Will leaders, called of God to minister, rise to the challenge of equipping the body to do the work of evangelizing others to Christ during this unique and pivotal time in the life of the church?
At times, outreach feels less like the reaching of neighbors and more like doing triage. You may feel this way if you are a church leader or pastor scrambling to move services online, figure out how to worship outside, or other ministerial adjustments brought on by the onset of the pandemic.
You are not alone.
The COVID-19 pandemic has swept over the world, and as of the Fall of 2020, has impacted America with close to a quarter of the total deaths. Almost every arena of life has been affected and local church fellowship, community, and worship have certainly taken a hit.
Being a church leader right now is difficult. Restrictions vary from place to place. In some parts of the world the church is still not able to gather in person together at all. Yet the mission of God goes on! The gospel mandate of Christ has not changed (Matt. 28:19-20).
But what has changed in light of the pandemic? What does the coronavirus mean for church ministries in the long term?
Given that no one has a crystal ball on what will transpire with vaccines and medical therapies, I am not here to make predictions on what will be but, rather, to declare to you what is already clear. In doing so, I aim to point out an opportunity for the church, rising before us in the COVID-19 crisis—something that could actually help the messaging of the church for eons to come.
Evangelism in a Changing World
Let me begin by saying that even if we get the best possible vaccine, and we see a major return back to the way things were, the world has changed. The world as we knew it—will never be the same. So are there resultant residuals in the culture that will have a continual effect on the future mission?
Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics and author, states: “The personal becomes dangerous.” Woe. Let that sink in for a second. She writes: “We know now that touching things, being with other people and breathing the air in an enclosed space can be risky,” and “The comfort of being in the presence of others might be replaced by a greater comfort of absence, especially with those we don’t know intimately.” Notice this new importance of having intimate familiarity and trust.
Minister Phillip Nation tweeted, “When social distancing is over, I’m going to rage hug everyone!” All of us can relate to that community vacuum feeling. Yes, many are hungry for deep personal—even physical—connection with others. However, will everyone go and give others a big hug when this disease subsides? Will all attendees even return to “large gatherings” of the church? How eager will members be to shake hands again in services or hug their fellow parishioners when they haven’t in so long?
I believe though many undoubtedly will dive back in. Alas, there will be a lingering psychological impact when just being in close intimate proximity with others can be hazardous. This fated possibility will linger forward in perpetuity. Like the globe post-9/11, the same assumptions of safety that we once had will have eroded.
As much as there is a loss of innocence, or in this case, assumed immunity, I believe the new undercurrent of thought is where evangelistic practice could change for the good. To be specific, it could change in how “stranger” evangelism will be even less received whereas relational, trust-building evangelism will potentially be more welcomed. This, my friends, is not bad. Actually, it’s good! Let me explain why I state this with emphatic joy regarding churches.
Views of Evangelism Changing in the Church
Even before COVID-19 arrived to interrupt our lives, there are some, like me, who have championed the idea that evangelism within our postmodern landscape is suitably couched inside an authentic-relational context. And the way evangelism has been traditionally trumpeted with formalized presentations has only hurt member engagement.
Although we will always have a small percentage of Type-A verbal go-getters, the “go tell people” approach has inadvertently disenchanted the majority of the Christian body from becoming vested in the disciple-making call of God, the Missio Dei.
Just bring up the ‘E-word’ within the wide spectrum of ecclesial circles and let the members’ “roll-of-the-eyes” convince you. From my own experience of training others in evangelism, the average member is not rejecting the idea of sharing the gospel, only the overly-simplistic thinking and unnatural methodology on how to go about doing it.
It is my studied opinion that what is hindering the gospel movement at the most fundamental level is that people view the prime mandate of God in the wrong way. They think they are supposed to make a verbal pitch to someone out there, a stranger they run into at the grocery store, sit next to on the plane, give an order to, or bump into randomly.
That cold, one-hit-wonder “telling” approach is not only widely ineffectual, it has derailed Christians from executing what is necessary to be effective in our time; that is, not to tell a stranger, but rather to “frame up” a meaningful ongoing spiritual dialogue with an unbelieving friend. Of course, it might be someone they are in the process of befriending.
In the new post-COVID world, more people in the church will have to come to terms with this relational “gateway” to having influence for Jesus. They have to stop thinking one way and start thinking another—and that contemplation is good!
Slight Adjustment, Massive Impact
This nuanced distinction is bigger than you think. I conducted a case study at a megachurch in California who did thirty-six video interviews of members around the theme of “Making the Gospel Known.” Listening acutely, the question I found myself asking is: “Who are you making it known to?” In other words, “who” were they in an ongoing relationship with and having ongoing spiritual conversations? Of the thirty-six, I tallied only two having the right, relational positioning. Ouch!
The silver lining of COVID-19 is it gives church leadership a chance to change its entire thinking on what its members must do to reach this world. Because the world is now even more suspect to the invasion of their space, we will have to learn how to get beside others in a way that they will invite. We will have to learn how to deepen trust and relationship and how to share the gospel in ways that are natural to us and resonant with them. These are three different levels of mission skills that every Christian must learn and practice: (1) Positioning, (2) Deepening, (3) Influence.
Yes, this COVID-19 period is a golden opportunity, partly because culture has changed. We must all hear and heed afresh the rebuke of Jesus, “Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:56). Have you considered bringing your people along into a conversation about how the world now needs a particular kind of connecting and how we must adapt to meet this moment? Those training conversations will be rich. They will open up for you the chance to make critical adjustments and add vital elements to your mix.
For application, please allow me to share what I see as the three most critical equipping features:
1. Adopt a Relational Process Approach
I call it “the REP” (Relational Evangelism Process) believing every believer should be in an REP relationship. It is a shift from the “telling approach” to the “influence paradigm” of Jesus. I led an atheist and another skeptic to faith via the REP over nine months. Trained a small group in the REP and they witnessed five salvations in six months. Taught this method at a seminary and saw two salvations in three months.
I am in a REP relationship currently with our community’s local mosque’s Imam. We have moved our meetings onto Zoom. This works pretty well. But the “framing” of our meeting together had to occur first. Note the Spirit’s positioning instructions in Acts 8: “Go over,” “join this chariot,” and “he invited Philip to come up and sit with him” (Acts 8:29-31). Our meetings are contextualized within a gospel, intentional relationship.
2. Define and Teach Specific Evangelistic Skills
Christians need to learn relationship-building skills for the sake of the gospel. If they do not learn skills they will not be having “Jesus-Samaritan” woman conversations but, rather, will bypass mission—looking more like the disciples off on a fellowship-food run than Jesus conversing deeply at the well (John 4). Today, more than ever, believers need to learn specific mission skills, ones that make them more like Christ in their spiritual formation, and help them to become gospel influencers.
3. Provide Mission Structures with Coaching Feedback and Support
Mission training ought not to seem like a stage sermon. Discipleship is interactive, personal, and includes real engagement with building ongoing, redemptive relationships. One suggestion is to raise up the evangelistic value by celebrating the stories of your people who are engaging with unsaved unchurched people in your community.
I leave you with this closing thought. Will leaders, called of God to minister, rise to the challenge of equipping the body to do the work of evangelizing others to Christ during this unique and pivotal time in the life of the church?
 Deborah Tannen, “Coronavirus Will Change the World Permanently. Here’s How,” Politico Magazine, March 20, 2020.
This article was originally published at GCD.com.
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