It has felt like a ghost town at church for the last two weeks. The normal hustle and bustle, the loud chattering and warm greetings were noticeably missing from our Friday evening gatherings and Sunday Service.
Since the news of the coronavirus broke out in early January, we have seen our church attendance decrease by nearly 40% on Sunday mornings. I expect attendance to continue to decrease as more and more cases are reported worldwide and in America. Fear is one driving factor for the decrease in attendance, while good old precautionary common sense is the other.
Fear is a powerful emotion indeed. When our elder and deacon Board issued an official statement asking church members to self-quarantine if they had been to China recently, it sparked mixed reactions. On one hand, it assured the members that leadership is taking active precautionary steps to avoid contributing to the spread of coronavirus. On the other hand, it created suspicion and irrational fear in others to stay away from the church at all costs.
In comparison, the Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that this season alone has seen at least 19 million flu illnesses, 180,000 hospitalizations and 10,000 deaths from flu. That seems to be more of a dire threat to American Chinese churches than the coronavirus.
In addition, we have also seen fear driving a rise in racism and xenophobia against people of Chinese descent. I see more and more news articles on this topic daily. Unfortunately, this hit a little too close to home for my middle school daughter, Eliza Tan. She mentioned a boy in her school teased her by calling her “Coronavirus!”
In spite of fear, I have also seen our church readjusting to the new normal. Although many small groups are no longer meeting at church, they have started using video conferencing as an alternate way to gather, pray and encourage each other. There are also ongoing conversations regarding the possibility of live streaming small group meetings, church leadership meetings and Sunday services. We desire church members to participate even though they are not physically at church. It is encouraging to me that God’s people will always find creative ways to worship despite their circumstances.
I would also like to extend an appreciation to Amos Lee, the executive director of the Chinese Baptist Fellowship of Southern Baptist Convention. In the wake of this tragedy, Rev. Amos proactively sent out precautionary guidance to Southern Baptist Convention Chinese churches and forwarded personal prayer requests from our brothers and sisters in Christ from within Wuhan, China. As I read those prayer requests, I could not help but let my tears flow. It broke my heart to read of God’s people suffering in China. May God’s light shine its brightest in such dark times.
As this tragedy continues to unfold, we clearly see broken humanity and broken creation. It never ends. A new strain of the virus is always on the verge of breaking out. If it’s not coronavirus today, it’s Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) from a decade or two ago. The good news is, most people infected with coronavirus can expect to recover, but all people plagued by sin have no escape from death. There is no cure, except the gift of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus our Lord and Savior. May this terrible tragedy drive people to the arms of Jesus.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Carter Tan is the English Ministries pastor at Grace Chinese Baptist Church in Richmond, Va.)