Is Covid-19 a Missional Moment?
By Ross Lockhart
Who could have ever guessed at the beginning of 2020 that every congregation would become a little television studio, and that we would be experiencing Bible study, pastoral care and even Communion online? In the blink of an eye, Church leadership has shifted from a reliable form of technical leadership to a dizzying array of adaptive leadership solutions. While congregations have been working hard to care for church members isolated and anxious during this pandemic, we must also ask how this has impacted our missional engagement of the local neighbourhood.
Many pastoral leaders are delighted that their online worship attendance has increased, compared to what they might see in the pews. Could this be an evangelistic outreach opportunity, a chance for people to move beyond what Don Everts and others call the first threshold of “trust” in evangelism? Or is it simply a “recycling of the saints,” as the believers hop from one online church service to another? And then there is the research from Barna Group suggesting that up to 1/3 of regular worshippers have given up on connecting with their congregation online during the pandemic. Australian missiologist Mike Frost pushes this further by wondering if the online buffet of worship services might set back gains of the missional church movement and return us to an attractional model of church, whereby people are encouraged to be consumers of religion looking for the best worship production.
In Matthew, Jesus commands us to “make disciples of all nations” and that includes the boys and young men in your community. His calling however doesn’t include “when we have COVID figured out.” So how do we as Christians follow Christ in building future generations when we have rules and protocols to be heeded? First, we obey the guidelines provided by our government authorities, church leadership, insurers, and parents.
Second, we work together to figure out what can be done in person and what must be done virtually at a distance. Building Christ-centred boys and young men isn’t all that complicated even under COVID. CSB is partnering with our churches and groups to develop a comprehensive list of options through which you can build the next generations for Christ. Under COVID, we will find better ways to bring others to our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Check out: www.csbbc.org/brigade-under-covid for the details.
But do you notice how all of these questions are still church focused, and not directed towards the world around us that Jesus died to save? While some in the church have assumed that a global pandemic would bring people flooding back to church for answers and assurance, for those of us who live in highly secularized places like Vancouver there’s no such thing as ‘returning’ to church. So, what might mission look like to a community of affable agnostics in a pandemic who, while fearful and anxious, have never turned to God before in their lives?
Of course, a pre-Covid church too often assumed that our secular neighbour was really just an anonymous Christian, to borrow Karl Rahner’s language. In other words, that in a time of crisis, people would naturally turn towards God, like Daniel in the Lion’s Den or Meshach, Shadrack and Abednego in the fiery furnace. But stop and think, in that case their faith in God got them into trouble. Calvin’s invisible church that includes the elect who are not yet aware of God, might fit better here. Instead, this is a good time to check our assumptions from a pre-Covid church about what our secular friends think they really need.
With Boomers and Gen Xers the line was what? “When they have children of their own, they’ll come back to church.” For Millennials we said, “They’re spiritual but not religious.” In other words, don’t worry their vague spiritual references are really just an underdeveloped Christianity. As Jen Twenge’s book iGen demonstrates through solid research, the next cohort – Generation Z, is now often neither spiritual nor religious. We are fully secularized as a society, living into what Charles Taylor would call Secularity 3. But what if God is giving us the opportunity to learn more about our actual neighbours, secular or otherwise, in this time of disruption?
Satisfying the Need
Despite virus-related shore leave restrictions for sailors, Lighthouse ship visitors are still able to visit ships in Vancouver and reach out to sailors. While Gospel work remains the priority for Lighthouse visitors, currently they are also active with other virus-inspired tasks. An example of this is seen in the increased number of shopping trips being made on behalf of the mariners who cannot go ashore themselves. Purchases range from lap tops to potato chips! Many crew show deep gratitude for the assistance and often communicate heartfelt thanks for Gospel material received. The spiritual is being fed, not just the physical. A third officer from Croatia recently expressed his gratitude for the service he received from Lighthouse and was touched by words of Scripture spoken to him by ship visitors.
“I am the Bread of Life. He who comes to Me will never go hungry.” (John 6:35)
Please visit www.sealight.org
What if, like Jay Pathak and Dave Ruyon’s book, The Art of Neighboring, we were to pay attention more closely to sharing life and attending to the presence of Jesus at work in our relationships close to home, including those who we see more often now since so many are working from home. What if instead of an evangelism program, we challenged our church members to see themselves as evangelists, or perhaps first and foremost what Alan Roxburgh calls “detective of divinity” wherever God places us.
Could we make room in our online worship not just to comfort the faithful but to have “God sightings” of where we have seen the Father, Son and Holy Spirit at work? Could we have prayer requests for specific neighbours and friends who we long to see in a relationship with Jesus? Could the Word preached, and the bread broken be focused on our equipping as missionary disciples, saved to be sent, into a world that is fearful, anxious and ready for redemption? What if this time of isolation were understood as something more like Luke 10 where we have been sent on mission to the places where we call home, in order to testify to the saving work of the Triune God in our midst? Will Jesus rejoice when we return together in the church building after all of this is done, like the disciples regrouping at the end of Luke 10, or we will look back and discover from Matthew 25 that the talent we were given has been buried, just when it was needed most by the world?
Ross Lockhart is Dean of St. Andrew’s Hall, The Presbyterian Church in Canada college at UBC and a Board Member of Mission Central.