A Sydney pastor recently visited Balmoral Beach to enjoy a swim and clear his mind. He came across a woman and they chatted about the topic on everyone’s minds: the Coronavirus. Both of them were surprised at how quickly our society had lost its nerve and, indeed, its compassion.

“Previous generations were asked or sent to war,” she said. “We’re just being asked to sit on our couches for a while.”   

How could fellow Australians do this? 

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only seen people fight over toilet paper and shoppers fly through supermarkets like locusts, it has rattled secular society to its core. Letter writers, call-back radio listeners and Facebookers are all asking the same question: how could fellow Australians do this?

People are having an existential crisis as their secular belief in the “common good” has no moral authority and they themselves are powerless to stop it.

The virus has locked down nations, crashed stock markets, grounded planes, closed borders, emptied universities, suspended sporting codes, sent jobs into exile and killed indiscriminately. 

Laws and penalties may help in combating the invisible threat, but they won’t stop what’s spreading faster… despair. 

But Christianity has never had fear at its core. Nor has it turned to the government to be its guiding voice.

In times of trouble it has always trusted in God, his word and his Spirit to conquer all threats and to comfort the downtrodden, even when the last candle flickers in the darkness and death arrives as a funeral director.

Being paralysed by fear in such a time as ours serves no one and weakens all. Instead of hiding behind closed doors, a rare opportunity has opened up for rank-and-file Christians to boldly put their love of Jesus into action, serve their neighbours and possibly lead a revival among our own communities – and church leaders want all hands on deck.

"A rare opportunity has opened up for rank-and-file Christians to boldly put their love of Jesus into action" 

The Bishop of Georges River, Peter Lin, who is a member of the Diocese’s COVID-19 task force, says that while the rest of society fears the consequences of a nationwide lockdown, the Church’s role is still as clear and important as it’s always been.  

“I prefer not to use the term ‘lockdown’ but ‘reimagined’,” Lin says. 

“There is no reason churches can’t continue in their ministries of preaching God’s word, building up his people, serving one another and sharing the Gospel. We just need to think of new and creative ways of doing it. Some churches will livestream teaching ministry and church services; many are focusing on small groups for teaching and fellowship. 

“We can continue to serve using the phone… calling one another, especially the older members of our churches, those in isolation, the fearful and so on. We can cook meals for each other, shop for one another. And we can keep talking to people about Jesus, and especially at this time.

"We can continue to serve" 

“I know that Moore College is hoping to produce a stack of resources for churches to use, including resources for kids’ and youth ministry.

“Nothing can thwart the plans and purposes of God, nor hinder the work of the Spirit. God’s word is not bound by a virus, nor confined to the walls of our buildings. Paul continued to proclaim God’s word from prison! We’re far better off than that. Let’s be creative! What a great opportunity we have right now.”

Christians are called to step up 

However, for the gospel to reach new audiences and challenge recalcitrant ones, more Christians are required to step up and be sacrificial with time, money and love.

“We are so blessed in our churches to have so many willing, humble, hardworking servants,” Lin says. 

“We’ll need more now. Especially in looking after one another, I think. This is crucial as there is a disconnect from the larger gatherings. I’m hoping many will help with the pastoral load. Checking up on people regularly with a call or a message or a socially distanced visit. Best thing to do would be to ask your pastor how you can help.

“Check up on your pastor and their spouse, too. These are uncharted waters. With all the changes, they will be working even harder than normal. Encourage them to take breaks and have their day off. Cook a meal for them. Mow their lawn. Buy them chocolate. 

"Check up on your pastor and their spouse" 

“If they make decisions that would not be yours, support them because they would’ve made them carefully and advisedly, trying to do what is best in unusual times. Pray for them, then pray for them again.”

Lin also suggests that we need to be wider in our Christian fellowship than just the Sunday circle of friends, otherwise people will fall through the cracks.

“Not meeting face to face means that it could be easier for people to drift away. For those who are less regular at church anyway, or those who are more at the edges, they could easily be forgotten. I also think that we could get lazy with caring for others and evangelism due to social distancing.”

In addition, there are short- and long-term issues every parish and its parishioners will have to deal with, such as the inevitable financial hit to the collection plate. Lin doesn’t mince words about this. Temporarily shutting churches will hurt bottom lines, but the recession and the flow-on effect of job losses will also bite deeply. 

“Some churches have already taken massive financial hits,” he says. “I’m sure many more will, as will people in the congregation as well. Our congregation members need to keep giving. I would suggest those who usually give in cash to move to electronic giving, or find a way to deposit their giving apart from at church on Sunday. I’m sure the wardens will help them out. But electronic giving will be the best. 

“Further, for those who are able, please consider increasing your giving to help with the shortfall. Some in our churches will lose jobs or have wages reduced, and therefore be less able to give.

“And for churches who will weather the financial storm better than others, maybe they can help out churches in our more struggling areas.”

God's light is still shining throughout our communities 

The Rev Mark Boyley, membership pastor and head of the pandemic response team at MBM Rooty Hill, says he’s been heartened by how Christians have already shone in such a difficult time.

“People don’t seem scared, just sober about the realities we may face,” Boyley says. “Members have been very gracious about all the changes over the past weeks.”

In the wake of the virus, his 1100-strong church in Sydney’s west has a threefold philosophy: minimise risk, maximise confidence and multiply faith.

The first two are self-explanatory but the third is intriguing, especially at a time when people won’t be able to attend church.

“We want this to be a growth time for our members,” Boyley explains. “The Day of Christ is approaching and a time like this can refocus us on that. Meetings continue online, personal encouragement continues and opportunities for personal ministry abound. 

"We want this to be a growth time" 

“Also, we pray this would be a time of revival for our community. We are constantly praying for the west of Sydney to turn to Christ as Lord and Saviour. Part of the blockage to this happening has been apathy: ‘When life here is so good why would I think about God?’ May this be the time when people call on the Lord.”

Like many larger churches, MBM has moved its services and Bible study groups online, using video conferencing software such as Zoom, with discussion questions and prayer suggestions built in so Christian households are not passive participants but “developing healthy one-another ministries”.

“What is vital, though, is that when we go ‘high tech’ we also go ‘high touch’,” Boyley says. “High touch is clearly not literal in this time of social distancing! It means that we work hard on personally calling growth group members. We also hope to be calling congregation members outside of growth groups.

“The last thing we want is for people to drift away at a time like this. We hope to ask them if, under the circumstances, they would like to join an online growth group. This could be a step towards greater church commitment for someone like that.”

Boyley says people are naturally fearful for their elderly family, their jobs – especially if they’re casual workers – and their finances, but they also have new opportunities to enrich the lives of their neighbours with the gospel.

“Our society aspires for heaven on earth, and in Australia life has been so good we kid ourselves we have it,” he says. “May this be the time when people begin to hunger for the new heaven and earth, and the Saviour who loves them. Let’s take this opportunity to think outside the box, finding ways to share our message of hope and point people to Jesus through generous-hearted living.”