If we listened carefully, the first murmurings of an outbreak of a respiratory disease were reported from Wuhan, China, in December 2019. The World Health Organization (WHO) was on it, already publishing information about the new virus, and by mid-January 2020 we had a name, COVID-19.

However, despite initial alarm bells ringing, no consensus on how to respond was agreed. By the end of January more than 7,800 cases in China and close to 100 in a further 18 countries were reported. The Chinese New Year compounded the problem as it heralded a time of travel as many returned to their homes to celebrate. The WHO increasingly became concerned about the slowness of governmental responses and declared a pandemic on 11 March 2020. Churches in the UK were closed by 22 March and by 28 March the UK was in full lockdown. The daily stats announced a growing spike in new cases, deaths and infection rates. The ignition of a dreaded pandemic was in full swing.

Initial reactions of churches revolved around how we conduct church services when we can’t gather. First responses – let’s care for our members. Many churches did not know who their members were, or at least how to contact them. Whilst technological challenges to get services online were being addressed, questions from members began pouring in, ranging from, Please help” and How can we help?” to Are these the end times?”

Fear and courage surfaced. Selfish stockpiling and servant-hearted generosity revealed themselves. Domestic violence escalated and care of the vulnerable was prioritised. Innovation and creative responses evolved alongside rebellion and increased flytipping. Volunteerism soared; job losses skyrocketed.

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Conversations

All around the world the virus jumped, leaving its mark. All of us were caught by surprise and conversations started in churches and missions, all wanting to explore together what was happening, discern what God was saying, reflect on how best to respond, hungry to listen and learn together. All Nations Christian College perceived the need to join in this discussion and convened a series of three webinars between 19 May and 2 June. The overarching theme was Reimagining church and mission: COVID19 catalyses change’.

Drawing on the perceptions, experiences and insights of a wide range of contributors and panel members, the webinars sought to highlight the growing awareness of the immediate and short-term impact on church and mission, and to anticipate the challenges and opportunities this will bring in the longer term. At the heart of these discussions was the desire to shine a light not only on the changes occurring in church and mission but also in our communities and nations, thereby enabling us to focus our energies on addressing the issues the crisis was illuminating.

We have discovered that each webinar exposed truths that need to be acted on, raised questions that need to be addressed, celebrated initiatives taken, and lamented the brokenness that is being revealed.

The awakening

The closing of church buildings had pushed believers into their neighbourhoods and back with their families. The cessation of travel meant people were present and began seeing the needs around them. A key response noted was innovation. Churches and missions, having recovered from their initial surprise, began adapting creatively. 

An online revolution is occurring, with initiatives from the song The Blessing’ to all sorts of artistic portrayals of gospel presentations and social action initiatives. Spikes in online attendance of church services as well as increased questions and searches around life, identity, purpose, prayer – an awakening of one’s own fragility and the need for assurance and purpose.

Recognition of the immense opportunities presenting themselves and the need to mobilise people to respond was noted as an urgent imperative. In all this flurry of excitement to engage was the grounding experience from Eritrean church lockdown – beware of distractions that take us away from what God wants us to do; keep Jesus central and keep meeting together.

The challenge

In the second webinar we saw that as good thrives in disasters – in that it brings out the best in people – evil also thrives. Alarming statistics were shared on the significant increases in gender-based violence, child abuse and exploitative behaviour. So much so that it was perceived as a shadow pandemic occurring behind closed doors.

At national levels examples of power consolidation were explored, abuse of position and propaganda proliferation. The rise of myths and securities exacerbating stigmas and prejudices, resulting in hate crimes increasing. Gains in poverty reduction are being lost as inequalities increase. At least the environment was getting an opportunity to breathe cleaner air.

The sobering reality of this is the need to rethink mission and church in such a way that we do not just speak prophetically but we act / live out the truth prophetically. This requires us to know the story we are living, namely God’s story. To understand our role in the story at this present time. There needs to be a united voice crying out for humanity and our planet. This is the age of networks that will help us to cooperate, learn and act together.

What scripture says

As we gathered for the third and final webinar, we explored what scripture had to say and were reminded that those of us who do not heed wisdom and the warning about pursuing our own ways will reap the fruit of our folly (Proverbs 1:20 – 22). The disaster we face together, in economics as well as health, will cause tremendous suffering, especially for the vulnerable. This calls us to lament and protest before God on behalf of our world, seeking the welfare of our nations and interceding for our communities.

The way ahead

There was so much that was shared, so much to consider – please do watch each webinar on catch-up’ at youtube​.com/​a​l​l​n​a​t​i​onsuk, reflect and join in the ongoing conversations.

We are at a critical crossroads for church and mission. If this crisis simply leads us to be more innovative then, as great as that may seem, it is not enough. We need a prophetic imagination. To reimagine church and mission requires more than embracing modernising technologies; it requires a radical new way of thinking and living, recognising that acknowledging God’s reign changes everything. We cannot go back to the old normal’ as it was unjust and limiting. We need to learn to be missional in every situation, in every location and at all times. Contextualisation is a key learning, and we need to learn how to do ministry with what we have and with the people we have in the locality we are in.

Reimagining church and mission will require us to be willing to let go of all that has held us locked in buildings, held down by traditions, and limited by poor theology. To witness to a society that is hurting, fearful and unsure requires us to be present, to love, to address the real questions people are asking and, in solidarity with one another, to point to the hope we have in Christ.

We are at a critical crossroads for church and mission.