By the time this issue of Studies in World Christianity goes to press, in March 2021, it will have been a year since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic. At the time of that declaration, the Director General of WHO stated that there were 118,000 cases reported globally in 114 countries, with more than 90 per cent of the cases in China, South Korea, Italy and Iran. Even at that early stage, the danger of COVID-19 seemed remote to those living in other parts of the world. Yet soon after, regional and national governments began to close borders and implement different lockdown procedures. Certain people would be identified as ‘key workers’ as their jobs were seen as essential support for society. However, these individuals would be more readily exposed to the virus, which revealed inequalities across gendered, racial and socio-economic groupings. Furthermore, frustrations around the public health crisis resulted in forms of racial conflict. Many Western countries would see increasing reports of anti-Asian racism, as those of East Asian extract were scapegoated as causing the so-called ‘China virus’. Following the death of George Floyd in May 2020, major cities throughout the United States and other parts of the world would burst out in protest against police brutality towards blacks. It appears as though humanity has become more and more ‘socially distant’.
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 the midst of a pandemic that is shaking the globe we call for papers for a special issue of Studies in World Christianity that analyse immediate responses to COVID-19 and that give some historical perspective on pandemics or epidemics. We do this in order to resource further response to pandemic whose effects will be with us for some years to come.
Why did you want to produce this study on the True Jesus Church?
I first encountered the True Jesus Church in China when a woman struck up a conversation with my husband and my baby son on a bus in a city. She invited him to church that evening. At the time we were attending a local Three-Self congregation, so he asked, “Is it a Three-Self church meeting?” She said no. So he asked, “Is it a house church meeting?” She said no. I was intrigued to hear about this church that defied the categories I had in my mind for Chinese Christianity. I went to the meeting place in a sort of commercial building and found that it was in fact a True Jesus Church. I had previously encountered the True Jesus Church in Taiwan but was surprised to find them here, in the PRC. In addition to being intrigued by the True Jesus Church’s out-of-the-box identity, I also wanted to investigate the relationship between native religious culture and transplanted Christian culture within the church. It struck me as extremely Chinese, but also very like other global forms of restorationist Christianity such as Mormonism.