The past few months have been some of the most dramatic of our lifetime. A virus that apparently originated in China spread globally to the point to which barely any nation across the planet was unaffected. The spread of the virus shut down the global economy and placed countries around the world on lockdown.
Of course, COVID 19 is not the first pandemic to affect the world. If we were to go back as far as the 14th century, the bubonic plague that became known as the Black Death claimed between 70 and 100 million lives. The 19th and 20th centuries saw several cholera pandemics while the flu virus of 1918-1920 claimed up to 50 million lives. There have been others since, but perhaps what has been unique about our experience of this one is that modern media, including social media, has meant that we were not just aware something was happening, but we have also been bombarded by an almost endless stream of information and not all of it accurate. The so called ‘front lines’ of this emergency have been brought graphically into our living rooms and the impact has been such that in the UK the NHS, for which we are all grateful, has taken on a new transcendent status and persona.
This, of course, is one of the challenges of modern life. The dissemination of news has changed and there is a saturation of information raising concerns about the influence of various media. Moreover, the peace and prosperity that we have become accustomed to, and modern medical technology have raised levels of expectation in the West. We are now shocked and fearful when faced with the reality of a threat like Covid-19 in a way that previous generations were not because they accepted humanities limitations more readily.
Hopefully the crisis now shows signs of lessening, although the solution may still be some way off. That said, in such a volatile situation no one can accurately predict the future. It is still too early to ask what can learn from this crisis? However, it is possible to give some interim reflections on what happened and from a Christian and mission perspective, it is important we do so.
The first thing that is worth reflecting on is just how well many churches adapted to the changing situation. Once governments around Europe imposed restrictions that made it impossible for church congregations to meet together, many churches moved online either with pre-recorded church services or live using social media and other platforms. Some were simple, others highly creative, but all enabled Christians to keep worshipping and hearing teaching. Some churches found that in addition to their normal attendees, there were new people, often non-Christians tuning in. There have been other benefits as well, for example some churches found that young people and even children began to participate in corporate prayer as they were comfortable interacting via a screen.
Only when the lockdown is fully over will we know what long-term benefits will be derived from this innovation. Similarly, only time will tell what will happen to churches that simply ceased their services as a result of the lockdown.
Linked with this, some church leaders have reflected on the nature of church as a direct result of having to do church in a different way. Some larger church leaders have realised that the size congregation can be a complication in a context where limits are imposed on the size of gatherings. As they reflected, they were reminded that church is an organism not an institution. There are few rules laid down in the New Testament as to how church should meet. Churches can adopt different shapes temporarily, knowing they can return to normal at a later date if they so choose.
Not only was it exciting to see the creativity expressed by individual churches it was also impressive to see how quickly many missionaries adapted to the strange new world and find ways of getting the good news out to people. One GLO worker began to use the term ‘digital mission field’ as he realised the potential for outreach during this crisis. Another told me that not keeping church going in some way wasn’t an option because gospel work is so important. Their efforts were often rewarded with people who seemed more open and responsive precisely because they were concerned with the threat posed by the virus and aware of their own mortality.
Importance of practical love
The pandemic also demonstrated the power of simple acts of kindness as part of Christian witness. Evangelism is often more than just words and when Christians love their neighbours and themselves it opens doors and softens hearts making them more receptive to the gospel.
Importance of relational church
Another reflection is that, when all is said and done, church is about relationships. Several Christians I spoke to on the phone expressed the view that however creative virtual church could be it was not the same as actually meeting with fellow Christians. This is hardly surprising. Church is a family, brothers and sisters who share common life in Jesus. The very fact that these Christians could not meet with their fellow Christians emphasized just how much that fellowship meant to them. Hopefully an enduring legacy of the lockdown will be that we will value and cherish the reality of church fellowship and not take it for granted.
The vital importance of the gospel
A final reflection is the sheer importance of gospel proclamation in today’s world. One of the striking features of the Covid-19 crisis for me were the daily news bulletins tabulating the number of infections and deaths. It made for grim watching, but from a Christian point of view it was a powerful reminder of another reality, that of the impact of sin. Huge numbers of people have contracted Covid-19, but most have not. Some of those who did get Covid-19 had mild symptoms, others were more severe but still recovered. Consequently the death toll, while horrific, has been limited. Everyone, however, is affected by sin and without the remedy of the salvation offered by Jesus, all are due to suffer not only physical but also spiritual death. This is a greater emergency by far and one that has caused immeasurable damage ever since the Fall of Genesis 3. If the news was so taken up with the dangers of COVID 19, how much more should we as Christians be concerned by the damage sin causes.
Government ministers as well as critics talked ceaselessly about the need for PPE to be provided so that hospital staff dealing with patients could receive a measure of protection. The blood of Christ not only protects us from sin, but cleanses us so that we not only avoid destruction, but inherit eternal life. Clearly there is an urgent need for Christians to share the gospel. For me this was perfectly summed up by Regin Guttesen, one of our GLO missionaries in Italy, who in a social media post at the height of the lockdown declared that, ‘this is not a time to watch Netflix, it is a time to change the world’. That is precisely what GLO is all about. Recognising the greatest emergency of our time and proclaim the only solution, salvation through Jesus Christ.
Stephen McQuoid (GLO-Europe)
This article first appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of eVision and is used by permission of the author.
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