At my church (Fukuoka Baptist Church), all meetings except for the Sunday worship, prayer meeting, and deacons’ meeting have been cancelled due to the spread of COVID-19. We encourage attendance at our Sunday services by all except the elderly, those with underlying medical conditions, and those with fever on the day of the service. As a result, since last April, worship attendance has been about half of what it used to be (about 20 people). In addition to streaming the service online on the day of the service, we are also distributing audio data and CDs containing the audio of the service. Due to problems with the internet and a limited number of service staff, we are only able to provide a very unstable service, but we are doing our best.
In the midst of this situation, we are very thankful that we have encountered several people who are interested in the Bible and Christianity and have come to our church for the very first time. One of them asked to learn more about what is written in the Bible, not only in worship but also interactively. At present (February 2021), our Sunday School classes have been suspended, and the effects of COVID-19 are not likely to end for some time to come. So with infection control measures in place, there is a movement to start personal Bible studies. Instead of just listening to a sermon in worship and accepting the words of the Bible passively, we need to create an environment conducive to questions. We are regaining the lost art of dialogue. I feel as if I have seen the essence of Sunday School. It is a great loss to have less time for dialogue about the Bible, and if the current situation of not being able to have Sunday School time continues for two or three years, it will have a great impact on future church formation.
Last July, there was a torrential downpour in Kumamoto Prefecture, near Fukuoka Prefecture, and one of our church members was affected. He was running an architectural office, and his office was covered in mud. Eighty-four people died and four are still missing from this disaster. Just like our church member, many people needed a helping hand, but due to the COVID-19 situation, there were fewer volunteer workers available who would cross prefectural borders to help. Therefore, since August last year, I have been going to Kumamoto on a regular basis with the pastor of our church as well as seminary students and pastors from other churches to volunteer through cleaning and demolishing houses. Every time I go to Kumamoto, I realize there is an overwhelming lack of disaster volunteers compared to the size of the damage. Most of the people affected by the disaster are cheerful and energetic, but they seem to have great anxiety about the future. In such a situation, the number of COVID-19 infected people in Fukuoka Prefecture where we live has risen since the beginning of 2021. We decided that moving across the prefecture to Kumamoto to help would increase the risk of infection, so we have now stopped this activity. A small group of staff from Kumamoto is continuing to work in the area. Those of us who live in Fukuoka Prefecture are praying and waiting for the resumption of activities.
At Fukuoka Baptist Church, we have been preparing to start a “Children’s Cafeteria” in response to the recent increase in the number of poor families in Japan and the increase in the number of households with two working parents. The plan was to have a pre-opening in 2019 and start once a month in 2020. However, since we cannot have a congregational dinner right now, we are working on distributing food provided by the food bank at the church about once a month. Dozens of people have received the food each time. At the same time, we are preparing for the future by purchasing a large refrigerator and a large number of plates. We are setting them up in the church. We are also considering making and serving lunches.
In the wake of the recent spread of COVID-19, there are many theological issues with which Christians within and outside the church are being challenged. Where is the Kingdom of God that Jesus showed us spreading to? What feeling have we been walking in? In Matthew 9:36, Jesus looked at the crowd and had deep compassion for them. This compassion is described in the Greek as σπλαγχνίζομαι. This means “to be moved as to one’s bowels, hence to be moved with compassion, have compassion (for the bowels were thought to be the seat of love and pity). It was out of this compassion that Jesus sent his disciples to further expand his ministry. The question now is, “How have we walked with this compassionate heart?” In terms of “activities,” we may have said and done many things. While we may have talked and done many things as “activities,” were those activities for activities’ sake?
As Jesus’s compassion is a strong feeling, we too need to walk with a feeling that shakes us up. Now that many activities and meetings have been canceled in the church, we have been given time to think about what the Gospel is that we share with our neighbors. In order to do that, we must first have the Gospel resonate in ourselves. I believe that at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus is his compassion. The proclamation of the Kingdom of God is something that God himself does, and we participate in it. At the center of the mission of the Kingdom of God are those who have nowhere else to go and are suffering the most. We are small and weak, but we still need to receive Jesus’s compassionate heart and follow him.
For Reflection and Discussion
- In the past, the church has been evangelizing, but what has been at the center of that evangelism? Have we ever been expansionist or managerialist?
- Have we or have we not been satisfied with the busyness of our activities?
- What kind of attitude did Jesus have toward people? Are we listening to the needs of those outside the church in a way that reflects Jesus?