As COVID-19 outbreaks have rebounded in many parts of China recently, church leaders in the affected areas have been notified of the suspension of congregational religious activities. No one knows when the churches will be allowed to reopen. According to recent major media reports, both central and local government departments believe that the prevention of the virus is relatively weak in the vast rural areas. Therefore, rural epidemic prevention has become a top priority.
Since there are a considerable number of churches in those areas, it is really worrying for pastors as to how they should carry out their work. The church that I lead also belongs to the same government level of town. Here I would like to share some of my experience during the suspension of gatherings last year.
1. Put together online worship that includes the sharing of information and exposition of Biblical texts as the supplement.
At the beginning of last year's outbreak, a senior pastor insisted, "Make sure that believers hear the voice of the shepherd every Sunday." I cannot agree with him more. During the pandemic, some churches were divided because they invited strangers from out of town to share in their worship services. Because nothing comes wrong to a hungry man, some brothers and sisters felt confused at that time. Some of them were even lured away by heresies. These were all unexpected occurrences and exposed the limitations of the church's pastoral work during the pandemic. As a result, pastors are facing the question of how to disciple believers well in the vast under-resourced rural areas when the churches are closed again.
We were all caught off guard when on-site services were stopped last year. The question was how pastors could properly shepherd their followers? At that time, the methods that came to my mind included these: WeChat group, QQ chat group, WeChat public account, Tencent conference system and/or webcast. However, most rural churches lacked the necessary video equipment and human resources. During that period, I tried to record the sermon in advance on my phone on Saturday, and then let my brothers and sisters listen to it in the WeChat group on Sunday. To my surprise, it did not work well because a different software app was needed to listen to my recording. One day, a preacher from a nearby church called and told me a better way. There was a sharing software on WeChat called Sixty Seconds. We could use it to share directly by voice just by on-touch. It was especially convenient for churches which were mostly led by elderly volunteer preachers. Then, we used the Sixty Seconds for our online gathering on Sunday. I led the online sharing and interacted with brothers and sisters.
Although there were no exact statistics, several church preachers told me that there were about 50-60% of the members who listened to the sermon and gave feedback at the beginning of online worship services. The participation is not very high. As time went on, fewer and fewer people kept listening to the sermons. The participation dropped to 20-30%. Thus, I needed to learn to change roles from being a speaker to a sharing by using written words. I typed the insights that I received from my reading and study and included what others shared. In this way, I provided brothers and sisters with the opportunity to receive the bread of life every day. It helped make up for the shortcomings of online worship.
2. Private counseling is indispensable.
In the vast rural churches, there are many people who do not know how to use smartphones. Therefore, it wasn’t possible to provide the needed pastoral counseling and care during the pandemic. As a pastor, I used QQ and WeChat to communicate with some brothers and sisters and faced others in need. In particular, I often made phone calls to those who were elderly and could only use outdated cell phones. I always prayed for them, especially when they encountered life changes or their loved ones passed away.
3. Do not ignore visitations and establish a district team leader.
Although churches were closed during the pandemic, we were allowed to visit our brothers and sisters in the low-risk areas. In addition to self-protection, the number of visitors was limited to no more than ten by the local government. As the Chinese traditional Spring Festival is coming, we ought to bring God's love to the homes of brothers and sisters.
At the same time, the shepherds need to set up district team leaders to play a role where they keep watch on things. Since no one can predict when the epidemic will be over, the team leaders can act as a liaison for the district. If they are given some pastoral responsibilities, they may prevent heresy from pulling people away from the church and stop people from going astray. They can also report brothers and sisters' problems and needs to the Church. As a result, the church will be able to strengthen its management.
In short, as the wise man said, "You must know the situation of your flock in detail and take care of your herd." (Proverbs, 27:23).
(The original article is published by Gospel Times.)
- Translated by Jerry Liu