The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust the world into uncertainty. Are restaurants open or closed? Will my school be online or in person? Now that there is a vaccine, will it work? Should I take it? When will it get to me? Yet from the United States to the United Arab Emirates (my current home) while circumstances change, mission doesn’t … or at least it shouldn’t.
A byproduct of Covid-19-related shutdowns around the world has meant that local churches have been forced to evaluate their essential mission. When programs stop and the church is limited in its ability even to meet together, what must continue? In their book What is the Mission of the Church?, Greg Gilbert and Kevin DeYoung offer this defining mission to local churches: “To . . . make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey his commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father.”
The Great Commission is the church’s mission. With this essential mission in mind, how did COVID affect the church’s mission outside of the United States this past year?
Greater Clarity in Mission
While we (like many churches) were providentially hindered from gathering for several months this year, COVID forced us to think carefully about the essential mission of the local church—what we must do versus what we could do. Despite being unable to gather, we still had the responsibility “to shepherd the flock of God among you” (1 Peter 5:2; Acts 20:28). And Paul’s command to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12) didn’t change even though much else did. We were still called to love one another even as Jesus loved us (John 13:34), and to “make supplication for the saints” (Ephesians 6:18).
The benefit of having clarity related to our mission ensured that we as a church didn’t fall into mission creep—or worse, mission failure—even as circumstances constantly changed around us. For me as a pastor, clarity in this way ensured I would have a biblical grid for measuring success during this unusual season when our church’s activities were pared down to only the essentials. Without a biblical definition of success, the church’s mission can change as quickly as the world’s value system.
While COVID was the major issue we all faced in the world this year, the political season was a unique challenge to the American church. But imagine living in a context in which you have no access to the political levers of power at all. While I am thankful for my rights as an American citizen, it was helpful this year in particular to be doing ministry in a place in which the church as the church suffers from no illusions that we will advance the church’s mission through the state. This was wonderfully freeing for me in particular this year as it drove me to greater dependence on the Lord to bring about his ends, not of fundamentally changing the way someone votes but rather who they worship.
While our identity as “aliens and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11) is the same no matter where we live, it was helpful to live in a political context where I know this reality deeply—in a way I wouldn’t if I lived in the United States. Such clarity has focused our church in the Middle East on faithfully doing the work of making disciples of King Jesus and leaving any other ripple effects beyond that in his sovereign and good hands.
More Opportunities for Prayer
Without question, one of the great benefits of COVID for our church was greater time together in prayer. With joy I think back on spending longer time with my elders praying—by name—for each member of our church. Each week, our church met on Zoom to pray for each other and for the work of the gospel in our region and around the world. How thankful we were that Zoom allowed us to easily hear from and meaningfully pray with our partners in the gospel in the region. For us, the upside of a lockdown and mandated curfews was that it forced all of us to be in our house at night, which allowed us to turn outward for meaningful engagement in prayer together. We prayed for God’s global work in a way that would not have been possible otherwise.
Of all the ways the Lord will surprise us in his all-wise purposes through this pandemic, I personally can’t wait to see how he used the prayers of his church during this season for the global advance of the gospel. And what a privilege it would be for any of us to have our church’s prayers used in the outworking of his great plans! Could it be that of the millions of reasons the Lord brought the world to a halt for a while this past year, one was that his church might simply recognize afresh our total dependence on our Lord and recommit ourselves to prayer?
Unexpected Doors Opened
Above all else, this year deepened in me the conviction that the gospel is not chained (2 Timothy 2:9). Numerous were the reports of opportunities to share the gospel (often on Zoom) with people it would not have been possible to do so with otherwise. In our own church, university students reported non-Christian friends joining Bible studies from the most surprising places. Our indigenous pastors and church planting partners in the region reported interest and engagement with the gospel in ways that they had not experienced previously. A few people who had been attending our own church as nominal Christians were able to carefully study the gospel with some of our members. A world full of canceled engagements meant people were able to slow down and really examine both their own lives and the claims of the gospel, and, by God’s grace, many were wonderfully converted. What a joy it was to see afresh that lockdowns do not stop our great God!
While some of our experiences as a church in the Middle East were unique to our circumstances and geography, I am sure others are not, because the church’s mission remains the same regardless of where she finds herself in the world. In spite of all the change that COVID brought this year, the risen Christ’s Great Commission to his church has not and will not change. He is Lord over pandemics and politics. And, for his church, mission creep is simply not an option.