Being the church is not fulfilled by attending worship once a week. Its unique identity is as a spirit-filled community called out of a lost humanity, gathered for worship and witness in Jesus’ name with his authority to act on earth on behalf of his kingdom.
This was the theme of ‘Being the church during this pandemic,’ the topic of the third Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) Theological Commission webinar on 27 August. It was led by Dr Takatemjen Ao, Founder-President of the North East Alliance for Leadership Education and Social Transformation and former principal of the Clark Theological College Mokokchung, Nagaland.
Dr Ao noted that doing church once a week becomes an end in itself without producing the fruit of the life of the new creation. As the body of Christ, all members are interdependent and contribute to producing good works through which the body exhibits its beauty to the world. Without such good works, the church remains fruitless and unattractive.
He said that two dimensions of faith are expressed in the life of the body: a personal walk with Christ ‘the vine’, from whom people gain their nourishment; and the social dimension of worship, prayer, living, eating and working together. Such togetherness makes a community of witness producing the fruit of good works.
Dr Ao drew attention to the role of community meals in the New Testament (eg, Luke 14.1ff where Jesus ate in the house of a prominent Pharisee), which were a foretaste of the heavenly messianic banquet. For Christians who are a minority in South Asia living among adherents of most of the world’s major religions, such meals could be a starting point for evangelism as they invite people of other faiths to join in the messianic meals they celebrate.
To exbibit their faith in the pandemic, Church leaders whose role is to equip members of the body for the works of ministry should be responding to humanity around them suffering from anxiety, fear and death, especially frontline workers such as nurses and doctors, poor migrant workers and those depressed and bereaved.
Training and counselling ministries, prayer movements, revival meetings and worship could take place online. If online is not possible, he pointed out that government rules still allow for gatherings of up to 10 people for worship.
Discussants appreciated Dr Ao’s focus on the church as a community, especially in expressing empathy. In a caste-based society, people believe and act as though some lives do not matter. They express sympathy but not empathy. The Christian Church can show empathy because they believe that the low caste or outcaste neighbour is equally created and loved by God.
While high castes believe in the common good, they do not believe in common humanity as caste holds that different groups of humans were created from different levels of the divine and so were born unequal. Those suffering most from the pandemic are the people who never matter to those who do not have empathy or a view of common humanity. ‘But if someone is a brother or sister by being created equal, their welfare is as important as mine’.
EFI General Secretary, Vijayesh Lal recalled that in March, the Fellowship held a webinar on being the church in Covid-19, which called the church to be ‘super-spreaders’ of hope, through prayer, giving help and relief, and building a community where there is love. Every local church, he thought, had reached out to thousands of those migrant labourers returning back home because of Covid to relieve them of hopelessness. “People are afraid and need people who will liberate them from hopelessness,” he said.
“The church being the church stands for hope, compassion and empathy in the community like salt,” said Dr Vinay Samuel. This brought about more evangelism than from a distance trying to shine a light and send a message. “In our own ministry in the last six months, we have had far more evangelism because when we provide meals, food packets, and assistance to thousands of people and families, we are meeting regularly with non-Christian people who are very compassionate and also doing this.
“They have much more money than we can afford but they respect the way we are doing it and our younger people are able to share the compassion of Christ. They see that by the nature of our religion we are compassionate; we are not doing not a new thing. This is who we are and what we have been doing, which is a great witness. Being the church as it should be is the most powerful evangelism we can have today.”
Dr Ao concluded that the pandemic was a reminder to invest resources in sustainable food security programmes, health systems, organic farming and care for the whole of God’s creation since the desire to accumulate more wealth, weapons, technologies and power alone cannot protect life.
It also gave an opportunity to have a ‘retrospect on our life, family, relations with our neighbours and extend our love and care with a willingness to share our resources’.
He urged those churches that complained that their budgets were not enough to respond to the pandemic to put more money into their budgets for their health ministries.