At noon every day since Valentine’s Day, the historic bells sound at St Andrew’s Cathedral in the heart of Singapore’s civic district, while phone alarms go off across the island. It’s a signal to believers that it is time to stop whatever they are doing for a moment of united prayer in the face of the COVID-19 threat.
“For such a time as this, unity is the key,” said LoveSingapore, a local prayer and church unity movement, in announcing its PraySingapore@12 initiative. “We believe in the power of prayer agreement. For such a time as this, we need every believer to arise and seek God together for Singapore. A prophetic act, just like the ringing of church bells, summoning the faithful to action when their village or town is threatened.”
“It’s crucial that in times of crisis, the church rises up to be a standard,” said Dominic Yeo, general superintendent of Singapore and secretary of the World Assemblies of God Fellowship. “As salt and light, the church needs to stand strong in the Lord so that others can see the hope we profess.”
Inflammatory comments about race and religion are banned in Singapore under the Sedition Act and the recently updated Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. However, since two coronavirus clusters formed in two churches, and negative associations have spread from the Shincheonji sect responsible for much of South Korea’s outbreak, the church at large has come under scrutiny as Christians continue to meet in relatively sizable gatherings.
But more painful is the criticism that has come from fellow Christians with every decision their leaders have to make. Decide to suspend services, and be castigated for a lack of faith. Decide to continue to gather, and be derided as “socially irresponsible.”
If you are pastoring a church in an area where a case of COVID-19 has surfaced, prepare for unprecedented pressure from all levels: from your board to your staff to those in the pews. They will respond based on their own faith convictions and public health opinions. Be prepared to go deeper into prayer than you’ve ever gone. Be prepared for the reality that your decisions will not please everyone.
And be prepared to lose members no matter what. Churches in Singapore have reported declines in attendance of 20–30 percent, with even greater numbers opting out of elderly gatherings and children’s church.
One consolation, from the Singaporean church experience, is that you will likely be pleasantly surprised by how many of your members will step up to the plate to volunteer to serve during services or to bless the neighboring community.
Crisis shows the true character of a Christian. The anxiety around COVID-19 will allow you to really discern the spiritual state of your flock, said pastor Benny Ho of Faith Community Church in Perth, Australia, and a continuing committee member of LoveSingapore.
“If we respond to this crisis correctly, it can turn out to be a defining moment of discipleship for our nation,” said Ho. “In the face of imminent dangers, our priorities are rearranged. This is a great opportunity to have deep conversations about what we are living for. Are we merely existing, or are we truly living? Are we living for the right stuff? Are we marching to the right drumbeat? Are we governed by biblical or worldly values? Are we living for what really matters?”