Malaysian Christians marked themselves as safe in the Covid-19 pandemic 2020. We are still here. We request prayers. Last year was a roller coastal year of ups and downs. There were periods of intense fear accompanied by long periods of extreme boredom. The pandemic came like a thief in the night and took us by surprise. We were aware of some early storm warnings which were sounded in Wuhan China about a new coronavirus, initially named the novel SARS-CoV-2, because of its close resemblance to the SARS virus. Alarming news started coming in rapidly. The infected and death tolls started rising. Different countries were reporting cases, and the global spread was impressive. Then countries started reacting by placing their populations under lockdowns. We observed healthcare facilities being overwhelmed in Italy and Spain as the virus spread. We, however, were too busy celebrating the Chinese New Year of the Metal Rat to pay much heed until the storm hit. The rapid sale of toilet paper amused us until it was time for us to rush and buy. Our government informed us that we need to ‘flatten the curve’, not referring to weight control, but to contain the spread by lockdowns or Movement Order Control (MCO) which will allow time for our healthcare facilities to be expanded. What brought the message home was the lockdown on 18 March 2020 when the causeway was closed and we were all restricted to our home. Since then, we have experienced MCO, Extended MCO, Recovery MCO, and unfortunately at the time of writing back to MCO. A state of emergency has been declared nationwide because of the increasing number of cases.
A pandemic disrupts the function of society by revealing, removing, and resetting it. The Black Plague which almost decimated the population of Europe in the 14th century laid the foundation for modern Europe. Whether this pandemic will result in improved revitalized Malaysian churches remains to be seen. What it does was to reveal the complacency of many Malaysian Christians. We have settled into our own comfort zones. Aside from occasional forays to the outside world, most of us are quite happy doing church. We are at peace with the society we live in and have comes to terms with its challenges. What we did not or refuse to realize is how broken ourselves, our churches, and our society are. The SARS-CoV-2 RNA virus did not break our society. It is already broken. We have been propping it up it up it so that it continues to function. Society’s brokenness arise from marketing, unrealistic branding, doubtful morality, and borrowed money. The church in this society is broken through being inward-looking, and existing on a form of ‘cheap grace’ without the need for accountability, commitment, and involvement by getting our hands dirty. A few Christians did most of the work while the rest side back and critize. More efforts were spent looking after the welfare of church members than in reaching out to the poor, exploited, sick, and destitute around. Many of the Christians are not even aware of the millions of migrant workers in the country, nor of those who are living with disabilities and needing help.
The pandemic removes all the props and reveals our brokenness. With the lockdown, all churches are not allowed to hold their services and meetings on-site. This was a shock to the churches in Malaysia. No one was prepared for this. To many Christians, the Sunday service was the sum total of their faith. There was a deep sense of depression and lamentation in the church at that time. A webinar Moving Beyond Lament: Biblical, Pastoral, and Spirituality Perspectives was held to explore this.
YouTube link https://youtu.be/DatJTsSlWUA
Unfortunately, the lamentation was not one of biblical repentance and seeking the Lord, but of not being able to do church the way we are used to. For the first half of the year, many churches did not do anything except to wait for things to get back to ‘normal’. It must be noted that during this early period of the pandemic, bigger urban churches that are more techno-savvy moved online faster than the smaller and rural churches. These churches are also more active on social media. When the middle of the year came and Christians begin to realize that the virus is not going away anytime soon, they began to review their situation and began their reset the way they do church.
Christians in Malaysia faces a lot of challenges when they started to reset the way they do and be the church in the new pandemic era. The lockdowns have caused a lot of economic hardships as the economy has literally come to a standstill and needs to restart. Workers had their pay cut, overtime allowances trimmed and even retrenched or sacked. Thousands of families dropped below the poverty line. Jobs are hard to find. Churches and faith-based organizations are hard hit, and some are forced to close. However, in the midst of the doom and gloom, some interesting trends appeared during this resetting period.
First, more and more churches are moving online. Churches have expanded their services with direct streaming, and YouTube and Facebook Live. The smaller churches are starting online services. What is encouraging is that the larger churches who have the expertise are training the smaller churches on how to stream their services. The infrastructure for the Internet is not well developed in Malaysia. Internet available is spotty or non-existent in many areas. Mobile networks are better and many smaller churches especially indigenous churches in East Malaysia are connecting and even conducting their services on their mobile phones by email or Whatsapp.
Second, the small groups in churches seen to be revitalized. Even as Christians cannot meet in church services, they become more active in small or cell groups. Many use the media platform Zoom, Google Meet, or Lark. Attendance in small groups has gone up. They even have members joining in from overseas. More Christians have taken up leadership in these small groups which is a very encouraging trend indeed.
Third, Christians have become more ecumenical as they begin to attend service services and listening to sermons and teaching which is outside their denominational borders. Many have expressed wonder and awe at the exposure of different traditions of Christianity. Others feel they are receiving better teaching and know more about the bible and Christianity. With time during the lockdown, some have taken up theological courses from institutions around the world. The pandemic has pushed Malaysian Christians to become global Christians in new and meaningful ways.
Four, there seems to be a new level of collaboration between the churches in Malaysia. When the first wave of the virus in Malaysia was contained and there were indications that on-site church services may be allowed, a group of Christians collaborated to draw up the first guidance of Standard Operation Protocol (SOP) for the reopening of churches. This document is distributed free and form the basis of many denominations in drafting up their SOPs, not only in Malaysia but also in other countries. A webinar Guidance for Churches in the Post-Covid Era was held to inform the church leaders.
YouTube link https://youtu.be/XNL8l9z8ExA
Five, many churches are involved in buying and bringing groceries to the poor during the lockdowns. It is heartening to note the innovative way the churches reaching out and meeting the needs of their neighbor in these difficult times. A group of churches in Johor Bahru receive a few tonnes of unsold vegetables from Cameron Highlands, repack these in one of the church compound, and gave out these vegetables to about 6,000 poor families. Another church looks after 600 families and makes sure they have enough food and their children receive an education. Yet another reached out to the Orang Asli villages in the interior of Peninsular Malaysia.
Finally, with the uncertainty, anxiety, and threat of the virus, many Malaysian Christians are drawing closer to God. When all our delusions of control have been stripped away, we realize how dependent we are on our Lord. When all human machineries have failed to control the virus, we are left with only our faith. Prayer meetings are better attended than before. More Christians are reading the bible and attending bible studies. Interest in spirituality has shot up.
The journey is not over yet. The virus is still rampaging the country. While there is the promise of the vaccine, none has been sighted on our shores yet. So what news from Malaysia? We are good. How about you?