As reports of the coronavirus spread around the world, pastors and church leaders are discussing how they should respond to the outbreak. Throughout church history, many pastors have worked through similar challenges. As a young village preacher, Charles Spurgeon admired the Puritan ministers who stayed behind to care for the sick and dying during the Great Plague of London in 1665.
Over the past few years I’ve had a number of opportunities to interact with Pastor Andrea Artioli who pastors Chiesa Sola Grazia in Mantua, Italy. His recent newsletter told that he lives in the ‘hot zone’ of the coronavirus outbreak in Northern Italy. He told as well that his church has been instructed by local authorities that it may not meet. I thought it might prove interesting to ask him a few questions about his experience.
Tell me a little about yourself, your family, and your church.
My name is Andrea Artioli. I am 52, married to Emanuela since 1993, and we have 3 red-head children. I was raised Catholic and after my parents divorced, my mom and I met some believers from a Brethren Church (the only evangelical church in Mantua in the whole province of 250,000 people in the 70s).
Italy has less than 1% of evangelicals and we never had Reformation or Revival. Italians are very hostile to the gospel, especially in the North. I studied at London Theological Seminary (Martyn Lloyd-Jones). After seminary, by faith, we started the first Reformed publishing house in Italy and since then our passion has been to translate and publish good solid titles in Italian. In 2007 we planted the Sola Grazia Church in Porto Mantovano, near Mantua.
What events led to you being told your church could not meet?
Some Italians who were traveling to China for business contracted the coronavirus. Two areas in Northern Italy are quarantined. The citizens are forbidden to exit. We live right between those areas and in our town there are people who have contracted the virus.
The Italian government has stopped any sporting events, schools, public and private gatherings, and church services of any kind, including funerals. We cannot shake hands and hug each other. We cannot meet together in order to prevent the transmission of the virus.
You mentioned there had been a lot of ‘fake news’ describing life in that area. What was being broadcast as news even though it was false?
The socials, the media and journalists (and sometimes politicians too) in general created more chaos than ever. Sometimes they spread an apocalyptic view of what life could be in the near future. I am sure it is not easy to handle this kind of situation properly, but in general people have overreacted with panic. The big ‘motto’ has been ‘Together we can make it’ rather than asking for prayer and divine protection. (And Italian consider themselves ‘Christians’…)
What is life like there in northern Italy? Are people out-and-about or mostly staying home? Are people afraid?
People tend to stay at home. Downtown is quite empty and there is not much gathering in the squares and parks as usual. Basically there has been a rush to go buy groceries in big supplies. Are people afraid? Fear has been the main reaction to the spread of the infection and the emergency rooms have been overcrowded for some days. So everybody has been encouraged not to panic but to pay attention to the basic rules of frequently washing our hands, etc.
Have you or other members of your church found any unusual or interesting opportunities to minister to others at this time?
Honestly, I would have expected to have more opportunities to share the gospel with more people. I realised that every man is afraid though he does not go to God anymore. We expect this experience is going to change the perception of safety and security we all take for granted. This may be a good starting point for conversation about the illusion of controlling our life.
How can we pray for you and your church?
Pray we can be ready to start a good conversation about life and the gospel. This area is very hard soil to the gospel. Pray the Lord will call people to repentance. Pray for the believers, who are reacting very well, that we will treasure this sense of peace and blessing that comes from the Lord in this situation. Pray for physical protection and for wisdom of our political leaders.
It is going to be weird on Sunday not being able to attend any services. Many other churches around us will not have services either. There is a deep hurt in our hearts for not gathering together with the other saints to hear the Word preached, sing, pray, and take the Lord’s Supper. We will stay at home, which is a sweet place, but at the same time we’ll feel like to be in a wrong place.
This article was originally published in March on challies.com. It has been edited to remove information which is now out of date.
Tim Challies is pastor at Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, Canada. He is also a blogger, author, and book reviewer.