Around the World, January 2021
INDIA FEATURED PHOTO (above): A young woman in the farming…
In Canada, where a new wave of COVID-19 is straining hospital capacity, Christians still meet for worship online — as they have since March.
In New Zealand, where strict quarantine measures have drastically reduced case numbers, church members are meeting in person again — and even hugging.
Regardless of their status, Christians around the globe say that the microscopic virus has caused tectonic shifts in how they meet, how they minister and how they see the world.
“Rich or poor, every person, family, community and nation was at a standstill,” said Gigie Carranza, who worships with a small Church of Christ south of the Philippines’ capital, Manila.
Her biggest takeaway from 2020: “No matter how grand my plans are — for myself or for my so-called ministry — it is always up to the Lord.”
The Christian Chronicle asked members of Churches of Christ worldwide about the impact of COVID-19 on their worship services and spiritual lives. Respondents shared stories of lockdowns and loss, but also of innovation and unintended blessings amid the trials of 2020.
A day before the Manila metro announced a strict lockdown, Carranza was preparing to travel to Finland to visit her brother. That didn’t happen.
Months later, after a massive typhoon battered the Philippines, Carranza and her coworkers with the MARCH for Christ relief mission had to reinvent their method for helping storm victims. Instead of sending a team to survey damage, “we had to depend on the church family nearest the area to do that for us,” she said. “We had to rely on technology — online purchases, money transfer, Zoom meetings.”
As they worship online, members of the Twinville Church of Christ in Manila also are doing what they can to serve victims through Metro Manila Ministries, said Danni de Vera, the ministry’s coordinator and minister for the church.
“The brethren have become more prayerful and watchful on the word of God,” de Vera said. “Coronavirus will not stop us in serving the Lord.”
In France, where lockdowns were initiated in spring, eased in summer and reinstated as cases rose in autumn, the pandemic “has been a reminder of the importance of faith and relying on God,” said minister Robert Limb.
But “my faith in people, including Christians, has been severely challenged,” said Limb, who preaches for the Moulin-Vert Church of Christ in Paris. Although his congregation “has been of one mind” on masks and social distancing, Limb expressed disbelief, even disgust, at those who have claimed that mask-wearing shows a “lack of faith or that the whole thing is a hoax.”
In the Netherlands, “we have struggled to be unified … to keep people safe versus unwanted restrictions,” said Lucinda Vrieze, a member of the Church of Christ in Eindhoven. For worship “we have about 15 people in the building and maybe five to 10 online. It has split the church.
“My faith in God is stronger,” Vrieze said. “I have hope that God is working through these difficult times to strengthen our church family.”
Changing regulations and uncertainty have made it hard to plan church activities, said Scott Raab, evangelist for the Maastricht Church of Christ in the Netherlands. As churches have moved their activities online, however, several have reconnected with former members who have moved — some to locales as far away as Iran.
“The reality that has become apparent, of how worldwide the church truly is, … has been very encouraging,” Raab said.
Yet he longs for believers to be allowed to gather — and sing — in large groups again. After the pandemic, “take every opportunity to be together,” he said. “Take nothing in the Lord for granted.”
In the London metro, the Wembley Church of Christ has met online since March. The government recently advised that groups of up to 30 could worship in the church’s building, but many members do not feel ready for that, said member Bethan Mentore.
“The pandemic has given our congregation opportunities to help the local community through providing food parcels for families in need,” she said. Another big help has been online classes provided by the British Bible School. COVID-19 “has also enabled opportunities to invite people to worship who may not feel comfortable going into a church building.”
In Belgrade, Serbia, the Karaburma Church of Christ responded to its country’s lockdown by distributing 14,500 cards through the mail offering Bible and books produced by Eastern European Mission.
“That gives us a safe environment as we have to social distance,” said preacher Drasko Djenovic. The church also advertised on Facebook and sent more than 50 Bibles through the mail. At least two of the recipients have visited the congregation since in-persons gatherings resumed in the fall. But some church members did not return to worship.
Now the church faces a new round of restrictions, Djenovic said, and in the past week at least four Protestant minister have passed away.
“I pray for God’s protection,” Djenovic said, “and wisdom to witness to those with fear.”
In Bucharest, Romania, the usually packed and polluted streets are peaceful and quiet, said church member Lavinia Cook. The Church of Christ uses a hybrid in-person and online model.
Describing her own faith journey during 2020, Cook said, “It seemed like I was more under Satan’s attack. I feel like I had to rely on God more. I pray for an end to this pandemic, but I also pray that we will remember the lessons we’ve learned.”
The nations of Africa haven’t reported the case numbers seen on other continents, though church members there report increasing hospitalizations and deaths.
In the country with the most cases, South Africa, “I have lost five people whom I know to COVID, one of them a cousin,” said Keith Johnson. “It’s getting to a point where I don’t want to check my messages.”
Johnson, a native of South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, lives in Arkansas and serves as Africa regional coordinator for World Bible Institute. He described Christians there as “devastated and discouraged.” Via Zoom, Johnson recently coordinated a series of Bible classes with speakers from around the world.
In Kenya, minister Charles Ngoje said he’s battling the virus and that the “prayers of the believers are great.” Lockdowns have taken away many church members’ livelihoods, and ministry training schools are struggling to survive, Ngoje said.
In Uganda, some lockdowns have been lifted, and churches are able to meet for in-person worship, albeit with masks, social distancing and little interaction, said Bosco Mukholi, evangelist for the Lwanda Church of Christ.
“We believe God is going to heal this land,” he said, referencing the words of 2 Chronicles 7:14. “We pray that God will bring a solution to COVID, as many people are losing their lives.”
India had the second-highest number of cases in the world, behind the U.S., at press time, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Many congregations continue to meet in person, with precautions, including the Ganti Church of Christ in central India’s Andhra Pradesh state.
Minister Joseph Gootam said he prays for healing — and that churches will be “watchful and strengthen the things that remain.”
In Panama, where strict measures have limited in-person gatherings, the El Valle Church of Christ has not met in person since March, said missionary Lisa Carter. The church conducts Sunday worship, Bible classes and even times of singing via Zoom, Carter said.
In Costa Rica, the Heredia Church of Christ recently returned to in-person meetings. About 50 souls gather on Sundays, said minister Carlos Ulate. About 100 more join via social media — exceeding the average number of worshipers pre-pandemic.
In the early days of the pandemic, 10 church leaders committed to regularly check on 14 church members each by phone. The goal, Ulate said, was to assess the members’ needs for benevolent work.
“However, it also afforded the opportunity to get to know them better,” the minister said, “as calling some of them ended up in conversations in which some emotional needs were met.”
Before the pandemic, some members were merely attending services on Sundays and living like the rest of the world during the week and “not really following Jesus,” Ulate said. During the lockdown, he conducted one-on-one Bible studies with several members. At least one “has returned and has asked me to help him truly find the Lord.”
After enduring a strict, months-long lockdown, Christians in New Zealand are back to in-person worship services, said Johnathon Atchley, a deacon of the Otumoetai Church of Christ in Tauranga. Even hugs are permitted.
During the lockdown, the church pre-recorded its worship services and had viewers from countries including Australia, Fiji, the U.S. and Chile.
Atchley, who teaches at South Pacific Bible College, said he remembers pre-pandemic discussions “about whether it was possible to join a worship service if you’re ‘just’ online,” he said. “Well, it seems that the question has been answered.”
Farther north in the South Pacific, the virus has not yet reached the tiny islands of American Samoa, a U.S. territory. Churches closed as a precaution but reopened in May, said David Willis, minister for the Lupelele Church of Christ.
“The pandemic has strengthened the resolve of most of the members to live faithfully day by day,” Willis said. “We have actually added three new families to our membership and a men’s Bible study due to people realizing that God should be more at the forefront of our lives.
“People are watching how Christians respond to a crisis.”
As provinces across Canada report spikes in COVID-19 cases, many congregations continue to meet online exclusively.
“The changes have been challenging in some sense,” said Travis Hutchinson, lead minister for the Shelbourne Street Church of Christ in Victoria, British Columbia, “but we have also noticed an upswing in members being willing to contribute in prayer, blessing, communion thoughts and daily devotionals. Many folks who were nervous about getting up in front of the congregation are not as nervous being able to record and edit something.”
Meaningful, in-person interactions are “a large portion of why I love ministry,” Hutchinson said. Adjusting has been tough, he added, and the pandemic has challenged him “to let go of some of my presumptions about what church looks like.”
“As I allow the Holy Spirit to work in me, he reminds me that he is wind, water and fire,” the minister said. “These elements do not pound and rage against obstacles they encounter. Instead, they move, adapt and find new paths.”
Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.
Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.