Missions in a Post COVID-19 World
Ed Stetzer, Christian missiologist and Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, often shares how his grandfather, a NYC fire battalion chief, taught him as a young boy that firefighters run towards danger when everybody else runs away from danger. But firefighters don’t run blindly towards danger, they are well prepared physically, emotionally, and resourcefully and do so with a well-planned strategy, executed to perfection. This should be true for those who follow Christ, especially in a season of fear and a time of uncertainty.
In many ways disasters, pandemics, and tragedies have always been the conduits that Christ-followers used to impact communities. In his blog “living in plague times”, Philip Yancey refers to sociologist Rodney Stark who wrote (in The Rise of Christianity) that one reason the church overcame hostility and grew so rapidly within the Roman empire traces back to how Christians responded to pandemics of the day, which probably included bubonic plague and smallpox. When infection spread, Romans fled their cities and towns; Christians stayed behind to nurse and feed not only their relatives but their pagan neighbours. Sacrificing their comfort to serve the community drew others to the God of all comfort.
In recent times we have witnessed world-changing events and saw how God sovereignly reshaped history and made it His story:
- 1989 – 9 November – The fall of the ‘Iron Curtain’. The spiritual dynamics of the communist world comes to a sudden halt.
- 1989 – 24 November – Osama bin Laden becomes the new leader of al-Qaida. A new spirituality of radical Islam is introduced to the world.
- 2001 – 11 September – The Twin Tower attack in the USA. Islam becomes a household name. “There is no God” of communism is officially replaced by “There is ONE God” of Islam
- 2008 – 8 August – China opens its doors to the outside world at the Olympic Games. This will have radical consequences for the continent where 60% of the world’s population, and most of the unreached world, lives
- 2010 – 17 December – Mohammed Boazizi sparks a revolution and the Arab Spring starts in Tunisia.
- 2011 – 25 January The Arab Spring spreads to Egypt and the rest of the Arab World. With authority now being questioned by Muslims, the Islamic world will never be the same again
- 2014 – 29 June – The establishment of an Islamic Caliphate (ISIS) with Abubakr Al-Baghdadi declaring himself the new Islamic Caliph. This new face of Islam brings a major disillusionment in the Muslim world and an unprecedented revival follows
- 2018 – 12 June – Donald Trump meets Kim Jung Un of North Korea. The leader of the biggest Christian nation in the world meets the leader of the greatest persecutor of Christians
- 2018 – The influx of more than a million refugees in Europe is seen by many Christian leaders in Europe as the salvation of Europe
- 2019 – Brexit changes the dynamics of a once Christian but now secular Europe forever
- 2020 – COVID-19 – The first GLOBAL event of this generation. Nothing anybody ever witnessed could have prepared the world for this pandemic, affecting every aspect of our daily lives; politically, physically, emotionally, economically, and … spiritually.
As Church, we cannot afford to be unprepared or ill-prepared “when hell happens”. Christians need to be quick to respond to the current crisis and unless there is an intentional, concerted, and joint initiative to contemplate the future of missions in a post-COVID-19 world, many opportunities could be lost. Never in our generation has the church been presented with so many opportunities as currently.
How COVID-19 will compare against previous pandemics like the Black Death, spreading across Europe between 1346 and 1353 and killing an estimated 75 million to 200 million people – or the Spanish Flu, wreaking havoc from 1918 to 1920 and killing an estimated 17 million to 100 million people – will only be understood by the next generation. But for the Church, the planning starts now. We cannot change the beginning of the pandemic but we can influence the end. Now is the season to pro-actively contemplate the future of missions in a world that will have new normals and expanded opportunities. Simply being reactive as future needs are identified could prove to be fatal.
There are a multitude of scenarios to consider in contemplating the future of missions once the world opens its doors again, but it will ultimately involve the following:
- Considering the known knowns – The things that are presently known
- Considering the known unknowns –The things we know will happen but the details are still uncertain
- Considering the unknown unknowns – The uncertainties that we cannot foresee
THE KNOWN KNOWNS # 1
- MISSION CHALLENGE: VIRTUAL CHURCH: Thanks to COVID-19 we now know that the online church is a new reality
- MISSION RESPONSE: VIRTUAL DISCIPLESHIP
Denominational borders will to a large extent fade. During lockdown Christians started experimenting by visiting different websites of previously unexplored denominations.
It also became evident that many unchurched people found comfort in attending a virtual church as opposed to going to a building to worship. Countless “new” virtual churches appeared on the web and many pastors had to adapt overnight from pulpit-preaching to pod-cast preaching.
One example as reported by the BBC is St Paul’s and St George’s Church in York Place, Scotland. The Church has been reaching more than 8,000 people during each online service over Easter – eight times more than the 1000 membership or the 500 to 600 people that normally attended Sunday services.
In Germany, an online prayer gathering had an estimated 1 million attendees, while churches around the world have attested to a dramatic rise in ‘attendance’ of their online services – from double to eight times the size of their congregation. There are those who don’t normally visit a church building who are now “engaging and viewing” the online services. People are seeking answers and hope during this global crisis.
But the challenge in this online explosion is that there is a difference in building a virtual audience opposed to making virtual disciples. Scripture is quite clear that the mandate of the church is to make disciples, not converts. And while it might be easy to make converts virtually, discipleship is a process of intimate co-dwelling, mentoring, and fellowship – all requiring personal relationships.
Churches will have to invest in mission organisations that provide avenues for VIRTUAL DISCIPLESHIP. Even though this will require new initiatives, various programs are available to cross technological borders and still maintain a personal context. But the reality is that written discipleship programs will have to be replaced by visual interactive programs.
THE KNOWN KNOWNS # 2
- MISSION CHALLENGE: POVERTY: We now know that poverty will increase
- MISSION RESPONSE: MERCY MINISTRIES AND MICRO BUSINESSES
If 9/11 introduced the world to the reality of Islam, then COVID-19 will be the catalyst to introduce the reality of poverty to a mostly ignorant world.
New research published by United Nations University-WIDER warns that the economic fallout from the global pandemic could increase global poverty by as much as half a billion people, or 8% of the total human population. This would be the first time that poverty has increased globally in thirty years, since 1990.
Andy Sumner, Professor of International Development at King’s College London and a Senior Non-Resident Research Fellow at UNU-WIDER, said of the research:
“We were surprised at the sheer scale of the potential poverty tsunami that could follow COVID-19 in developing countries. Our findings point towards the importance of a dramatic expansion of social safety nets in developing countries as soon as possible and – more broadly – much greater attention to the impact of COVID in developing countries and what the international community can do to help”.
There will be two key spin-offs in this development
Firstly, all ministries should contemplate and expand their footprints in caring for the poor, regardless of vision-statement and previous involvement. The days are past where we can simply gather around God’s word and not care for the practical needs of people. MERCY MINISTRIES should become a strategic component in every Church’s mission budget.
Secondly, JOB CREATION and assisting believers with MICRO BUSINESSES becomes paramount in assisting local believers to not only survive but also to care for those around them in need. Jobs are the foundation of sustainable missions in any community. High levels of unemployment will eventually lead to crime, radicalism, and a deterioration of a healthy community. Job creation should therefore feature in the endeavours of those who contemplate church planting, discipleship schools and evangelism in general. This will not only provide a source of income but will restore dignity and provide a platform for ministry and integrity
THE KNOWN KNOWNS # 3
- MISSION CHALLENGE: EDUCATION: We now know that education will face major shifts
- MISSION RESPONSE: CHRISTIAN TEACHERS
Experts predict that in education major, even seismic shifts are coming at us quickly. Already, with schools and universities shut down around the world, instructors up and down the grade levels are experimenting with online teaching via applications like Zoom and WhatsApp. Add to this the millions of unschooled refugee children across the globe and we face unparalleled opportunities.
With the ongoing, enforced lockdowns, thousands and thousands of university students will also be finishing their academic years via online instruction. EDUCATIONAL MISSIONARIES – teachers, tutors, and trainers – will be in new demand and create new avenues for missionaries to go into unreached areas. This could be especially appealing to the NEXT GENERATION of young missionaries, and Churches should pursue opportunities in this field for those called into missions
THE KNOWN UNKNOWNS # 1
- MISSION CHALLENGE: TRAVEL. It is a known fact that travel will evolve, but we don’t know how
- MISSION RESPONSE: INDIGENOUS ACTIVITIES and INDIGENOUS LEADERSHIP.
Global travel will most probably reflect the saying that “even though nothing has changed, everything has changed”. Those who predict that Covid-19 would stop people from traveling and usher in a new lifestyle built around teleconferencing, virtual entertainment, and still more e-commerce forget one key issue: human nature does not change that easily. People will still travel as before but will travel differently than before. How soon nations will open up their borders will vary and will also differ in who is ultimately allowed to enter.
The reality is that the would probably be no cross-national short-term-outreaches within the next few months. This uncertainty will force mission organisation to look at INDIGENOUS ACTIVITIES and INDIGENOUS LEADERSHIP. Equipping local believers to reach their own people with the message of Christ should now be the priority of every missionary and sending church. This will in no way make the presence of foreign missionaries obsolete but will shift their focus from reaching the unreached to equipping the unreached to reach their own.
THE KNOWN UNKNOWNS # 2
- MISSION CHALLENGE: REFUGEES: It is a known fact that refugees will be affected, but we don’t know to what extent
- MISSION RESPONSE: LOCAL ACTIVITIES IN EXPAT COMMUNITIES.
The future of the global refugee community varies by refugee population and what the status of the pandemic is where they are living. Refugees will be infected and affected in a similar way to their host communities. Yet refugees are more vulnerable.
- Currently about one out of every three refugees lives in a refugee camp which is mostly located in remote areas with limited health care, hospitals, and access to health care.
- Second, refugees often live with multiple families in very high population-density conditions. It’s going to be extremely difficult for them to practice social distance
- Refugees are also more likely to have underlying health conditions such as acute malnutrition. Because of this, there is a lot of concern that the COVID-19 infection will affect refugees more severely than people in their host communities.
- There are also over 40 million people who have left their homes in fear of persecution and conflict but remain in their country. Internally displaced persons such as those in Darfur, Sudan, as well as Idlib, Syria, are at extreme risk because they are being persecuted in their own country and do not have the same rights that refugees have. The health care system in these places is in shambles, and if COVID-19 affects those populations, they’re going to be in a lot of trouble.
A sad reality is that very often these vulnerable communities become a source of conflict and result in protests and xenophobia. All these factors provide an unprecedented door for the light of Christ to shine in EXPAT COMMUNITIES. There are few nations with no refugee or asylum seeker communities. Churches should explore these options within their communities with a new urgency as part of their mission endeavours. We can now reach the unreached without crossing a border
THE KNOWN UNKNOWNS # 3
- MISSION CHALLENGE: SUPPORT: It is a known fact that long-term missions will decline if short-term missions dries up
- MISSION RESPONSE: TWINNING.
Twinning is the unique opportunity for a Church with ample structures, resources, and leadership skills to assist and support a young indigenous Church in an unreached or unchurched region. Twinning is an important tool to bridge the gap between sending and equipping. Technology will make it easier to communicate, teach, train and mentor new believers and young leaders in a remote area. Twinning also provides the opportunity for a whole church community to experience missions as opposed to only the small group that travels abroad.
THE UNKNOWN UNKNOWNS # 1
- MISSION CHALLENGE: UNCERTAINTY: This is unexplored territory. There are no books available to tell us what the future holds
- MISSION RESPONSE: RESEARCH.
It truly is impossible to plan if we do not know what we do not know but knowledge is power and it is possible to gain as much information about different scenarios and prepare sufficiently for the unexpected. The days are over where a good solid Biblical knowledge is enough to do mission work. To deal with the unexpected will require cultural, political, spiritual and social knowledge. Good research can assist both the sender and the goer.
To contend with this volatile and uncertain future, our organisations need to:
THE UNKNOWN UNKNOWNS # 2
- MISSION CHALLENGE: TIME RESTRAINT: Nobody knows how long this virus will prevent missions as we used to know it
- MISSION RESPONSE: START SHIFTING CONTAINERS.
It is not often that our lives are placed on hold and we have the opportunity to prepare for the next event. This time of waiting should force us to BUILD CAPACITY.
As Christians we need to be transformed with an ever-increasing capacity to develop a Christ consciousness. We need to be discontent to live a life of spiritual smallness, satisfied to fill our “small containers” week after week without any desire to seek “bigger containers” and increasing our capacity. We need to pursue lives of expanded containers during this time so that we can receive, absorb and contain as much of Christ as possible. And what we are able to absorb will eventually determine our output, when the time is right. The larger our capacity to be intimate with Christ, the more we will have the ability to reflect Christ and influence society in a post-COVID-19 world
THE UNKNOWN UNKNOWNS # 3
- MISSION CHALLENGE: FUNDING: Nobody knows how the collapse of the economy will influence mission organisations
- MISSION RESPONSE: IDENTIFY NEW DESIGNS FOR OUR ORGANISATIONS AND INSTITUTIONS
To be effective in a post-COVID-19 world, organisations will have to be:
- FLEXIBLE – This is key to future involvement. Working within the rigid parameters of a pre-COVID-19 world will make any institution, and especially the Church, irrelevant and ineffective. Old visions will have to be alternated to accommodate new realities
- INNOVATIVE – If our ministries are still the same after COVID-19 as they were before COVID-19, then we have learned nothing and waisted a good crisis. Leaders will have to be innovative, transformed and start thinking outside the traditional mission box
- COLLABORATIVE – Days of solo-flying are over. Organisations and Churches will have to work together.
- EXPANSIVE – In the new dispensation buildings cannot be seen as places of worship only, it will have to be viewed as community centers where people can be served and cared for.
Ephesians 5:16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.
There is no doubt that COVID-19 is reshaping the Church and re-inventing missions. Now it is up to the Church to re-imagine how we can fulfill the great commission by reaching the ends of the earth with a renewed energy and a remodeled strategy.
Pastor Dennis Balcombe of Revival Christian Church in Hong Kong explains: “The Chinese characters for ‘crisis’ are 危機, pronounced ‘wei-ji’. The first character means danger, and the second is opportunity. Through the danger to life itself from the Covid-19 virus, the Church has an opportunity through prayer and gifts of healing to bring healing to the sick, and to preach the Gospel.” He went on to say: “We are all quoting and standing on the promise of Ps 91:5-6: ‘You shall not be afraid of the terror by night, Nor of the arrow that flies by day, Nor of the pestilence that walks in darkness Nor of the destruction that lays waste at noonday’.”
Dr. David Aikman, Time Magazine’s top journalist for 12 years in a row, once said the following: “There are only two kinds of Christians in the world today: The surprised Christian and the anticipating Christian.”. We need to ensure that we are the latter.
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