Years from now, we’ll look back on the current coronavirus pandemic and understand far better the impact that it has had on our world, the church, and Christian missions. For the time being, however, we may be left with more questions than answers. We may wonder why it is that God has allowed such a deadly disease to so disrupt the whole planet. Nonetheless, amidst the uncertainties, this we can and do know: this pandemic surely will not destroy what God has done and will do, for Jesus assures us: “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) The virus doesn’t get the final say. God does.
While none of us can say that this pandemic is from the hand of God, we can and must say that it is firmly in the hands of God. God’s got this! It neither surprises nor deters him. Indeed, he has allowed it, and we can know that it will not have been in vain. Somehow, even this pandemic will serve God’s mission, what theologians and mission scholars call missio Dei, the entirety of God’s work in the world. And as a part of missio Dei, the mission of the church will also be served, even by the pandemic. God’s got this!
We need not ignore the very real and adverse consequences of the pandemic on the life and mission of the church. Participation in services is increasingly viewed as optional by many who previously worshipped regularly. Ministries have struggled financially. Some churches have experienced divisive polarization as concerns over the virus were politicized. Globally, rates of extreme poverty and hunger increased for the first time in decades. Many global workers were forced to leave their countries of service, and with the complications added to international travel, not all have been able to return.
More than ever, the world needs to hear of Jesus and his Good News. Will the pandemic change how that happens? The short answer is yes. The long answer probably could fill a book. Here I just want to share with you a few observations from my perspective as the director of WMPL.
First and foremost, the historical disruptions caused by the pandemic have provided us an unparalleled opportunity to experience afresh our deep dependency on God for the ways we engage in mission, and to realign our understandings and practices accordingly. When things are “out of our hands,” we need all the more to trust what God is doing by his hands.
God is turning people to himself. That’s how he uses adversity. Interestingly, according to the Pew Research Center, and in spite of decreased “church attendance,” Americans are far more likely to say that the pandemic has strengthened their faith, rather than weakened it. Around the world, Google searches for prayer and God have surged to historically high levels. People are hungering for peace and reassurance in unprecedented ways.
God is moving his church away from impersonal institutionalism and toward much more relational grace-based discipling. Indeed, God is turning people to himself, but, it would seem, not so much to established church structures, at least not in North America. Congregations and mission organizations alike must ask how well we are relating to and nurturing those searching for the God of mercy, healing, and restoration.
God is teaching his people to see and serve those in need. The pandemic has helped many Christians consider more fully the state of the world around them rather than focus only on the insides of their churches, and in turn they have begun to orient their lives and ministries more in keeping with the ideals of God’s kingdom, through loving and even sacrificial responses to those who suffer for the inequities and injustices of this sinful world.
God is connecting people in new ways! The pandemic forced us to engage “online,” and provided to people elsewhere in the world technologies previously unavailable to them. Nationally and internationally our relationships, and even our prayer meetings, have been dramatically broadened and enhanced, and those same tools are now reaching places and people previously unreached!
Finally, God is enlarging the circle of mission leadership. As expatriate workers evacuated to their home countries, many churches became less dependent on the help and influence of foreigners. This simply accelerated the increased internationalization that God was already bringing to his global mission force. Could it be that the pandemic has given us just the restraint we’ve needed to reimagine how we can collaborate more respectfully and effectively with the global church in the mission that is not ours, but God’s? Maybe so. God’s got this! It’s in his hands. And it will stay there. Even in a pandemic.