Pandemic Panic: Where is God in our Current Crisis?

We are living in a different world to the one we were in a week ago.

In December 2019, a pneumonia outbreak was detected in the city of Wuhan, China. It was soon traced to a new strain of coronavirus—but not before infected travellers had crossed international borders in every direction.

A few months on and the virus has spread to over 160 countries and resulted in over 7,000 deaths. While something like 98% of people who contract COVID-19 recover, the elderly and those with chronic health problems are most at risk. Governments the world over are deeply concerned that their national hospital systems will collapse.

“It’s hard to believe this is real life.”

Because of this, and because a vaccine is still a year away, the world is being turned upside down. Borders are closing and streets are emptying as governments shut down schools, restaurants, bars, and countless large gatherings. Everything is cancelled is the new normal.

“Social distancing” is an odd new phrase on our lips as we work out how to do business, trade and relationships in this new, eerie set of circumstances.

“Supermarket shelves are being stripped bare as shoppers panic-buy.”

It’s hard to believe that this is real life—it feels more like the movies. But as you check your phone again or see the blanket news coverage of coronavirus on a TV screen or broadsheet, you realise once more that this is happening in real time.

Fortunately in Australia, we haven’t had the same contagion rates as other parts of the world. God willing, it stays this way. But in terms of social upheaval at least, what’s happening now in Europe and increasingly the USA may be what we can expect here in the days and weeks to come.

So where is God in this midst of it all?

The Bible is More Relevant Than Ever

A few days ago, Eternity published an article called “Should a Christian flee the plague?” Martin Luther was asked. I’ve always loved the Reformers. But a few months back, I couldn’t have imagined that medieval advice on the bubonic plague would become relevant again in 2020.

As new and strange as the coronavirus seems, the only thing genuinely new about this plague is its all-pervasive disruption of our globalised lives. Pestilence itself is as old as the hills, and it’s mentioned countless times in the Bible.

“Jesus said that pestilence would be a sure sign that his return is drawing near.”

Pestilence appears in the story of the Exodus as one of the ten plagues. It was a common threat to ancient Israel, especially during their periods of disobedience.

More curiously, Jesus said that the growing threat of pestilence—among many other events—would be a sure sign that his return is drawing near. 

I am convinced that many Bibles will be dusted off and cracked open again as a result of this year’s events. Maybe even Christians will start reading chapters they may have avoided or neglected in the past (Matthew 24 and Revelation 6 spring to mind).

“Pestilence is mentioned countless times in the Bible.”

But I would also hope that we recapture what it means to “love your neighbour” in a crisis like this. Jesus speaks in sombre tones of Judgment Day, but his heart is always turned towards the vulnerable.

Our elderly neighbours and relatives are going to need our help. And they are going to need it in a very odd way.

We have to slow the spread of this virus down. As strange as it sounds, our personal hygiene and our contact with others is going to have real-world effects on how many of the sick and vulnerable survive the coming months.

“Our elderly neighbours and relatives are going to need our help.”

Those we know in these high-risk categories may also need some of the groceries we have stocked in our pantries, and a phone call every now and then to know they’re not forgotten.

Now that globalism has screeched to a halt, “love your neighbour” has a more local and literal meaning than ever.

The Church is Still the Church

For decades, we Christians have been saying that the church isn’t a building or a program, but a group of people. 

As the new limitations on numbers allowed at gatherings take effect in the western world, we’re about to find out if these were just catchy sermon lines or if we truly believe it.

“This pandemic is a wake-up call.”

Some have speculated that after the coronavirus threat passes, many will have adjusted to staying at home, and they’ll stop attending church altogether.

I’m more hopeful than that. I think this pandemic is a wake-up call. Too many of us have let church become defined by the world of consumerism. This is our opportunity to bring it back to the basics. As we feel our way forward, we have much to learn from the underground church.

Now that sermons can’t be served on a platter once a week, we will need to be proactive in our pursuit of God. It’s time for every heart now to seek him.

“As we feel our way forward, we have much to learn from the underground church.”

Reading Scripture in our homes just became far more necessary—as did praying alone and as a family, if that isn’t our habit. Fellowship and breaking bread will look different, but it’s going to be more important than ever. And if your church can’t live-stream, there are many that can, and billions of hours of sermons online.

When life is so radically reshaped, we soon work out what’s really important, and where we have been placing our faith. We’re living in strange times—but it is an exciting time to be the church.

God is Still on His Throne

God is shaking the nations. There is simply no other way to put it.

With the stock market tumbling, weddings being cancelled everywhere, and businesses shuttering, certainty about the future escapes us all. It’s no exaggeration to say that this is the biggest disruption to daily life since World War II.

But God is still on His throne.

When everything else in life is stripped bare, God is the one certainty that we can cling to. Take Psalm 91 to heart, and let God be your everything when nothing else can meet the challenge.

1 Those who live in the shelter of the Most High

    will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

2 This I declare about the Lord:

    He alone is my refuge, my place of safety;

    he is my God, and I trust him.

3 For he will rescue you from every trap

    and protect you from deadly disease.

4 He will cover you with his feathers.

    He will shelter you with his wings.

    His faithful promises are your armour and protection.

5 Do not be afraid of the terrors of the night,

    nor the arrow that flies in the day.

6 Do not dread the disease that stalks in darkness,

    nor the disaster that strikes at midday.

7 Though a thousand fall at your side,

    though ten thousand are dying around you,

    these evils will not touch you.

8 Just open your eyes,

    and see how the wicked are punished.

9 If you make the Lord your refuge,

    if you make the Most High your shelter,

10 no evil will conquer you;

    no plague will come near your home.

11 For he will order his angels

    to protect you wherever you go.

12 They will hold you up with their hands

    so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone.

13 You will trample upon lions and cobras;

    you will crush fierce lions and serpents under your feet!

14 The Lord says, “I will rescue those who love me.

    I will protect those who trust in my name.

15 When they call on me, I will answer;

    I will be with them in trouble.

    I will rescue and honour them.

16 I will reward them with a long life

    and give them my salvation.”

I’ve Been To Twelve Schoolies and It Gets Better Every Year

The sky was cold and dark in Victor Harbor. Music thumped in the background. Conversations were happening all around me. I looked through the crowd and saw a Year 12 student with a couple of police officers.

She was a little wobbly on her feet and she was wearing her tattered school dress as a costume. With a friendly word, she handed them hot donuts, and they were on their way. The whole scene made me smile.

“Every year I’m on Green Team, I learn something new.”

I’ll let the media write about drunken fights and screaming sirens—and sure, there was some of that too. But I’ve got a different story to tell.

I’m on the Green Team, a group of 500 volunteers from Adelaide’s churches, rallied by Encounter Youth to host one of the safest schoolies events in Australia. (Of the 10,000 school leavers that descended on the south coast this weekend, only one was arrested).

This is the twelfth year I’ve been a Green Teamer. Every year I come home glowing and grateful that God would use me to help bring the light of Jesus into a dark corner of our culture. And every year I learn something new. Here’s what stood out to me in 2017.

Where Green Team is, trouble isn’t

Green Team is by no means the only reason SA’s schoolies is safe. Police, paramedics, the local council and many others do an outstanding job, providing all sorts of services we’re not qualified for. Our role is far more modest—we provide banter, free food, directions, dance moves, and a phone call for help if it’s needed. It’s small, but it makes all the difference.

By the first night of the festival, Green Team has already become an army of trusted allies to the Year 12s. Remove us from a queue, a caravan park or a dark street corner and trouble brews quickly. But when we’re there, even our presence diffuses most problems before they escalate.

A culture of care spreads like wildfire

Mix drugs, alcohol, all-nighters, and inter-school rivalries, and you quickly create a culture of darkness. I’ve just described schoolies in Victor twenty years ago before things changed.

Instead, this year I saw a girl handing donuts to police officers—a scene that captured the spirit of the weekend. It’s hard to imagine unless you’ve seen it, but Green Team sets a culture of care that spreads.

“Green Team is an army of trusted allies to the Year 12s.”

This year a third of our church’s team was brand new. It didn’t matter if they were young or introverted or wide-eyed at the drunken antics. Within an hour, they got it—and they were Green Teaming like veterans. When light shines, it spreads and refracts far beyond its source, and darkness can’t overcome it.

Young people are desperate for trusted adults

I’m going to miss the class of 2017. Many were just a face in the passing crowd, but I won’t forget those I spoke with who came back the next night looking for me, or for someone else on our team who’d showed them love and remembered their name.

“I’m going to miss the class of 2017.”

Young people are crying out for trusted adults. I count it a privilege to be one of those every year, even if it’s just for the weekend. At such a fulcrum moment in their lives with the whole world at their feet, words of affirmation and challenge have a powerfully shaping effect on a teenager’s life.

Australian youth aren’t post-Christian, they’re pre-Christian

Last year’s census told us that Christianity still scraped through as Australia’s majority religion at 52%. That might be true, but the percentage is far smaller among the nation’s young people.

I spoke with one girl from a respected public school who said her whole class experiments with hard drugs. Countless schoolies, as always, asked why we volunteer—and when we mentioned Jesus in our answer, occasionally we had to explain what that word meant.

“One girl from a respected public school said her whole class experiments with hard drugs.”

For decades we’ve been talking about a post-Christian culture in Australia—and that’s still relevant for most generations. But Gen Z has arrived, and many of them are mind-blown and enthralled to hear about a God who created them and loved them so much that he suffered in their place. It’s a refreshing change from rolled eyes.

Community-on-mission is the church’s calling

I think we the church sometimes believe that the end game of following Jesus—the way to graduate as a mature Christian—is to get a career, marry, have kids, and buy a house. Those are all great things, but as Scot McKnight says, the mark of a follower of Jesus isn’t any of that—it’s following Jesus.

“How can we create more opportunities like Green Team to mobilise Christians?”

We’re all on mission as individuals. But what I love about Green Team, and what makes it incredibly unique, is that it’s community-on-mission. It’s groups of believers praying for each other as the day begins, sharing stories of breakthrough on the streets, facing fears and inadequacies together, and getting up to try it all again the next day.

This is how Jesus trained his disciples—remember the 72? This doesn’t happen much in church life anymore. But it should, because it works, and it turns believers into disciples. I don’t have an answer to this question, but you might: how can we create more opportunities like Green Team to mobilise Christians?

Past volunteers forget what they’re missing

Every year, there’s a 40% turnover of volunteers. I’m not surprised that 200 new people want to join the cause every year. But I am surprised that 200 past volunteers don’t want to continue.

Schoolies isn’t for everyone, and it’s not for every life stage (though I am impressed how Green Teamers with kids still manage to get out every year). Even still, a turnover of 200 is far too many.

“Remember the difference you made in so many lives.”

If you’re a past volunteer, can I ask you to consider rejoining the movement? This year, one of our teams was made up of 25 volunteers serving 1700 campers. We need you.

I know it costs sleep and a day or two of annual leave. But remember the difference you made in so many lives. And remember when you thought to yourself that the cost was worth it—because I know you did!

If revival comes, it will be through movements like this

God worked miracles again this year, and a bunch of the schoolies we met were supernaturally healed from sprains and other injuries. Many asked about our church and now plan to come visit.

It’s been said that the closest Australia ever came to revival was when Billy Graham visited in 1959 and many gave their lives to Christ at his crusades. But let’s face the facts: the time is gone when everyday Aussies will fill stadiums to hear an evangelist preach. Now we need to go to them.

“It’s time for us to rewrite the story of the church in this country.”

I don’t know if revival is coming to Australia, but if it is, I know that it will be through movements like Green Team.

It’s time for us to rewrite the story of the church in this country, put God’s mission ahead of our comforts, and step out with prayer and boldness so that His dream will come to pass and Australia might truly become the great southland of the Holy Spirit.

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Read about my schoolies adventures in 2016.