A Preliminary Study on Church Ministry Movement Post COVID-19
Rev Dr. Li Hau Tiong
9 Sep 2020
The COVID-19 "Coronavirus" has triggered a human catastrophe of the century. So far, more than 27 million people have been diagnosed worldwide and more than 880,000 have died. The number is still rising. In addition to medical and public health issues, the globalization movement is undoubtedly one of the accomplices that contributed to the spread of this pandemic. However, in the face of this catastrophe, what lessons can mankind learn from it and make it a "warning" for future generations to come and how can the Christian church make a deep reflection on faith through this suffering experience and propose new values and ways of life as reference for the world is the unshirkable responsibility of Christians. This article is a report on the Presbyterian Church in Singapore’s response to the pandemic during this period, as well as the writer’s personal reflections on faith as a reference for the churches and society.
“New Normal Forum”
On 7 April, the Singapore government launched a "Circuit Breaker" to respond to the increasingly serious epidemic in migrant dormitories and the communities. All religious group gatherings with more than two people are banned, and all churches’ physical worship and gatherings are required to be suspended. Local churches have no choice but to develop online worships and meetings as a response; to most pastors and the elderly, this poses a great challenge. In addition to hardware operation issues, pastoral care, fellowship, parliamentary administration (such as elections, voting...), empty church management regulations, etc., are some difficulties faced by the church.
In order to understand the impact of the pandemic on the church, the Presbyterian Church in Singapore, in addition to designing two sets of questionnaires to understand the living problems faced by pastors and believers during the pandemic and the ups and downs of their faith, also held both Chinese and English forums and invited pastors from the various churches to share strategies on coping with the pandemic and exploring possible ministries in the "post-pandemic era". The following is a summary of the forum results:
A The phenomenon of church life during Covid-19
- Empty church, online worship adopted.
- Worship content centered on preaching (singing of hymns has been banned).
- Limited fellowship, online functions enhanced.
- Believers have restricted living space and more time on hand.
- Need to expand cultivation of faith
- Work from home - positive and negative developments (such as domestic violence).
B. Response of the Presbyterian Churches during the pandemic:
1. Church ministry:
- Pastoral care: increase in believers’ needs / pastoral care burden also increases; in particular, physical visits to the elderly and the sick are constrained by epidemic prevention regulations.
- Faith cultivation: Increase in online courses, high participation rate by believers, and growth in quality.
- Online worship: Challenges in production, equipment, operation, content (preaching, worship design, etc.).
- Administration: the adjustment of meetings and elections (regulations, agendas, hardware equipment and operations).
2. Ministry to the community
- Ministries to the seniors: Most of them are forced to stop; but some churches still promote online courses for seniors and also provide resources, set up relevant equipment to help the seniors strengthen the connection with the church and the community.
- Homeless Care Ministry (rough sleeper): Some churches participated in the government’s plan and opened up church spaces to provide temporary shelter to the rough sleepers.
- Foreign Worker Care: During the circuit breaker, as migrant workers were prevented from returning home, some churches strengthened their care ministry to provide daily living and spiritual support to the workers.
3. Overseas Missions Ministry
- Economic resource sharing: The Presbyterian Church in Singapore launched funding support ministry to help pastors and mission works in Cambodia and Nepal which met with favourable response from the local congregations.
- Faith resource sharing: Effective use of resources when more people can participate in discussions and studies through online conferences and courses on faith, which reduces costs on international transportation and accommodation.
- Skills training provided: Planning related online teaching courses to provide technical and vocational training for local people.
4. Reflection on faith
- Turning point in crisis: learn faithfulness to God from destruction;
Observe God's holiness from isolation (living in faith, ecological justice)
Cultivate tenacity from stress.
- Spiritual shaping: shift from church to family as the foundation.
- Preaching work: from large-scale rally to individualized or small-scale preaching.
- Discipleship training: shift from an observing and outsourcing attitude to participation, becoming zealous and making it a way of life.
- Let the Circuit Breaker become an accelerator.
- Enhanced role and function of parents as priests in the family
- Active training of believers' leadership.
- Go back to the past (pre-pandemic) or change of lifestyle.
- More discussions and exploration of ways to respond.
- Discussion on the gains and losses of digitization. (such as deviation in teaching the faith, believers having consumer mentality...)
C. Trends in Christian worship POST COVID-19
1. Resumption of physical worship services (with limited number of people, large gatherings unlikely to take place in the near future)
2. Video (virtual) worship services (should the need arise; it can be carried out simultaneously with physical worship)
3. Home Church worship: Its meaning of faith and future feasibility should be explored.
The meaning of faith in family and church
Household: A group of people, usually family members living together.
Oikoumene: The household of God
Church: The word "church" is derived from the ancient Greek word ekklesía, meaning "gathering, meeting", "calling, gathering".
A group called and sent out by God.
Church: The community of the Jesus movement. The church is a follower of the Jesus Movement (Realization of the Kingdom of God) and should have a dynamic mission orientation rather than static worship (maintenance of faith) as its purpose.
House churches are more flexible than large churches to carry out God’s mission. Furthermore, house churches are able to deepen fellowship among the Christians, pastoral care, and systematic cultivation of faith. Using Latin America Basic Christian Community model. (8~40 people, common values, goals, interests, mutual help and care...) as a reference.
D. Theological reflection and action
Globalization vs. Universalism
As mentioned above, the globalization movement is a key factor in the spread of the virus; in the wave of economic, political, cultural, and information globalization, the virus has quietly spread across the world. Theologians in the Third World have long suggested that globalization may bring about another wave of political, economic and cultural colonization crisis, but they did not expect that the disaster caused by this virus would bring even greater suffering than colonization, especially among the vulnerable and the poor.
The isolation of the virus has temporarily stopped the pace of globalization, hence, mankind should take this opportunity to reflect on the trade-offs; and the Christian missionary movement should promptly put forward reflections on and countermeasures against the "globalization" of faith.
Ecumenism is the Church's perspective and value on faith for the created world; Universalism (Oikoumene), i.e. the "Household of God"; the movement for unity committed to the Household of God is called the "ecumenical movement" and is the eternal mission given by God to the Church. Economics (Oikonomia): means "the maintenance of the family of God", it is not "a money game" to gratify the desires of the world. Ecology (Oikologia): refers to the mutual relationship of the earth’s inhabitants. Human beings must humbly recognize and respect all the inhabitants of the earth (all creatures) as our neighbors and establish appropriate relationships and ways of living together in order for this family to be sustainable. Universalism, economy and ecology are derived from the same root word in Greek "oikos," "home" and "habitat," the three are closely related. Transforming "globalization" through the "ecumenical movement" may be the core mission of the contemporary church.
Based on the aforesaid theological thinking, and through reflecting on the experience of the New Normal Forum, I personally suggest a few possible actions.
- Actively promote the senior ministry in the community and assist the elderly to embrace digitization
- Care for the migrant workers, open up church space and resources, and carry out biblical teachings on kindness to foreigners.
- Simple living: the period of isolation keeps us away from luxurious consumerism; reduced consumption of resources in meetings, transportation, ecological purification... all these are the results of simple living.
- Religious dialogue and cooperation, care for the weak and vulnerable in the society. When the world is in a situation of fear and suffering, all religions must respond. The social reality of Singapore's multiracial, cultural and religious diversity provides an opportunity for cooperation and learning to care for the afflicted, as Paul Knitter, a dialogue scholar, put it: "Those from other religious faith should unite to serve the afflicted".
- Transformation of the Church's faith values and life. A static faith model that prioritizes doctrinal study and truth inquiry should be shifted to a praxis (action → reflection → re-action → re-reflection...) movement model.
- The initiative of localised theology. During the pandemic, I had the opportunity to discuss the topic of the church ministry to the community with the youth of the church. I found that in the strong emphasis for economic and technological development in the society, local youth have a certain sense of alienation from Singapore’s history, culture and humanities. The dialogue and connection between the gospel and culture is even more unfamiliar to the church. Coupled with the influence of mainstreaming of English in the external environment, the decline of the mother tongue, the gradual fading of ethnic memory and identity, and the widening cultural gap between the church and the community, the subject of localization of faith should be implemented cautiously.