Stores emptied of sanitizer, canned food, toilet paper, and water. Fights over the sale of limited supplies of face masks. Anger as congregations continue to gather for worship, prompting accusations of a lack of “social responsibility.”
The COVID-19 virus has spread from Asia to Europe and North America rapidly over the past week, bringing with it a level of panic and angst—everywhere from the supermarket to the stock market to the local church—not seen in recent times. The global tally is now more than 125,000 infected and more than 4,600 dead.
Churches in Singapore, which Billy Graham affirmed as the “Antioch of Asia,” have already weathered the anxiety now sweeping the world. On February 7, the nation-state’s government raised its national risk assessment level from Yellow to Orange, indicating “moderate disruption” to daily life—and in particular to large gatherings of people.
March 7 marked the one-month anniversary of Singapore—which has seen 166 cases but zero deaths—going Orange. This means that for the past month, local churches—which account for about 1 in 5 Singaporeans—have been forced into an extended period of self-examination, reflection, and action.
The process has not been straightforward, with a senior pastor afflicted with the coronavirus (and subsequently discharged), entire denominations suspending services, church-based preschools closing, and very public online disputes—in a nation that strictly enforces religious harmony—on how the situation is being handled by church leaders.
To help churches in the United States, Italy, Brazil, and other countries now facing decisions that churches in China, Korea, and Singapore have been grappling with for weeks, here are seven lessons the Singaporean church has learned over the past month:
1) Your church’s worship will change. Hold tight to what is sacred—and hold everything else loosely.
Congregations are creatures of habit. Churches are built on traditions, liturgies, and order in worship. Over time, every church’s line between what is fundamental to the faith and what is merely institutionalized response gets blurred.
Does Communion have to be actual wine and unleavened bread to still count as holy? If you don’t actually lay hands on someone, are prayers of healing still effective? Does a church have to gather in the flesh to count as a congregation?
Every church, and every member of your church, will have different views on such often-undiscussed questions. The COVID-19 outbreak presents a needed moment of doctrinal stocktaking.
Every church board and pastoral staff team in Singapore has come together many times over the past month to grapple with what is non-negotiable in God’s eyes.
“The biggest lesson for me has been navigating the road between fear and wisdom,” said pastor Andre Tan of The City Church. “It is especially tough as fear often has a way to masquerade itself as wisdom. How many precautionary measures are actually sound judgment and how many are too much, such that they teeter over into irrational fear and anxiety?
“It is a tough road to navigate, as we had to both convey safety to our members—by way of implementing recommended health measures—and yet not succumb to the cultural climate of fear, anxiety, and self-preservation,” Tan told CT. “We do so in all our notices by ensuring that we are not just communicating measures but also casting a vision for how to be the people of God in this time.”
In practical terms, a church’s response will vary depending on its doctrine, local context, and exposure to suspected cases of COVID-19. There is no correct answer; all are seeking the most appropriate response in extraordinary times. Precautions that Singaporean churches have taken to maintain services include:
- Taking temperatures at worship services and smaller-scale gatherings.
- Mandating travel declarations and recording contact details of attendees to facilitate tracing of contacts if needed.
- Suspending gatherings of more vulnerable groups, such as the elderly or children.
- Suspending Communion, or moving to alternatives such as pre-packaged bread and wine.
- Moving away from hymnals to limit physical points of communal contact and using projection screens instead.
Some have chosen to suspend their services entirely. The Roman Catholic archdiocese, which accounts for about 7 percent of Singapore’s 5.8 million people, took the unprecedented step of suspending Mass in its 32 parishes starting February 15, advising congregants to continue to fulfill their spiritual obligations by tuning in to online sermons, spending time in prayer, and reading the Word at home.
2) Be a strong leader. Your members will want guidance.
“In moments of crisis, people are looking for leadership,” said Ian Toh, pastor of 3:16 Church. “The first responsibility of the leader is to remain calm. Panic causes tunnel vision, which is terrible for decision-making. Strong leadership reminds people that God is in control of every situation and there is never a reason to panic.”
Toh told CT his leadership team found their role was “to teach from the Bible, minister to and encourage those who are fearful.” The process drove them to their knees, seeking divine wisdom in an unprecedented situation.
“The biggest lesson that I have learned dealing with COVID-19 is the need to be humble as a church leader," said Toh. “There is so much that I do not know and have to learn. And that increases my desire and the need to seek the face of the Lord daily.”
As the virus continues to spread globally, church leaders around the world should be aware that their flocks are watching their shepherds intently. Signals of faithfulness will have implications long after the COVID-19 season is over.
“A senior leader once told me, ‘A leader’s action is a theological statement,’” said Rick Toh [no relation], pastor of Yio Chu Kang Chapel. “As leaders, we need to have a theological stance on all things. We need to process our fears before God and let our actions be inspired by faith and guided by sound theology. Let not disease, or earthly decree, but doctrine guide our decisions.”
3) There’s no better time to up your church’s tech game.
While the Singaporean government has said an upgrade to the Red risk assessment level is “unlikely,” local churches have explored improvements to their video recording and live-streaming capabilities in preparation for a worst-case total lockdown scenario.
Seeing the need, various groups have put together websites and webinars with free advice for churches on how to switch to livestreaming.
For example, the Bible Society of Singapore partnered with ThunderQuote, a procurement-related startup founded by Christians, to launch Streams of Life, a resource center listing various livestreaming options ranked by difficulty level.
“It is a wonderful time for the ecclesia to exercise practical wisdom and explore creative methods of ministry,” the Streams of Life team states on its website.
In a similar vein, Singapore Bible College conducted an “Introduction to Instant Message Broadcast and Live Video Streaming” workshop, while digital-exploration ministry Indigitous partnered with church IT specialists to host a “So You Want to Livestream Your Church Service” webinar via the Zoom video conferencing platform.
Church worship and AV teams are also navigating the music licensing challenge that livestreaming presents. Many local worship groups have explicitly granted permission for churches to play their songs on livestreams without fear of copyright or licensing issues.
Awaken Generation, founded by Calvin and Alarice Hong, was “keenly aware” of how small churches could find it difficult to afford livestreaming licenses for worship services. “Given the backdrop of things, we simply felt that it was really not the time to enforce our strict rights in collecting livestreaming communication fees,” the worship group told CT. “So it was our honor to offer these songs for use.
“They were written by and for the people of our nation, and it was our privilege to see them used as an offering as the nation rallied together to intercede and break down barriers of fear.”
Bible Study Fellowship’s 7,500 members in Singapore have kept up their weekly lectures and discussions via Zoom.
Faith Community Baptist Church (FCBC) chose to suspend weekly gatherings from mid-February as an act of social responsibility. “This decision was a very difficult one to make,” said senior pastor Daniel Khong. “We were constantly checking ourselves to make sure that we were not responding out of fear, and weighing out all the various considerations. But our main church building sits in the heart of a neighborhood with a population of about 46,000 people. With how dense this area is, this could potentially become a major cluster for the virus to spread.”
An unexpected result: The move to livestreaming seems to have strengthened the church community, Khong told CT.
“Many of our cell groups come together in homes to watch our service livestream. We deliberately end our livestreamed services early so that our cell groups can go out and pray over their neighborhood. Many have said they now feel a sense of responsibility for the spiritual well-being of their community, and some were even able to share the gospel with people they met.”
FCBC members are now on a journey of rethinking their understanding of church, said Khong. “The church today must be a people of purpose that are willing to go beyond the constraints of ‘place’ or ‘program.’”
4) There’s no better time to up your church’s prayer game.
At noon every day since Valentine’s Day, the historic bells sound at St Andrew’s Cathedral in the heart of Singapore’s civic district, while phone alarms go off across the island. It’s a signal to believers that it is time to stop whatever they are doing for a moment of united prayer in the face of the COVID-19 threat.
“For such a time as this, unity is the key,” said LoveSingapore, a local prayer and church unity movement, in announcing its PraySingapore@12 initiative. “We believe in the power of prayer agreement. For such a time as this, we need every believer to arise and seek God together for Singapore. A prophetic act, just like the ringing of church bells, summoning the faithful to action when their village or town is threatened.”
In a similar move, the Assemblies of God of Singapore has called for united prayer across its churches at 7 p.m. daily, in an initiative it has dubbed COVID–19:00.
“It’s crucial that in times of crisis, the church rises up to be a standard,” said Dominic Yeo, general superintendent of Singapore and secretary of the World Assemblies of God Fellowship. “As salt and light, the church needs to stand strong in the Lord so that others can see the hope we profess.”
5) Expect backlash—from both outside and inside the church.
Inflammatory comments about race and religion are banned in Singapore under the Sedition Act and the recently updated Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. However, since two coronavirus clusters formed in two churches, and negative associations have spread from the Shincheonji sect responsible for much of South Korea’s outbreak, the church at large has come under scrutiny as Christians continue to meet in relatively sizable gatherings.
The criticism is unfortunate but unavoidable; non-Christians cannot be expected to understand the tenets and teachings of our faith.
But more painful is the criticism that has come from fellow Christians with every decision their leaders have to make. Decide to suspend services, and be castigated for a lack of faith. Decide to continue to gather, and be derided as “socially irresponsible.”
If you are pastoring a church in an area where a case of COVID-19 has surfaced, prepare for unprecedented pressure from all levels: from your board to your staff to those in the pews. They will respond based on their own faith convictions and public health opinions. Be prepared to go deeper into prayer than you’ve ever gone. Be prepared for the reality that your decisions will not please everyone.
And be prepared to lose members no matter what. Churches in Singapore have reported declines in attendance of 20–30 percent, with even greater numbers opting out of elderly gatherings and children’s church.
One consolation, from the Singaporean church experience, is that you will likely be pleasantly surprised by how many of your members will step up to the plate to volunteer to serve during services or to bless the neighboring community.
Crisis shows the true character of a Christian. The anxiety around COVID-19 will allow you to really discern the spiritual state of your flock, said pastor Benny Ho of Faith Community Church in Perth, Australia, and a continuing committee member of LoveSingapore.
“If we respond to this crisis correctly, it can turn out to be a defining moment of discipleship for our nation,” said Ho. “In the face of imminent dangers, our priorities are rearranged. This is a great opportunity to have deep conversations about what we are living for. Are we merely existing, or are we truly living? Are we living for the right stuff? Are we marching to the right drumbeat? Are we governed by biblical or worldly values? Are we living for what really matters?”
6) Love your neighbor. Good deeds will go a long way with a fearful public.
While much of the secular world’s response to the virus has been inward-looking, driven by fear, pastors in Singapore agree that the COVID-19 situation presents a God-given chance to shine in the darkness of the moment. However, for that to happen, the church must look beyond its own concerns and awaken to the opportunity.
“Having put in place the necessary measures in the church, we realized that this crisis has presented an opportunity to help and reach the community,” said Lim Lip Yong, executive pastor of Cornerstone Community Church.
After the initial window of adjusting to the new normal, churches have begun to observe how their local community has been affected. The needs are both practical—such as education on public hygiene for the elderly—and emotional, with panic and uncertainty the prevailing mood in the weeks after the first confirmed cases surface locally.
“One of the distinct things that we wanted to affect was the atmosphere of the community,” Lim told CT. “At the onset of the outbreak, people acted in fear. In Singapore, panic buying took hold of many people. Healthcare workers were chased off public transport for fear that they had come into contact with outbreak patients. Highly discriminatory remarks were made against Chinese nationals.
“We can never fully remove these negative elements in society,” he said, “but what we can do is ensure that there are more positive vibes being generated than negative ones. So we sent our people out to care—to be kind and go the extra mile to help.”
Among other efforts, his church staff and members have reached out to migrant workers—many of whom have been unable to earn a living after projects were canceled due to virus fears—and taxi drivers, whose business has been badly affected with people choosing to stay home during this period.
Similarly, Christians across Singapore have kickstarted many acts of love and kindness, including:
- A song of hope written by a 12-year-old.
- Blessing neighborhood cleaners.
- Giving migrant workers free masks and vitamins.
- Making thousands of handmade notes to encourage healthcare workers.
- Organizing a blood drive to help local blood banks that run low on supplies as people avoid hospitals.
Viruses spread quickly, acknowledged Lim. “But kindness is infectious too.”
Who is hardest hit in your area? Those directly afflicted with the virus? Those whose jobs have been disrupted by fear of it? Those emotionally weary of responding to it? Many of their doors would otherwise have been closed to the church, but Christians in Singapore have found new inroads through acts of love in this time of coronavirus.
7) Amid all the bad news in the headlines, the Good News of Jesus Christ is more relevant than ever.
“The world has a virus infection that is far greater than all the viruses we’ve ever known throughout its history. That virus is sin,” said Edmund Chan, leadership mentor of Covenant Evangelical Free Church.
“And with this virus, there is absolutely no immunity, no survivors, and no hope. And it infects 100 percent of all humanity. No one is spared from this.
“The world is in need of a Savior. The world is in need of salvation.”
Headlines that regularly ratchet up the local and global death counts are daily reminders of our mortality, forcing everyone to look beyond the routines of life and to consider what lies beyond. Memento mori; we all will someday die, by COVID-19 or otherwise.
It is a matter of urgency that your church is able to look beyond your present difficulties and look out for opportunities to share the hope that we have in Jesus.
“We need conversations on deeper issues,” said Ben K. C. Lee, pastor of RiverLife Church. “Is the meaning of life and our time on this earth the prolonging and preservation of life for as long as possible? Is it to be occupied with temporal things: material wealth and comfort? Or is it to fulfill Jesus’ desire to see all the rooms in our Father’s house that he has prepared being filled to the brim?”
This starts with a public, visible expression of the victory and hope that we have in Jesus. There is an unprecedented opportunity to share the reason for our posture of faith amid fearful times, said Chua Chung Kai, pastor of Covenant Evangelical Free Church.
“We do not live as those without hope—that’s what the gospel is all about! But we have friends, neighbors, and family who do not know that hope. They may open up to share their fears and concerns during such crisis,” Chua told CT. “As the Old Testament prophet Daniel wrote [in Dan. 12:3], ‘Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.’”
The panic is tangible. But so, too, can be the love of the church, said Chua.
“These are gospel moments. We can spread love, not fear, nor the virus. Let’s not waste this epidemic.”
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