Missions in a COVID Crisis: Digital Implications

General May 11, 2020

By WEA Mission Commission 

Dear fellow participants in God’s mission,

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

COVID-19 has brought about many interruptions globally, and this also is heavily reflected on the meeting industry. Travel restrictions, gathering regulations and people suffering under the virus have led to cancelled or postponed events worldwide, especially for the global Christian family. This has affected many planned missions consultations and conferences locally, as well as regionally and even globally. Two 2020 events for the WEA Mission Commission have been cancelled and our Global Consultation pushed to October 18-22 2021 (Chiang Mai, Thailand).

At the forefront of those affected is the local church, which experienced this shut down dramatically. It had an immediate effect on every church-going believer. For the first time in living memory, the whole world has been similarly impacted and we all need to find ways to understand and work with this new reality.

One of the many positive things coming out of this pandemic is the push for churches to finally deliver online services where the majority had never done it before.

The Church Is Moving

People, churches and organisations suffer in various ways and on very different levels globally. As I work mainly across Europe, my focus and observations are tied to this continent here.

Alongside all the devastating and heart-breaking news related to COVID-19, it is evident that God continues to be active. In Scripture, we find confidence that our living God is neither surprised by this pandemic nor is absent. In Europe and around the world, our faith gives us the assurance that God remains right with us in this storm, helping us to respond in ways that will glorify God’s name.

One of the many positive things coming out of this pandemic is the push for churches to finally deliver online services where the majority had never done it before. For years, European consultations have been addressing the digital age and its impact on churches, encouraging church leaders to not leave the internet to everyone else. More often than not, churches have been very slow or even reluctant to engage the digital space and take their services online.

This pandemic has motivated the Church to move into the digital age in a way nothing else has ever been able to. Billy Kennedy, head of the Pioneer Network UK, wrote on Facebook 4 May 2020, “On Sunday morning an estimated 15,000 churches (ed. in the UK, out of 48,000 churches, according to Carl Brettle) produced a live streamed service. They ranged from low-tech—a pastor in his front room with Bible talking at camera for 40 minutes, to hi-tech— worship pre-recorded and seamlessly joined together, interactive teaching and online community participation.”

In North America, the Pew Research Center released some data on April 30 2020 that revealed “More than eight-in-ten churchgoing Christians say their primary church offers streaming or recorded services online or on TV, including roughly nine-in-ten evangelical (92%) and mainline Protestants (86%) who say this. Most Catholics (79%) and Protestants in the historically black tradition (73%) also say their churches are making religious services available remotely.” But note the discrepancy between the 92% and the 73%. We wonder, what might this suggest about a digital divide, how it is created and what impact does such a divide have on missions?

Support Is Given

But these numbers continue to grow as churches seek assistance and up-skill as necessary. While some are still climbing the learning curve, others had the resources to go digital immediately. To help churches with this process, various initiatives have been formed to help churches go online, discern the right tools and help with the start-ups.

For example, at the end of March when the lock down started, IGW (a theological institute with its headquarters in Switzerland) offered online training for pastors on how to stream services via Zoom. Two hundred fifty pastors and leaders joined the training.

Naomi Dawson and her team with IFES (International Fellowship of Evangelical Students) Europe, a student ministry, are helping churches and conferences to not only go online but build a community around the online ministry. The initiative is called “Community in a Crisis”. Since churches are streaming online, people are missing the heart to heart connections and Naomi finds ways to foster fellowship in a virtual world. More than 300 churches and various conferences in the UK have already profited from this training.

A German newspaper wrote on 26 April 2020, in an interview with a cancer patient, that the churches seem to be surprisingly silent in the midst of this turmoil. Is this really the case? Yes, there are churches not playing an active role and have shut down services due to various limitations, but on the other hand we see incredible initiatives, innovative ideas, experimenting with online engagement and generosity expressed by Christians worldwide.

The results suggest that one in twenty adults has started to pray during the lockdown, despite not having prayed before. The largest age bracket were adults aged 18 to 24.

People Are Responding

Let me share some of these stories:

On 3 May 2020, the findings of a survey undertaken by Tearfund and carried out by the research consultancy Savanta ComRes were published. The data was collected online between 24 and 27 April 2020 and 2,101 adults took part. The results suggest that one in twenty adults has started to pray during the lockdown, despite not having prayed before.

The largest age bracket were adults aged 18 to 24. Thirty per cent of these had prayed more than once a month and were also more likely to pray about the Government´s response to COVID-19.

The survey also found that five per cent of respondents who said that they had watched or listened to a religious service since the lockdown began, had never attended a church service before. Thirty-four per cent of the respondents aged 18 to 24 said that they had watched or listened to a religious service since the lockdown, whether via TV, radio, or online, compared with only nineteen per cent of those aged 55 or over. Curiously, men were more likely than women to say they had watched or listened to a religious service since the start of the lockdown.

These findings indicate an increase in the numbers of people turning to faith in the midst of uncertainty and despair.

One friend in the UK is now offering the online Alpha course and instead of having 10-20 people turn up, he started with 40 people who had registered.

The May 3 article in the Church Times (see link above) also mentions the Church of England, saying “that unexpectedly high numbers of people are tuning into online or broadcast services, and 6,000 people phoned a prayer hotline in its first 48 hours of operation.”

In Spain, one of the nations most heavily affected by the virus, missionary and church planter Ron Anderson has delivered short devotions for his neighbourhood each night for many weeks now after the communal clapping for the medical staff. A simple audio system from his flat is used for 2-3 minutes of reflection. People are appreciating this. Words of hope in the midst of this crisis need to be shared and are being welcomed when it happens.

A friend in Germany wrote on Facebook, “this Easter was probably the most evangelistic Easter we have experienced in a lifetime” as churches sought new ways to spread the Good News about Jesus being alive. One of the many examples was a silent flashmob, which went through many cities as people and churches painted their streets with Easter messages.

Let us go online and #stayonmission!

Our Missions Challenge

Missions leaders, let us be people of hope and tackle this crisis in ways that will glorify God. Let us go online and #stayonmission! Let us not let our fears overtake us—fears of technology, fears of loss, fears of scarcity. If we determine to meet this crisis with faith, with hope and with love, it will also model a wonderful example for the next generation of leaders who will have to deal with their own share of future crises. Now is the time to invest into the next generation our confidence in God . Let us be hope bearers! Let us shine!

God is at work in the midst of Covid-19 and we pray that it will lead to thousands upon thousands all over the world finding Christ in this crisis.

Pray

  • That churches and other ministries will find the confidence, resources and expertise to take their message and build their communities online to the glory of God.
  • For the young people searching for God during this time of crisis.
  • That what some are using for evil will be used for good to draw people to God who have not known God.
  • For disciple-makers to be raised up to virtually walk with seekers during this period of open-heartednes.
  • For technologies to match-make enquirers about the faith with faith-filled mature followers of Jesus able to shepherd seekers wisely to our Father through Christ and into the fellowship of the Holy Spirit that we experience as the local church.