Phil Jones (overseas student worker in China) shares church and student-ministry lessons from 7 weeks of social-distancing in the COVID-19 pandemic

We are past the panic now. In a city of over 10 million people in China (not in Hubei province) our church has experienced the “coronavirus wave” over the past 2 months. Others have written theological reflections, lessons from doing church and even how to do evangelism in this season. This article shares some of the practical things we’ve done, enabled by God’s strength, to keep doing gospel ministry as the coronavirus pandemic impacted us and stopped us meeting.

Many countries are where we were in China two months ago: The USA today has the number of confirmed cases China had 7 weeks ago; Australia and Canada are 8 weeks behind; the UK 7½ weeks.

As I write, according to the number of confirmed cases, it appears that many countries are where we were in China two months ago: The USA today has the number of confirmed cases China had 7 weeks ago; Australia and Canada are 8 weeks behind; the UK 7½ weeks. The pandemic situation across various African and South American countries is also rapidly evolving. Here, for you outside of China, is what we’ve learned regarding church and international student ministry in this season.

Your context is different from ours. We are an international fellowship. Seventy percent of us are international students coming from over 50 countries. China’s political/social context has allowed the authorities to enact strong laws rapidly governing all areas of life, including travel restrictions, shuttered businesses and enforced social distancing (e.g., self-isolation and quarantine). Even so, we offer these learnings to you.

The Struggle of Social Isolation

Public policy has meant we’ve not met physically as church since 19 January and have had eight weeks working out what it means to worship together while not present. We have observed a “coronavirus wave” that has these phases:

  1. Shock: panic, fear, anxiety. Some restrictions on meeting in person.
  2. Grief: frustration, anger, sadness, though some acceptance. Stronger lockdown conditions preventing people meeting together or even leaving university campuses.
  3. Boredom: isolation, compassion fatigue, sinful habits (e.g., pornography), disconnectedness, adjusting to the “new normal.”
  4. Tiredness: lack of exercise, lots of indoor time and online/screen time, loss of daily rhythm, but now with the added pressure of online classes starting.

The net result is a pervasive sense of isolation and disconnection in our congregation.

Caring at a Distance

To help alleviate some of these struggles, we have tried to find practical ways to keep caring for our students and fight the feeling of relational atrophy. These have included:

Letters to parents

Our church wrote an open letter, addressed to the parents of international students, which they could send on our behalf. It explained the context and reassured them that their son or daughter was “on our radar”—connected to a caring community of Jesus Christ.

Practical taskforce

International students are naturally at a social disadvantage and powerless, often due to the language barrier. Our church set up a “Corona Taskforce” led by our deacons to find out and address practical needs in our congregation.

Virtual follow-up

We’ve asked our ministry leaders to proactively reach out to others via social media and phone individually, and not rely just on group messages. In an environment where people hunker down—or are just plain tired—initiative from our leaders has been crucial. Small group structures have been strengthened through this further decentralisation of pastoral care, while still caring for the carers.

Online communications

We’ve created and maintained social media groups for ministry purposes. These groups have enabled us to communicate effectively with our people. They have ensured that leaders are present in the digital spaces inhabited by our congregation members.

Zoom (a conferencing app we would highly recommend) has facilitated countless ministry opportunities. We’ve used it to run:

  • Leaders’ meetings;
  • Daily prayer meetings;
  • A two-week online Bible and evangelism training conference (extended to 4 weeks);
  • Bible study small groups;
  • Evangelism training using “Christianity Explored;”
  • Corporate “Zoom church” services.

Zoom church.

Jay Kim explores some issues of online church, including wrestling with the biblical priority to be together. For some weeks, our fellowship offered decentralised Zoom church experiences hosted by various small groups. We used social media groups and our own website to deliver digital material for our services including service outlines, song links and lyrics, Bible readings, and pre-recorded audio or video sermons by our own preachers.

But more recently we’ve been hosting “all in” Zoom church. Those peripheral to our church more easily joined an official centralised online church service. With the band/choir joining Zoom church together using one login, they’ve led us in worship songs while someone else shared the slides. Other attendees muted their microphones for most of the service. But when welcoming newcomers or during question time we ask people to unmute and turn on their video, which has increased our sense of community.

Anything online inherently leans toward passive consumerism by attendees—especially so with one-way, live-streaming YouTube or Facebook. So we’ve used the breakout rooms feature of Zoom to increase interaction. If the breakout rooms are managed well, even online with a large group, you can create a sense of togetherness and closeness if you allow time for introductions, sharing and praying. Older members can also participate in Zoom meetings simply by using a phone and dialling a local number. While we’ve had no weddings, funerals or baptisms online, we have celebrated the Lord’s Supper online and it was a powerful act of unity when we did it.

Surprising Opportunities.

God has graciously allowed us in this COVID-19 season to take up many ministry opportunities. While universities scrambled to figure out online learning systems and people weren’t spending time commuting, we’ve had lots of extra time. As mentioned above, the crisis has allowed us to run online Bible and training courses. We’ve used expository Bible talks from previous conferences. These opportunities have dwindled as students became busier with online university courses.

God has graciously allowed us in this COVID-19 season to take up many ministry opportunities … We’ve seen some asking the bigger questions of life triggered by the fragility, uncertainty and fear all around.

Alongside the ministry training opportunities, we’ve seen some asking the bigger questions of life triggered by the fragility, uncertainty and fear all around. So, we have begun a weekly online Zoom 1-hour Bible and sharing time aimed specifically to connect with people who are not connected to our small groups. Numerous ministry leaders have contributed to a daily devotional which has been published online every day for the past 6 weeks. This brings God’s word to bear every day on our specific context and experience here in China.

In Conclusion.

Ministry during this time has been hard. At times our leadership teams have felt disconnected and have experienced relational tension and lethargy. Extra intentionality and energy have been required to push uphill against these natural tendencies, so online staff and leadership meetings have helped maintain a sense of teamwork. As individual leaders and as a team we’ve needed to feel what the congregation would feel before they did. And, thanks be to God, we’ve found ways to use technology to help us continue as a worshiping, growing and evangelising community.

Finally, whatever becomes necessary in your situation through government (or higher church) policy, be clear with your congregation about what you’re doing. People are easily confused and fearful about new regulations and technology, so walk gently with them, trusting ultimately in the Good Shepherd’s care for his flock.

And along the way pray that “by his power [our God] may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith” (2 Thessalonians 1:11).