News

COVID-19 and missions

It is folly at this early stage to discuss such subject as complex as the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on missions while events are still unfolding, and the reactions by governments, churches and missions are still evolving. However, because a tiny virus has become the vehicle by which a great shaking has been delivered to our world, it still warrants a thoughtful examination and prayer-filled response.

1.Socio-economic impact and implications

The COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted the gaps in the world’s economic and social systems and structures. Many have lost their jobs and many have been forced into starvation and deep poverty. There is also a significant increase in the number of people struggling with mental health issues due to job losses, economic crises, struggles to cope with lockdown, domestic abuse, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, panic and depression—all these require compassionate and effective responses. The Church needs to be where people who are suffering can find love, care, support and acceptance.

Over time, a global economic recession is expected to unfold into a full-blown financial crisis. The World Bank suggests things will get worse before they get better. In the meantime, countries, societies and organisations will need to invest in new capabilities and capacities in order to rapidly adapt, anticipate change, manage risks and implement solutions to build a better normal.

2. Impact and implications on mission agencies, organisations and churches

Firstly, as church members suffered job losses and incomes, the churches’ incomes from tithings and offerings reciprocally declined and there were less funds available for missions. At the same time, austerity measures will be put in place to cope with many uncertainties in the horizon. Hence, the support for cross-cultural missions may be affected, but we hope in God’s grace that it will not be drastic.

Secondly, global geopolitics and ensuing economics have affected global missions. Seasons of global conflict and economic upheaval have caused countries to look inwardly rather than globally, and there are more difficulties with obtaining visas and travelling outside of the country. The Church’s capacity to send missionaries to other nations has been greatly reduced.

However, within weeks of COVID-19 causing quarantines and lockdowns, we saw accelerated changes in training. Churches and organisations had no choice but to move quickly into the digital age. Findings indicate that during lockdown, more people watched and listened to online religious services, and missionary trainers are appreciating the breadth of digital technologies available to support and enhance training. Correspondingly, more people have turned to faith in the midst of uncertainty and despair.

The Methodist Missions Society (MMS) will continue to enhance itself using reliable, secure technology and digital means to do mission work. Innovation should be another area that needs to be reinforced using audio technology and smartphones to evangelise to people groups that rely more on hearing of their own language than reading.

3. Impact on church life  

COVID-19 will by no means be the end of the Church. Christianity has endured countless plagues and pandemics, survived fire and flood, economic and natural disasters and systematic persecution, and has become stronger through them. History showed that when missionaries have been forced out of a nation or region, the indigenous church grows under persecution or hardship. This is true when the gospel seeds have been planted and intentional training and equipping were actively implemented.

Matthew 24:14 is a promise to encourage believers to endure the hardship that was to come and Acts 1:8, Jesus declaring what God will do, not what we should do. The urgency of human needs due to COVID-19 and its effects gives a platform for believers to demonstrate the relevance of the gospel in every aspect of life, and the desire of God to bring healing and wholeness to every aspect of human activity.

4. How mission agencies, organisations and churches should respond to the COVID-19 crisis

No one knows how long the COVID-19 pandemic is going to last—what is certain is that there is no return to normalcy. And when we discuss new ways to do cross-cultural ministry, there are no one-size-fits-all solution. However, there are certain fundamental cross-cultural principles that we need to maintain and continue to reinforce:

 

The Church is the body of Christ, made of people and not buildings. Churches that are growing healthily are those that focus on small-group ministry and discipleship where transformation of lives take place and disciples are made most effectively. Our emphasis must therefore be to enhance small group ministry, and discipleship training and equipping.

MMS has established proper structure and institutions that are operationally effective and self-reliant over 29 years in most of our seven mission fields. Intentional training and leadership development have been the hallmark in equipping the indigenous leadership so that they can stand on their own in time to come. Even during this COVID season, the MMS mandate of church-planting and community development are still being effectively executed by the indigenous leadership supported by our missionaries.

MMS needs to adopt a holistic approach that should not just be during a season of global pandemic and economic crisis, but rightly belongs at the heart of mission. Mission work should minister the gospel to the whole person and community, and manifest God’s heart for the vulnerable (the poor; widows; orphans; and refugees), the spiritual gift of hospitality and Christianity’s foundational values of generosity and compassion.

Outreach and Evangelism mission must continue to be empowered, such as through the countless digital outreach resources that are available for churches and Christians who want to share their faith, such as inspiring stories, songs or films. Such resources when tailored to the local context can be more effective. This is where our Methodist churches and MMS can work together to enhance God’s mandate and fulfilled the Great Commandment.

Integrated mission also includes the powerful combination of the church-planting movement with community development that helps to uplift the livelihoods and transform the lives of those in indigenous communities. A senior pastor from the Sri Lankan Evangelism Alliance lamented that “COVID-19 is teaching [indigenous churches] that the more dependent they are, the more they are going to suffer”. We need to help the indigenous churches and the communities they are in to first consider what they have available within their communities and to provide solution to communal problems and needs without too much dependence on outside resourcing, and build their financial capabilities and capacities to be self-reliant and self-sustainable.

 

Conclusion                                                                                        

While COVID-19 presented an unprecedented challenge, it has spotlighted numerous gaps in society and opened up many inroads for evangelism, outreach, care and comfort of the people. In addition, it has forced a rethink in the way churches can maintain viable communication and discipleship, and the care and nurture of its members. From a missions perspective, the work is cut out for us to drive a holistic, sustainable approach to nurture self-sufficient churches and communities in the field.

The “new normal” at St Paul Methodist School in Timor-Leste, where the missionaries have to take temperature of their students before school every day
The St Paul Methodist School in Timor-Leste
The Rev Leslie Lim, MMS missionary pastor to Vietnam, connecting with his congregation via Zoom

Col (Ret) Quek Koh Eng is the Field & Church Engagement Director in MMS, and the MMS Area Director for Thailand and Vietnam. He is a member of Charis Methodist Church. This is an abridged version of the talk that he gave during the Methodist Missions Society’s virtual Missionary Retreat.

Menu