This material was originally presented via Zoom for Harding University’s Center for World Missions Advisory Council Meeting (Jan. 2021).
Good evening—it is great to see everyone and to be with you virtually. Tonight I’ll be talking about Christ’s mission and the pandemic. This is an intimidating topic, and it feels a little bit pretentious to think that I have something to say about this, but with so many things in flux these days, every institution or organization is having to wrestle with what's going on and how to respond—from the hotel industry to health care to education. So, we shouldn’t be surprised that we’ll need to consider what the pandemic means for the future of Christian missions as well.
The pandemic seems a lot like Pandora’s Box—unleashing a tornado of disruption and chaos all around us. And the fact that this pandemic is still ongoing means that it is kind of like trying to deal with the chaos—while still during the middle of the tornado. It makes me think back to when my kids were toddlers and I would try to clean upafter them and then 5 minutes later they would go in and make a mess again.
Back in 2009, when I finished my Master of Divinity degree, my missionary teammates in Mozambique threw me a party to celebrate since I wasn't able to be at the graduation in person. During that time I'd been doing research and interviews on divination in northern Mozambique, and so my teammates decided to have some fun with that and printed off a fake graduation certificate to present to me that was similar to the one I received from Harding School of Theology but instead of “Master of Divinity” it said “Master of Divination.”
And in a pandemic situation like we’re in right now, it may feel like we need a masters of divination or, at least, to be able to look into a crystal ball to figure out what to do. But the Christian response to problems and pandemics is not divination, it's discernment. Let me repeat that: not divination, but discernment. So discernment is a key skill or discipline that we're going to need in order to developa robust response to the pandemic. And discernment is not something that we do alone—it’s something that we do as the Church and in the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit. So, we need to be clear-eyed about the problems of the pandemic, while also knowing that the one who is in us is greater than the one who is in the world (1 John 4:4). Amen!
Part of our discernment work tonight is to look back to the past to see how our ancestors in the faith we're able to respond to pandemics faithfully: What can we learn from them? Also our discernment process this evening will mean looking at the present moment and considering what this could mean going forward. Along the way, we’ll name some discernment questions that could helpus make wise decisions going forward. This might inspire some conversations and ideas in the breakout sections. I’ll put the questions in the chat as we go.
Let’s briefly consider a few stories/situations of the people of God responding to pandemics in the past: There’s a fascinating, recent book by Kyle Harper, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire, that was very eerie to read during a pandemic.1 He looks at how climate change and pandemics played a role in the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Harper talks about the plague of Cyprian as the “forgotten pandemic” from back in the mid 3rd century (136). We’re not exactly sure what disease they were facing, but it may have been ebola or something like that.
Cyprian was a bishopof Carthage and he served in truly unprecedented times. He challenged the church—a church that was still on the margins of society to stepup. And the church, through the power of God, was upto the challenge; they responded courageously. Harper says, Christianity’s great response flowed out of its “ability to forge” family-like “networks among perfect strangers based on” a commitment to “sacrificial love. The church” acted like “a new nation” and turned “the chaos of pestilence into” a “mission field” (156). Their belief in “the resurrection encouraged the faithful against the fear of death. Cyprian, in the heat of persecution and plague, pleaded with his flock to show love to the enemy. The compassion was conspicuous and consequential. Basic nursing of the sick can have massive effects on case fatality rates; with ebola, for instance, the provision of water and food may drastically reduce the incidence of death. The Christian ethic was a blaring advertisement for the faith” during the pandemic (156). “The church was a safe harbor in the storm” and then “once the fire of the” pandemic “crisis” had finally “burned out, its ashes left behind a fertile field for Christian expansion” (156). The Roman government “called a halt to the persecution in AD 260,” and “a peace lasting over 40 years fell upon the church” (156).
So, the Roman pantheon, the Imperial Cult, and their worshippers all failed to respond effectively to the pandemic—and that failure meant that the pandemic was a wrecking ball, weakening them and decreasing their influence post-pandemic. Going forward, then, the pagan religious systems went into decline. But the church of Jesus, which had responded well to the pandemic challenge, on the other hand, was poised to grow.
Now, while naturally we would like to assume that in the current pandemic version of that story—the one we’re in right now—our own response has been like the church of Cyprian’s day and that post-pandemic we’re now going to move into a season of growth, honestly, I should tell you I’m not sure: What if the Church is playing the other part - the part of the Roman Pantheon, the Established Religion System in that story? What if we’ll be the ones moving into decline? This is something worth considering.
Danielson, Hartley, and Kraybill published an article recently called, “COVID-19 in Missiological and Historical Perspective.”2 They note that “in the early weeks of” the current “pandemic’s spread,” we “heard the term ‘unprecedented’ used a great deal in the press,” by political figures and in everyday conversation (2). “Pandemics like the one” we’re “experiencing, however, are not in the least bit unprecedented but rather quite common in world history. Epidemics and pandemics have also shaped the way mission happens for a very long time” (2).
“We may not know precisely how we should best respond to our current pandemic, but the testimony of” the church “is surely a place to turn for comfort and inspiration” (2). We’ve already talked about Cyprian. But we could talk about the church “caring for the sick during the 6th century’s bubonic plague outbreak” (2). Or we could consider the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia and how “the future founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Richard Allen, mobilized his followers to care for the sick, regardless of race. In the process, Allen won over many whites in his work for racial justice in that city” (2).3
But “the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic,” is probably the event garnering the most “comparisons for the challenge we face today from Covid-19” (2). Danielson, Hartley and Kraybill “examine three different examples in mission history of missionaries—both western and indigenous—who grappled with the effects of the so-called ‘Spanish flu’” (2). They look at “how the pandemic prompted new” missionary energy “and led to the establishment of several indigenous church movements in West Africa.” They also share “the story of how the pandemic more negatively impacted the ministry of the floating Christian Endeavor Society, a ministry to sailors” (2). Finally, they explore the story of John R. Mott, highlighting “several different ways that the 1918–1919 pandemic influenced Mott’s personal life, diplomatic efforts, and fundraising goals” (2).
I’ll pull out a few threads from those Spanish Flu stories that seem most relevant. First of all, let’s not assume that pandemics have always produced the same spiritual response by those affected by them. While the terrible Black Death in 14th Century Europe seemed to generally have had a negative impact on faith and the church, the current pandemic may be different. It may be that increased awareness of the fragility of life will make people hunger for a connection to God. “A surge of interest in spiritual things is” exactly “what happened in Lagos, Nigeria, during the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic” (3). So, post-pandemic, with all of our masks coming down, it may be like the Berlin wall coming down, opening doors to people and places that were closed in some form to Christianity before the pandemic.
So here we find some key discernment questions to consider: Is the church ready to bring the bread of life to people who will finally end upsensing their hunger for Christ post-COVID? How can we discern where the pandemic has actually primed people for faith? How can we be ready to go there and send people there, wherever “there” is?
I was also inspired by the story of the “Floating Christian Endeavor,” which “was not about mission to sailors,” which had been tried in the past and failed, “but about the mission of sailors to other men of the sea” (7–8). It was cool to hear about these little communities of disciples of Jesus forming on ships for mutual encouragement and discipleship—really being church to each other out there.
This story highlighted the “lay-led nature of this ‘church’ upon the sea. In just a short span of time, the work had grown tremendously not due to the work of traditional missionaries” or ordained chaplains, but by means of a flexible lay-led movement made upof passionate people (7–8). That story of the “Floating Christian Endeavor” is in some ways a sad one, though. Unfortunately, the whole boat ministry ended upbeing a casualty of the pandemic because its centralized leadershipwas wiped out by the Spanish Flu. While it was very much lay-led out on the ships, it was still being held together by a single person, Miss Jones. She was amazing; she was the connection point for the whole movement—like the spoke of a wheel—but when she died, the pandemic claimed the Floating Christian Endeavor as a casualty as well. I wonder: if the movement had been truly decentralized and leaned even more into being laity-led, it may have survived.
One post-pandemic take-away from that story for me is the potential for shifting from seeing “the other '' as a mission field to viewing “the other” as a potential mission force. If sailors can be vocational church planters, then we need to see the world as a potential mission force. We need to see the church as an actual mission force, too. What if we really saw the church’s mission as being predominantly lay-led? What if we saw Mission primarily not as full-time-missionary-specialist-led, but people-in-the-pew-led missions? That may be a riskier posture, open to more cross-cultural confusion and mistakes, but it may make us more flexible and able to weather pandemic storms. Diversifying and decentralizing—mission that is lay-LED, L.E.D. What if, similar to the way that we’ve been replacing our incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs, it is also time to swapapproaches and focus our missions training on equipping a lay-LED movement? Certainly, we’ll still be training some long-term, cross-cultural worker-specialists, but maybe our greatest impact post-pandemic will come by encouraging a mass movement, lots of LED’s—an L.E.D., lay-LED movement. LED = “Laity doing Evangelistic Disciple-Making”. . . okay, it's a work in progress.
Danielson, Hartley, and Kraybill talk about their hope that the church will truly “grapple with the direct and indirect effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps the most important lesson to derive from these examples of mission during the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic is that, in these times of uncertainty, it is especially important to spiritually discern how” we “should respond to the many different crises around” the globe (12). “In some of the contexts where we serve, this may very well be a time for initiating new ministries, or persisting with fundraising plans, even if the naysayers advise a posture of retrenchment. . . . In other cases, of course, our current pandemic may indeed lead to the end of mission initiatives which many have held close to their heart for a long time. God’s Mission, however, continues, and we are privileged to be prayerful participants in that, regardless of our circumstances” (12–13).
Ok, before we move on from the past to considering the present and future, let’s name some discernment questions we’ve gleaned from looking at the way the church has responded to pandemics in the past:
Has sacrificial service during this COVID-19 pandemic made the selfless love of Christ real and tangible to the world? Has our response positioned us for growth or decline?
Are there closed places or people in the world that, post-pandemic, will be primed to hear the message of Christ? How will we know where and who they are?
Would a lay-led mission be better suited to meet the challenges of our world today? Are we developing both a few full-time cross-cultural-worker-specialists as well as empowering many people in the pew for mission?
Are there ways of doing mission that the pandemic is revealing to be obsolete? Are we brave enough to give them a good burial and move on?
Are there other programs that require continued persistence even in the midst of challenges? Do we have the stamina to persevere and continue them post-pandemic?
Are we ready to imagine and then initiate new ministries to meet the needs of a Post-COVID planet? What could those be?
The Present & Future
Now that we’ve looked at pandemics in the past and named some related discernment questions, let’s talk about how our current situation is not occurring in a vacuum. There are other big factors beyond the pandemic that are affecting us in this moment. In Stephanie Maher’s article, “Covid’s Challenging Invitations,” she sees three challenges that COVID-19 has “brought clearly into focus:” there’s the technological challenge, the challenge of sustainability, and the diversity challenge (137). 4
So, “Challenge One: how will we live humanly in” what she calls “the techno sapien age?” “We are techno sapiens,” she says: “we function as people continuously connected to technology in such a way that it is an extension of ourselves” (137). “The key pitfall of technologically mediated interaction,” though “has been the monologue or unidirectional communication” (138). So the problem with technology is that too often connection just flows one way—which isn’t really connection. Humans are relational creatures, but too often our technological solutions rely on monologue, and that’s not the posture of the incarnation. When we think about Jesus as Emmanuel—the fact that he is with us, “God With Us”—then that “being with” is crucially important.
Maher wants us to consider this notion of “withness” (138). With-ness: We were made to be with one another. So, faithful participation in mission post-pandemic needs to have both gospel witness and gospel “with-ness.” I’m suspicious anytime a solution for evangelism relies on a technology, app, or a video that doesn't require human presence. God is really good at mass media—God invented mass media—like a megaphone to earth: we know that “the heavens declare the glory of God.” But when God wanted to show us what divinity really looks like. He showed up. He came in the flesh to be “with us”—not monologue but dialogue. So with-ness is a crucially important part of gospel “with-us.”
Our technological solutions during and after the pandemic should rely as little as possible on one-way communication. Instead, hopefully, we’ll lean into tech that facilitates dialogue and connection even when we can't be physically present with one another. So less Vimeo, less YouTube, and more Zoom and more eating meals together under a tree or in a parking lot. To overcome that Zoom fatigue, we’ll need to encourage one another to put in the effort required for virtual “with-ness,” explaining and reinforcing why it is actually essential to our faith.
“Challenge Two: how will we be good stewards”? (139). Maher talks about how COVID has revealed the economic problems and ecological problems that are in our world today and may actually helpus to see them more clearly. So we're going to need to talk about how to be good stewards, how do we take care of our neighbors if they're not economically secure, and how do we do a responsible job of caring for this planet in circumstances where it's not ecologically secure. It may feel like I’m opening another Pandora's Box to talk about environmental crises in this conversation, but the reason why I'm bringing this upis to say that this pandemic didn't happen in a vacuum. There are other factors at play, just like there were in the rise and fall of Rome. Climate changes and pandemics often play in the same sandbox, and they create challenges and opportunities for the church.
Maher’s third challenge is: “how will we love our neighbors”? (139). Get ready for one more Pandora’s Box for our presentation! Maher is writing from Australia, but even though she’s “Down Under,” she still feels the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement and the political crisis in the US. So, while we might feel like that has nothing to do with COVID, she sees these factors as related and even in her own context is wrestling and struggling with these as global challenges related to a diverse world where people are interacting with others who are very different from themselves. She talks about the need for us to avoid monologue and really lean into listening to each other's perspectives.
Maher notes that while some say this pandemic “will be a blipon the horizon in no time,” it is her “conviction that this is an opportunity to look with greater clarity at some of the challenges” we’ve “known are there, but have not fully engaged. COVID-19 has brought into focus a confluence of realities which God is inviting us to open our hearts and lives to” (137). So, some takeaways from Maher: the pandemic is not happening in a vacuum, there are other winds contributing to this perfect storm—a giant weather system creating the tornados we’re all experiencing. Also, I think that the idea of gospel witness as gospel with-ness is really important.
We need to make sure our technological solutions are not technological substitutions for presence. Let’s use technology as an avenue for digital or virtual presence with one another.
So, some other discernment questions to add to our list:
What are other challenges that COVID is bringing into focus in our local church or place of mission service? How is it helping us recognize other destructive winds forming this weather system?
What kind of technological solutions are we exploring (monologue or dialogue)? Are our technological solutions really just technological substitutions for presence? How can we use technology as an avenue for being present with one another? Does our creative gospel witness equal creative gospel “with-ness”?
A fourth resource to bring into this exploration is an article by Paul Bendor-Samuel, “Covid-19, Trends in Global Mission, and Participation in Faithful Witness.”5 He notes, “We are living in a time of major disruption, not least in global mission” (255). He sees the pandemic “primarily acting as an amplifier” (255). I’d call it an accelerator “of what is already happening rather than introducing something fundamentally new. Nonetheless, in bringing certain realities into sharpfocus, the church is being gifted with an opportunity to re-examine some of our most basic assumptions about how we participate in the mission of God. The pandemic has stimulated enormous local activity by Christians as well as putting a brake on some aspects of mission, particularly those related to mission as sending. . . . This is an opportunity to take stock and envision global mission in ways that are, perhaps, more appropriate for this moment in history” (255).
So, how should we perceive this moment? Should we think of COVID-19 as a blip, a power fluctuation that tripped the breaker and puts us in temporary darkness until we can locate a flashlight or a candle and make our way to the breaker box and reset the system? Or is it a sign that we need to overhaul the wiring, rewire the house? Bendor-Samuel also talks about the global-local tension. He says, “While the Covid-19 pandemic has been global in extent, its impact and response have been experienced in widely differing ways that makes a pandemic a profoundly local phenomenon” (256). The experience of a pandemic in Searcy, AR, is different than in Peru.
So, maybe this global house analogy is a good one because some parts of the house just need to reset the breaker, while other parts of the house will need to be rewired. It’s not all or nothing. Bendor-Samuel reminds us that “churches in Christian Non-Governmental and Faith Based organizations continue to be central players in efforts at poverty reduction, education, and health care” (257). This is happening in both the Global North and the Global South. “In the UK,” for example, “Christian groups have been at the forefront of the hospice care movement, food banks, and community initiatives to support young mothers and infants, the care of the elderly and so on. As state provision becomes increasingly costly, the space for Christian action grows. In Muslim context, Christian service, provided unconditionally, remains the central way to bear faithful witness to the grace and goodness of God” (257).
Bendor-Samuel wonders if the problems of the paradigm of mission as only sending or going cross-culturally, in light of the changing state of global Christianity, may finally have to change. He mentions visa restrictions and other factors. More important than these issues,” he says “mission reduced to sending is increasingly ill adapted to today's very varied mission contexts and is increasingly out of stepwith our understanding of the nature of mission” (259). He thinks we now need to see the local church, not the Western missionary, as the fully empowered agent of mission. Bendor-Samuel wonders if “Covid-19, far from being a frustration to the mission of God, could be just the restraint to the global mission industry we need if we are to reimagine how different parts of the Body of Christ act together to support faithful, holistic, local witness” (261; emphasis added).
How, then, can COVID-19 be a limitation or restraint that helps us focus on what matters most? While this is a disruption, disruptions can be good. Disruption can lead to dependence on God. Bendor-Samuel notes that “disruptive times can be a gift in which we may discover anew our dependency on God in our engagement in his mission and the Biblical story provides plenty of examples of how this can be so” (261). He mentions Abraham, David, and others who embraced a wanderer identity and how “the wanderer identity is a gift, pointing us to a place of vulnerability and dependence on God” (261–2).
So, we’ve gleaned some final discernment questions and added them to the list:
With the pandemic interrupting “electricity” in the “House of Missions,” which parts of the house need merely to have their breaker flipped to turn the power back on again, and which parts are revealed as needing to be rewired because they are a fire hazard?
How can this disruption lead us to greater dependence on God?
So, we’ve reached the end. Hopefully we’re in a better place to engage in discernment about missions in a post-pandemic world. Let me close by telling you about something that happened today. I teach two New Testament classes full of freshmen students, 80 in all. Right now, we’re in the middle of the book of Acts. We made it to Acts 15 where the early church has come together to engage in discernment. Multiple Pandora’s Boxes seem to have unleashed disruptions on the early disciples: there’s religious conflict, persecution, a famine, and God has disrupted the Jewish Christians by including Gentiles in new and surprising ways. Peter, Paul, Barnabas, James, and others are bringing Scripture, tradition, reason and experience to the table to figure out how to be faithful in a post-Pentecost world, where even Ethiopean Eunuchs and Corneliuses are welcomed into the kingdom of God.
I told the students what I’d be speaking about to this grouptonight, that I was nervous, and I asked them to pray for me. The freshmen students and I talked about how the book of Acts is a book about decision making and discernment. Luke is not giving us step-by-stepinstructions like “7 Steps to Mission Success” but instead giving us the story of the early church, showing their work, like in Math class, helping us learn how to plan and dream together and respond to problems and pandemics in our own day. The good news is we don’t have to do this alone. We’re in this together, and most importantly, the Spirit of God is alive and active, and the power of Pandora’s Box has nothing on us. It can’t stopus. We’re a people powered by Pentecost, following the Prince of Peace! May God bless us and equipthe church for mission going forward.
1 Kyle Harper, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).
2 Robert A Danielson, Benjamin L Hartley, and James A Krabill, “COVID-19 in Missiological and Historical Perspective,” Missiology: An International Review 49, no. 1 (2020): 1-15, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7649651.
3 Or even a malarial epidemic: “When the first missionaries reached the northwest coast of the USA in the early 1830s, they found themselves in the midst of a malarial epidemic (brought by ships sailing north from South America), which killed upto 85% of the Native American peoples in the region. . . . The missionaries’ first ministry was to establish a makeshift orphanage for the children of the epidemic’s victims” (2).
4 Stephanie Maher, “Covid's challenging invitations,” Lutheran Theological Journal, 54, no. 2 (2020): 137–141, https://e-resources.alc.edu.au/Documents/ltj/august-2020/Maher-Covids-challenging-invitations.pdf.
5 Paul Bendor-Samuel, “Covid-19, Trends in Global Mission, and Participation in Faithful Witness,” Transformation: An International Journal of Holistic Mission Studies 37, no. 4 (2020): 254–65, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0265378820970225.
Alan B. Howell, his wife Rachel, and their three daughters resided in Mozambique from 2003 to 2018 as part of a team working among the Makua-Metto people. Alan is currently
serving as the Visiting Professor of Missions at Harding University (Searcy, AR).