The COVID-19 Pandemic and World Christianity
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic will, for generations to come, constitute a point of reference for many endeavours, issues and social institutions, including religion. Some of the most public responses to the pandemic have been of a religious nature. The pandemic has also obviously affected our understanding of world Christianity and its contextual expressions and responses, especially in the face of the enigma of evil. Historically speaking, the pandemic has permanently inserted itself into how the Christian life is lived and expressed. It struck at a time on the Christian calendar when Christians worldwide were preparing to celebrate the major landmarks of the faith – Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost.
In non-Western contexts in particular, these historical Christian events occasion major celebrations in various church activities with some of them culminating in social gatherings in the holidays associated with the Crucifixion and the Resurrection in particular. In some parts of Europe where traditional church services are no longer the norm, the Monday after Pentecost is a public holiday. Whether these Christian landmarks were to be celebrated in religious services, Masses or as social gatherings, the coronavirus ensured that in-person meetings had to be aborted. In many cases, media technology of various sorts came to the rescue as churches and their leaders looked for innovative ways in which to stay in touch with the faithful.
We have dedicated this and the next issues of Studies in World Christianity to the study of how select Christian churches and communities from different continental contexts responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly regarding church services. Religion is itself a mediated phenomenon, and modern media technology has evolved as a major means of religious practice. In virtually all the studies relating to the church and the coronavirus scourge, media technology had to play a critical role in religious mediation and communion. The spread of COVID-19 led to the cancellation of events, negatively affected economics, disrupted political and social life and, most importantly for our purposes, religious life as well. When such negativities strike in terms of affliction, people search for answers. The Christian religious context, on account of its promises of salvation and deliverance from evil, became one of the main sources of appeal as people sought to make sense out of the pandemic situation.
In videos circulating on various social-media platforms, a number of Christian leaders bought into the political and economic conspiracy theories that the pandemic generated. For some evangelicals, Pentecostals and charismatics in the United States and Brazil, government mandates were seen as infringements on constitutional rights of the freedom of religion. For others around the globe, COVID-19 was problematised in terms of a satanic agenda meant to disrupt church life, impede the preaching of the gospel and deny the faithful opportunities to worship. There were also prophetic claims ranging from reasonings that the outbreak of COVID-19 was a chastisement from God for the evil ways of humanity to it signalling the eschatological end of history. A number of these issues require appropriate academic attention as we seek to unravel the interesting relationship between world Christianity and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The essays in this and the next issues help us explore how various Christian communities around the world dealt with or responded to a development that the world church will have to deal with for many years to come:
- Adam Mohr, ‘Faith Tabernacle Congregation, the 1918–19 Influenza Pandemic and Classical Pentecostalism in Colonial West Africa’
- Joshua Dao Wei Sim, ‘Compliant Singaporean Christians? State-Centred Christian Responses to COVID-19 in a Single-Party Dominant State’
- Rhoderick John Suarez Abellanosa, ‘The Church as a Sacrament in a Time of Pandemic: The Philippine Experience’
- Briana Wong, ‘Longing for Home: The Impact of COVID-19 on Cambodian Evangelical Life’
- Alexander Chow and Jonas Kurlberg, ‘Two or Three Gathered Online: Asian and European Responses to COVID-19 and the Digital Church’
This is an excerpt from the editorial for SWC 26.3, entitled ‘The COVID-19 Pandemic and World Christianity’.