At the time of publishing, Australia has had 6,000 cases of coronavirus. Whilst there are many potential trajectories our nation could take, now is a good time to learn from church leaders who have been experiencing even greater social isolation and feeling more acutely the societal, emotional and health impacts of the virus. These leaders reside in Spain, Italy and the USA; countries that have well surpassed the cases reported by China – which was once seen as the most unthinkable benchmark of the disease’s spread.
The church across the world is responding to this changing landscape as it seeks to be the best witness of Christ in the crisis. Below are seven lessons from pastors and missionaries who recently participated in a webinar hosted by SEND INTERNTIONAL (In Lockdown: Learning from the European Church’s Missional Response). They are gospel workers in Spain and Italy who have reflected on what they wish they knew before the tidal wave of disease hit their nations. Some further insights from North America have been included, along with helpful resources for our Australian context.
1. This pandemic is taking people to the wells of spiritual life.
From the epicentre of the disease, a pastor spoke through tears of the pain their people face. Imagine this: A spouse is quarantined after the death of their partner. They must drive themselves to the hospital. No one else can drive them. They can’t even go to the funeral. They grieve alone. The pain is acute.
In the face of unfathomable pain and suffering, Francis Arjona, a pastor in Spain has seen a marked change in what has been a society largely resistant to the gospel. “The Bible talks about important things. Our world here has never wanted to listen to that. Life is important. Money and work are not going to solve this. We are talking about life and death here. I believe there is revival happening.”
Where some churches may have had event invitations on their websites, these are being replaced with clear presentations of the gospel. Some have ads on social platforms linking to clear gospel-centred resources for people searching for answers. Some leaders have advised to resist the temptation to create your own resources, but rather offer links to good resources that are already available online. Through these initiatives and reaching out to the wider community, one church leader has been receiving calls from people who simply want to confess their sins.
The BUV COVID-19 Resources page is updated regularly with the latest information and resources, including translated materials. Please see link here.
2. Don’t rush.
In the face of lock down and extreme isolation, some leaders acknowledged how quickly their minds went to creating new things. However, many of the leaders acknowledged the need to slow down and take time to identify the needs – particularly as situations change daily. Identify how you are being changed personally by the situation. Take time to address your own fears and confess them. Ed Stetzer, Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, based in North America, acknowledges in a recent Christianity Today article, “When fear comes, there is a temptation to frenetically chase activity. We are quick to jump on what we think we should be doing or to follow the crowd when the tipping point is reached. Yet instead, it is critical in this time to instead stop and step back. Take time to think through what fears are at work in your heart and in your community. Write them down and think through how best to respond in ways that are constructive and God-glorifying.”
Both either rushing to create something new and or doggedly maintaining old paradigms can distract from emerging needs, while also draining the capacities of leaders. Carey Nieuwhof, recently wrote “5 Predictions about the future church while everything’s still unknown”, in response to the pandemic, says that “leaders who have the energy, passion and agility to change now will end up advancing their mission in the future.”
You can find helpful leadership resources and training from Carey Neiuwhof here.
3. Find alternatives when the internet becomes clogged.
Ron Anderson, who is leading a church in Spain noted that the internet is overloaded, diminishing live-streaming capacities. This has led some church leaders to preach from the rooftops. A vicar in the UK has taken to the streets. For those continuing to meet online, Whatsapp has become a popular application, requiring less data than other options.
Lacey Lengel, of Shepparton, has been running English classes for new arrivals. She has recently moved her classes online, choosing WhatsApp for connection, as it is very popular with communities that have access to limited Wi-Fi and technical support. Read more of her story here.
Information on how to set up Whatsapp can be found here.
4. Smaller is better.
Many church planters in the most devastatingly affected parts of the world said that small gatherings were now the focus of their gathering work. They are seeking to create more environments for connection and going smaller. They are going from “preaching to people to preaching with and being in community.” In Italy, almost five weeks after isolation measures were introduced, people are desperate to see each other more and more. The best platforms for this engagement have been WhatsApp and Zoom, with its break-out facilities.
Information on how to use Zoom can be found here.
5. Shepherd the people.
Since draconian measures were introduced in Italy in early March, live-streaming has been well utilised by churches. But some have found that the scramble to live-stream, whilst necessary for the gathering church, had detracted from the intentional shepherding of the people that have been entrusted to church leaders. Some leaders are now calling people non-stop every day, checking in on their needs to encourage them. Their service to their people has become more like chaplaincy – providing spiritual support and strength. One church planter, Justin Valiquette, generated a list of all those people who were relationally connected to the church for the last two months. He said that now “every single person is accounted for and being pursued and cared for individually outside of the group [gatherings].”
Rev Gayle Hill has written a helpful article on the effort needed to connect meaningfully with individuals, and helping those individuals connect with others. In addition, the BUV has created a template for people making phone calls through to encouraging one another during the pandemic. This might be a useful tool for your church to use as it gives a framework for connecting with the congregation and community.
You will also find useful tips about connecting through social media here.
6. Focus on home dynamics.
There are grave concerns over social isolation increasing the prevalence of domestic abuse. In response to this, one church planter launched a chat service for people to connect with believers about their situation at home. They have paid for advertising on Google, Facebook and Instagram, encouraging those who are experiencing tension and difficulty in the home environment to use a chat service, where people on the other end can offer encouragement.
7. Pray, pray, pray.
A church pastor in regional Spain, spoke of rising prayerfulness, with virtual prayer meetings at three times the capacity of their usual face-to-face prayer meetings. Another leader has set up intercession teams, where six people connected regularly with one another, all of them bringing three names to commit to prayer. Each gathering of six was covering 18 people in prayer.
Miguel Castillo, based in Italy, implored listeners that this is a huge opportunity to pray: “We are agents of hope in this place where panic and fear have set in. We are going to choose faith over fear. We are not going to choose paralysis by analysis. We are going to love with the power of the Holy Spirit.”
The BUV, along with many other churches and organisations, is also calling its family to prayer during this unsettling time. From Monday 13th April (Easter Monday) – Sunday 19th April we are asking churches to join with us in a focussed week of prayer. Click here for more information.