Since the outbreak of COVID-19, domestic churches have gone through various events such as temporary lockdowns, hosting services online and long waits to resume normal gatherings while keeping a constant guard against the virus as a new normal. These are not only changes in how churches gather, but pastors and believers have had different experiences because of the changes caused by the pandemic. In this situation, how can the Chinese Church continue to fulfill its mission and carry out its ministry?
On November 7, Rev. Wu Bin, a senior pastor of a church in Dalian shared how his church care for believers during the pandemic in an online lecture hosted by "Faith and Learning", a Chinese Christian academic journal. Used to teach in the national Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, he then returned to his hometown Dalian where he served in the church as a pastor for 14 years. He is also a nationally recognised pastoral counselor.
Below are the main points of the lecture:
How does his church care for believers during the pandemic?
Located in Dalian, Wu's church started its ministry in 2006. The construction of a new church building was completed in 2017 and opened in 2018 with a total area of more than 4,500 square meters, accommodating more than 1,000 people. In the past two years, the church has made administrative changes but encountered the pandemic after finalizing its budget plans and schedules for 2020. From January to July 2020, his church had to stop all gatherings and ministries, and their original plan could not be realized. Just as gatherings were resumed in July, another pandemic broke out in Dalian. The church closed down again until early September 2020. In less than two months after resuming, the number of worshipers in the church rose to the level before the pandemic. Despite strict requirements on pandemic prevention, the church made flexible adjustments by adding one more gathering and restoring the original Bible study and prayer meeting. The number of believers and the amount of donations have slightly increased. Up to now, except for Holy Communion, all other ministries of the church have basically been restored or are being restored.
Pastor Wu shared their experience in response to the pandemic and caring for its congregation. Since January when the news about the outbreak was reported on media, the church prayed for the situation at its prayer meetings every Saturday. When the first case was discovered in Dalian, they became nervous, and the local authorities and the municipal Christian counsel immediately told them to stop gathering for worship. At that time, some believers didn't quite understand it. Their reason was that the Bible says "never stop gathering". However, the authorities’ command was urgent. So the order was conveyed to believers through church committees and co-workers to persuade believers to leave the church on Sundays. As soon as the pandemic broke out, they realized the importance of wearing masks. 1,000 masks were bought for the service attendants. When the church suspended services, it donated the relevant materials to hundreds of passers-by with love.
As soon as the church stopped gathering, the co-workers began to plan their online ministry. After comparing the methods of live broadcast, Tencent conference, WeChat official account, and WeChat group considering the sacredness of worship, the capacity of people, and the sense of presence, they finally decided to set up three WeChat groups. These were able to cover all the believers of the church. During the lockdown period, the believers fellowshipped in groups and all the pastoral staff participated in the service to make things as normal as possible. Prayers and announcements are also issued at ordinary times. This is the first time that the church established a contact group for fellowship on the Internet. Because many churches had stopped gathering for a long time, believers were not dedicated to attending church, and some couldn’t even receive their wages as normal.
Pastor Wu's church didn't have this concern and collected donations from WeChat like normal. The QR scan code for donation was released in the group. As a result, the income of the church did not drop significantly during the whole pandemic period. In addition, colleagues regularly held meetings of the pastoral staff, church committees, and departments through Tencent meetings and WeChat groups. Pastor Wu said that these practices have strengthened the commitment and cohesion of believers to the church.
During the pandemic period, the church also paid attention to delivering messages. Each day they provided written study guides for the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. They also shared prayers and spiritual disciplines so believers could have ‘spiritual food’ every day. The pandemic brought many inconveniences, but Pastor Wu found that this way of ministering helped overcome the hindrances. However, after the outbreak was nearly at an end, the church immediately stopped the WeChat group worship and encouraged believers to attend on-site gatherings.
There were not many people in the first services and Pastor Wu was slightly lost, but he was moved by a scene at the entrance of the church. A sister was registering her personal information, and another sister was standing one meter away. Suddenly, they recognized each other and embraced with joy. Meanwhile, Pastor Wu said that their church's online ministry was also relationship-oriented, increasing mutual communication.
In addition to praying for the pandemic situation, they also contributed more than 30,000 yuan to the medical staff at the invitation of the Amity Foundation. During the special period, some believers died in the church, so they could not hold memorial services. Several pastors personally went to comfort their families and prayed for them. After gatherings resumed, the church service increased from two to three times a day and the group activities began. Last week, the group leader who was to lead the fellowship training, hoped to continue to unite brothers and sisters in the group and that believers would continue to connect with each other in love.
"COVID-19" brought challenges to theology and ministry.
The pandemic has had a severe impact on the church, posing a series of challenges in theology, ministry, and church affairs, all which deserve our attention.
First of all, we are concerned about the challenge of the outbreak to traditional theological understanding. Undoubtedly, in the hearts of the majority of believers in China's grass-roots churches, the understanding of disaster and problems often stays in the simple concept of "man sins, God punishes, and the devil manipulates". That is to say, the outbreak comes down to the fact that people committed sins and crimes and were beaten and punished by God, or the devil is the cause. This often leads to the inability to look at disasters in a correct and rational manner.
For instance, just after the facts of the pneumonia pandemic were exposed in Wuhan, some people trumpeted that it was because of local people's sins and idolatry that they were infected with the plague. This kind of understanding is one-sided and narrow, which is a simple and rough theological explanation - not even theological. The theological thought of Chinese churches has developed for more than 20 years, and there should be some mature theological thinking to encourage and support believers to make realistic, correct, and reasonable explanations to realistic problems.
Secondly, it challenges the traditional way of pastoral care. There is no doubt that in today's Chinese churches, gathering and worshiping are the most important way of providing pastoral care, and becomes the only way of pastoral care and religious expression in many churches.
Once again, it is a challenge from heretical cults. What deserves attention in this pandemic is the rampant activities of the heretical cult "Shinchonji" and its negative impact. In fact, the influence and destruction of the "Shinchonji" heresy on Chinese churches has a long history, but this pandemic has brought it into public view. The trouble is that all parties in society don't have a deep understanding of the heresy, and even some media reports irresponsibly confuse it with orthodox Christianity. It has left a negative influence on Christianity in the public mind. In addition, some foreign churches insist on gathering and this can cause a cluster infection, so this challenge is not limited to the intrusion of heretical cults into orthodox churches, but because of the rampant heretical cults, the public has negative and contradictory feelings towards the Christian faith.
Finally, it is a challenge for the church to get along with society. Is it appropriate for Christians to stand aside and warn the world with curses and accusations when all of society is united in the fight against the pandemic?
In fact, all of the above can be attributed to the challenge of the times and the sinicization of Christian church practice. These challenges seem to have occurred in a specific situation, but in fact they are all related to the essence of the Church in the process of sinicization.
Reflection on traditional theological thought and pastoral way
When we talk about Christ, we always like to talk about His triple positions - prophet, priest, and king. What needs to be considered is whether these three terms summarize the work of all the duties of Christ? Are these triple duties directly taught by the Bible or summarized by later generations? Pastor Wu said that when he looked into this aspect, he did not think that "prophet, priest and king" could sum up all the duties of Christ.
It was not the Bible or the apostle who first put forward this view. It originated from the traditional saying of Eusebius of Caesarea, who claimed that Christ's work could be integrated into three functions - prophet, priest, and king. During the Reformation, Calvin emphasized that God was an intermediary in Christ. He concluded that there was a close relationship between Christ's status and work. Therefore, the viewpoint of Eusebius is the church's traditional understanding of Christ's work.
In today's church, many believers don't understand these three duties properly, so they are out of step with society, and there are problems in the pastoral care that the church gives.
1. Prophet or friend? - reflection on the church's participation in social life
We emphasize that Christ is a prophet and we also emphasize the prophetic nature of the church so that we should be a prophet of the times. The narrow understanding of this concept leads some believers to criticize rather than devote themselves to working for change in society and the church. From the pulpit pastors give a lot of admonition and can severely reprimand believers. As can be seen from the gospel, Jesus Christ is not only a prophet and judge but also our closest friend, and he is willing to help us get rid of weakness and sin.
2. King or servant? - reflection on the church's construction of governance system
Since you are a king, you should emphasize sovereignty. In reality, many believers want to establish the kingdom of God in an aggressive and triumphant way. They may even equate the establishment of God's kingdom with some kind of political appeal or establish a pyramid management system in the church. As a result, the Church has become a powerful institution or an institution trying to gain power in people's eyes. But is this the way Jesus behaves in the world? It is true that the Church pays attention to authority and management, but the management of the Church is not management like that of a corporation, but management is there to build relationships and encourage service. As Jesus himself said, those who are willing to lead should be servants of all. The Church should be seen as providing social services in society, and the church’s management should encourage a system of serving each other.
3. Priests or doctors? - reflection on the life of a church where pastors and believers care for each other
Priests bring people to God and are mediators. As a place to preach the truth, the church can provide a way for people to know God, but the wrong emphasis on the role of a mediator can lead to the church monopolizing salvation. This can make believers feel that they have lost contact with Christ unless they go to a certain church. On the other hand, some churches threaten their believers with rude theological concepts so that they have to go to church. We should think about priesthood correctly. Should we give people help, healing, and encouragement? Priests play a healing role. When believers come to God, they can declare God's forgiveness and comfort and heal believers, but also bring the healing of Jesus Christ to their families and the world.
To sum up, when we say that the Church fulfills the will of Jesus, we should not only fulfill the duties of Christ as a prophet but also understand that he is a friend, which is reflected in the widely spread hymn "Song of Grace and Friends" in the church. This friend is a prophet who can point out our problems, change our sins and weaknesses, and is also our companion and helper. We say that Jesus is a king and a servant, and the church should "serve people instead of servants" and serve the society. In the post-pandemic period, Pastor Wu's church appeared in society as a service through joint service activities with the community, smartphone training, and lectures on legal knowledge for the elderly. As a priest, it emphasizes the function of healing, caring for people who encounter psychological and physical challenges, and giving them encouragement and help.
Walk a new road.
Through reflection on the pandemic situation, we can help the Church grow in three ways.
1. Build a theological system rooted in the true doctrine of the Bible and adapt to the development of the times. All this is reflected in details, such as how to explain suffering, help believers face life correctly, and pass on God's love.
2. Build a church management system that shares the good and the bad with the development of the country and society. Today, many churches have no rules in management or copy some secular systems, which is not in line with the reality of church management.
3. Build a pastoral system with harmonious relations as serving the society and healing the soul are the ideas that Christ and his church fulfill their duties as friends, servants, and healers.
- Translated by Charlie Li