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Keeping God’s Global Purpose Central in a Pandemic

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“Go and make disciples of all nations…” Familiar words. Words we conclude every gathering of our church quoting to one another. But wow, 2020 has not gone as we planned. Yet the commission hasn’t been rescinded because of COVID-19. Even with obstacles abounding, Jesus still summons us to the greatest commission known to man. But how? How can we stay faithful to the task before us even in a season like this?

First, I think taking a deep breath is in order. Just as the command to go and make disciples still stands, so does the bold declaration that all authority in heaven and on earth has been granted to Jesus. Matthew put no asterisk there for 2020. Jesus reigns over this year just as he did in 2019 and 419 AD, and just as he will in 2021. His mission to build his church will not fail. This assurance keeps us from panicking to get our churches back to Christ’s purpose. Faithful action, not frantic activity, needs to remain our focus. COVID cannot derail his purpose. 

“Go and make disciples of all nations…” Familiar words. Words we conclude every gathering of our church quoting to one another. But wow, 2020 has not gone as we planned. Yet the commission hasn’t been rescinded because of COVID-19. Even with obstacles abounding, Jesus still summons us to the greatest commission known to man. But how? How can we stay faithful to the task before us even in a season like this?

But the question remains: if we can’t engage like we have in the past, how do we make sure we don’t disengage from the mission altogether? Here are some possible avenues to explore to continue to keep the Great Commission front and center in your church’s hearts and minds.

  • Clarify the gospel and its global implications.

Maybe we need a congregational reset on the convictional values that drive global missions. For many churches, missions has established rhythms and routines throughout the year that can, if we’re not careful, gradually put us on autopilot as we move from one year to the next. The “how” can get divorced from the “why” behind it all. Maybe, by God’s wise providence, a slower pace opens up the needed space to be reacquainted with the convictions that constrain us to go to the nations.

One quote from a missionary to Nigeria in the early 1900s has gripped me recently. Her name was Mary Slessor and she lamented the draining effect liberalism had on missionary zeal in her day:

Where are the men? Are there no heroes in the making among us? No hearts beating high with the enthusiasm of the gospel? Men smile nowadays at the old-fashioned idea of sin and hell and broken law and a perishing world, but these ideas made men, men of purpose, of power, and achievement, and self-denying devotion to the highest ideals earth has known.[1]  

Men and women with hearts beating with the highest ideals—these are born of conviction. Is this the year we cease complacently smiling at truths that should burden us and summon us? Is this the year we stop being okay with letting the nations perish without Christ? What do our burdens reveal about what preoccupies us?

Truths like the infinite value of Jesus Christ to be worshipped by all the world, the stubborn plan of grace, the sobering reality of heaven and hell, and the singular hope for humanity in Jesus and in him alone, need to re-grip us. We need these convictional truths to bind us anew to this commission.

  • Intentionally disciple people to embrace the ethic of the cross.

A friend of mine recently had to have heart surgery because over time, somehow, his heart got out of rhythm. One treatment option was to reboot his heart into the right pulse through shock therapy. I wonder if COVID is an opportunity for a similar type of shock to our systems. I wonder if our hearts are out of rhythm with Jesus’s heart.

Philippians 2 outlines Jesus’ heartbeat: humility. He who existed in unparalleled glory as God considered us as more important than his own comfort. In his humility, he never stopped short of meeting our need as he obeyed as a servant, even to the point of death, even death in its most humiliating form—the cross. Seeing the cross, Jesus’s cross, rips the consumeristic rug right out from underneath us. His shocking display of humility should shock us out of our self-centered ways of living and into rhythm with his self-denial. But has the cross shocked us out of our self-preoccupation? 

 COVID has revealed a heart out of rhythm with Jesus’ in our churches. This was present before 2020, but COVID has helped us see it more clearly. This opportunity for intentional discipleship is unparalleled. The signs of this shift toward “what can the church do for me?” or “how can the church serve me?” are very apparent. Consider how volatile the issue of mask-wearing for corporate worship has become. Why is it so heated? Politics? Fear? Maybe. But if you dig deeper, I wonder if you don’t get down to a more fundamental problem: pride. We default to putting our own interests and comforts above other’s interests and comfort. We assume everyone should prefer our way, and if they don’t, something must be wrong with them. Anger and tension result.

This self-oriented ethical framework affects missions. If, in the refusal to wear a mask, we are struggling as a church to prefer other’s interests above our own, particularly those who may be more vulnerable among us, do we expect that a passion for preferring the needs of the nations above our own will thrive? The division over masks actually may have unmasked the underlying motives that hinder missions among us: selfishness. 

Even looking underneath the reasons for why some prefer livestream options for corporate worship, we are faced with this same ethical framework. “It’s more comfortable to stay at home,” it is said. Hmm. Does that not sound out of rhythm with the ethic of the cross? The assembly has become an audience. The church has drifted toward consumerism. No wonder we’ve drifted from the mission.

So, COVID has given us an unprecedented opportunity for loving, truth-telling discipleship that molds us to the cross. We need to help people see the cross in its pride-crushing force so that we become a people shaped by its upside-down ethic. What if we jumped at the opportunity to prioritize someone else’s comfort level above our own? That kind of church is poised for mission. That church’s heart would be in rhythm with the heart of Jesus. 

  • Employ technological avenues of engagement.

Our church partnered with some of our missionaries to host a “Virtual Mission Experience” that included prayer, tours of the city, hearing from a local pastor, and hearing about the status of the work among a least reached people group. This experience proved extremely beneficial to help people connect with the work overseas and to engage in prayer for the nations. It’s not the same as a short-term trip, but it was a win for everyone who participated. 

  • Engage with missionaries who have had to relocate for a season in America.

The world has gotten small. As we are narrowly confined to our communities and the ability to travel has been interrupted, it’s helpful to hear stories about how God has not taken his foot off the gas pedal for his global purpose. Missionaries have first-hand knowledge of how COVID, far from undermining the advancement of the gospel, has actually opened the door for the global church to get stronger. 

Have missionaries come to your staff meetings and share. Engage them in conversations with your church family. When the world feels small and narrow and our churches sense our inherent weakness, it’s good to see God flexing his might and spreading His glory.

  • Examine your own life in light of the Great Commission.

We often get focused on how “they” need to change, and we define “they” as everyone but us. But a passion for the Great Commission is both taught and caught. Are we ourselves wholeheartedly engaged in the work of the Great Commission? Who can we disciple today? To whom can we proclaim the gospel? For which least-reached people group are we yearning in prayer to hear the good news? Let us be doers of the Word and lead out in this effort. 

May our hearts beat with broad, gospel-shaped ambition, even in a season like this.

[1] As quoted in Paul Schlehlein, John G. Paton: Missionary to the Cannibals of the South Seas, p. 92.

Chip Bugnar lives with his wife and four kids in Birmingham, Alabama, and serves as the Global Pastor at The Church at Brook Hills. Before coming to Birmingham, he and his family served among Muslims in Central Asia for seven years.
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