Over the last month, life in the United States has changed drastically. Most people are living under some type of stay-at-home or lockdown order. Businesses, restaurants and services have shut down for indefinite periods of time. Churches have moved online as leaders try to determine how best to meet spiritual needs. And, most tragically, hundreds of thousands of people have gotten sick and thousands of people have died.
But of course, the coronavirus pandemic is not limited to the United States. The virus was first identified in China in December 2019, and by January 2020 it spread into an epidemic in China. Soon coronavirus spread to other countries—South Korea and Iran were hit particularly in the early part of 2020. And then it impacted western Europe, particularly in Italy and Spain, and the death toll in each place skyrocketed. Scenes from crowded and overwhelmed hospitals made their way across the world via social media—and then, the United States quickly became the epicenter of the pandemic.
For American Christians, our brothers and sisters living in some of these places can also give us a glimpse of what the future of the church might look like in the coming weeks and months. In China and Iran, the church is used to being forced underground and to be flexible—how did believers in these places follow God and share the gospel in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic?
Believers in Italy and Spain face much different daily realities than Chinese or Iranian Christians—but we can learn from them, as well, as they walk through the pandemic cycle we will soon enter.
So what can we learn from God’s global Church about the coming weeks and months of the COVID-19 crisis?
Fellowship online—new ways of reaching out
Like many American churches, believers in some of the hardest hit places around the world have turned online to continue worshiping together. Pastor Wu*, in southern China, leads a church that was affected by the coronavirus pandemic. “We started online services on February 2,” he says. “We are very grateful to have the technological tools to run real-time services—real-time worship, real-time prayer, real-time sermons. [For] communion, we asked brothers and sisters to prepare the bread and cup at home. Then we took the bread and cup together after prayer.”
Wahid*, an Iranian pastor who now pastors a church outside of Iran, also now meets online with his congregation. But he says his experience in an Iranian prison has helped prepare him for this pandemic. “Isolation is not the time to focus only on yourself. In fact, when I was arrested at a house church meeting and put into solitary confinement for 36 days, praying for others is what kept me going,” Pastor Wahid says. “I had no one to talk to, and no Bible to read from. But I prayed for the brothers and sisters that were arrested with me every day. And when we came out, I heard that the others had been doing the same for me.”
This church in other places affected by COVID-19 has also moved online. Cristiano D., who works with Open Doors Italy, has seen how God’s people have responded to the pandemic in his country, which has been brutally hit by the virus. “The churches reorganized themselves with live streaming on social networks or with private meetings on Skype or Zoom,” Cristiano says. “Even the church that I attend, for example, has started a live service on YouTube every Sunday morning, while during the week the home groups continue with meetings on Zoom.”
Cristiano has also noticed an encouraging trend. “From the experience of these weeks, we are seeing a good response in following live appointments,” he says. “Many people have joined and continue to connect—[including] people who would [not] normally enter a church.”
That sense of hope is echoed by Abraham Aparicio Moiche, who works for Open Doors Spain. “I know this situation is not ideal, but in some aspects it’s great to see most of the churches [in Spain] have enough resources to face this situation,” he says. “I don’t know if what is working here is going to work there, so I don’t have any particular advice, except try and think outside the box. Buildings might be closed but the Church is definitely not!”
Pastor Wu also noticed some positives from online gatherings. “Although we were not able to meet face to face, we felt online services were very flexible, more frequent and [we were able to have] more people attend,” he says. “We mobilize morning prayer every day, and ask brothers and sisters to share in groups [online or via social media]. We asked brothers and sisters to take turns and fast for 40 days and to read the Bible every day, and then share with each other. We connected deeper and more with each other!”
‘We have a chance to be good news’
Two Indian Christians receive coronavirus aid supported by Open Doors partners.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it can be hard to see how we can continue our work as Christians. Yes, online platforms allow us to “meet” together and to worship together, but how can we continue to live out the gospel or serve our neighbors during this time?
Some of the believers in countries who are ahead of us on the COVID-19 have walked this path already and their example may help us in America continue our callings. One unnamed Iranian church leader says: “We are doing all we can to provide food packages for the elderly and vulnerable who are unable to go out these days, or for those who have lost their job in these difficult circumstances. Throughout the year, we shared the good news of Christ with our neighbors and community; now we have a chance to be good news.”
A pastor in western China, Pastor Li, has helped people who are depressed or grieving from all the isolation, sickness and death. “Our church shared relevant Bible scripture to comfort [hurting people],” Pastor Li says. “We collect weblinks for sermons about sickness and death and then forward to brothers and sisters. We also ask what they need, and then provide practical support—things like help with housework, any resources needed, money, etc.”
Help persecuted Christians in the coronavirus crisis!
For many Christians already persecuted for their faith, the global pandemic is making live even more difficult. They have less access to healthcare, medicines and community services. Open Doors is committed to standing with the least of these—to ensure that the vulnerable have what they need too. God’s people need our help urgently—will you give today?
“We are trying to help people with all we’ve got,” says Abraham of Spanish believers. “Some people are really scared or they are alone because of the quarantine. Some people are hungry because they’ve lost their jobs and don’t have money to buy groceries. As a church, we try to bring hope to them. Delivering food or medicines, do the shopping for older people, call people in isolation so they don’t feel alone and pray for them are some of things the church is doing to help society in this critical situation.”
All of these are ways the American church can help and minister during this pandemic. Even when it’s unwise to gather physically, the work of God’s people doesn’t stop—it becomes even more important to help and support a hurting world. Showing Christ’s love through action is one of the hallmarks of the Church, and Christians around the world—including in places where it’s hard to follow Jesus!—are showing us how to do so.
A hope and peace like no other
A Syrian believer receives emergency aid provided by Open Doors partners.
One thing believers from each of these countries highlighted is the hope of Jesus that Christians can offer. In a time of deep fear and uncertainty—and increasing frustration and sadness for many Americans—it’s an important reminder that Christ offers a hope beyond anything else.
The comfort of God’s Word helped the people in Pastor Li’s church continue to have hope. “We encouraged brothers and sisters to read the Bible together,” he says. “The Word of God is full of power and can strengthen their hearts. I intentionally identified relevant Bible scriptures to encourage brothers and sisters.”
“In this difficult situation in which Italy finds itself, the slogan that is on everyone’s lips is ‘everything will be alright,’” Cristiano says. “Perhaps [it’s a] more timid hope, uttered in a superstitious tone by most people—but at the same time, [it’s] a great opportunity for the Church to bear witness to the eternal hope that can be found in Jesus.”
Pastor Wu in China knows that Jesus offers peace even in the middle of a scary pandemic. “I kept praying for God to strengthen the hearts of brothers and sisters,” Pastor Wu says. “We had started online services and our sermons delivered related messages in order to encourage and comfort brothers and sisters—our earthly environment changes under coronavirus, [but] we have real peace in Christ.
“Because of the quarantine it’s difficult to get to some people; however, sometimes a phone call is more than enough for a person to feel loved,” Abraham says. “We have a great gift to share, which is the hope we have in God. It’s really easy to fall into despair if you don’t have any hope. When people truly understand that God is with them through difficult times, the situation completely changes.”
“I have had to miss my fellow believers on several occasions—when the [Iranian] government shut down our church, when I was in prison and now again with the [corona]virus,” Pastor Wahid says. “This has made me appreciate my church more. Love grows during the absence of those we love. But each time I am also reminded of my dependency on the Lord. Outside of prison I might depend on myself, or others. But in prison I learned to depend on the Lord. I think this is what we can learn in this [COVID-19 crisis—to expect [help] from our God, alone.”
American believers have so much to learn from our brothers and sisters around the world. We believe we are one Church—one Family of God. Pray about how you can walk the path laid out for you by Christians around the world, and how God might be calling you to follow Him and help His people in ever deeper ways.