Covid-19 & Global Missions
By Timothy Liu
Recently, a few friends and partners in ministry have asked me about the implications and impact of Covid-19 on global missions. At this point in speaking [4 June 2020], we have passed the 7 million mark on cases with more than 400,000 deaths. In comparison, SARS took only 8,098 deaths globally in 2003. For first time in history, crude oil went negative briefly and dropped from US$65 per barrel to US$15 per barrel. DOW Jones fell from 29,500 points to 19,000 before recovering to around 25,000, losing about 40 per cent market capitalisation before rebound.
With the closing of Wuhan, the industrial hub of China, and lockdowns in many other cities due to the pandemic, some are expecting this to be worse than the 2008 fallout. So, what has this got to do with global missions and ministry moving forward? What might be some fundamental shifts across the globe? How does the work of the gospel continue in this new global reality?
I cannot help but keep hearing the words of Revelation 18, especially 10b-13 (NIV):
“Woe! Woe to you, great city, you mighty city of Babylon! In one hour your doom has come!“
“The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore — cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and human beings sold as slaves.”
There is an eerie echo as one imagines walking through the empty streets, malls, airports and city centre. To answer some of the above questions, we must first segregate between the “what” and the “how”.
- What is the context of new realities and content of the gospel, which is going to be relevant post-Covid-19?
- How do we re-organise the missional and ministry initiatives and take advantage of opportunities presented to us?
Context of new realities
- New global supply chain will emerge as the lockdown in China has made many realise that we are too reliant on China for most spare parts, goods and services. Manufacturing in Europe and elsewhere are affected because parts are not forthcoming when China shuts down. Multi-national companies will diversify with strategies to place manufacturing plants or parts suppliers across the globe rather than put their eggs in essentially one mega basket. Re-ordering of global supply chain will bring greater diversification across the globe in terms of industries though they may be on a smaller scale compared to the mothership in China. Business continuity plans will be re-drawn.
- Globalisation will shift more towards regionalisation. Even as countries continue to pursue free trade agreements, the shift towards regionalisation will take greater dominance. There will also be greater impetus for each nation to look at self-sufficiency when it comes to essentials such as water, food and medical supplies. Some of this is driven by national interests. For example, a few countries who produce surgical masks, have issued orders to halt export during the pandemic in order to have sufficient supply internally, leaving some other countries in the lurch.
- Economic downturn is inevitable. All counties have already adjusted their gross domestic product (GDP) growth into the negative sector and many more are put out of work. If this is going to be worse than the 2008 Lehman Brother crisis, according to some predictions, then we may have yet to see the domino effect once corporations, banks or even governments are unable to fulfil their obligations on debts. Already, government are spending large reserves or using quantitative easing measures, resulting in much greater debt that could not be repaid for generations to come. The United States (US) non-partisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget released estimates on 13 April 2020 that the US debt will exceed the size of the economy this fiscal year ending 1 October 2020. We should also see a rise in unemployment figures in the coming year at least.
- The gig economy will continue to grow and permanent jobs, save those in essential services such as healthcare, will be reduced to keep a nimble workforce and costs low. This means many younger professionals and lower skilled workers may find themselves with more contract work and with less benefits such as social security, insurance and vacation benefits that are associated with permanent positions. Demand such as deliveries and online purchases will reach a new stable level that will be higher than pre-Covid-19 days. However, some elements of the gig economy, particularly those requiring sharing with others, will probably see a reduction as social distancing and an acute awareness of the disease spread, will be on the top of people’s minds.
- More will work from home post-Covid-19 as many realise that it is possible to work from home and still be effective with occasional face-to-face meetings. Businesses will also build in these mechanisms with greater time-saving from travelling to work. With IT enablement, costly real estate and footprints could possibly be reduced as more hot-desking and teleconferencing will become the main stay rather than occasional use.
- Repatriation of cross-border missionaries has not only started but settled as many missionaries have packed up and headed home as the pandemic spreads from China across the globe. Even as the lockdown eases up, it will be hard to get them back into the field again. Though that may be an unfortunate repercussion of the pandemic, it also presents an opportunity for indigenous believers to step up and take leadership. As one veteran missiologist has said to me, many missionaries err on the side of overstaying in the field to the detriment of the church, which they have helped to build. The indigenous group became over reliant on foreigners and their resources and never quite become part of the church leadership. More mentoring and support remotely in such cases can be a good thing to build the local movements.
- Fundraising for missions initiatives will be increasingly harder as cross- border missionaries retreat home and the economy gets harder for many people and businesses. Missions agencies and para-church movements which rely solely on donations, will also see a strain on resources with the possibility of closure. It is therefore imperative that new model of operations needs to be found in order to keep the work of the gospel moving forward. National and local churches which are used to relying on foreign sources of funding, need to look internally for alternatives. This may require breaking of some paradigms and sacred cows.
Content of the gospel
Of course, the content and the core message of the gospel do not change. Neither does the everlasting Trinitarian God. However, how the gospel is relevant in the context to the cultures of this world will change. The global church which needs to be faithful to the gospel, must continually contextualise in order for the unbelieving world to hear, see and experience the gospel in a manner, which is relevant and makes sense to them.
We all also assume that we know what the gospel is. Unfortunately, much of the modern evangelical church has been inundated with a Western evangelical gospel, which though well-meaning, has presented a fairly narrow view of what the gospel is. This Western evangelical gospel presents salvation as an escape from sin and the sinful world through faith in Jesus, awaiting an eternal spiritual heaven. Thus, the church’s existence is solely for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel and bringing every person to faith in Jesus Christ.
I contend that this is not the whole gospel but a narrow version as it forgets that Christ has commanded us to make disciples and not converts (Matthew 28:16-20). This means we learn to obey Christ’s teaching through every aspect of our daily life, be it work, family, community, society and the public square. Through Christ’s life, death and resurrection, He is reconciling all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven (Colossians 1:19). The gospel of reconciliation then is not only to reconcile people to Christ but also all that is fallen and marred by sin — the injustices, the broken systems of this world — through creation care, businesses, financial systems, product designs and services, education, policy-making and so on. God cares about all these! He is Lord of all these! We cannot ignore the power of the cross in restoring all these arenas to align them with the kingdom of God.
[Timothy Liu, 2018, What am I saved for?, https://outreachmagazine.com/features/evangelism/28476-workvocation-gospel.html]
The implication is far reaching when we understand that Christ intends to reconcile all things to Himself. The work of the gospel is not only proclaiming and bringing them to faith in Jesus but while we are doing that, to be part of the redemptive plan and post-Covid-19 can present new opportunities and transformation of the global missional initiatives.
Society of post-Covid-19
In the world which is post-postmodernism (also known as metamodernism, post-millennialism, pseudomodernism, trans-postmodernism), attempts are made to correct the pendulum swing of extremes between modernism and post-modernism. Tom Turner (one of the first people to coin the term “post-postmodernism”) view this as an attempt “to seek to temper reason with faith”. Post-modernism has given rise to greater scepticism of the unbridled optimism of the modern era post-WWII, where man’s ability to develop and solve world’s problems using technology and scientific advancements, has ceased to exist for the most part.
The present generation has a greater acceptance that this life and world are messy and will continue to be messy. The post-postmoderns seek meaning, purpose and fulfilment in life, more than previous generations. They hope to turn around all the “wrong” they see in the world. In addition to work-life balance, they also see community involvement as well as self-development. The Covid-19 pandemic further presents that we will never be quite prepared for what is to come, no matter how advanced in science and technology we become.
The gospel must therefore present an authenticity, which accepts the imperfect and messy world of today, just as Jesus’ world was centuries ago, where Christians are not perfect but are confessed sinners struggling to live a life faithful to Scriptures as wounded healers. The ultimate purpose and ending of this world are clear when Jesus said, there will be “wars and rumours of wars” (Matthew 24:6) and the Revelation 18 passage speaks of things getting worse before getting better.
The church must also embrace a social consciousness that has both the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel as Jesus did when He fed the masses after speaking to them in Mark 8:2-3. He said: “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance.”
The rally call for the church therefore, is to “ ‘Come out of her, my people,’ so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues; for her sins are piled up to heaven, and God has remembered her crimes.” (Revelation 18:4b-5) The problem why churches today are ineffective is because it resembles too much of the fallen world, so much so that the lives of Christians are no different than those of the world. The present-day presentation of the gospel from a Western evangelical perspective only echoes the hollow past of the modern era. What “sins are piled up” but it is that “the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries”.
It was reported a flagship Hermes International store in Guangzhou, China reportedly took in US$2.7 million on its first day of reopening after the coronavirus lockdown. It is a reminder of the days when Isaiah warned Israel, where there was worship with meaningless offerings for which the Lord detested and Israel was judged for thwarting justice by oppressing the poor, fatherless and widows (Isaiah 1:11-17). Many churches and leaders are basking in luxuries, be it explicitly or implicitly propagating prosperity gospels.
Covid-19 is a stark reminder that perhaps we really do not need all the nice things that we think we want. Being in lockdown mode has demonstrated for most middle- class families that we really need very little to survive. It has also exacerbated the plight of those who are poor and marginalised; and we realise how little they have to buffer a storm like this. Someone shared about a response of a lower income man when he heard the phrase about the pandemic that we are “all in the same boat” by retorting that “we may all be in the storm but not all of us are in the same boat”. Indeed, some are weathering a little better in our boats while others are leaking or sinking. We must therefore return to a life of simplicity.
The World Economic Forum has just released a report that 40 per cent (2 out of 5) job lost during Covid-19 will be permanent. [https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/05/42-of-jobs-lost-during-covid-19-may-not-come-back] We are still not sure how well government measures to prop up economies are working. We are already hearing of bankruptcy by a few airlines and major cuts in companies such as IBM and HP. Many companies are also closing due to cash flow issues. Will another financial crisis come after the pandemic? Are we seeing the bottom of the challenge?
- Social and community ministries
The gospel is all about being seen, felt and heard. Ministry is no longer just about proclaiming the gospel but being involved in social changes; distributive justice; and caring for the poor, sick and marginalised. It is so heartening to see churches stepping up to distribute food, house homeless and in general, reach out where we were previously too comfortable to do so in our little enclaves. We also see how para-church ministries such as those involved with migrant workers, have been effective because they have taken years before to build foundations of trust and friendships, for such a time as this. For example, pastor Samuel Gift Stephen is “brother” to many migrant workers as he makes daily visits to them in factory-converted dormitories [https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/from-one-brother-to-another].
With this new inspiration, we need to continue to engage purposefully and meaningfully in social ministries, integrating a holistic gospel into every facet, including for Christians who work in non-religious based companies and social services. By being genuine, real and authentic, we earn the right to be heard, and truly show Christ’s love to an unbelieving world.
- Churches as vocation centres
Churches, ministries and those who are in places of influence (business, professional, government leaders) can help towards job creation as well as help those who have lost jobs through job placement assistance and vocational training. We can demonstrate Christ’s love by supporting those who are struggling with daily necessities. For a small nation such as Singapore, matters such as food and medical supplies security will now be of greater priority. Local industries and supply chain ecosystems for business continuity planning will also be aggressively reassessed. Impetus to grow business, through Business as Missions initiatives for long-term ministry, mission and economic sustainability, makes more sense even now. Churches can bring together business, government and ministry leaders for greater collaboration and dialogue.
As the nature of work and how we work will also change, including greater “work from home” arrangements, there is also a need to guard and contextualise how these new arrangements will affect family dynamics, boundaries between family and work and the spiritual journey of believers. Practical help in childcare, counselling for work and family stress, mental health and marital support are new areas of ministry.
- Workplace and online ministries
Since large worship gatherings and massive evangelistic gathering may be limited, a decentralised strategy of having “church” in homes, factories, offices and online video chat rooms will be more of a norm than before. This is an opportunity to be serious about office fellowships or workplace ministry to continue to advance the kingdom. How Christians support fellow workers, and how Christian supervisors and bosses handle the crisis speaks volume as the unbelieving world continues to watch how believers behave and how the gospel is lived rather than preached.
Use of media such as broadcast, social, video, movies and music and patterns of use will also change. Since many churches have already learned about broadcasting Sunday services to replace physical gatherings, how then do we harness these new tools and skills we have acquired to advance the work of the gospel?
- Cross-border missions
Traditional cross-border missions will be limited as nations will probably restrict travel. Therefore, there is a need to focus on building indigenous leadership for local churches. Opportunities will then shift within borders for cross-cultural ministries amongst migrant professionals, labourers and domestic workers’ communities, so that they can be evangelised, trained and released back to their home nations when ready. I was very encouraged that over the past 10 years for one church, which has served migrant workers from a closed nation, was able to reach out, convert, disciple and release them back home. A few started businesses with savings earned and one became a pastor while running a business to support his own pastoral work.
- Tentmakers and itinerant business travellers are new champions of cross-border missions. They will be more welcomed as there is still a demand for a skilled global workforce. Regionalisation and realignment of supply chains will open doors for businesses. As nations and companies seek new opportunities for economic growth, new industries such as renewable energy, information systems, automation, robotics, new media and healthcare will accelerate. Developments such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative and other mega national projects will open doors for skilled professionals to cross borders.
Covid-19 will indeed bring unprecedented challenges and change many things moving forward. But so has many events in the past. Yet, there are also many things that will remain the same despite those changes. Ecclesiastes 1:9 teaches us: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” It therefore takes wisdom to discern what they are and to determine what can be allowed to change and what should not. It is easy to follow the crowd, and make a whole bunch of changes only to realise that we have altered that which should not be changed, and changed that which should not be altered.
Post-Covid-19 presents opportunities for which we must not miss. It is a wake-up call from God for His people to “Come out of her”, to return to an authentic faith in Jesus Christ, who cares for the “poor, sick, widowed and orphaned”, that they see, hear and feel the gospel through the proclamation and demonstration by the people of God.
(This is a talk given at an online webinar Post-Covid — Implications on Work, Family and Ministry, which was held on 4 June 2020 and co-organised by GCF Singapore and GCF Malaysia. Timothy Liu is the CEO of Dover Road Hospice and former president, GCF Singapore)