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In this "discipleship test of the century", it is now time to sense-make, to prepare and to organise ourselves, writes Ng Zhi-Wen. Photo by Camilo Jimenez on Unsplash.

The Church needs to start thinking hard and preparing herself for the greater crises that loom ahead because of COVID-19.

“Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. (Acts 11:27-30)

If you were given 12 weeks advance notice of an impending calamity, what would you do?

It’s 12 weeks since news of the COVID-19 outbreak in China reached our shores. Only three months ago, we still had not given the virus a proper name. We were celebrating the Lunar New Year while feeling sorry for the millions of Chinese who wouldn’t get to spend it with their families.

Little did we know that it would strike us too … hard.

We are going through a time of testing, and I am convinced that God does not mean this to be a speed test.

The Church was largely caught by surprise. Who wasn’t?

We scrambled to adapt to fast-changing realities – the painful shift to online services; the cancellation of conferences, Bible classes, and official church meetings; the scrambling of help and encouragement to our front-line workers, while standing in solidarity with the churches forced to shut for a while because COVID-19 cases showed up in their communities; the angst over Holy Communion.

Secretly, many of us hoped that it would blow over in a while and we can soon go back to business as usual. I was one of those.

But here we are now in the middle of a Circuit Breaker, and not even half-way through.

Gone like the wind?

Let no one be under the illusion that this crisis will blow over quickly.

The Church has seldom prayed to be released from adversity, rather to be found faithful in the midst of it.

Our nation is in the crisis fire-fighting and relief phase – we are combating a raging fire that, if not contained, can spiral into a worse catastrophe.

It is heartening to see the Church organising herself in various ways to tend to the vulnerable and lonely. It’s been a mad rush, but that’s the nature of humanitarian crisis relief work. I pray that more and more local churches will respond to the urgent call for help.

But we need to be thinking ahead … or else we will again be caught reacting in a rush to keep up.

The extended Circuit Breaker is a blessing in disguise. It is a time for pause – there are needs that urgently need to be met for sure, but at least we shouldn’t be expecting more major disruptions for the Church. For now.

We should seriously ask ourselves: What could happen 12 weeks from now and beyond?

A warning to heed

Egypt was given a seven-year advance warning of a seven-year famine. Under Joseph’s guidance, the nation prepared itself to be the granary of the ancient world.

Crises, even unprecedented ones, have always been learning moments.

In New Testament times, as we read in Acts 11, the prophet Agabus foretold a great global famine in the days of Claudius. This probably happened in 47-48AD (suggesting that fair advance notice was given).

Pay attention to what the church at Antioch did – they conducted a relief effort to aid their brethren in Judea. In other words, they organised themselves for a future catastrophe. More than that, in the face of impending global scarcity the Antioch church responded with gracious generosity towards others beyond themselves!

Here’s my forecast of the world we will find ourselves in 12 weeks later and beyond:

  • The global economy will be severely shaken. Travel will be seriously curtailed. Globalisation will retreat further as nations guard their borders and hoard scarce essentials.
  • Our national economy will also take a big bad hit. Any movement back to “normalcy” will be at crawling pace, as the nation cautiously relaxes movement restrictions. Businesses dealing with “essential” goods and services will boom. But many others will be shuttered. Jobs will be lost and the salaries of many others will be substantially reduced. There may be fundamental changes in the economy.
  • Food will be more scarce. Luxury items will disappear off the shelves, as food industries concentrate on producing staples and fewer varieties of milk and pastries. There are already warnings of a global famine of “biblical proportions”.
  • Government resources will be heavily stretched. Expect delays in its responsiveness as it fights fires on multiple fronts.
  • We will face a national mental health crisis – as many suffer the effects of being in a partial lock-down and the worries of an uncertain bleak future.
  • The social fabric of the nation will be sorely tested. Racism, xenophobia, and socio-economic disparities may explode.
  • And who knows if we would have been successful in containing the virus? So far, we have seen a very low case fatality rate – thanks to aggressive testing (among the migrant workers at least), an excellent healthcare system, and perhaps a less severe coronavirus strain. But we cannot assume that the public health aspect of the crisis will be resolved in a few months.

Needs on the rise 

Of course, I hope that none of these will happen. But tell me if anyone seriously disputes these as implausible? What will these mean for the Church?

How will the Church disciple the youth in the pandemic and economic hardship?

Let me paint some highly plausible scenarios:

First, the obvious. We will not get to resume physical church services the way they were.

If anything, the permitted size of public worship gatherings will increase slowly – say from 20, to 50, then to 100, 250, and so on. A step up in number every month perhaps, from cell-group size, to house church size, to small church size. Megachurch size? Sorry, you’ll have to wait long long for that.

The need for churches to provide pastoral care to its members will be dramatically greater. Expect to find more members with mental health issues, facing retrenchment, or needing financial help for basic livelihood. More people will face bleakness, directionless-ness, even despair.

Grooming followers of Christ

At the same time, the call for pastors to rally the flock and to help frame the whole situation for the Church will be great. Crises, even unprecedented ones, have always been learning moments.

Once, we drew inspiration from the church’s historic response to pandemics; perhaps we now need to read up on how the Church responded in a depression. It is a discipleship lesson for the Church.

This is the discipleship test of the century.

Speaking of discipleship, we will see a whole generation of youths growing up with the curious crucible experience of pandemic and economic hardship. We all know that youth is the time when major life trajectories get set.

How will the Church disciple this generation in such a time as this, for their lifelong journey ahead?

Many para-church organisations will face an existential crisis. Those that depended on face-to-face gatherings and do not transform themselves to operate digitally will struggle for relevance. Sources of funding will shrink, as individual and institutional donors face an exponentially increased number of requests for help.

It’s not to say that Christians have become less generous, but that many more urgent needs have arisen. Organisations that had been set up for international work may find themselves with nothing to do if they continue on old models of ministry – travel may be out of the question for quite a while.

Look forward, plan ahead

At the same time, the cries for help beyond our church walls, and thus opportunities for ministry, will be tremendous.

The already vulnerable and needy households in the neighbourhood will face more compounded challenges. More people, unable to afford their rents, may be left out on the streets to sleep rough. Imagine the severe cabin fever for the elderly.

The harvest field will be richer than ever before.

As for our migrant workers – it will be unacceptable to allow unjust systems of employment to continue. Systemic issues must be corrected. Christians in the public square may play a major role here. At the local church level, there will be much to be done to combat the stigma (read: racism) that plagues the migrants at our doorstep, and to help humanise them in the eyes of all.

And, who knows, many may be looking to the Church to offer help and hope. The harvest field will be richer than ever before.

More can be said, but I think there is enough written already. We are going through a time of testing, and I am convinced that God does not mean this to be a speed test.

We need to be thinking hard and thinking ahead about what to do when we emerge from this Circuit Breaker season, and play the long game.

Be found faithful in trying times

Everything I wrote above may have sounded like doom and gloom. But remember that the Church has seldom prayed to be released from adversity, rather to be found faithful in the midst of it.

We should remember that in God’s economy, there is no place for fear and scarcity. We get to operate out of the Holy Spirit’s rhythms of hope and grace. The history of the Church is filled with testimonies of grace abounding in tough times. And the Spirit gives wisdom and tenacity to creatively thrive amidst disruption.

We get to operate out of the Holy Spirit’s rhythms of hope and grace.

Yes, there is ongoing relief work to get down to doing right now.

But Agabus has spoken.

There is now time to sense-make, to prepare and to organise ourselves. This is the discipleship test of the century for the Church that has been called an Antioch of Asia.

May we be found both wise and faithful.


This reflection was first posted on Ng Zhi-Wen’s Facebook post, and has been republished with permission.

 

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About the author

Ng Zhi-Wen

Ng Zhi-Wen is on staff at Singapore Centre for Global Missions, and oversees home missions at Zion Bishan BP Church. His passion is to see the Church united for God's global mission.