As the pandemic hit, the world focused on disruptions to healthcare, supply chains, and economics. Cultural disruptions have not received as much attention. During the pandemic, cultures dear to us have been dramatically altered. In eastern sub-Saharan Africa, my own context, the concept of ubuntu defines our communal way of life. Ubuntu is a Bantu term meaning “humanity to others” or “I am because we are.” It is anchored in the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all people. This African definition of community does not accommodate lockdowns, restricted movement, or social distancing. Physical interaction and participation in social activities define several African communities’ wellbeing.
Like what happened during the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa and the 2009 H1NI flu pandemic in Malawi and Ghana, ethical questions arose this spring when the Kenyan Cabinet Secretary for Health invoked the Public Health Act and asked citizens to observe quarantine and to restrict movement as the only way to contain the novel coronavirus. People wondered how to put food on the table if they could not work or visit neighbors and relatives. More ethical concerns came up when the police imposed a curfew directive issued by the president of Kenya. At the Kenya Ferry, which is often congested with people crossing to and from Mombasa Island through the Indian Ocean, the police teargassed and beat a number of citizens for failing to be home on time. Such brutal acts were an antithesis to ubuntu, whose core emphasis is humanity, compassion, and social responsibility (Sambala, Manderson, & Cooper, 2020).
Thus, the coronavirus forced us to stop shaking hands and to avoid regular communal gatherings. Reverend Canon Francis Omondi, writing about the Church in Kenya, observes that a crisis that locks the sanctuary and separates the clergy from the flock could dim the Church’s impact (Omondi, 2020). Because of governmental measures, families have been separated.
This massive cultural shift and other contemporary struggles call for a transformation of theological education (Kondyuk, 2020; Hunter, 2020). As the custodians of doctrine and practice, those in theological education must fulfill their mandate to demonstrate how the Gospel applies to crises in the Church and society. Three challenges to the Church in East Africa, especially in light of how the pandemic clashes with ubuntu, are:
• Praxis: How does the Church work out her identity when members are separated from one another and from their buildings?
• Discipleship: How can the average Christian in Sub-Saharan Africa live a life of steadfast faith and vibrant devotion to God with church doors closed, limited movement, and little or complete lack of access to the internet?
• Engagement with government: How does the Church address government restrictions – varying lockdowns in Kenya and Tanzania, for instance? How do Christian citizens navigate the tension between responsibility to protect one another and duty to worship?
These three categories are traditional areas within theological education that need to be revised to make them relevant to unfolding challenges. They can be enriched with material from areas outside the traditional curricula. This essay suggests ways to integrate old and new material within the theological curricula so that seminaries can develop leaders holistically and increase the Church’s capacity to respond appropriately and immediately to emerging needs.
Praxis: Ministry, Evangelism, Finances, and Psychology
Most obviously, inside the Church, COVID-19 necessitates a reevaluation of ministry practices – visitation, small groups, and others that require contact hours. Pastors need guidance for how to administer the Eucharist and baptism in a context of disease. Theological educators can suggest alternative but Biblically sound methodologies for ensuring that local church ministries remain vibrant even outside the sanctuary. During the lockdown, for example, I administered the Eucharist virtually, and we prayed daily on WhatsApp. Only members with internet access could participate, however. Baptisms had to halt until it would be safe. Communication with members was confined to calling, chatting, and texting.
Outside the Church, believers need flexible mission models that do not involve physical contact. During lockdown, we expressed the love of Christ to those outside our church by providing food and soap. But what does intensive evangelism looks like when people cannot sit down and reason together? People can use their phones for evangelism via video calls and chats; however, not all people are connected, and those who are connected face the challenge of loading their phones with airtime and bundles. Some churches own media stations that they continue to use for evangelism and discipleship, while others do not have such facilities. Another question that theological educators may seek to answer is how local congregations may participate more vibrantly in global missions because COVID-19 has reminded us that the mission of God is not confined within the four walls of the church building. All human beings everywhere need to experience the love of Christ.
Beyond the core practices of ministry and missions, the Church must consider other areas affected by the pandemic, such as finances and psychological care. The pandemic has made painfully clear how essential these areas are to holistic congregational and individual well-being.
In April 2020, the African Union projected a loss of twenty million jobs as a result of the pandemic (AfricaNews, 2020; MacSwan, 2020). The World Bank issued a warning that Sub-Saharan Africa will go into recession for the first time in 25 years (MacSwan 2020). Kenya’s tourism industry is on a downward spiral, and its food security is seriously threatened. Church members are not exempt from this economic suffering. Many have lost their jobs, so their churches will lose revenue from gifts. (Most Sub-Saharan African churches depend on offerings as their only source of income. Only a few churches can do regular capital budgeting because offerings are irregular.) Even those members who could still tithe could not attend the worship services at which they would normally give because of indefinite suspension of those services.
Thus, churches face uncertainty about paying bills and staff salaries, and this uncertainty trickles down to seminaries, as church giving to seminaries may stop. Most seminary students depend on local churches to pay their seminary tuition, though some seminaries and individual students or staff may receive support from overseas. One theological educator posted on social media that they had to halt their studies indefinitely because their seminary coffers were running dry.
It is important for theological educators in Kenya and beyond to guide churches and seminaries to consider how they can generate third stream income creatively to enable them to stay afloat during global crises (Hunter, 2020). Christians who have been laid off need counsel on how to make ends meet. Pastors, missionaries, and other Christian workers who are going without support need ideas for managing what little they do have and their personal or congregational debts. Entrepreneurship, financial management, banking, and agriculture (gardening, bee- and poultry-keeping) could be added to the seminary curricula. Such courses – or conferences, seminars, or workshops – would significantly augment holistic development and would help new leaders reflect God’s creativity more fully.
Facing these crises of ministry, missions, and finances, some pastors are very discouraged. I received a message from a pastor who needed support because he felt that he was headed into depression. I realized that he was living far away from his family, whom he could neither rejoin nor support because he was in debt. Every bit of his income – which was not just unpredictable but small – was going to pay his debt. I mobilized some Christians online to raise support to ease the debt. I also encouraged him through consistent online contact until he regained confidence and could minister again to his congregation.
Christian educators need to reach out to pastors like this one during and after the pandemic to encourage them. Theological institutions should develop curricula to strengthen pastors who could be emotionally drained so that they can in turn counsel hurting people both in and outside the Church. The more infections and deaths increase, the more fear grows, and there are many outside the Church who are suffering and neglected by over-stretched governmental systems. Furthermore, the Church needs Biblical models for addressing the most extreme mental illnesses (that may be exacerbated by the pandemic). Courses might include psychology and stress management.
Discipleship: Intellect, Communications, and Media
The fears raised by the pandemic reveal the need for discipleship that creates maturity. Trust in God mitigates fear, and discipleship is key to trust, hope, and peace. Thus, discipleship should not stop at the elementary teaching of the Christian faith but should engage believers’ intellects. In East Africa, Christians often dichotomize their intellectual and spiritual lives. The result of this is superficial “Christianity” that is easily swept about. By contrast, a discipleship of the mind enables believers to apply faith correctly to emerging realities.
Take, for instance, the conspiracy theories surrounding the pandemic. Some have said that COVID-19 is preparation for the introduction of the number of the Beast through a vaccine (Revelation 13). This and other conflicting eschatological explanations of the pandemic have stirred fear in many Christians; these false teachings require a strong Christian mind to counter. In addition, due to social distancing directives, Christians have been separated from one another and have turned to social media, where they have been exposed to all kinds of strange doctrines, as many preachers have flooded both social and mainstream media platforms. This reality may not change even when the restrictions on congregating are fully lifted. Going forward, Christians will encounter doctrines that may be unbiblical, cultic, and even demonic. It will also be very hard to keep track of believers who are now free to hop from one virtual congregation to the next, concealing their identities and struggles, not becoming loyal to any one body of believers (Omondi, 2020). This makes the need for quality discipleship both urgent and core for the development of steadfast faith among Christians.
In addition to theology, the pandemic has highlighted the need for church leaders to acquire some knowledge of how to decipher communications about health. Christian leaders in Sierra Leone and Liberia played a leading role in stemming the spread of Ebola in 2014. Rev. Jonathan Titus-William reported that he and others helped their congregations understand Ebola’s threat and how to stay safe (CAFOD, CA, IR, & Tearfund, 2015). During the COVID-19 pandemic, therefore, religious leaders in Kenya sounded ignorant when they claimed that the novel coronavirus was another demon designed to interfere with worship. Theological education needs to help pastors and Christian workers understand the Biblical passages about how to deal with infectious diseases. Leaders need to disciple believers so that they recognize their Christian duty to care for others’ health, not just their own.
Crisis communication is another important area for theological educators to consider. Christian leaders need to know how to manage anxiety and outrage so as not to spiritualize, politicize, or dismiss problems. Sometimes, Christian leaders think that they should comment on everything as it unfolds. This is a fallacy. The Church needs basic knowledge of how to communicate wisely and with self-discipline during crisis.
For all of these reasons, theological educators need to provide the Church with resources for recognizing, assessing, and engaging other perspectives (Bowers, 2010). Believers need to recognize that they have a duty to protect their own intellects and to fight lies, to take every thought and word captive to Jesus Christ (Bowers, 2010).
Not only must leaders disciple believers intellectually, but they need to know how to communicate this discipleship to them. Christian leaders need to be familiar with forms of media. In spite of very unequal internet access among church members in Kenya, many churches suddenly relied heavily on social media when lockdowns began. But they did not go online thoughtfully. Preachers did not understand that their audience had become much wider overnight and that their words could do exponentially more harm (or good). Thus, the Church needs a proper understanding of the complexity of mass communication and of ethical issues in cyberspace. Media literacy would help local churches understand how to enter the global digital community wisely.
Engagement with Government: Politics
Most key decisions about managing the pandemic have come from national governments. This increased involvement has changed the relationship between the state and the Church. On one hand, in Tanzania, the president opined that the coronavirus was not a sufficient reason to shut church doors. On the other hand, the shock, confusion, and anxiety that came with the Kenyan government’s directive that churches must halt public gatherings revealed that Christians may be more attached to their church buildings, pastors, and one another than they are to Christ. Some Christians, oblivious to the moral obligation to stop the spread of disease, saw government directives as an infringement of their freedom of worship.
The role of the Church in the public sphere is not always clear to many East African Christians. Although many believers may think that the Church’s engagement in politics equals endorsing a particular politician or party, this is not true. Rather, the Church should have an informed and consistent voice in politics that uplifts justice and mercy and calls for peace (Kondyuk, 2020).
Thus, the pandemic is teaching us to ask: How does the Church see itself in relation to the government? As a means to help solve problems? As an adversary that must fight for its rights? The Church’s prophetic voice can be strengthened if theological institutions include courses on political engagement. Such courses might touch on how God’s justice applies to national governments. Insights about how government works and about the pressures exerted on government workers from different fronts would also be useful. Church leaders ought to understand the jurisdiction of political government and to master the best way to partner with the state in the management of national crises. Finally, we need to realize that believers who are not professional theologians – doctors, lawyers, aid workers – can have theological perspectives, especially about faith in the public sphere. Such perspectives are the strands on which to weave Christian engagement with the government.
These reflections come as the pandemic continues. They will likely be refined and deepened as the crisis unfolds, but the crisis is urgent: the Church must respond as she suffers rather than waiting for the crisis to pass. This article has discussed challenges to praxis, discipleship, and engagement with the government created by the pandemic for the Church, especially in East Africa. It has argued for integrating skills from other disciplines – including economics, psychology, communications, and politics – within these areas. The purpose for this reappraisal is, through theological education, to increase the Church’s capacity to respond appropriately to doctrinal and practical needs.
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