story of a man who asked bread for his friend. Can the Chinese church be a positive witness in society or the surrounding communities?
I hold that two points are the underlying challenge for churches in the post-pandemic era. They require us to return to the Bible and Christian faith and to meditate on examples from church history.
- Translated by Karen Luo