And suddenly everything changed… Our way of doing church was impacted altogether with the rest of the world. On March 15 of this year, we heard the announcement from the Governor of Guam that the first three cases of COVID-19 had just been confirmed. The order to close down churches was imminent and enacted later on. I remember calling GMM President Ken Norton with a trembling voice just minutes later. In our minds, the questions were “Now what?” and “Where do we go from here?”
Church has a very strong human component. Some people come to church because that is the only family they have or the only source of human fellowship they experience throughout the week. Having to close our churches, together with our schools, led us to rethink everything about our way to reach people where they are. In the end, this could be a stumbling block or an opportunity for the advancement of the mission that Jesus Himself stated in Matthew 28:19: “Therefore go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The formula was still there, but the way to fulfill it needed some deep restructuring and adaptation.
Obviously, having a radio station right around the corner revealed itself as a blessing that God prepared specially “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). On Guam, the pastors united under the banner of reaching people where they are. Quickly, our team decided to have joint services and prayer meetings, as well as Friday vespers through the waves of JoyFM and their Facebook page. At this level, we felt embraced and encouraged by the immediate willingness and support of Matt Dodd and his wonderful team at the radio station.
Of course, it didn’t stop here. Throughout the week, the churches, together with their pastors, also started having their Bible Studies using the new technologies like Zoom, Facebook, and WhatsApp. Suddenly, everyone was becoming an expert on internet and computer technologies, while at the same time, every pastor was becoming a TV evangelist.
In Palau, for example, Pr. Marino Laurin also felt the need to adapt to the new circumstances. On a weekly basis, he prepares from his house a video-recorded message for his congregations. Although according to him, this does not replace the human element of coming together to worship, the work still needs to continue. Here is what he says: “A pandemic can’t be a reason or hindrance for our church worship and ministries. We can still connect ourselves to each other and, above all, to God despite COVID-19 issues or cases. The positive side is that I am encouraged to deliver God’s message beyond my own church and, because of it, God’s word scattered beyond my assignment; it goes to the different parts of the world and blesses God’s people.” Indeed God’s word is reaching further, beyond our churches and even beyond our Islands.
March 21 was our first church lockdown Sabbath. The message was led by our own President Pr. Ken Norton. Clearly, he understood the need to encourage God’s people in such a time of adversity. The reminder was clear. We are still church, even without the physical building. This first experience showed us that with the present crisis, we had the opportunity to reach further to more people than ever before. On Guam, we have around 665 active attendees every week in our churches and, on the Facebook registry, we started noticing many more people having access to these online church services. Although it is not about the numbers, it is always exciting and encouraging to see people being reached with God’s message.
The pinnacle of this process was Pr. Luis Mafnas baptizing a young person and sharing this special ceremony live through Zoom. In his own words, he describes this experience in the following way: “It was evidence to my and other believers' that God's word is not bound. I felt the presence of God in that baptism as much as when we baptize large groups in evangelistic meetings because of the sincere faith of that young sister in Christ.” Indeed, there are no boundaries to God’s work and message.
In the midst of this negative atmosphere where we are constantly fed information, we are called to still be a positive voice and view every crisis as an opportunity from Heaven. This was the vision of the apostle Peter. For this reason, he recognized that, after moments of suffering, God can “restore you, establish you, strengthen you, and support you” (1 Peter 5:10). Paul had no doubt in saying, "When I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:10). Ellen White was even more direct in saying that "The trials of life are God’s workmen" (EGW, MB, 10.3).
Times of crisis teach us lessons that we would not learn otherwise. They offer a pause in time for us to reevaluate the true priorities of life and are an invitation to look up to Heaven, recognizing that our problems and differences, suddenly, are not that important. They are also opportunities to understand how much we depend on God and not on our own resources. While facing these complex moments, we need to be reminded that "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable" (1 Cor. 15:19).
Our eyes are not to be set on the dark clouds of tragedy, but on the Sun of our hope — Jesus Christ Himself — for whom we have been anxiously waiting. We do not lower our faces in a sign of discouragement, but we raise our heads in a sign of confidence, as our “redemption is near” (Luke 21:28). Crises are also opportunities for personal witness, as during difficult times we find more open hearts, more sensitive people and crowds in search for answers.
With over two and a half million people worldwide already touched by this pandemic and over 180,000 killed, these are numbers that scare, generate panic, and unfortunately, haven’t stopped rising. But this new scenario of chaos and panic can make accepting the gospel very promising. Frightened and disoriented, people need more than ever the hope that only Jesus Christ can offer. Through digital media, Jesus' message can reach more people who, in the absence of many of their worldly distractions and in need of comfort and guidance, can be touched by the good news of salvation in Christ.
The crisis caused by the epidemic is a sign and an opportune time for the church to prepare for the soon return of Jesus Christ; when all believers from all over the world and from all times will be able to congregate in just one multitude to worship the King in his majesty, free from any virus and diseases that plague this world of sin. And that is our Great Hope.