New phenomena bring with them new language as we seek to describe what is going on around us. Coronavirus has been no different. We’ve seen unprecedented use of the word unprecedented, no one is sure when ‘the new normal’ just becomes ‘normal’, and we have all become familiar with terms including self-isolating, social distancing and furloughing. As an evangelist and church leader, I have been especially reflecting on one recent addition to our vocabulary: The R number.

The reproductive number ( R ) is, according to the Government’s website, the average number of secondary infections produced by a single infected person. It is basically a measurement of how contagious a society is. An R number of 1 means that on average for every infected person there will be one transmission. At 1 the virus transmission rate is stable. If it rises above 1, the epidemic grows. This is why the world has been fighting, using social distancing measures, to keep the number below 1, thus reducing the growth rate.

As someone who is desperate to see my community and the whole of the UK come to know Jesus, I have been asking two questions: What is the R number of the church? and, What can we do to increase it?

Globally, the church’s R number is greater than 1, with a growth to an estimated three billion followers of Jesus by 2050. But as I talk with leaders across the UK and reflect on my own leadership, I am certain there is more we can be doing to increase the contagiousness’ of our churches and those in our communities of believers. Moreover, these are questions that really matter and should continually be at the forefront of our thinking.

So, if we are trying to transmit the most contagious message of hope the world has ever known, what might we learn from the way governments have tried to contain coronavirus? In missional terms, how do we reverse social distancing to unleash spiritual contagiousness? Here are a few suggestions for our time.

Decrease social distancing

This is not a call to break the law. Physical distancing is incredibly important. But a critical factor in increasing the church’s R number is that we all need to grow our friendships with people who need to know Jesus. The good news is that with the relational God living within us, Christians should be the best friends in the world. As a church we could do more to release people and encourage deep, meaningful and significant relationships with those who are yet to make a commitment to Jesus.

Release, empower and listen to the super-spreaders

When it comes to the transmission of diseases, apparently not everyone is equally infectious. So it is with faith. Ephesians 4:11 speaks of the gift of the evangelist to the church. These are the super spreaders of the faith. Their personal R number is higher than usual. In church services, they are continually concerned about those who are there who don’t know Jesus. In church meetings, they are the annoying ones who ask what we are doing to reach out. But when you run a guest service, Alpha or Christianity Explored, they will be the ones who invite their friends. As the church, we could be better at releasing, empowering and listening to the super-spreaders and inviting them to be part of the leadership conversations. We need them to infect us all with some of their passion and help us lead and increase our corporate R number.

Increase everyone’s contagiousness

Whilst we are not all super-spreaders, we could all be more contagious. Continuing the biological theme, though with slightly more biblical language: we are a body, with different parts to play. Although there are some parts of the body that spread viruses faster than others (which is why facemasks and hand gel are recommended), the whole body is a host and each cell is capable of transmission. In the same way, every Christian has the Spirit of God within them and has the potential to play a significant part in leading someone else to Jesus. As a church, we could all do better at helping everyone in our faith communities pray for non-believing friends, live more contagious lives and share their unique Jesus-shaped story.

We should all care about the R number of the church. The lower it is, the less people discover the hope, love and life we have in Jesus. The higher it is, the greater the transformation of our society. Put excitedly, explosive growth in the church’s R number will be a significant factor in the prayed for and hoped for R word’, revival. I don’t know about you, but I’m praying for Jesus to be the talk of every town, for church buildings not big enough for the surge of people returning to worship, and for contagious communities bursting with good news. I’m praying that this is the unprecedented new normal.

"Every Christian has the Spirit of God within them and has the potential to play a significant part in leading someone else to Jesus."

Phil Knox is the head of mission to young adults at the Evangelical Alliance. He lives to see people come to know Jesus and Christians inspired and equipped to share their faith. His book Story Bearer will help you share your faith and increase the R number’ in your church. Find out more at www​.sto​ry​bear​er​.com