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Mission in the Age of COVID-19

What do we now say about the missio dei, “the mission of God? What does it mean to be on mission in the context of “social distancing,” fear of getting sick, or furthering the virus’ spread?

Even before news of the outbreak hit the air waves, Barna’s 2020 research listed the top two concerns of pastors and priests as: “Reaching a younger audience,” and “Declining or inconsistent outreach and evangelism.” So, when you consider that we just got thrown a nasty COVID-19 curve ball—one that is threatening the way we have functioned, we must face anything affecting our mission head on.  

What do we now say about the missio dei, “the mission of God? What does it mean to be on mission in the context of “social distancing,” fear of getting sick, or furthering the virus’ spread? What about the numerical gathering guidelines? Is the church online the new church gathered? These are ongoing questions. Granted, no one has a crystal ball to know what will unfold. We do know God is sovereign, and in control of everything, and not surprised by anything. We can fully trust in this tremendous comforting truth! 

A wide spectrum of thought exists about the impact on the church, as wide as our politics. Ed Stetzer and Daniel Yang podcasted with Andy Crouch, the author of Culture Making, who said he believed we are truly entering a new era. Like the aftermath of WWI, there will be lasting residuals. Though his conviction for physical worship gatherings of Christians was immovable, he also leaned toward the smaller house worship-mission expressions taking a more predominant place in future Christendom. Others will counter, once the outbreak’s peak subsides, we’ll get to the other side of this crisis and back to normalcy. My purpose here is to address the current scenario, regardless of church size, and answer specifically what it means for pastors and their teams to keep reaching their communities in such a climate as this. Can we do it? Yes, we can!

A partnering ministry, Turnaround Pastors, recently emailed pastors about the unique opportunity of this pandemic shockwave, saying, “This is a time to introduce mission critical changes in your church.” A silver lining? Think of that: God leading church leaders into a place of rethinking, to re-strategize, so to speak. I would argue that nothing could be more impactful in the long-term than for the church to refresh its vision, and rebuild new mission muscles from its people. Yes, this is a golden opportunity for the church, a time when the whole culture is anxious and open to spiritual answers—where we can bring to light: faith, hope and love!

3 Principles to Guide Practical Mission (COVID-19)

Given the fact that we are talking about a moving target, where things will most likely get worse before getting better, and where we don’t know the extent or the timetable for the decline of this disease, let’s define what mission can look like in your community:

1. Gospel Receptivity is Viable.

The church’s mandate to reach this world is alive and well, and we will not cower. History tells us, the church has thrived in some of the most dire situations, which included the major epidemics of the 1st century Roman Empire. We should be aware of the spiritual stirrings rising to the top of unchurched minds, and pay attention to the newly emerging needs that will surface in communities. Along with those holes are hearts looking for hope. That is a good mix! This a time for pastors and their leadership teams to advance, not pull back.

2. Personal Witness is Doable.

Nothing has changed when it comes to the importance of personal witness. Unsaved people need Christians who care enough to connect with them. Whether it occurs in a safe conversation (space), or in a small group, or via technological devices: phone, FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, Christian members must be led to engage in evangelistic relationships. Learning skills are essential, even more so now, and will do wonders to guide members to spread the gospel during this unprecedented period.

I am in a personal evangelistic relationship, we have decided to continue to meet each week, but we have moved our conversation onto our phones. I am also in regular Zoom groups, where spiritual influence is cultivated with unbelievers. Think about the leverage we have here. Isolation is unhealthy for everyone; non-believing people will welcome Christians who are reaching out to them!

3. Mission Clarification is Critical.

Before the crisis, the church has not been clear on how members can be effectual disciple makers. Now is the perfect time to work on that area of weakness. (The message of ReMission and Soul Whisperer, are big on defining the skills needed to win hearts to Jesus today.) We have a unique opportunity to retrain our members on what mission engagement looks like. One reason we teach 10 mission skills is that, without them, Christians miss or bypass gospel influence opportunities. The skills are necessary to position members to reach others. Then, we also teach members how to share the gospel resonantly, like Jesus did. He dialed in to individual needs and storylines. These skills help believers to interact about the gospel in ways that are natural and productive. When we equip, we see fruit!

Online services and more frequent communication that is creative, compassionate, and real—with room for humor—helps churches right now, as will meeting needs beyond those connections. What occurred in the embryonic stages of the Christian church should not be lost on us. Rodney Stark’s book, The Rise of Christianity, describes in detail how the early Christians ministered to people during two major epidemics, and how their courage and love won the day. It led scores of people in the Roman Empire into the Christian faith. That’s part of our founding story! 

We can be safe with guidelines and smart strategy (“early social distancing”). But let’s not let fear, or anything else for that matter, thwart mission. One of my Twitter friends posted about her encounter with a woman in Oklahoma who came out of the grocery store crying. When a man stated she was scared, my Twitter friend described: “We held hands and lifted her in prayer—didn’t even think of “social distancing.” Yes, be safe. Distance yourself, for now. Yes, wash your hands. But in the coming weeks and months, let’s not miss the ministry openings blossoming before us. This is a time for the church to shine, for the gospel to be seen and heard.

Here are a few practical suggestions on how you can help that to happen: 

  • Economic needs will rise significantly. The opportunity to show tangible love to unsaved people is going to be big!
  • Give specific safe guidelines for how your people can connect with their unbelieving neighbors. Go beyond needs to phone calls, and FaceTime connecting, and offer technological how-to’s.
  • Publicly celebrate those who are on mission during this time!
  • Have your people prayer walk their neighborhoods, praying for gospel openness and opportunities.
  • Include your unchurched neighbors in “need-meeting” activities.
  • Find ways to communicate widely the services you are offering, and make sure you title your services around perceived needs. (The need for connection. The need for faith. Purpose. Home life. Family leadership. Hope. Future vision, etc.)
  • Finally, pastors, share the gospel in your online services. Expect response. Grow the church!

During the Revolutionary War, Thomas Paine famously wrote: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” They were also the times that drew out people’s faith and commitment to believe in something far greater than themselves. Let’s help our members to see the moment, and seize it for God’s glory! 

Prayers lifting for all!

–Gary COMER

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