Churches in China take on COVID-19

by Hannington Muyenje and Sarah Parkinson.

Introduction

It has been said over and over again: We are in an unprecedented time.

The near-constant stream of news about this novel coronavirus, COVID-19, informs us all of its ever-unfolding yet uncertain health and economic impacts.

It is little wonder that the world is full of anxiety, fear, sorrow.

None of us is left unaffected, but it will likely be the poorest among us who suffer the greatest consequences of this virus.

As Christians, we are not immune to the pains of this time. We mourn with those who mourn lost lives, jobs, dreams. There is no doubt God’s heart, too, is breaking to see such suffering.

But we are also called to be a people of hope with firm trust in our good and sovereign God.

We are called to be the salt of the earth and light in dark places, to be non-anxious presences and bringers of peace, pointing the way to our loving Father.

For us, the Church, this is a moment. A moment to step up and demonstrate the radical love of God. To be the hands and feet of Jesus in meeting others’ immediate needs. To reflect on how we, the Church, can build a more God-glorifying, just and sustainable world for all once this crisis has calmed.

We have begun to see stories of kindness, of strangers becoming neighbours and cheers for our carers. There are more of these stories to come.

Over the coming time, we will be sharing articles of hope in this COVID-19 season from the Renew Our World community.

We begin in China, where the Church is stepping up in unprecedented ways to serve the most vulnerable.

Background

In 1949, Chairman Mao, founding father of the People’s Republic of China and Communist Party leader, expelled all foreign missionaries from the country. At that time, approximately only 500,000 Chinese Christians remained. 

Since then, however, the church in Communist China has been growing in extraordinary ways, with one of the highest church growth rates in the world. It is estimated that there are now over 180 million Christians in China and it is widely believed that Communist China will soon become the country with the largest number of Christians in the world. 

The organisation of the Chinese Church is a mix of both mainstream and home-based churches. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, a government crackdown on Christian activities within the community had paralysed ever-growing work of the home church network. 

“The Chinese Church is really different from church the way many of us in other parts of the world know it,” shares a source. “It’s been in survival mode for a long time. When you are in survival mode, all you can think about is, ‘How do I get out of here safely?’ So the Church has been in hiding, keeping the faith and looking to Heaven. 

“Also, the way Chinese society has been designed around the one-child policy has brought in a lot of systemic – almost inborn – selfishness; if you are born into a family where you are the only child and you see the world as one where you only need to care about yourself and your parents, the whole notion of community is lower on the agenda. This permeates the church as well.”

In recent years, however, a restorative economy message has been taking hold in China, and Christians have begun to think about and respond to the needs of the poor among them.

“There were leaders who had begun to go on a journey dealing with the left-behind children. In China, they have this phenomenon where young fathers leave their families behind in rural regions to go to the cities to make money. A lot of these families really suffer from ill health, malnutrition, lack of security, lack of protection and all kinds of abuse. So the home church network really saw that as a great way to move out – that’s how they began to move into integral mission,” shares our source. 

Mobilising in Response to COVID-19

So when COVID-19 began its spread in China, Christian groups were among the key responders because they already had structures and systems in place to reach their communities – especially the most at-risk populations.

“Through our pre-existing networks, there was an opportunity to rapidly respond to the needs of our communities,” our source says. “The government gave the green light and our church leaders were then able to mobilise Christian volunteers who worked closely with local officials, medical staff and other frontline workers to reach those in most need. Home churches became a great tool for the government to reach people. We really focussed on the most vulnerable – the ones really left behind – like refugees and people from marginalised tribes.”

The overall goal has been to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infections in high-risk communities including the elderly, the poor, left-behind families and people living with disabilities. Services offered have included the provision of face masks, gloves, goggles and hand sanitizer, alongside counselling, and preventative health education programs. Food and essential medicines were also distributed to people under quarantine and in left-behind children’s centres.

With the aid of strong communication, solid organisational structures and trusted leadership, over 8,700 volunteers have been mobilised in response to COVID-19, reaching over 144,000 people directly and indirectly to date. 

Future Possibilities 

“As the volunteers go out to deal with the coronavirus, alongside that come the messages from the Lord,” our source reports. “They go as Christians, so communities begin to see them as good people, friendly people. Some of those people have actually genuinely never heard of a God like ours. So when they see Christians being generous and vulnerable, leaving their own homes to come help them, that is causing the church to grow.”

As a result of such an effective response to the virus, more Christian groups have established relationships with local officials and community leaders giving them increased legitimacy. The church has garnered more acceptance and favour from communities, and local officials are increasingly seeing Christians as allies, not foes.

“Coronavirus has also helped organisations find those vulnerable society members who need help, those who have been on the edges of society. We are now setting up a platform to determine how organisations can keep supporting communities and the most vulnerable post-coronavirus,” says our source in China.

“It’s not just about this one-off response to the current crisis, but also about making really solid links with the community and vulnerable people in the community to be able to support them ongoing.

“Do not underrate what God can do with a crisis like the one caused by COVID-19. There might also be opportunities that we hadn’t recognised through this coronavirus. Could this be an opportunity for our organisers to gain more legitimacy, to gain more favour, to gain more ground, so that when this is over, they will be the go-to people for their local leaders, who are known and trusted by their communities? Trust is a great infrastructure on which to build something more.”

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