EF Gregory grew up in the American South East, but spent seven of the past thirteen years living and working in China. She currently lives in the Los Angeles metro area with her husband and three small children. Gregory serves as CP’s Assistant Blog Editor.
It’s a sight now ubiquitous among churches across America: the Zoom app open, familiar faces lined in little boxes across the screen. People starved of contact with one another gather to worship God together, apart. As the U.S. is now knee-deep in its own encounter with COVID-19, churches across the States have canceled services and moved online indefinitely.
Thankfully, as the North American church confronts spiritual life under quarantine, we do not have to problem solve alone, but can look to the experience of our brothers and sisters in China. Chinese citizens first faced strict measures on January 23rd as China locked down Wuhan, a city of 11 million and the epicenter of China’s outbreak. More than two months later, life in China is now beginning to return to some semblance of normalcy as restaurants, businesses, and school slowly reopen.
There is no direct scriptural mandate for steps to take in responding to an epidemic, although the central command to love God and love one’s neighbor does provide the principle which ought to undergird all action. In my work with China Partnership, an organization dedicated to serving and resourcing the Chinese church, I have seen how Chinese churches and Christians responded to COVID-19. There is much for us to learn from their example.
Christians are called to acknowledge that God is in control and seek him through prayer. Prayer is not secondary, but the foundation for every other proactive step.
Would You Pray With Us Today?
Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, the home church of imprisoned Pastor Wang Yi, released a public prayer in late February. ERCC began by repenting of their own sin: “The people who are called by your name have sinned greatly against you. We honor you with our mouths, but our hearts are far from you… We despise the widows and orphans in this country and close our hearts against them.”
American Christians can learn from this posture of humility and dependence on a sovereign God who is in charge of plagues and rulers. ERCC also prayed for authorities, for medical staff, for those afflicted by or struggling in the epidemic, as well as needs specific to their congregation. Christians can pray with hope for what God will do in the face of disease and tragedy, just as ERCC did: “Bless many through this disaster. As [people] reach their end, as they enter the valley of the shadow of death, may they meet the God of hope in their despair, and come to know the Lord of life in the darkness of death.”
Church leaders need to prepare for the drastic changes brought about by COVID-19. Pastors and leadership must think strategically and proactively about how to care for their communities as they wade through this epidemic. As churches face these issues, Chinese churches have already weighed their response to physical separation – in China’s case, brought about not only by coronavirus, but also by persecution and government harassment.
Hebrews 10:25 says clearly that Christians should not neglect “to meet together…but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” As Christians pray for wisdom in responding to COVID-19, concrete steps must be taken in order remain faithful to scripture’s directive.
One church in Shanghai elected to suspend normal services due to COVID-19; instead it conducted a private broadcast of its service and encouraged members who were not ill or in an at-risk group to continue gathering in small groups to worship together each Sunday. The pastor wrote to their congregants: “[The command in Hebrews] is not just for churches during normal times, but especially for churches in ‘wartime.’…In that case, why can’t the church meet as usual? Our primary concern should not be to avoid person-to-person infection, but to avoid causing panic and uneasiness to our neighbors, property management, neighborhood, and community. As we love our neighbors and carry one another’s weaknesses… we have suspended our meetings.”
Different local realities call for divergent responses. Although no one yet knows how long and to what extent quarantine measures will remain in effect across the United States, pastors and leaders must diligently plan for all eventualities. Infrastructures throughout the U.S. were caught off guard by the extent and ferocity of COVID-19, despite seeing it rampage through China, Italy, and Iran. Churches must not play catch up by optimistically hoping for the best and turning a blind eye to the worst, but should prepare and plan for the long haul impact of a virus that may drastically change the way Americans live and worship.
While this epidemic will create innumerable challenges, the opportunity to love communities and individuals through their pain is actually a special opportunity for the church to emulate Christ. As the Shanghai pastor wrote, “…Bearing each other’s weakness is the teaching of the Bible and one of the reasons the church exists.” American churches should embrace the wisdom of their Chinese brothers and sisters and also look to bear the weakness of others.
Across China, Christians served as the face of compassion in a nation that publicly laments its lack of altruism. Churches in Wuhan and elsewhere handed out face masks to delivery people and street workers, and looked out for neighbors and elderly people unable to buy groceries or supplies. “We want to share the full gospel… and also show people how we can live,” another pastor in Shanghai said. His church plant successfully launched at the height of China’s battle with the epidemic, thanks to daily online prayer meetings. “We are not in the [midst of the] epidemic panic, but we have people coming to the church who lost their job because of the virus. So we pray, fast, and give.”
Christ-followers should be prepared to share the hope they have because of Jesus’s death and resurrection. One pastor in Chengdu shared the gospel via telephone with the sick mother of one of his parishioners, who believed and received Christ before she died. The gospel was again shared at her online service, and many friends and family members also professed faith.
The COVID-19 epidemic will call Christians to persevere for many months, not weeks, as the world fights this pandemic. Americans are not known for their patience. But Christians can learn much from Chinese brothers and sisters who have endured restrictions and quarantine measures for more than two months now. Again, more than just covid-19, Chinese Christians have faced persecution and difficulty for decades. Chinese Christians are uniquely prepared to bless the global church with the wisdom gained by hard-fought experience in the fires of oppression.
In the midst of extended social distancing, Chinese churches have seen God do amazing things. One Christian shared, “Praise the Lord, my parents – who do not believe – finally heard the gospel [watching the service online] with me at home.” Other churches even planned online evangelistic events as people were stuck at home for week after week. Some churches have begun gathering each morning for online prayer together. The epidemic has forced creativity and originality.
A house church pastor in eastern China exhorted his congregation to remember that, even as the situation in Wuhan was grim and physical death separated many families, “This is not the greatest tragedy. The greatest tragedy is being separated by eternal death.”
Often, it is when mortality is at the forefront of human minds that God chooses to call people out of spiritual death and into spiritual life. In the face of disease, the daily compassion and gentleness of Christ displayed in his people, the church, can offer great hope to an anxious, weary world.
The Chinese church planter found encouragement for these grim days in scripture, saying, “Even in the Bible, we rarely see churches built up in peaceful and prosperous times, because people do not find the gospel precious in those kinds of times.”
Perhaps, as Americans realize that our money, power, and comfort cannot ultimately shield us or our loved ones, we will prize the gospel anew and cling to God as our hope and Savior. Perhaps we will learn from the Chinese church and see God’s hand of mercy, even as he confronts us with our collective helplessness and anxiety. As the old hymn says, “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears reliev’d.”