Leading the Church Beyond the Pandemic

My primary purpose in this paper is not to discuss theologically and philosophically what I understand is the nature and mission of the church. I am mainly concerned about how the church could respond and engage meaningfully to the needs of our time especially in the midst of this life threatening pandemic that has swept the whole world. More precisely, my intention is to understand how the church as the body of Christ should respond to crises situations and lead communities to resilience. My response to this question is born out of our actual experience and encounter with the Covid 19 pandemic. In this way, I hope I would rather sound practical and realistic than theoretical.

As you already know, among countries in Southeast Asia, the Philippines is the most badly hit by Corona virus. While other Asian countries are slowly recovering from this global pandemic, the Philippines is still reeling from its devastating effects. The number of people getting infected by Covid-19 is still escalating and the situation seems to get out of control. Budgets are getting depleted and the Philippine government is running out of funds to fight against the spread of the virus. Prolonged lockdowns, community quarantines and travel restrictions have paralyzed the Philippine economy and resulted to closure of businesses, losses of jobs and earnings.

The domino effects of this all- time low economic condition of our country is felt everywhere and our churches are no exceptions. The devastating economic impact of the pandemic has greatly hampered our operations and our varied ministries. Our churches and member institutions are forced to make contingency plans and cost-cutting measures to lessen the impact of these economic woes and in the process many of our plans and commitments are compromised.

The terrible impact of the pandemic is mostly felt because it comes at a time when our country has not yet recovered from a series of earthquakes in Mindanao and then the eruption of Taal volcano in Luzon. Obviously, the frequency of disasters that usually happens in our country has a significant impact on the recovery of affected communities since by the time they are about to recuperate, another disaster bears us down and so, the resources and coping cability of the people are depleted and compromised. 

Indeed, life in this most troubled and trying time is characterized by brokenness. People are feeling the pain of isolation, of losing their jobs and even their loved ones. The massive and terrible impact of the pandemic has led us to a heightened awareness of our human vulnerability and brokenness. It has made us more conscious of the undeniable reality that finitude, dependency and vulnerability are part of our being human and there are situations in life that are way beyond our human control.

Given the precarious state and condition of our country and the world, what must we do as a church called by God to become light and salt of the earth? How can we meaningfully address emerging issues and concerns such as the “new normal” that confront our churches today?  Let me venture and suggest a few things that we as a church can do in this time of pandemic and beyond:

First and foremost, as a church, we must accept and embrace the reality of our own brokenness and vulnerability. I understand that in a culture that is characterized by the dream of control and predictability, vulnerability is less desired or at most, must be avoided. The bearing values of modernity tell us that the ideal human being is independent, self-sufficient and invulnerable. Security in that sense is defined in opposition to vulnerability. To be secure is to be invulnerable.

This dream of invulnerability seems to find its way in the way we Christians think and do things in the church. We tend to avoid negative thoughts and emotions attached to our being vulnerable because they are a threat to our security and human existence. We even use religious language to suppress or deny them. As much as possible we want to paint a church that is perfect and invulnerable. This ethic of invulnerability however runs the risk of detaching itself from human reality. It runs counter to our faith conviction that is grounded in both our biblical heritage and in our daily experiences of the phenomenon of vulnerability. In fact, “we understand spirituality in the context of our humanity” and unless we are able to connect to our humanness, we cannot sympathize and identify ourselves with the vulnerable other- those who are weak, poor and suffering.

The Gospels depict the vulnerability of Jesus as pivotal to the fulfillment of his redemptive mission in the world. From his birth to his crucifixion, Jesus is portrayed as vulnerable and this vulnerability is understood not as a weakness, but as strength, not as defeat but as victory. Jesus’ victory was won not by virtue of using his heavenly power to dominate and control but by virtue of his humble act of allowing himself to be human and to identify himself with the sufferings of those he came to save. 

Looking at Jesus as our model, we are reminded that we are called to share in the sufferings of people around us, opening ourselves in this encounter to our own vulnerability and mortality. This is what it means to walk with Christ and to live up to our faith in God. An ethics of shared vulnerability enhances our sense of responsibility and accountability at all levels: in our personal dealings, in the family, in congregations, organizations, the local community and the larger society as a whole. Vulnerability in that sense is not a lamentable fact, but the basic precondition of a responsible, meaningful and productive life. It paves the way for the church to stand on street corners in solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the weak and the suffering.

My hope is that, this shared sense of vulnerability can lead our ethical thinking and missionary activities towards strengthening the spirit of interdependence, mutual accountability and redeeming love for all humankind. Keeping close to the central message of the Gospel and not yielding to the pressures and temptations of the powers of this world, the churches should be one of the principal actors contributing towards reaching this goal.

Second, this Covid-19 pandemic presents new opportunities for us to rethink and reconsider our usual way of doing things as a church. This pandemic phenomenon is creating new realities, new relationships, new concepts, new ways of thinking and doing things. It is drastically changing our missional context and we are challenged to think “outside of the box.” Whether we like it or not, “this world-wide phenomenon becomes a new condition or reality that exposes both the inadequacies and strengths of many of our churches, leadership and ministries.” “The global church therefore is obliged to reorient her ways of life and reframe her ministerial leadership style.” Changes, innovations, readjustments and restructuring of our methods and approaches to doing missions are inevitable.

The critical challenge for the church in this time of pandemic is how to deal with the emerging internet culture and the formation of the so-called virtual Christianity (new normal) where presence which is essential to its life and ministry is lacking and where communications are being made not face-to-face but through non-physical media platforms. We can be sure that the 21st century church will find a hard time trying to make sense out of these difficult and constantly changing situation.

Taking into account the gravity of the impact of the pandemic, one of the things that our churches should seriously consider is to come up with a clear and relevant vision and mission statement which incorporate disaster preparedness programs. In this way, our churches will be more proactive in responding to calamities that may come at any given time. This is vital for human existence and survival and therefore the church should give substantial attention to it.  

Third, this global pandemic accentuates the call for unity and collaboration among and between different churches and other organizations. To survive and go beyond this pandemic, we must affirm and acknowledge our interdependence and our need to unite and cooperate to achieve a common goal. As members of one body-the body of Christ, we are endowed with different gifts and yet we are guided and inspired by the same spirit to do God’s work. In that sense, building up the body of Christ requires cooperation rather than competition. Paul admonished, “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3).

This time of crisis should make us aware of the importance of living together in unity because our chances of survival as human beings and as a church will depend so much on our ability to unite and work together towards a common cause. There may be times when misunderstandings and disagreements occur among us. Like branches on a tree, our lives may grow in different directions, yet our roots remain as one. We are a people belonging to God and in Him, we are one.

Fourth and last, as we journey together and as we do God’s mission in the world, remember, God is with us. God is active in our lives and is responsive to our needs and to our prayers. And so, we should not despair in the face of adversities but look to God to work for good even in the worst of circumstances.The Bible presents a loving and caring God who dwells with and makes his home among his people. In the Old Testament, the tabernacle is an especially powerful symbol of God’s presence among his pilgrim people on earth. God’s people are sojourners in the land, thus they are uniquely placed to understand and identify themselves with the poor, the weak and the oppressed displaced, the refugees and the downtrodden, 

The church for that matter is among mankind as God’s tent of meeting, sharing in mankind’s joys and hopes, anxieties and sufferings. It stands with every man and woman of every place and time, to bring them the good news of the kingdom of God. Yes, in spite of our brokenness we can be a blessing to the world. As a community and as members of God’s household, we live with confidence in the promise that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus! We believe that no pandemic, no illness or disease, nothing done by us and nothing done to us, not even death itself, can break God's solidarity with us and with all creation (Rom. 8:38-39).

Jerson B. Narciso