Early in 2020 the entire world suddenly paused. COVID-19 disrupted our way of life and continues to be a significant threat against humanity as we go through our second autumn with it. The pandemic has also exposed and exacerbated many social issues around the globe and further strained our lives. Amid the disruption, however, we have witnessed countless individuals exercising the courage to confront painful realities and showing the tenacity to face challenging times.
Across the globe, health-care professionals lived vulnerably, working resiliently on the front lines to provide care for those in need. Many Christians have also become more faithful and committed to their mission in this time of anxiety and uncertainty. They have quickly adapted to a new normal, moving into digital space to continue their spiritual witness. It has been electrifying to see numerous Adventist churches serving their community as centers of emergency food distribution while simultaneously engaged in their spiritual mission.
Throughout its history, especially during times of widespread disease contagion, the Christian church has shown the contagious compassion of Jesus,1beginning with their witness of service during the devastating Antonine Plague (A.D. 165-180), probably smallpox, that may have killed up to a third of the entire Roman Empire. Less than a century later, Christians ministered to the sick when the deadly Plague of Cyprian (A.D. 249-262), possibly measles or smallpox, invaded the empire, killing up to about 5,000 people in Rome per day, and annihilating two thirds of the population of Alexandria, second-largest city in the empire.
The defiance of the Christian church against society’s limits on kindness and courage was felt in every corner of the empire.
During these plagues the church, still in its early stages, responded by unselfishly caring for the sick and the suffering—Christians and non-Christians alike. People were comforted and encouraged by Christians’ assurance that plagues were not the curse of the gods. The defiance of the Christian church against society’s limits on kindness and courage was felt in every corner of the empire.
The same practice was exhibited by Christians during what some call the most devastating natural disaster in human history, the Black Death (1346-1353). About two centuries later Martin Luther decided to stay in his community to serve the sick when the bubonic plague hit his area (A.D. 1527), and he wrote about the Christian’s duty to stay at their post in times of crisis.2 In the nineteenth century, famed British pastor and theologian Charles Spurgeon cared for the sick during an outbreak of cholera in London in 1854.
Thus, the Christian church throughout its history has repeatedly adapted itself to different ways of doing church in order to coexist with or effectively handle disasters. Christians have been involved, not to make a name for themselves, but simply to follow the instruction of Jesus Christ, who instructs us to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). And Christian commitment to self-sacrificing service has been as evident during the current pandemic as it was in past history. Eighty-six percent of U.S. Protestant churchgoers are proud of how their church has responded during the COVID-19 pandemic.3
COVID-19 will be around for some time. The prospect of a prolonged period with the virus is certainly disheartening. Yet life will go on. We must therefore give full consideration to how we shall coexist with the virus, identifying new ways to define, practice, and measure what matters in our church’s life both now and after the pandemic. As a new reality sets in, we face the crucial question: Are we placing the utmost significance upon what is essential and core to our existence as a church?
Gladly, the church has already adjusted its forms of interaction. More important, we have also adapted our understanding of how to do church: virtual worship clearly stands on a more significant footing than before; “gathering” now highlights the fundamental sense of “connecting”; radically different understandings of the use of the church building have taken hold.
The Christian faith is built on history’s most horrible trauma—the death of God’s innocent Son on a criminal’s cross. This belief is the foundation of the Christian faith, radically reorienting us away from secular standards and values, and toward our self-abasing, self-sacrificing Servant God. We now gladly participate in the traumatic experience of the crucified Christ through our daily living and practice (Gal. 2:20), finding immeasurable strength in Him (2 Cor. 12:7-10) even in the midst of profoundly painful trauma.
God, our Savior and model, is the same yesterday, now, and forever (see Heb. 13:8). This statement transcends objective fact. It strengthens believers to overcome the spiritual fatigue threatened by the current pandemic, enabling us to find flexibility in reshaping our church life in this time of anxiety, uncertainty, and many unknowns. The form and modality with which we practice our spiritual affairs may change, but the focus of our faith, Jesus, remains the same. No pandemic can steal our focus on Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
The mission that Jesus, the church’s head (Eph. 1:22, 23), has bestowed upon it is still valid, and calls for our continued commitment (Matt. 28:16-20). As the pandemic critically sharpens our focus on mission, we continue to reassess how we do church, focusing on what matters most. How we fulfill the gospel commission is the prism through which we view everything about church life. That perspective continues to define the nonessential elements, which may be altered by a thoughtful process of dialogue and consensus. The gospel commission beckons our church toward a place of authentic faith, of genuine Christianity, which alone can withstand the test of time and pandemic seasons of economic dislocation, disease, and death.
Just before His crucifixion, Jesus commanded His disciples to “remain in” Him (John 15:4, NIV). It was an unusual time of uncertainty, tension, and unknowns. He urged them to make a conscious act of will to continue to remain in Him.4
For us, His followers doing church today, tomorrow, and until He comes, Jesus’ highest prescription and expectation is that we make the same commitment to Him, during our own unusual time of uncertainty, tension, and unknowns. He desires us to engage with Him intentionally; He urges us to continue to remain united in Him; He need us to live lives that allow Him to continue to remain in union with us as we see “the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:25, ESV).5
Kyoshin Ahn is executive secretary of the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, Columbia, Maryland.