Covid-19’s Challenge to Churches: 3 Discipleship Shifts for more robust churches

March 3, 2020

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…”.
When Charles Dickens wrote this in his book, A Tale of Two Cities, he described polar opposites residing at the same time: “A season of light, a season of darkness, the spring of hope, the winter of despair…”.

The Covid-19 has hit us like a growing storm and brought fear and despair to many countries, not the least of which, Singapore. Yet in the midst of this storm, I have been so encouraged by many Christians preaching and writing to encourage hope and faith in this despairing time!

In encouraging us to persevere, Bishop Terry Kee, in representing the NCCS, encourages believers to keep gathering in worship. “A Church cannot be considered a church of Jesus Christ without worship of God in His name”! (Salt&Light, 11 Feb 20201). Indeed, I hear that echoed in the belief of Scripture,

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:24-5)

Yet, as we shifted into DORSCON Orange, there have been restrictions and limitations to our gathering. It is not inconceivable that here or in other places around the world, Christian gatherings become even more limited or restricted if the situation gets worst or the DORSCON level gets elevated. Yet in darkness, there is light. In the worst of times, it can also be the best of times.

While we struggle with a clash of values like fear vs. hope, survival vs. compassion, I believe that God who is sovereign, does something deeper. If we can be open and sensitive to what God seeks to do, we will ride this season as shining stars. We would not “waste this epidemic” for the lessons we learn as Rev. Tan Kay Kiong wrote (CEFC Pastoral Statement, 21 Feb 20202).

As I journey with churches and observe the various effects Covid-19 has had, I would like to share 3 lessons we must consider and leverage through the adjustments we have to make, in this time and season.

1. Leverage relational dynamic rather than public meetings

We have often relied on running a Service, and Cell-Group, giving care to its programming. While important, this is a season where some–or even all–may be stripped away. What lies beneath is the relational dynamic of encouragement that should be implicit in the program (though it may not always be the case).

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together… (Hebrews 10:24-5a).

The former (bolded) is the relational dynamic happening through the latter of meeting together. However, if the latter is constrained to various degrees, why not leverage this season–bereft of the program, to really focus on the relationship?

Relational focus includes elements such as patient listening, sensitivity to needs, waiting for a prophetic word to pray. These areas may be heightened, trained, taught and emphasized in this season. Usually, these elements are hidden and can be overridden as we focus our energy on the surrounding programmatic elements such as agenda, hospitality, facility, etc. But if these are greatly constrained or reduced, it is an opportune time to re-train and remind one another to focus on the relational dynamic. These can occur to great effect through 1-1 video calls, gatherings in small groups of 2-3s, etc. This season may serve to strengthen this relational dynamic so that every believer does not take the relationship for granted. Being strong in this will only add to the strength of meetings when full programs of the church is restored as this epidemic season passes.

2. Leverage personal discipleship rather than reliance on ministries

We have often relied on ministries to disciple us: the sermon to inspire us, the children’s ministry to teach our children, the cell-group for encouragement. Though these may be constrained (though thanks be to God that sermons and worship may still be flowed through technology today), so that we lament that we don’t have the fellowship we used to have and our children are stuck at home rather than at children’s programs.

Yet, these ministries—precious as they are—are meant to aid us in our personal growth of discipleship. Over time, they may subtly increase our reliance upon them, but they were never meant to take away ownership of our own discipleship journey! Why not leverage this season to reclaim and renew a personal ownership of discipleship:

  • I must look up resources for my own growth and decision-making
  • I must look to friends for encouragement through phone-calls, video-chats or small groups
  • I must teach and disciple my children daily in my home through intentional conversation, prayer and family devotion

Reclaiming the sense of personal ownership of discipleship of self and loved ones will powerfully shape our homes and society. Churches would do well to leverage this season to reshape ministries in order to instill and support this. For example,

  • Devotions that inspire and guide members to look up resources of their own, rather than provide them
  • Cell-Group formats that guide shepherding online, and the pursuit of deeper mentoring conversations rather than programs
  • Children’s ministry that resource parents to reach their children at home rather than teaching at programs on Sunday

This is a season that we could build values of personal ownership of discipleship into members. Being stronger in this will only add to the strength of discipleship programs when they are restored as this epidemic season passes.

3. Leverage a faith-posture rather than a fear-reaction

I am touched by Ps. Vincent Choo’s sermon in encouraging faith over fear. Being one of the first churches affected directly by the Covid-19, he says “when we watch the epidemic of the Wuhan Coronavirus in China … Singapore with just 40 medical cases, we generally view this problem from a distance. But when 5 of these 40 cases occurred amongst us, then our fears are no longer just general fears…these psychological battles are very real, and it also brings out the natural reactions…” (Salt&Light, 15 Feb 20203).

In the midst of being the first church-cluster of Covid-19 in Singapore, he continues to challenge the response of the faith-posture over the fear-reaction.

Fear is a natural reaction … and I am humbled by my own lesson: In early February, I was at a pharmacy buying some medication when I saw a lady wearing a surgical mask ahead of the line. She was handling a Chinese passport while speaking to the cashier. Immediately, I thought to stay a distance until she had completed her purchase and moved on. But the cashier looked at me and requested for me to interpret as the cashier did not speak Mandarin. I was “pushed” into a conversation to interpret when, just as naturally, another Mainland Chinese man stepped into the line to ask me to interpret a medical label for him. He complained that the pharmacist on duty also did not speak Mandarin! With my poor Mandarin (I confess!) I tried to interpret the effects of “anti-histamine” in Mandarin, all the while as I continued, seeing the confusion and sadness upon the Chinese lady’s face. The cashier could not process a tax-rebate due to a machine malfunction and requested for me to show the lady directions of the next nearest pharmacy. I walked with her along the way and offered my best to help her. I am humbled and slightly ashamed that God needed to push me into the midst of helping these 2 mainland Chinese when I initially reacted with some fear.

This is a season where Christians need to move with the opposite spirit as Ps. Benny Ho preached; to move with faith while the whole world reacts with fear (Salt&Light, 21 Feb 20204).

Without faith, it is impossible to please God. (Hebrews 11:6a)

Faith is a fundamental keystone for leveraging all the other points I have written on. We are unable to leverage God’s deep work in this season until fundamentally we overcome fear with faith because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him (Hebrews 11:6b). Whenever God visited someone to do a deep work, He often began with these words, “do not fear”. It is said that 365 times in the Bible, God says, “do not fear”–one for every day of the year!

Zhi-wen wrote on a summary of how Christian believers responded sacrificially with faith and love through the plagues and sickness in the early centuries, thereby leaving us such deep lessons to learn from (Salt&Light, 8 Feb 20205).

I hope that when believers of the future read of the saga of the Covid-19, they will read of the stories of encouragement, faith, love and courage that showed the church arising in unity, growing deeper in discipleship as we learn to leverage and lay hold of the deep work of God.

Rev. Dr. Philip Huan is the Principal Consultant at ChurchLife Resources, and is passionate about helping churches and leaders become strong and healthy!

ChurchLife Resources provides consultation and coaching pertaining to ministry issues pertaining to health and growth of the church. Write to for a complimentary consultation.

Photo by Luis Melendez on Unsplash

1 Published on Salt & Light:
2 Published on CEFC website
3 Published on Salt & Light:
4 Published on Salt & Light:
5 Published on Salt & Light:

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