THE IMPACT OF THE CORONAVIRUS ON GLOBAL MISSIONS
By Gustav Krös
Over the past five months, the world as we knew it changed forever. The coronavirus brought about changes to humanity on an unprecedented scale. Whether it is something small, like the thought that will cross your mind before shaking a stranger’s hand, or whether it is something big like the influence it has had on international travel – things will never be the same again.
The Church has not been exempted from these changes. Suddenly, church buildings across the globe were closed on Sundays. Churches that never had a social media footprint were forced to embrace technology to remain relevant within their communities. For many churches, it was a timely reminder that change does not have to be feared, because even if the platform of church changes, the message of the Gospel remains the same, and is just as powerful.
Although most Christians were affected by the changes brought upon their own congregations, not many are necessarily aware of the impact the coronavirus has had on the mission field. This article aims to shed some light on this area of Christian society. With missionaries all over the globe, working in different cultures, and across a vast array of ministries, it would be impossible to cover all areas of influence. This article, therefore, aims to provide an overview of how the mission field has been affected.
Missionaries and church leaders from 13 strategic nations – across Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia – shared with us regarding the challenges they are facing, due to the coronavirus. From China to Uganda, and from Syria to Ukraine, once all the feedback was analysed, it was interesting to note that the challenges are fairly consistent, no matter where these missionaries find themselves. These challenges can be summarised into four categories.
Lockdown restrictions halt ministry activities and projects
All missionaries have been negatively impacted by the various ‘lockdowns’ that have been imposed in most nations. Ministry activities, projects and church services all came to a sudden halt. The emphasis here is obviously not on the programmes that ended, but the influence it has had on the relationships with the people who participate in these programmes. Every activity, programme, project, and service that is being run on the mission field creates avenues through which personal relationships are built, and it is within these personal relationships that discipleship takes place.
Some missionaries can continue with building relationships, and the subsequent discipleship via the internet, but unfortunately this is not the case for all of them. Many of their disciples do not have access to the internet and this brings the discipleship process to a complete stop. Even for those who can continue their relationships and discipling via the internet, it is not ideal, because nothing will ever be able to replace the authenticity of an in-person conversation when it comes to building a relationship.
Together with the fact that all activities had to be stopped, there is also the reality that most of the countries where these missionaries are based revolve around community cultures. So, it is not just their work that has come to a stop, but a core foundation of their being, that has been taken away from them. Christians living in more individualistic Western cultures will struggle to grasp the depth of this reality, but the truth is that people throughout Africa, the Middle East and Asia have a far greater challenge adapting to life under ‘lockdown’ since they lose their sense of community in the process.
The financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic is automatically also influencing missionaries and their work. Most of them live on financial support received from churches, organisations, and other donors. Since people are not earning the same amount of money, as usual, they simply cannot give the same amount of money as usual. This is currently making support-raising very difficult. It is not that people don’t want to give anymore, there is simply less available to give.
In some countries, the situation is compounded by the effect ‘lockdown’ measurements have had on banks and currency exchange businesses. People may have some money, but they can only access a limited amount of it. The financial crisis has also led to rising food prices in many countries, so it is not only about having less money on which to survive, but the money you do have also buys you less food than five months ago.
What is even worse for missionaries is that this is exactly the type of situation that they are there for, to help people in their time of need, but now as the needs increase, they have less with which to help people. Emotionally, it is very difficult for them – to be surrounded by so many needs, but not be able to do anything about it – due to the lack of financial support.
Many missionaries rely on short-term mission groups, volunteers, teachers, course facilitators and other skilled workers to come and assist in their activities on a short-term basis. Due to the coronavirus’ impact on international travel, all these visits had to be cancelled. In the short term, this is not too big a problem, since all activities had to be stopped due to the imposed ‘lockdowns’. However, once the ‘lockdowns’ have been lifted, it will take months (and for some countries, years), before international travel returns to any sense of normality.
Besides the impact on projects and activities, it also translates into a big financial impact for many organisations since short-term teams and volunteers also contribute towards their income by staying in missions’ guesthouses. For organisations that operate according to this model, the loss of income also jeopardises the rental process of these facilities.
In summary, the challenges on the mission field are wrapped up in ‘unpredictability’. There is no way of knowing for certain when international travel will stabilise again and short-term teams, volunteers and facilitators will be able to visit. There is no way to determine how long the economic downturn will take to stabilise, and financial donations will return to normal, as before the coronavirus.
These variables make it extremely difficult to plan ahead. As ‘lockdowns’ are slowly being lifted in certain countries, and people can start gathering in small groups again, some activities and projects are able to continue, especially if they are not too reliant on international travellers, and if the available finances are sufficient. It will be a slow process, reopening ministry activities, while also trying to implement all the new health-and-safety requirements as prescribed by each government.
THE POSITIVE IMPACTS OF THE CORONAVIRUS ON THE MISSION FIELD
The wonderful news is that the coronavirus has also had positive impacts on the mission field. From Bangladesh to Egypt, and from Iran to Nepal, all the missionaries and church leaders testified about how God has been working in miraculous ways within the coronavirus pandemic. As with the challenges encountered, the positive impacts can also be summarised in four main categories.
People are in search of hope
As we have seen throughout history – in times of crisis – Christ’s ‘light’ shines brightest! And with the coronavirus, it is no different. From Hindu to Islamic countries, when people are confronted by their own frailty and mortality, the hope and peace that Christians display becomes very alluring. The combination of the coronavirus and global financial downturn makes for even more fertile ground, as people are not only confronted with death, but also with the uncertainty of their earthly riches.
One missionary from the Middle East described it as follows: “All evangelical churches are experiencing ‘open doors’ for the Gospel. People are concerned about their future due to the virus, making them contemplate death and what will happen to them. People have lost confidence in earthly things, especially the government and possessions. They are searching for hope, and despite quarantine, with blocked physical access, God is opening up ‘doors’ to their heart and mind. The Spirit of God is not quarantined.”
The reality is that God is intimately involved in every sphere of life, making use of every opportunity, in order to welcome ‘lost souls’ into His Kingdom, and the Church is His chosen instrument through which He is doing it. One pastor from the Middle East shared that they have planted three new ‘home churches’ during this time, and they have added 25 ‘new souls’ to God’s Kingdom. In the same way, other missionaries and church leaders are testifying that the ‘harvest’ is being brought in.
Focus shifted to the local community
Many missionaries testify that, due to the imposed ‘lockdown’ and closure of their regular activities, they have seen a growth in relationships in their local communities. Suddenly, their time is not filled with ministry activities, and they are not allowed to leave their community. This situation has given missionaries opportunity to reach out to their neighbours in new ways, by distributing food, encouraging them, and praying with them. This has led to stronger relationships within their local communities and new ministry opportunities for the future.
These testimonies also reveal the hearts of the missionaries – their service in God’s Kingdom is not approached as a 9-to-5 job, but they desire to serve, no matter the circumstances. Just because their projects, ministry activities and church services stopped, it does not stop them from loving and serving the people closest to them. It is due to this natural process of loving and serving people that the harvest is being brought in, as previously mentioned.
Growth in online ministry
As with the Church in general, there has been a massive surge in internet usage and social media, to continue ministry activities. This ranges from meetings between team members for the general management of the ministry, one-on-one conversations to maintain relationships with disciples, prayer gatherings, Bible study groups, discipleship training and sermons.
The viewing of online services specifically, has been a major breakthrough. One church, in a country that is 96% Muslim, testifies that in a good week their service might have had 75 attendees, but now, since they have moved their services to YouTube, one service draws 350 views and even more views on Facebook. This is just one example of how churches are reaching a larger audience.
Discipleship via social media has also seen tremendous growth. People who are curious about Christianity reach out a lot more easily over social media, from the safety of their rooms, instead of risking being seen in public in the presence of a Christian. Being in ‘lockdown’ has also given missionaries more time to focus on online discipleship, and they often reach more people, since travelling time has been taken out of the equation. Together with this, online prayer groups have also seen tremendous growth all around the globe.
More time with family and God
The one thing that almost all the missionaries and church leaders testified to, was that the ‘lockdowns’ have given them the opportunity to rest, reflect on their ministries, spend quality time with their families and spend more time with the Lord. It has been a time to re-evaluate the effectiveness of their activities and think of new ways of ‘doing ministry’.
The relationships with their families have benefitted greatly from this time, and some of them testified of how they discovered anew the importance of ‘being church’ in the home as well. They have had more time to study the Word of God, and more time for prayer. This has led to missionaries feeling that their own spiritual ‘tanks’ are full and that they have more to give. One missionary summarised this point as follows: “We will come out of this smarter, managing time better, and we will be more focused on what is important, and what can wait for later.”
When one compares the challenges missionaries are facing, with the positive impact the coronavirus has had on the mission field, the positive impacts definitely outweigh the challenges. God surely does work all things for the good for those who love him (Rom 8:28). If it was not for the ‘lockdowns’ and the ‘pause’ in ministry activities, then many missionaries would not have had the time to rest, reflect and spend time with their families and God.
The financial challenges that many missionaries face are always difficult to process, but it is a timely reminder for everyone that we should look to our Father as our provider, and if we seek His Kingdom first then He will provide in all our needs (Matt 6:33). The financial challenges will also contribute towards the ‘decluttering’ of ministry activities. If there is less money available to run projects, then the focus has to be on that which is most important. This may also lead to new ways of financing ministries, like embracing ‘Business As Mission’ (BAM) on a larger scale and ministries becoming more ‘self-sufficient’ when it comes to funding, and less reliant on donors.
The decline in international travel will push local churches towards taking greater responsibility for missions in their own countries. If foreigners are unable to travel cross-culturally to serve and teach as easily as before, then it will push the local church to fill these gaps themselves. This will contribute towards maturing the local church and will shine a light on the need for proper discipleship.
This is the crucial thing that the coronavirus has highlighted – when all the ministry activities and projects are torn away – the essence of healthy missions remains the simplicity of good and sound discipleship. Missionaries have been reminded of the importance of sitting as a disciple at Jesus’s feet, and that the first test of discipleship will always start at home. From there, it needs to flow into the local community and then into the ministry.
God is using the coronavirus to remind His Church, all around the world, of the simplicity of missions: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…”
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