The CWM East Asia Regional Assembly was held online from 24-25 May 2022 between 10:00am to 4:30pm via Zoom to facilitate mutual sharing and collective discernment on emerging issues of the Region. Joining the meeting were delegates from the 6 East Asia member churches, the resource persons, Prof. Francis Yip, Dr Natalie Lin and CWM Partners- in-Mission (PIM) Rev. Dr Li Hau-Tiong and Mrs. Li Hsu Su-Fen.

DAY ONE (24 May) began with the CWM General Secretary, Rev. Dr Jooseop Keum, bringing opening greetings to the delegates. He shared about the great turmoil seen in East Asia, unprecedented in these times. With military operations, inequalities and the global pandemic, as well as the conflict in Ukraine felt worldwide, peace has been elusive. The political situation in Taiwan and Hong Kong as well as the current situation in Korea have been challenging. Myanmar’s military dictatorship still stands. In these broken times, we are to witness peace and reconciliation in Christ, making them our mission. We ought to embark on a pilgrimage of peace and justice as it brings us fullness of life. In Christian tradition, peace goes along with harmony and restoration. Hence, it is natural for us to desire to cultivate peace in our communities in order for life to flourish. Rev. Dr Keum invited delegates to envision a region where neighbours are not afraid of one another and live together harmoniously.

After a round of greetings and introductions in the delegates’ own languages, Prof. Francis Yip (Director and Associate Professor, Divinity School of Chung Chi College, Chinese University of Hong Kong) delivered the Keynote Address, The Church in a Post-COVID World. He urged the region to share both the sufferings and emerging joys of the pandemic. Though the world is moving back to the new normal, the trauma of the pandemic still remains. Prof. Yip challenged churches to consider how to actualize church ministry to reach those impacted by the pandemic. Mental health, social injustice, domestic violence and economic issues have all greatly risen since the onset of COVID-19, exacerbated by widening class gaps, the war in Ukraine and high inflation rates. The ecological and political fronts have seen simultaneous improvements and deteriorations. Church life has experienced various levels of impact due to the online-physical conundrum. Ongoing theological debates persist concerning the nature of sacraments when they are administered online.

Prof. Yip examined the ministry of Jesus (quoting from Matthew and John) as a biblical response to the pandemic. Like Jesus, churches of today are still called to teach, preach, heal and exorcise. The main slant of this ministry should be the restoration of the image of the triune God, which implies a sense of dignity, community and fellowship with nature. In the economic sense, humanity should precede economic profits and gain. On the political front, we should be reminded that all the anti-pandemic measures and political policies are made for humans and not the other way round.

During the ensuing plenary discussion, Presbyterian Church of Korea (PCK) shared on worship as mission, and how a focus on worship is needed in a time such as this. Presbyterian Church in Taiwan (PCT) touched on its churches in urban and rural areas, and how due to the lack of online capacities, the life of the rural churches in this post- pandemic times has been destabilized and affected. Presbyterian Church in Singapore (PCS) discussed their overseas support during pandemic times, including support for Ukraine and local/foreign missionaries. Some PCS congregations have also opened their doors for the homeless. Presbyterian Church of Myanmar (PCM) spoke about the decreasing numbers in churches primarily due to the ongoing political and military situation, and also the importance of pastors and ministers to be digitally literate and equipped for post-COVID ministry. Gereja Presbyterian Malaysia (GPM) shared about their post-pandemic journey and current transition from online services back into physical ones. The Hong Kong Council of the Church of Christ in China (HKCCCC) discussed the issue of whether Hong Kong should align with China’s zero-COVID policy or follow the rest of the world in going endemic.

During the Member Church Sharing section, PCT presented on challenges such as youth leaving the church, aging population and political language policies. PCT has also been active in online Christian education ministry to Sunday School children and pastoral care. As part of their MSP-4 project, PCT has been engaging in developing elderly-friendly congregations, contextual bible study groups for youth, ethnic language classes for indigenous groups and strengthening communal congregations through community mission models. PCT’s other activities in the society include community work, collaboration with other churches and aid for Ukraine.

PCS began by narrating a brief history and overview of the church. Sharing its lessons learnt in pedagogy (Trinity Theological College), PCS shared the challenges of learning and utilizing zoom for online courses due to the lack of face-to-face interactions. Theologically, the issue of partaking communion remotely was brought up. An observation made was that churches became theologically flexible in light of COVID restrictions, a testament to how the global church survived the last 2,000 years. In its public witness, local congregations worked quickly to comply with pandemic restrictions. Local Christians stepped up to deliver food to migrant workers in lockdown, and assisted to set up COVID care facilities.

PCM shared that the ongoing military coup has resulted in Myanmar becoming a failed state, resulting in bank restrictions, media control, travel restrictions, regular shootings, electricity shortages, drug abuse and a crippled economy. PCM has responded to the COVID-19 situation by putting in place a COVID response team providing healthcare, aid packages and funeral services. The supporting of internally displaced people (IDP) remains a key missional priority. Food was also supplied to churches and political prisoners of the military regime. As part of their MSP-4 project, PCM has conducted awareness and training programmes on drug and alcohol abuse, as well as tailoring training and nurse helper training.

During the Wrapping Up session of the first day, PCT discussed the possibility for CWM to create more space for women and youth through their programmes, while GPM affirmed the generational gap issue facing churches (that separates the youth and older generation), calling upon CWM intervention for this matter.

DAY TWO (25 May) began with CWM PIMs Rev. Dr Li Hau-Tiong and Mrs. Li Hsu Su-Fen leading Worship and Prayer on the topic of Jesus’ Mission and Ministry in the Book of Matthew. Starting with his own experience of catching COVID-19, he described common challenges in the post-COVID world. Quoting from the book of Matthew, Rev. Dr Li expounded on Jesus’ ministry of healing the sick and poor. The priorities of the church ought to include disciple-making, baptism and teaching. The session concluded with The Lord’s Prayer in the delegates’ own languages.

The Thematic Reflection was led by Dr Natalie Lin on the topic of Worship and Spirituality in a Post-COVID Church. Retelling the story of the Road to Emmaus in Luke, Dr Lin spoke of the two men’s time with Jesus that led to an identity crisis and questions about their faith and response.

These two men experienced the new life radiated by the risen Christ, which played a part in their personal transformation and spiritual formation. Dr Lin stressed that worship is to be translated into an attitude of awe and trust in our relationship with God. It is not simply about liturgy but rather a spiritual pilgrimage of encountering Jesus, reflecting the fullness of the gospel. Through worship, we are drawn away from a self-centred life into a community of Christ.

The ensuing plenary discussion saw GPM present about the lack of a physical component and environment in online worship. Worship is important but simply a supplement to God’s word. HKCCCC described how liturgy is not the most important to a uniting church like theirs, but rather simply a tool to help people encounter God. For PCM, churches in Yangon are implementing online services. The current military situation eclipses COVID-19 in terms of severity. Their communication with overseas partners has also been hampered because of the military restrictions. PCK delegates felt that worship does not need to be confined to any specific framework or liturgy. Each individual’s worship may or may not fully reflect the gospel, hence the responsibility of the church to provide corporate direction to the members. PCS church members enjoyed the ease of online services but very quickly felt the disconnection and need for in-person interaction. PCT observed the loneliness and anxiety resulting from the pandemic, resulting in the need for church to provide peace and love, even in simple ways.

During the Member Church Sharing section, PCK presented on the COVID-19 situation in South Korea and the changes in society and church the pandemic caused. Some of the challenges Korean churches are currently facing include restoring the original nature of the church, restoring the church’s status and reflecting on the gospel. PCK has collaborated with soldiers, migrants, persons living with disabilities and also participated in ecological activities and aid to North Korea. PCK is currently seeking policy developments for revival of local churches, as well as emphasizing youth education. In response to a question during the plenary discussion, PCK revealed that they are also losing youth in church. However, locals are trying ways to fill the gaps through youth programmes and other initiatives.

HKCCCC shared that challenges began way before COVID-19, presenting themselves in the form of political disunity and controversy involving the influence of China. Notable events include the June 2019 anti-extradition law protests and the COVID-19 pandemic and its ensuing restrictions to movement. HKCCCC pastors mediated and put their faith  on  the  frontline  of  the protests. Local congregations also offered open spaces as rest areas for unarmed protestors and signed appeals to repeal the government’s “riot” accusations. HKCCCC’s COVID-19 interventions consist of aid package distribution, visiting the homeless and starting online classes. The church has been facing loss of pastors and the country experiencing mass migration waves out of Hong Kong.

GPM introduced the second phase of its Church Without Walls plan, which hit a roadblock because of COVID-19. The concept of the plan is to move beyond its own walls and live out faith and do outreach and evangelism in the community. After an overview on the history and organizational structure of GPM, the Presbyterian Digital School  was  introduced.  Digital courses, Sunday School learning, Presbyterian History and other training programmes will be offered on this platform. A major challenge to GPM and Malaysia in general is Islamization. The indigenous ministry is an important part of GPM’s work that aims to build up a generation of Christians among the indigenous and stem the tide of Islamization.

In the final section, The Way Forward, member churches name several urgent mission priorities in the Region as follows:

GPM raised cross-cultural, cross-linguistic missions as a mission priority for their church to equip believers who will return to their home countries to build bridges with the local communities.

PCS shared about the national white paper on religious harmony, which restricts local evangelical work. However, they see the need to think beyond traditional evangelism to continue local mission work. PCS’ focus is also on the regional mission consultation involving partner nations such as Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.

HKCCCC stressed their historical ties with the CCC in China and their desires to cooperate with them again, which were hindered by COVID-19. In addition, the Church will always need to work closely with the government to ensure smooth operation of their schools. HKCCCC raised the training of new leaders as pastors as an emerging regional priority.

PCK raised theological reflection on the 4th industrial revolution and its ramifications (over- reliance on online services) as an urgent missional issue for the church. Empires and systems of powerful nations was lifted up as a missional concern for the region.

PCM spoke of caring for internally-displaced people near the border regions as a local missional issue. Due to the lack of media and external support, a regional, caring community and network will be a source of invaluable support to PCM.

 PCT shared about identity in the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic Taiwanese society as an emerging issue. A regional priority was for governments to encourage education in regional mother tongues in order to embrace our God-given diversity.

The CWM 2022 East Asia Regional Assembly was concluded with a closing prayer led by Rev. Phua Chee Seng of the PCS.

Report by Stephen Chia, vetted by Rev. Julie Sim