The COVID-19 pandemic has been of much interest to many academics across various disciplines, including the study of religion. Much of scholarship wants to analyze the impact of the coronavirus on religion and on how religious beliefs influence people’s response to the virus. One such scholar to be interested in these questions is Johanneke Kroesbergen-Kamps, a scholar and fieldwork researcher in Zambia. As we will reveal in some more detail, Kroesbergen-Kamps identifies vertical and horizontal responses to COVID- 19 in the Reformed Church in Zambia (RCZ). We will be summarizing and reflecting on her insights, which are exclusively hers as stipulated in her article Horizontal and Vertical Dimensions in Zambian Sermons about the COVID-19 Pandemic (2020) published in the Journal of Religion in Africa.
As part of a brief literature review, Kroesbergen-Kamps identifies three main trends in publications and literature discussing religion and COVID-19. The first trend comes in the form of theologians, missiologists, and anthropologists reflecting on the need for religions to carve out a new space online because traditional practices of collective worship have been disrupted due to social distancing measures and wholesale lockdowns. Churches have attempted to work around this problem by publishing materials (booklets, pamphlets, etc.) and attempting to disseminate advice to congregants on how to practically move services online. Also, this digital turn has raised interesting questions for scholars on the embodied and material dimensions of religion.
A second trend Kroesbergen-Kamps highlights is in secular researchers looking at the relationship between religion, well-being, and mental health in the time of COVID-19. There has been an increased interest in the role of religious coping mechanisms in times of adversity since the 1990s. The coronavirus has provided an interesting context to further develop knowledge around religion and coping. Some have noted how persons turn to religion during pandemics because it assists them to deal with the anxieties and uncertainties of current experience. Other writers, however, have found no clear relation between the pandemic and increased religiosity.
A third trend notices how the relationship between religion and COVID-19 has adverse effects on religious commitment. We might note, for instance, the United States where research has shown how religious persons tend to adhere less to measures intended to decrease the spread of the coronavirus. Many academics have also examined the religious response to COVID-19 in Africa. Some of these academics have been critical and criticized Pentecostal churches for their tendency to see challenges through the lens of religion. They are said to “spiritualize” the virus by bringing it into the realm of gods and spirits, which can result in disregarding practical and physical measures to prevent the spread of the pandemic
Kroesbergen-Kamps sees a further area that needs to be explored because she notices that little work has been published on how religious frameworks of meaning adapt to the pandemic. This guides her qualitative analysis of pastors in the RCZ and their response to COVID-19. Kroesbergen-Kamps cataloged 342 sermons and transcribed the relevant parts of 109 services explicitly and indirectly mentioning COVID-19. She transcribed various discourses including words of welcome, prayers, and sermons, while also at the same time followed online services in South Africa and the Netherlands.
Kroesbergen-Kamps observes how the coronavirus was an important topic in many of the services, especially the earliest ones she analyzed. In almost half of these, the sermon addressed the pandemic in detail. In 20% of sermons, the coronavirus was an important topic in the prayers offered during the service. In their first live-streamed services, 72% of the pastors preached about COVID-19. The interest in the coronavirus in sermons slowly decreased over time as the pandemic lost its predominance as a topic of importance
This brings us to Kroesbergen-Kamps’s two dimensions of the RCZ’s response to the coronavirus: the horizontal and vertical dimensions. The horizontal dimension is more empirical in that it looks at the physical community and human-directed relationships within the church and wider society. The vertical dimension looks at the relationship with God and other spiritual beings. Kroesbergen-Kamps discusses how pastors in the RCZ are aware of and address both the horizontal and the vertical dimensions.
Let us first look at the horizontal dimension. This dimension is exemplified well in the words of one theologian Kroesbergen-Kamps cites and who writes that “During this time of COVID-19, churches should become centres for solidarity, networks of compassion, empathy, healing and emotional support in the face of sickness, fear, pain and hunger.” Here we see the horizontal dimension attempting to stimulate the development of a strong and caring religious community during a tough time.
There are various ways this dimension can be seen in practice. We see it in pastors reaching out to their congregants through Facebook, WhatsApp, or by handing out Bible studies to members of the congregation. The horizontal dimension evidence a significant adjustment of the operations and habits of both pastors and congregants, especially in rural areas where pastors find it difficult to reach out to their congregants.
The RCZ’s also become a channel to be used by the government and health organizations. These wish to use the church to educate as many persons as possible on the dangers of the virus and the measures that should be taken to curb its spread. Many pastors also agree that the church should spread accurate information about the virus. According to Kroesbergen-Kamps, in roughly one-third of the services she studied pastors shared the government’s guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus with their audience.
We also see this dimension in pastors attempting to combat the many misconceptions about the coronavirus in Zambian society. They mention various conspiracy theories, such as the rolling out of the 5G network being somehow related to the coronavirus, or that the Chinese produced COVID-19 for their own world-political reasons, and that COVID-19 does not affect black people or only affects rich people. A locally brewed beer, called kachasu, is often named as a remedy for the coronavirus.
Pastors want to inform congregants how to live in the current crisis with its many difficulties. They realize the need to offer hope and encouragement to those who are struggling and afraid for their health and future. Pastors recount how some congregants lose all hope, even to the point of committing suicide. They also see people who lose their faith and start doubting whether God exists.
Another difficulty pastors are aware of is the poverty that has been exacerbated by the virus, a topic that is regularly mentioned in sermons and prayers. As Pastor Chikondi teaches, “The economy of the world is hit hard by the spread of the coronavirus. Well, here in Zambia you agree with me that prices are skyrocketing.” According to another pastor, “You may have lost [your] job in the process. You may have lost some business deals in the process. You may have lost even your business in the process. Some of you may even be losing your spouse, because now you are broke and so your spouse wants to run away.”
It is because of such factors that theologians and missiologists have wanted to stimulate churches to use this crisis to become visible as caring communities.
We now arrive at the vertical dimension. As we noted, this dimension focuses on God and the spiritual world which, Kroesbergen-Kamps explains, fits with an African worldview in which diseases and other setbacks are often related to a disturbance in the spirit world.
This dimension involves persons drawing closer to God in prayer and fasting because this is thought to provide them with comfort and reduce stress in difficult times. Some churches interpret the coronavirus as being caused by a disturbance in one’s relationship with God. In an attempt to remedy this, pastors give congregants hope and encouragement by emphasizing God’s presence often using the phrase “God is with us.” According to one pastor Chikondi, “The world today is going through a difficult phase. We have been hit by the coronavirus, COVID-19… In the midst of this challenge, I’m here to assure all of us that God is with us.” This phrase, “God is with us,” speaks of the deep care God has for people and it helps audiences not to feel alone in their challenges. Another popular phrase used is “God is in control.” As pastor Dalitso comments, “Let us have confidence that no pain, no suffering, no persecution is outside God’s control and power to save.”
Also part of this dimension is the belief that before God helps people, people have to do something for God. They have to, for instance, stand firm in their faith and the help that comes from above is dependent on how firm the faith of the believer is. It is a common idea in Pentecostal churches that wealth, status, and good health are seen as blessings from God that are only granted to those who have a strong faith. It is thus important in many such churches that the pastor displays his wealth, for example, by wearing stylish clothes and accessories. This notion that a strong faith gives blessings is also gaining traction within the RCZ.
Another concern that pastors have is how their congregants are relating to God. They are worried if the faith of their congregants is strong enough to withstand the challenging circumstances brought on by the coronavirus. In some sermons, pastors evidence a concern that congregants spend their time watching unedifying programs on television, or that they seek help from traditional healers instead of God. But the biggest risk, however, is doubt. According to Pastor Chifundo, “I know sometimes it’s difficult to believe, when you are passing through challenges.” According to pastor Dalitso, “Sometimes you feel as if God has gone to sleep, as if God has abandoned you.” Pastors attempt to comfort their congregants and give them hope by assuring them that God still cares.
Doubt, for many, is not believed to be a natural thing but rather a spiritual attack from a demon or Satan. Kroesbergen-Kamps observes how a segment in the RCZ is moving in a more Pentecostal direction in which spiritual warfare theology is important. This theology posits that there is a war raging between God and the forces of good, and the devil and his forces of evil. Many in the RCZ see demons in the coronavirus and believe they can pray them away. As one pastor preaches,
“Any satanic and demonic stone, any stone of COVID-19, we rebuke and destroy, we resist and overcome by the blood of Jesus Christ. From this disease to spread, we bind every power, every point of contact through which this disease is spreading. This disease is not going to spread. This disease is not going to escalate, in the mighty name of Christ Jesus.”
As noted, this vertical dimension is often linked to spiritualization in how the virus is seen as a demon or curse, which motivates one to seek the cause and solution in the spiritual realm. Also as we noted, this has been a point of critique as the vertical dimension is often framed as having negative effects. Criticism is leveled at the church seeking the cause and solution to the pandemic in the spiritual realm at the expense of biomedical or social preventative measures. Because pastors and congregants (and politicians) spiritualize the virus, they do not invest enough in practical, physical responses to it. Persons also fail to practically engage with structural causes like poverty, inequality, and corruption in the physical world.
Some pastors spiritualize the virus and shun all human help and trust. One should not put his or her faith in fellow humans and this only leaves God as an option. God is seen as the source of help and the lack of trust is directed at doctors, scientists, pastors, and politicians. As pastor Madalitso teaches, “Doctors may fail, but Jesus will never fail. Professors may fail, but Jesus will never fail. Pastors, bishops, prophets may fail, but Jesus will never fail.” The message here is that believers should put their trust in God and not in the works of persons. But, on the other hand, many of the pastors are careful to combine the emphasis on prayer with giving information about the physical measures that help protect against contracting COVID-19.
In wrapping up this summary of Kroesbergen-Kamps’s article, we can note that church responses to the COVID-19 virus are broad and that they can be neatly categorized under the horizontal and vertical dimensions. Some responses involve taking the horizontal and more practical route in response to COVID-19. These include educating congregants on the virus and misconceptions, pastors trying to stay in contact with their congregants, praying for them, and providing them with emotional support. Some responses are less practical and more spiritual, such as praying for healing, placing trust primarily in God rather than in persons, and spiritualizing the virus. It is also possible to combine the horizontal and vertical dimensions, for example, one can reach out to the sick but at the same time pray and appeal to God for healing.
Kroesbergen-Kamps’s study is a helpful one that begs to be applied to other contexts. Through her work, we now have a knowledge of how churches in Zambia have been responding to COVID-19. But we might also want to apply the horizontal and vertical dimensions to church responses in, say, the United States and in the United Kingdom. How might the churches there be responding to the virus? What might be some of the similarities and differences to what we know of the church responses in Zambia? It is clear then that Kroesbergen-Kamps’s study invites further exploration into how the Church has responded to the crisis to emerge from COVID-19.
Kroesbergen-Kamps, Johanneke. 2019. “Horizontal and Vertical Dimensions in Zambian Sermons about the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Journal of Religion in Africa 49(1):73-99.