We might feel like it, but Jesus said “I will build my church.”
“Today we are canceling the apocalypse!” shouted the leader of the protagonist in a heroes vs. creatures movie that my boys and I have watched a few times. And while the threat of losing the final fight for the existence of human life is far from the danger we face today, the sentiment shared by the leader is one we all wish we could say about the pandemic the world faces today. Can’t we just cancel this thing?
“Thank you for your patience. Your wait time is approximately… indefinite.”
Today it feels like things are on hold as we come to grips with the reality that we can’t simply cancel this global event. It feels like the momentum that was propelling great work by the Church all around the world, has been stopped in its tracks and those involved are stuck on the wrong end of a seemingly indefinite wait.
Missionaries around the world have had to make agonizing choices about whether it’s safer to stay in place or return to their own countries for a time. They’ve scrambled through airports, booking wildly expensive last-minute flights after having had to leave so quickly they weren’t even able to say good-bye to good friends who are staying put. International schools have had to close, regular supply flights have been canceled. Not only do missionaries have the responsibility to obey and follow all in-country guidelines and laws, but they must also adhere to recommendations and limitations put on them by their home countries.
Bible teaching is postponed. Ongoing Bible translation is reduced to what can be done remotely without the needed in-person feedback. The task of making disciples that Jesus gave to us, the Church, has slowed to a crawl in many places. Thousands of short and medium-term trips have been canceled. And the departure and allocation of new workers for their fields is indefinitely paused. When will we be able to resume this essential work?
Will fledgling churches recently formed be able to sustain themselves? Will the dangers of false teaching creep in and be even more pronounced with a very real medical threat hanging over all people groups? Will what looked like open doors for future work in new people groups, be firmly closed when the world feels safe coming into contact with each other again?
There are no, nor will there be any, shortages of opinions and predictions about the future of Christian missional effort in light of the pandemic the world faces today. I make no promise of being able to add anything of value to the growing body of thought on this topic. But for my own sake, I must get these thoughts out into the open.
…that the open doors for new ministry may be shut indefinitely.
…that the opportunistic criticisms against incarnational work among unreached people groups will intensify even more than it already has.
…that the countries my coworkers are all having to return home from won’t allow them back in when it’s safe to return.
…that Great Commission work will turn into a “luxury” item for the Church.
…that giving to fund the mission workers and organizations supporting this work will evaporate.
…that toilet paper reserves will never be replenished (cue eye roll!)
The list could go on.. And while these fears are all founded and could be realized in reality, I’m reminded by my God, whom I strive to serve with my whole heart, that He has already addressed these things and given me a reason to not be fearful.
So, is missions on hold?
All of those fears are of situations that have happened when a pandemic wasn’t dictating terms with the human race. So, they’re not unique to right now. Faith-supported mission workers like myself (missionaries who are responsible to raise their own living expenses and salary) have always lived with the possibility that the vital funds given to support their ministry will unexpectedly drop.
The criticisms of efforts to give unreached people groups the free choice to understand the story of God in their language have always been leveled at work that tries to emulate Jesus’ incarnational method.
The possibility that the landscape of missional efforts will change as the human race copes with a pandemic like this one, is certain too.
So, has the blinking light of “on hold” appeared when it comes to Jesus building his church?
Jesus Christ has always been the power behind any growth, any forward movement, any fulfillment of his Great Commision. And if he is the power, is he on hold?
So, none of the current events should make us afraid! To be afraid of something is to see no way that it can be any other way. It’s to resign ourselves that those things are inevitable and un-overcomable. And that’s what we should truly run from. We may be in a “holding pattern” but the work, the movement, the growth, none of that is on hold.
Consider some of God’s encouragement to us in the face of a global threat such a pandemic:
- When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. (Psm 56:3)
- For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. (2 Tim 1:7)
- Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matt 28:20b)
- Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the Devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Eph 6:10-12)
- I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matt 16:18b)
- And, let’s not forget that the work God is doing in reconciling all people groups to himself isn’t made possible because we are with them! God will, through the Holy Spirit, nurture and care for the church wherever it is. It may be stretching for us everyone, but he doesn’t NEED us to be there. We must grow in our trust of his care, love and provision for those we minister to but can’t be with.
So, now that we know we’re not on hold, what are we emboldened to hope for? What does this current situation make possible? While I know there will be many, one in particular sticks out to me. The whole world has had to dive headfirst into learning something that was growing but hadn’t yet attained critical momentum: online education. Zoom’s monthly user totals have exponentially increased. Myriad churches all leaped into using Facebook and YouTube Live to deliver encouraging and life-giving truth and in many cases bring continuity to things like youth groups and adult small groups. School systems across North America are helping to develop distance ed fluency with their students and faculty and universities and colleges that were already leveraging online classes are doing so all the more. Just in the US alone, we have a populace who will have gone through a crash course in how to learn from afar.
I know everyone wants to look past this time of virtual school, church, coffee breaks and field trips to when we can do it all in person again. But remember what I said about the landscape of global missions changing, perhaps in major ways in the future? This new-found fluency in distance-education must be leveraged to deliver critical training to an already growing (and sure to explode now) group of mission workers. What kind of access to training and discipling lies ahead for the Church now that people in many parts of the world are also familiar with this new delivery method?
I’m talking about Christians from Southeast Asia to Northern Africa, just to name a few, who stand willing to be the ambassadors God has called them to be, to engage on the edge where the Church is being built by Jesus. They will be better suited and likely already have the prerequisite support of the local church behind them. Can western missions organizations deliver the relevant training based on years of experience doing incarnational church-planting, to this new class of church-planters?
It’s not that we can just start doing it. Platforms will need to be developed, careful cultural consideration and contextualization need to be practiced. Already established networks and organizations need to be given the invitation to speak into this. But if there was ever a time to dive in and invest in delivering training and ongoing education this way, now is it.
The reality that physical access to countries where the need for church-planting and discipleship is needed could be drastically reduced to keep the newly recovered populace healthy is a likely possibility. And the way that the Church in North America views Great Commission work could change in big ways too. We will have much need right here in our local communities and the Church, no doubt, will play a big role in meeting those needs.
Incarnational ministry will return
Lest you think that I am suggesting that I believe that traditional forms of missions work need to be left behind, know that I’m not abandoning ministry that takes place face-to-face. We will get better. We will be able to speak without the impedance of an N95 mask coming in between us. We’ll be able to invest in others from across the table and not just across the screen.
Jesus was incarnational in an archetypal way. He allowed himself to, as Tim Keller puts it in the intermission of his book “The Reason for God”, be written into “the play” of human existence. And he ministered face-to-face with the very people he took part in creating. This form of ministry, of disciple-making, will always have a part. And if we’re diligent in stewarding the new opportunities, the more incarnational ministry could take place as we help to equip a new class of ambassadors, positioned to engage on the edge of where the church is and is not, in ways that we in the west might soon not be able to.
Jesus’ last recorded words to his followers are translated “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” With this truth as the platform that we stand on, no pandemic, no undue criticism, no shortage of anything, will be able to put this work, his work, on hold. So, let’s take a deep breath, point our minds to the truth, every single day and pray for diligence as individuals and as the Church and look hopefully to the future of seeing Jesus’ commission fulfilled and finally seeing every people group have their fair chance to know of God’s great love for them.
Oh, and try to conserve TP too.