By Johannes Reimer, Originally Published on Evangelical Focus
1. Where is the Church?
Corona is changing the world by the day. Whole nations are locked in, companies lose their business and declare bankruptcy, millions of people lose their jobs, and even recreation and fun is limited to a private bit.
Only a few countries start to ease up, but still in constant fear of a second wave. “What is this?” Millions ask. Is Corona God’s punishment of humans for what we do with our planet and to each other? Is this an attempt of some secret elites to gain power over the world? Or even a sign of the end of times. Ten thousand attempt to give an answer. The most dubious conspiracy theories fill the internet-pages.
With all this noise around the world, the relative silence on a major part of the church in some Western countries is surprising. The German professor Notger Slenczka, who teaches theology in Berlin, noticed that to his knowledge there are just a few statements of the German Protestant clergy on the issue. The majority of the church keeps quiet1. He supposes this is due to the fact that the Corona world crisis is in many regards not clearly negative. Yes, it is a pandemic, and yes, more than 430,000 people have died so far worldwide. And yes, we face an economic disaster, but it is comparable with other catastrophic events, such as hunger, floods and wars. And did the church say there more? Should she say more? Is she competent to answer questions people in crisis ask?
It is surprising, says Prof. Slenczka, how relentless the vast majority of the church, at least in the Western world, Germany for example, accepted the closure of their weekly services2. Little protest, no attempt to point to some systemic relevance of faith and prayer. Many churches did not even try to offer online alternatives. Among them mainline as well as evangelical, charismatic and other churches.
And now, when some countries allow the church to gather again, we see little to no excitement among the faithful, as if the Sunday Church service is of much less importance than the opening of a shopping mall. Were the months without church not painful enough? Or has the church as such lost her value as a transformative agent in society? The fact that few non-Christian institutions issued an appeal to Christians for prayer and spiritual support, at least in Germany, tells much. Would one not expect the people to turn their face to God and his people, the Church, in times of crisis? Would the overworked and stressed-out hospitals and community-care institutions not turn to the Church for help? In Germany, my country, this has seldom happened. Reports from Northern and Eastern Europe are similar. In Italy and Spain the situation seem to be more positive.
Was the crisis not big enough, the need still manageable? Or has the Church lost authority and visibility and people are less considering her help and assistance? Whatever the reason – Corona has revealed the state the Western church is in, at least in some of our countries. There will be work to do, whenever we return to the new normal. It can’t be accepted that our society longs for shopping, cultural events, recreation and holidays far more than for any spiritual fulfillment. We have, indeed, become a post-Christian world in which the Church is less and less visible, even in times of crisis.
2. The Church has a word to say
Corona has in many ways dismantled our philosophy of humans being in control of the development of the world. We are faced with the fact that even a micro-virus is enough to create an unprecedented chaos. I a few weeks, most of what have been planning became no more than garbage. And not only in a certain area but throughout the world. Life is not in our hands. The Church should voice loudly the ‘conditio Iacobaea.’ If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:15b).
And it seems to me, more people will listen to her today. No, the Church would be wrong to pass on judgement and present definite answers to the why and what for Corona has become so powerful. But Christians know God, they know, where they find comfort even in the most critical of all situations. They know God is still in charge and He obviously knows how to fight a virus, or why it is still in the world around us. And they believe “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). No other task of the Church is greater than this – to point people in despair to their God of Hope.
More critically, the Church will tell the world that a total concentration on material wellbeing of the healthy segment of population to the expense of locking out large groups of population such as senior citizens, children, the poor and sick by excluding the weakest from the social life is inhuman and can never reflect the will of God. God created humans for fellowship with Him and one another. And this fellowship is first and for all bodily fellowship. Social life cannot be moved online without a considerable damage to the very nature of men. And this includes all humans far beyond the own national borders. The Church must engage, even in times of personal crisis with the poor and the impoverished and less privileged.
The Church of Christ has prophetic voice which must be raised first and foremost in times like this. Corona has caught her by surprise. It is high time, she regains her voice again.
3. The church has a task to fulfill
The Apostle Peter defined the Church as a Royal Priesthood (1Peter 2:9-10). Her mission is in any way a “political mission”3. She is God’s priest called to intercede for a world in need. And she is God agent of transformation send to all the nations of the world to make them disciples of Christ, communities following the agenda of God’s kingdom (Mat. 28:19). She is his ecclesia, His divine parliament, called out of the world in order to accept responsibility for the world (Mat. 16:18). She is Salt of the Earth and Light of the World and wherever people see your good works they will praise the Father in heaven (Mat. 5:13-16).
When will she be this and do her mission, if not in the midst of a pandemic? I am thankful for all the prayer activity the World Christianity encouraged in the past months. And surely there was and there is a sincere spirit of intercession in much of it.
What I miss, however, is public prayer. Churches gathering in the public square and interceding for political and economic leaders. God’s priest must go public! Not to show up but to lift the nations up before God the Almighty. Prayer is essential! Priestly prayer keeps the world running. The Church must return to her ministry of prayer in the public. Keeping quiet is no option. The closed doors of our churches are no excuse but should rather motivate Christians to move to the streets and squares of our towns and cities, lead our way to political power institutions and economic structures. The world is in a global state of emergency and the Church must stand on her side as a praying servant.
I know, there are good examples all over the world. Churches stand governments by like in Argentina, move into slums and bring order to the chaotic living like in South Africa or Kenia, assist the governmental agencies like in Uzbekistan, and many more. And everywhere prayer is the most powerful aid they bring to the people. It could be argued in times of Corona more people where healed through prayer than the whole year before.
The mostly silent Western church should and could learn from those examples.
The Church is a Royal Priesthood. Her mission to the world is not limited to intercession only. She is God’s deaconic agent, bringing food to the hungry, water to the thirsty and close to the naked. This is what she will account for when Jesus comes back to Earth (Mt. 25:31-46).
How come then that the willingness of Western churches to support the poor in the world has dropped so much. Many Western mission agencies have stopped their operation due to the lack of funds. Western states froze their support due to Corona. The impoverished communities of the world are in many instances left without basic support. Not Corona, hunger is killing them. And the Church? The Church is dangerously quiet. “At the moment we have to care for our own people first”. I am hearing this sentence almost daily by now. Really? Is this the essence of our missionary call? Has the Church of Christ any right to distinguish between our own ethnic poor and the poor in general?
God’s royal deacon has to come back to the world platform. Urgently. Especially in countries with special need, countries with weak economy, or countries under sanctions, such as Iran. The Church is not there to foster political agendas of the rulers of the world, but rather care for the sick and the needy. This is her call. She must move beyond political agendas and obey the King of Kings rather than her national president.
And finally, the Church is called to proclaim the Gospel to those, who do not know it yet. In times of despair and need people are usually much more receptive and willing to listen to the words of comfort and strength in our Gospel message. Why then are Christian churches Corona driven quiet? I know some are very active. They use social media, for instance, as a powerful tool. The Russian movement “No silent anymore” is reaching today more people than any time before. Praise the Lord for this! But at the large scale this is an exemption. The majority of Western Christians seems to hide out in their Corona lockouts as if a phone call, an e-mail message or a zoom would be as dangerous as anything else. At the same time technical communication is absolutely save. And it is used by Millions for all kinds of communication. Why not evangelism? But Christians stay silent. More yet, the majority of Evangelistic mission agencies report a considerable drop in donations. Many professional Evangelists have been forced their activity because of missing finances.
God’s chosen ambassador who has received the word of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19-20) must return to the public square with a message of the Gospel. Urgently. There is absolutely no justification for a silent Church in times of crisis. A crisis is always also a chance. And wherever Christians see the chance the effects of their preaching are amazing. Corona is devastating, but the Church of Christ knows the one who has overcome death. No reason for her to lament.
Johannes Reimer is professor for Mission Studies and Intercultural Theology at the Ewersbach University of Applied Arts (Germany) and director of the Department of Public Engagement of the Worldwide Evangelical Alliance (WEA).
1. Notger Slenczka: Was haben wir zu sagen? Corona und unsere Rede von Gott. In Zeitzeichen. 15.06.2020 (https://zeitzeichen.net/node/8365).
3. See in this regard my book: Johannes Reimer: Missio Politica. The Mission of the Church and Politics. (Carliste: Langham 2017).