Pastoring Amid Pandemic: Counsel from a Pastor in China
We were enjoying our last few days out of the country for an annual missions conference when we first heard about a strange sickness in central China. It was late January, and none of us were eager to return from the tropical weather to cold, urban realities. To be honest, I think we all repeated the same thing to each other numerous times, “This will all blow over in a week or two.”
We were very wrong.
We started to realize how wrong on the flight back. We were the only people not wearing masks. In the airport at passport control, the zig-zag, roped-off area to line up was eerily empty. We were the only foreigners entering the country at that moment. Over the next week we began to learn the meaning of “lockdown.” Those who hadn’t made it back from annual spring festival travel either weren’t coming back or would be subject to quarantine on arrival. The facility that rents us meeting space for Sunday service informed us we would no longer be able to use it. Urban housing communities began sealing off to non-residents. And nearly everything in the city closed. Stores, restaurants, schools—everything. There’s nothing more eerie in a city of 25 million people than to look up and down the streets and see . . . nobody.
HOW TO GATHER?
The pastoral challenges that this created were several. The first: how to gather? We were persuaded that though gathering as a large group was no longer possible, we didn’t want to give up meeting face-to-face on the Lord’s Day. Many churches around us chose to stream their services, finding no other safe alternative. Among pastors there were also different views on how much to follow the government’s ban on meetings of any kind. While we shared the desire to do our part in the fight against the spread of the virus, and recognized the need to love our neighbor as ourselves, we simply could not bring ourselves to cancel meeting as the Lord’s people on the Lord’s Day.
So, we decided to split into groups of 15 adults or fewer and meet in homes. We added the precautions of following quarantine procedures for those coming from infected areas and not allowing anyone with symptoms to come. Once we divided up, we came up with a simplified service and looked for preachers, service leaders, and music leaders in each group. This was one of the most encouraging things that happened over the weeks that followed. Though we weren’t sure how it was going to happen, God provided for every group. Several brothers gave their first messages ever in our church. Different people stepped up to handle the collection, and the child-care, and the ordering of lunch after the service. Everyone was encouraged by the result, though understandably some still struggle with the risk we were taking.
FEAR & UNCERTAINTY
The second big pastoral challenge was shepherding the fear and uncertainty people felt. In an environment where rumors and misunderstandings abound, people are naturally afraid for themselves and their loved ones. They don’t know what to think and what to believe. We tried to look into God’s Word for guidance. A fellow pastor in Wuhan wrote an article encouraging other churches to study Psalm 91 and to combine it with fasting and prayer. This is what we tried to do. Psalm 91 begins:
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” 3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. 4 He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. 5 You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, 6 nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday. (Psalm 91:1–6)
The Psalmist points the way to a “secret place” or a “shelter”—a place of refuge for the fearful believer. Especially in times of pestilence, this psalm has been of great comfort to God’s people. Consider Spurgeon:
In the whole collection there is not a more cheering Psalm, its tone is elevated and sustained throughout, faith is at its best, and speaks nobly. A German physician was wont to speak of it as the best preservative in times of cholera, and in truth, it is a heavenly medicine against plague and pest. He who can live in its spirit will be fearless, even if once again London should become a place of quarantine, and the grave be gorged with carcasses.
Though careful not to take it as a promise that the believer can never get sick, we see the Psalm as an encouragement to continue on faithfully entrusting one’s future to the Lord. As W.S. Plumer in his Psalms commentary says:
Although God has not promised that his people shall not leave the world by casualty or malady . . . yet this is their rejoicing that the manner of their departure is settled not by caprice or luck, but by infinite wisdom; not by malice, but by unfailing love. Epidemics have no power except as they have a commission from God.
As a church, we studied together the story of sickness in the Bible. We saw that God regularly uses plague or sickness in the Bible to chasten or judge his people. “Famine, sword, and plague” were a frequent trio that we saw. For example, David’s sin of pridefully counting his fighting man in 2 Samuel 24 brings on a devastating plague. Even in the New Testament, Paul tells the Corinthian church that some of their number are weak or ill, and some have even died because of their sin (1 Cor 11:30). Revelation 6 tells us that the end times will include terrible pestilence. All of this is why the Christian church has historically seen times of sickness and plague to be a time to humble ourselves and to seek God afresh. This is why we felt it was right to heed the call of the pastor in Wuhan to fast and pray during this time in a more focused way. Meeting in smaller groups has allowed us to have more times of extended sharing and prayer than a normal Sunday service.
As we have sought to dig deeply in God’s Word together, we have also sought to dig more deeply into relationships with each other. While I understand that “social distancing” is key from an epidemic-control point of view, “spiritual distancing” is anathema to healthy discipleship. Whether through a video chat or meeting up to take a walk together, we’ve consistently encouraged our people to fulfill the commands to “encourage one another daily” and “spur each other on to love and good deeds.”
In the midst of the challenges, a final thing we’ve found essential is pastoral fellowship. A group of local pastors began meeting together weekly to pray and to share our thoughts on how best to deal with the crisis. Never has our fellowship been richer than in these days, as we encourage each other toward faithfulness rather than discouragement, fear, or lethargy. One of the brothers pointed us to Plumer’s counsel to pastors:
In times of public calamity, as a general rule we should stand in our lot, and do and suffer the Lord’s will there. We may indeed flee from pestilence, if we neglect no duty in so doing. This may sometimes be done, especially where a whole community may retire to a healthy spot. Where this cannot be done, let physicians, ministers of the gospel, public officers and those who may be useful as nurses stand their ground and commit their case to God. When moved by a right spirit such are in far less danger than many suppose. Their temperance and their courage are blessed as preservative. It is the hireling that seeth the wolf coming and fleeth. Blessed be God, our great Shepherd did not so. Let us follow his example, and if we fall, fall at the post of duty.
As we aim to continue our ministry and preach the Word in season and out of season, we are asking that God would use what others see as a great calamity to bring about a great awakening.