The pandemic has shown us what is essential: COVID-19 survivor Pastor Wilson Teo on a future-ready church
A year after surviving COVID-19, Grace Assembly of God Senior Pastor Wilson Teo considers how churches in Singapore can emerge stronger from this pandemic.
by Edric Sng // February 20, 2021, 9:11 am
Ps Wilson Teo, SP of Grace Assembly of God, goes Face to Face with Salt&Light Editor Edric Sng.
Ps Wilson Teo checked into the NCID on Feb 11, 2020, where he was found to have COVID-19. He was discharged 10 days later, on Feb 20, 2020. This is the second in a 2-part series to mark one year since the case that made mainstream headlines. Click here to read the first part on Ps Wilson’s 10 days in the NCID isolation ward.
This article is presented in Ps Wilson’s own words from his Face to Face interview with Salt&Light Editor Edric Sng. Content has been edited for clarity and length.
The topic of restarting onsite church has been a tension point in churches.
When to reopen? When to not open? If we don’t open, is it because there’s a lack of faith in God?
I hear how pastors were under pressure by the members to reopen quickly to show the concept of “having faith”, but which I’m not sure that is really the case. You see, for Grace Assembly of God, because we went through a crisis where we nearly lost some of our members, we realised that people can lose their lives if we are not careful.
We nearly lost church members to COVID. We saw the devastation upon them, upon their health, upon their family.
So, it’s not a matter about faith – it’s a matter of whether you treasure your members enough to protect them.
I witnessed for myself how infectious COVID can be. It can spread very quickly without you even realising it. To say that it’s lack of faith to not to be so quick to reopening – I’m not sure about that. That disturbs me.
Because if you see your members in the Intensive Care Unit; if you see the family crumbling; when you’re praying for their survival … is reopening church then a matter of faith, or is it a matter about the preciousness of life?
Because we went through this as a church, life is the number one priority for me. It’s not about attendance, it’s not about giving. It’s about lives. Because of our experience, we nearly lost church members to COVID. We saw the devastation upon them, upon their health, upon their family.
And I’m not sure whether we should compromise that at all.
I’m sure people have left, especially those who were not anchored within the church.
Not anchored in the sense that they were never involved. They were just weekend visitors. They came to church to hear service, hear a sermon, but were not really involved in church life. I believe we have lost some.
And some may not want to come back to Grace Assembly again, because of what happened last year.
But we want to show to the world out there that we can emerge stronger – and we should emerge stronger. And we will rise again out from this crisis.
I don’t think Grace Assembly could have survived this crisis without our church community life.
I think the crisis has shown us, or the pandemic has shown us what is really crucial, what is really essential for church life. There are many, many programmes in churches today, but the pandemic stripped off everything that is not essential, and allowed us to see what’s really essential when there’s no physical premises to meet at.
I learned that that there are essentials in the church life – for example, small groups and community life. That’s huge for me.
I don’t think Grace Assembly could have survived this crisis without our church community life. People took up leadership to meet the needs within the faith community. I’m very thankful for that.
I think we should reinforce such essential ministries. We should spend more time making sure that the small groups are functioning well as places of discipleship. For a whole year we have not met on site; beyond hearing a sermon online, is there a place for emotional, spiritual engagement? That’s where the small groups come in.
A paradigm shift is needed.
More than working on our essential ministries now, through the pandemic, God is also showing – to me and to many pastors as well – the need to position the local church for the future.
I can see that the pandemic has already created a certain lifestyle for believers, especially for those who really enjoy the online church. And yes, while we want people to come back onsite, and while we know that onsite is something that is so precious, at the same time, I realised that there will a group of people who may never come back to the local church onsite anymore.
But even online, they are still our members – they are still giving, contributing, actively engaging in their small group and community. Just they may not want to come back onsite because they really enjoy the online experience.
For example, I’ve heard families sharing with me that they really enjoy the online ministries, and that this will be a default for them. They really enjoy the time where the whole family – the children and the parents – can sit down together in one room watching the service, discussing the content after the service over a meal at home.
So I recognise that in this pandemic, one of the things that come out from this is that God is pivoting us towards the online space. For myself, I have been reaching out to my friends, backslidden friends and pre-believers through the online space. And the take-up rate is pretty good.
The reality is that there may be a group of people who will never come through the onsite church anymore.
My wife and I managed to bring one of our friends online to come to know Jesus. And I have reached out to backslidden Christians who have not been to church the last 15 years – I just sent them a link.
The online space is something that churches should really put a serious emphasis on, as one of the front doors to reach out to people, bring them in and move them from passive observer to somebody who would engage with your content and hear what you have to say. It can be a very powerful way to reach out to people and bring them into the church.
I’m not saying that onsite church is not important. I see the value of that, and most of us enjoy onsite church. But there will be a group of people who will never come through the onsite church anymore. And so, we should harvest the online space to build our church presence there, to reach out to people, and at the same time to disciple the members who may not want to come back onsite.
This is a paradigm shift, and many of us are not comfortable with the online space, thinking that it’s not a real space. But it has been real for us for the last one year. The church has conditioned our members to be used to the online space. Sometimes it’s tough for some members when they are used to it, to come back onsite again.
So, if the pandemic goes on for another year or two, and altogether we spend three, four years online – you can imagine how we will have conditioned and built a certain stamina for online ministry.
Eventually I would like to see people who come through online to come onsite. That is my desire too, because we still want to know the person, the real person, in person. But I would say that online church provides a platform and avenue – another front door – for people to come into the church, and eventually be part of our community. This pandemic has shown us that this is possible.
We must redefine success.
Success in the past was about the weekend services – how many there are in attendance, how many physically attend our onsite church.
I think we need to redefine that to see whether that is really the yardstick for the post-pandemic world. When a person comes to your church to attend your service, does that mean you have a disciple? Or do you have an observer?
How can I use technology to disciple my people when they cannot all come back onsite?
I think the same applies for the online church. Just because you have high viewership doesn’t mean that they are all disciples. They can be passively watching you, or they may be watching you just for 10 seconds, 30 seconds, and they drop out.
At the end of the day, whether it is onsite or online, it’s still back to the fundamental of discipleship. How do we engage people for discipleship?
That’s something that I think pastors need to think deeper about in the post-pandemic world: How can I disciple my people when they cannot all come back onsite? How can I use technology, how can I pivot towards the usage of online space to disciple our people? I think that is something we must rethink.
What’s the most precious lessons I’ve learnt amid the pandemic?
It’s the importance of making sure that we can continue the call of God, the mandate of Christ, for discipleship in a very difficult time.
My takeaway for this entire year is that God is really repositioning the church for the future. We must hear and listen to what God is saying – I pray that we don’t miss, that we don’t waste the pandemic. I pray we don’t think, “let’s go back to pre-COVID days”. I’m not sure the pre-COVID days will ever be back.
So we need to position the local church for the future – future-proofing our church so that the church stays relevant.
I noticed that in this pandemic, many big names have collapsed. For example, Robinsons has collapsed. A company with over 100 years of history. It had a modern look and feel for its storefront. Yet it collapsed during this pandemic. It had that modern look and feel, but it was not able to meet the needs of the shoppers.
We need to position the local church for the future – future-proofing our church so that the church stays relevant.
I reflected on that and said: God, may the local churches look at what’s happening and learn. That yes, we can have a very nice front door, very nice music, very nice seats, very nice air-conditioned place, but that doesn’t mean we are relevant to the needs of the people.
The online stores are taking over much of the business that the brick and mortar retail stores couldn’t do. What a powerful illustration for the church, that we must stay relevant.
There is so much content out there right now, with so many well-known speakers internationally fighting for the attention of our members. But the thing that the local church can provide that these big names cannot provide is personal attention.
These big names will never be able to pray for them personally. The local churches must fill that gap – to touch lives and be relevant to the needs of our members.
In the post-pandemic world, the needs are evolving, but they are still the same at the core: The need for God, the need to understand God’s will, the need for discipleship, and the need for community.
In Part 1 of this series, Ps Wilson shares about his 10 days in isolation at the NCID when a COVID-19 cluster developed in Grace Assembly of God in February 2020.