INDONESIAN BISHOP TUHONI TELAUMBANUA knows well what it means to minister in the midst of a storm. He is from Nias island, off the west coast of North Sumatra in the Indian Ocean, a surfers’ paradise but also a place still recovering from the damage wreaked by the 2004 tsunami and a devastating earthquake the following year.

He is among the 60 participants at the Asia Church Leadership Conference, leading lay and ordained women and men in reflecting on ways in which the churches have reacted to the most recent upheaval of the Covid-19 pandemic. He noted the many questions that people asked their pastors as the virus struck the Asia region. Where was God and why did such a disaster happen? Was it human greed or a sign of the end times?

His Protestant Christian Church (BNKP), one of the 13 Lutheran churches in Indonesia, responded swiftly, Bishop Telaumbaunua said, pivoting to online for worship and educational activities, printing sermons and prayers for those with no internet connections, stepping up diaconal services to communities in need and keeping in contact with people via phone or WhatsApp.

But the pandemic raised profound and lasting questions for all churches in the region, Telaumbanua continued. “It reminded us of our human frailty, underlining the way that we are all connected in our sorrow as well as our joys,” he said. It provided a stark reminder of our connectedness to creation, so that that “when the environment suffers, humans suffer too.”

The pandemic, he continued, required us “to learn discipline and to show solidarity with all people, including those outside of our church and familiar circles of family and friends.” It challenged the ability of pastors to reach their congregations in new and creative ways. Above all, he said, it “reminds us that the church is not simply a building or an institution, but rather it is the People of God, requiring us to radically transform our ministry and mission.”

The 18-23 May meeting includes church leaders from countries across the region who are discussing what that new ministry after the storm will look like. Among the challenges that the pandemic has raised, Bishop Telaumbanua said, is the need for better training of lay people for family ministry when pastors are unable to lead their congregations in worship.

In the Asian context, he pointed to the way the virus exacerbated pre-existing problems of poverty, injustice, violence and corruption. The church has heard a renewed call to focus its ministry on the marginaliesd, he said, as well as developing better intergenerational services for children and families. Ministry must be holistic, he stressed, and pastors must listen attentively to their people so as “not to isolate Sunday worship from the sanctity of everyday life.”

Finally, Bishop Telaumbanua underlined the growing importance of what he called “the Koinonia Movement”, forging effective partnerships at all levels with people of other churches and other religions, as well as governmental and non-governmental organisations. Only in this way, he said, will the church of the future be able to build resilience and provide hope to face whatever the next storms of life may be.

* Source; Lutheran World Federation