An Opportunity in a Crisis
Pr. Joel P. Joseph
Around this time last year, it would have been almost impossible for us to imagine national lockdowns, restrictions on movement, ban on social gatherings, and closed church buildings. But here we are, living with these restrictions for over six months now, in the wake of the pandemic.
As I write this article, there are 42.1 million reported COVID cases worldwide, and 1.14 million have succumbed to the disease. We have never experienced a pandemic of this scale in our lifetime, but history is no stranger to it.
Diseases of this scale have ravaged earlier as well. The previous pandemic of this scale was the Spanish Flu of 1918, in which nearly 50 million people died worldwide. Besides this, there have been epidemics that spread across smaller geographical areas – say a few states within a country or a couple of countries. India, for instance, suffered a plague epidemic from 1896 to 1904. Nearly 1.5 million lost their lives to it. So, while the current pandemic and the associated restrictions may be unprecedented for our generation, it is not new to Christendom and the world.
The Christian response to such crises in the past holds invaluable lessons for us today. During these times, Christian brothers and sisters served the people around them with love and reached out to them with the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is our turn now, as young people, to use our God-given resources and skillsets to enrich the body of Christ and reach the world with His love.
Ministering in the frontline
In his book The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis writes, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” The pain inflicted by the pandemic, therefore, presents us – especially the Christian frontline workers – with an opportunity to reach the world as God’s instruments of love.
During the Plague of Cyprian, one of the earliest recorded epidemics that started in AD 249 and lasted until AD 271, St. Dionysius of Alexandria noted a vast difference in the response of Christians from that of the others. At its peak, as many as 5000 people were dying of the plague every day in Rome alone. “At the first onset of the disease, they [the pagans] pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treating unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape,” Dionysius wrote. But the Christian response was in stark contrast to this: “Most of our brother-Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbours and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.”
Modern medical missionaries also sailed to distant lands amidst deadly epidemics and served the people there. Ida Scudder, the founder of Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore, was only 30 years old when she returned to India as a missionary doctor in 1900. When the plague hit Vellore in 1903, and as many as 17 people were dying every day, Ida grappled with the epidemic alongside the municipal commissioner. They went into the homes in Vellore, enforcing sanitary measures and administering prophylactic inoculations. Ida touched the community in Vellore with the love of Christ. About 20 years later, in her address to the first batch of graduating doctors, Ida said, “You will not only be curing diseases, but will also be battling with epidemics, plagues and pestilences and preventing them. Face trials with a smile, with head erect and a calm exterior. If you are fighting for the right and for a true principle, be calm and sure and keep on until you win.”
We have the ultimate model in Jesus Christ who touched the leper – the ailing, ostracised, untouchable section of the society – and cleansed him (Luke 5: 13). Young disciples of Christ serving in the frontline have an opportunity to touch lives with an encouraging word, a kind gesture or an act of love, leading people to Christ.
Ministering to the Church
Those of us who are not in the frontline can serve to nourish the body of Christ and reach the unreached during this pandemic. Over the past few months, we have witnessed the emergence of virtual fellowships and churches – a format where young, tech-savvy members of the church have much to contribute – even as governments have banned religious and social gatherings. Even in this aspect, we have precedence of the church using available media tools wisely for spiritual edification. During the 1918 pandemic, churches experienced a similar crisis where believers could not gather in corporate worship. Ministers used the resources available at the time to serve their congregation. In a recent article published in AL.com, Greg Garrison wrote how the clergy of different denominations used the newspapers of the day to encourage the members of the church. The Birmingham News had offered to print sermons, service outlines, scriptures and announcements. The clergy contributed a wide range of content, which ran under the headline, “Sermons given for churchless people of the city”, and the newspaper's introduction: “30,000 or more persons who usually wend their way churchward Sunday morning will be spending this Sabbath in their homes. The News presents to them excerpts from the sermons they would have heard had not the ruling of the City Commission closed the churches until the influenza epidemic is checked.” They also shared details of how to send their donations and tithes to the church and encouraged those who were ill or in need to contact the church so they could support them. In short, the church in Birmingham used print media to fellowship during the pandemic.
While this illustrates how we could use media to connect as a church during a pandemic, we must also be grateful to God for the various kinds of platforms we have today. We can now fellowship with the saints from around the world, seeing them virtually on our screens. It’s such a joy to meet with the members of the church even virtually. Moreover, the virtual format has given the young people another opportunity to serve as moderators and facilitators who bring the church home and ensure that the virtual fellowships run smoothly. I think this is the right time and the right opportunity to use the otherwise underappreciated technological skills to facilitate and stream virtual meetings, create content that edifies the church spiritually, and train fellow disciples in using media platforms effectively for ministry. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most churches rely on youngsters between 20 and 40 years of age to manage zoom accounts, host meetings and moderate discussions online.
Much like the church used newspapers in 1918, we can use social media to share encouraging messages and facilitate spiritual growth as a community. During the national lockdown in April-May, the local church that I am a part of used the WhatsApp group to conduct a chain prayer. Every day, along with the prayer points, we shared a song, a missionary life story, and a scripture portion to meditate. We also shared our reflections from the scripture portion we read. All of this helped us enormously in growing together while being miles apart.
As youth, we must use this time to host more youth group fellowships to connect with brothers and sisters to fellowship, grow in Christ, and discuss and implement ideas that would be beneficial for the growth of the church. We could also use this opportunity to create online content – modules for kids, youth, and elders – that can help in spiritual growth. Just as God blessed Bezalel and Oholiab with creative skills, intelligence, and knowledge (Exodus 35: 30-35), He has gifted some in the church with creative skills. And you must seek His face and employ these skills for the blessing of the church.
Ministering to the World
Although the pandemic has brought things to a standstill, it has provided a window to evangelise like never before. As people spend more time on their screens, we could reach out with content that persuades them to follow Christ. We have the great commission to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:16-20), and we now have the tools – YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Telegram etc. – to reach people behind sealed doors, high-rise buildings, isolation wards and makeshift tents. Such outreach is not only possible but is essential. As disciples of Christ, we must reach out to the ailing world with His message. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ can assure people, who are overwhelmed with insecurities, of eternal security.
The pandemic and the associated lockdowns have caused mental distress to many. In a survey of 159 psychiatrists and psychologists across India, conducted by the Suicide Prevention India Foundation (SPIF), about two-thirds of the therapists said that there was a rise in self-harm and suicidal tendencies among their clients. Over 50% of them also said that they were seeing more people who sought help for the first time. Anxiety, job loss, stress, loneliness and financial insecurity were the top reasons for mental distress among those who were seeking therapy. These are indicators of a world in need of the transformative touch of Christ. It is time for those who are gifted with skills like writing, videography, singing, playing music, editing, etc. to collaborate and create content to reach out to the world with the gospel of Christ.
The pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges and so too opportunities. When the loss of precious lives is becoming a mere statistic, we must never lose sight of the worth of one soul. We must reach out to as many as possible with the gospel of Christ with our words and deeds. Those who are in the frontline now have unique access to touch lives with the love of Christ. For as C. S. Lewis wrote, “…when pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.”