April 4th, 2021, was both Chinese Tomb-Sweeping Day and Easter. On that day, churches in many counties and cities reopened after being closed down for more than two months due to the Spring Festival pandemic strike. Churches in some first and second tier cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Ningbo, reopened on the earlier Palm Sunday.
The on-site gathering of church services in various places has resumed one after another, making many believers and pastors grateful. At the same time, they find that the problem of loss of believers is increasingly serious especially in small and medium-sized churches.
This is also the follow-up influence on the church after several outbreaks and the rhythm of normalized pandemic prevention since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020.
Wuhan and Hubei: a microcosm of a serious loss of believers after church reopening
Pastor L has lived and worked in Wuhan for more than ten years. Talking about the initial situation when the pandemic broke out in 2020, apart from the difficulty of accessing medicines and living materials, he said that one of the deepest memories at that time was that brothers and sisters from all over the country and around the world prayed for Wuhan's rescue.
He also said that although the pandemic had passed for more than a year, people still attached great importance to pandemic prevention. When elderly believers came to services, their children were worried, so on-site gatherings had not resumed.
Pastor A, who has been serving in Wuhan for more than ten years, still remembers the fear that was caused by the pandemic last year. Speaking of the impact of the pandemic on the church, she mentioned two aspects. One was that the pandemic had enabled many local teachers, pastors and believers in Wuhan to reflect on the relationship between individuals and God, and also understand the value of life and faith through the test of life and death. One should understand the truth that they should always be grateful in their future life. Second, she encountered a great impact on her faith and ministry, which was mainly because her church was closed for a long time. Although online services were held, it was difficult to gather on-site, which brought a lot of blows to the confidence of ordinary believers. Therefore, she found that the loss of believers was relatively serious after the resumption of church.
Pastor W who serves in another city in Hubei Province said that their church was also facing serious loss of believers after the church resumed. According to their understanding, due to the limited number of people allowed to attend gatherings, many believers could not enter the church to attend services. On the other hand, because of the long closure time, many believers became used to online services, and even if their church had resumed, they were reluctant to go for on-site gatherings. In particular, due to health reasons, many local elderly believers chose to attend online services at home on the advice of their families. Under the influence of various reasons, the situation of losing believers is relatively serious.
Hubei churches are a microcosm of the subsequent impact of the pandemic. In fact, churches in Beijing, Shanghai, Henan, Anhui and many other places are experiencing a similar situation.
A female pastor from central China: "Although being confused, we need to think deep, reflect and find a way of transformation."
Sister F lives in a fourth-tier city in central China. Before the pandemic, there were about 100 people in her church, and about 50 to 60 people gathered every Sunday. However, after resuming in-person gatherings on April 1, 2021, only 30 people came to services. It was a loss of almost 40%.
She said, "We also have online services on Sundays - partly online. Yet some elderly people can't go online because they don't have mobile phones, so arrangements are made for them to attend on-site services. Sunday services are partly online and partly offline."
With regret, she added, "Many lost believers don't meet and come to church." It is not just the situation of her church. Now many churches around her are facing the problem of losing believers because of the difficulty of on-site gatherings. "Without physical gatherings, believers are very casual. They feel less compelled to attentive during online services. I don't know how the lives of believers are and some people don't admit that they are Christians in their workplaces."
In addition to losing believers, the decrease of donations to her church and the confusion of not knowing how to transform the church make Sister F confused and troubled.
However, all kinds of pressure also make her think about what God's will is. In this process, she found that the most important thing was her new discovery of the meaning of "church".
"I don't know what the road ahead is yet, but I recently found that the organizing form of a church is not important - when two or three people gather in the name of the Lord, the Lord is there with them."
"I didn't find it easy to adapt to it at first... It took a while to adapt to this change and I needed to adapt to the transformation of my church, both from the whole group to the individual. It's a difficult time and I don't know how to get there, but this is the transformation of a church - it takes time. I believe that if you look up to God, your brothers and sisters will not stop here all the time," she claimed.
The pastor explained, "In the past few years, Chinese churches focused much on outer appearance. No matter how big or small their work was, their working mentality was unconcentrated and impetuous, simply paying a great deal of attention to the outer form. I believe that every situation has God's beautiful will in it. In such a new change, people's minds can calm down to think about the problems."
During this time, she and her church workers have been reflecting. She concluded that instead of focusing on the outside environment, she should turn to herself. "I found that there were many problems in the church as well as with pasturing the believers, despite believing in the Lord for so many years. I find this kind of reflection quite good ... I have become more grateful instead."
Pastor X of Beijing: "A new normal has already started, and it takes time to sort it out."
Beijing has always attached great importance to daily pandemic prevention. Since March 16, 2021, Beijing has abolished the need for people from low-risk areas in China to hold negative nucleic acid test certificates showing that the test was carried out within seven days prior to their arrival in Beijing. Then, from late March, churches in various districts of Beijing resumed on-site gatherings.
When Pastor X was contacted at the end of March, their offline gathering had not yet resumed. He talked about the impact of the pandemic on his church and his personal pastoral ministry. He said, "Because my church is now stopped, what (the future church) should do is still under consideration. The pandemic came so suddenly that it was caught off guard that there was no good way to deal with it. We need to continue praying and thinking. This is a complicated issue."
He explained many inconveniences in online services. "It is also a problem that there is no interaction online as offline was." Therefore, at present, he advocates that believers find suitable gatherings and resources to study online and also accompany each other to read scriptures.
He said that even though in some places believers had started to meet each other because they have resumed gathering, a problem encountered was that many brothers and sisters had become accustomed to online gathering. Returning to offline and reality has brought some changes. For example, some people prefer to meet online instead of offline because of the time spent on travelling and the convenience at home. In addition, although there are many online gatherings and resources, it was a mix of advantages and disadvantages. He recalled that he was also locked up at home during the pandemic, so he spent a lot of time learning about different gatherings and resources. "The Internet resources are abundant and there are various new and strange viewpoints, which are really overwhelming". That makes "the church face an unprecedented test".
"Some believers have indeed improved spiritually through the pandemic while others have been seriously affected. When there is a crisis, some people encounter it and some avoid it. The pandemic makes everyone face new tests whether it is in faith, work or life."
He said that the pandemic had a great impact on pasturing believers, but the specific ones could not be generalized because of the great differences and need to be followed up and sorted out, which takes time.
"A new normal has already begun. It takes time to sort it out."
Brother Y of eastern China: "It is more important for believers to establish a personal relationship with God in ministry."
However, the church is not just experiencing losing believers. On the Sunday after Easter, a church in Hubei resumed for the first time and baptism services were done. Among them, more than ten brothers and sisters were baptized. When they were asked how they knew Jesus and decided to be baptized, many mentioned that it was related to the pandemic in 2020. The uncertainty and anxiety in the pandemic made them discover the power of peace given by faith.
The impact of the pandemic on some churches does exist, but it is not great. Brother Y, a young pastor in eastern China, said that the impact of the pandemic on his church was not great, because in the first half of the year before the pandemic the church was promoting group caring to lead believers in depth. Therefore, when offline gathering could not be reliably carried out due to the pandemic, group caring began to play its role, which enabled online caring. It greatly eliminated the impact of the pandemic on believers and strengthened the caring quality for believers.
This experience made him see that all churches and ministries on this earth will pass, only the Word of God will last forever. Brother Y said: "Pastors should pay more attention to the life of believers so that believers can establish a relationship with God instead of the church and pastors, in order to firmly stand in front of God no matter what situations they are facing."
- Translated by Charlie Li