“I’m sorry, sir,” the drugstore cashier in New Jersey said politely, “we’re all out of hand sanitizer and the toilet paper is going really fast too.” It was the first week of March and I was on a break from my research and writing in the Princeton Theology Seminary Library. When I had left Vancouver a few days earlier, there was growing concern in the media regarding the virus spreading around the world, but life appeared normal. By the time I got back to Vancouver a few days later, everything was shutting down and we were living fully into the Covid-19 reality that has defined the rest of 2020.
Church-focused adaptive leadership solutions
In the blink of an eye, church leadership has shifted congregations from a known form of leadership to a dizzying array of adaptive leadership solutions. Who could have ever guessed at the beginning of 2020 that so many churches would become little television studios and that we would be experiencing Bible studies, pastoral care and even Communion online? While churches and their leaders have been working hard to care for church members, isolated and anxious during this pandemic, we must also ask how this has impacted our ministries of evangelism – of helping people take steps towards faith in Jesus. Many pastoral leaders are delighted that their online worship attendance has increased compared to what they might see in the pews.
Could this be an evangelistic outreach opportunity? Is it a chance for people to move beyond what Don Everts and others call the first threshold of evangelism, “trust”? Or is it simply a “recycling of the saints,” as believers hop from one online church service to another? And then there is the research from Barna Group suggesting that up to 1/3 of regular worshippers have given up on connecting with their congregation online during the pandemic. Australian missiologist Mike Frost pushes this further by wondering if the online buffet of worship services might set back the gains of the missional church movement and return us to an attractional model of church, whereby people are encouraged to be consumers of religion looking for the best “worship production.”
Evangelism and a community of affable agnostics
But do you notice how all of these questions are still church-focused, and not directed towards the world around us that Jesus died to save? While some in the church have assumed that a global pandemic would bring people flooding back to church for answers and assurance, for those of us who live in highly secularized places like Vancouver there’s no such thing as “returning” to church. So, what might evangelism look like to a community of affable agnostics in a pandemic who, while fearful and anxious, have never turned to God before in their lives?
Of course, a pre-Covid church too often assumed that our secular neighbour was really just an anonymous Christian, to borrow Karl Rahner’s language. In other words, the church assumed that in a time of crisis, people would naturally turn towards God like Daniel did in the lion’s den or Meshach, Shadrack and Abednego did in the fiery furnace. But stop and think: in those cases, their faith in God got them into trouble. Instead, this is a good time to check our assumptions from a pre-Covid church about what our secular friends think they really need.
With Boomers and Gen Xers, the line was what? “When they have children of their own, they’ll come back to church.” For Millennials we said, “They’re spiritual but not religious.” In other words, don’t worry, their vague spiritual references are really just an underdeveloped Christianity. As Jen Twenge’s book iGen demonstrates through solid research, the next cohort – Generation Z – is now often neither spiritual nor religious. We are fully secularized as a society, living into what Charles Taylor would call secularity 3.
Jesus at work in our relationships close to home
But what if God was giving our churches the opportunity to learn more about our actual neighbours, secular or otherwise, in this time of disruption? What if, like Jay Pathak and Dave Ruyon’s book The Art of Neighboring, we were to pay (pray?) attention more closely to sharing life and attending to the presence of Jesus at work in our relationships close to home, including those that we see more often now since so many are working from home? What if, instead of an evangelism program, we challenged our church members to see themselves as evangelists, or perhaps first and foremost what Alan Roxburgh calls “detectives of divinity”, wherever God places them?
Could we make room in our online worship not just to comfort the faithful but to have “God sightings” that allow us to share where we have seen the Triune God at work? Could we have prayer requests for specific neighbours and friends whom we long to see in a relationship with Jesus? Could the Word preached and the bread broken focus on equipping us as missionary disciples, saved to be sent into a world that is fearful, anxious and ready for redemption? What if this time of isolation was understood as a time reminiscent of Luke 10, where we have been sent on a mission to the places we call home in order to testify to the saving work of the Triune God in our midst?
Will Jesus rejoice when we return together in the church building after all of this is done, like the disciples regrouping at the end of Luke 10, or will we look back and discover, as the servant did in Matthew 25, that the talent we were given has been buried just when it was needed most by the world?