First, the pandemic forced Christian missionaries home. Then, it transformed their work
Mission experts believe the COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact on the way Christian groups do missionary work
In a typical year, the Rev. Chad Keck flies thousands of miles to share his faith with others. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic left him looking for mission opportunities down the street.
He went from meeting with persecuted pastors in southeast Asia and visiting a church plant in Peru to grocery shopping for quarantined neighbors and helping with a meal program for kids in local schools.
At first, the Rev. Keck, who is senior pastor of First Baptist Kettering in Kettering, Ohio, struggled with the transition. He longed to continue meeting with and caring for people overseas.
But, gradually, he came to feel grateful for the extra time at home and to expand his understanding of what mission work can be.
“There was a shift from thinking God’s calling me to go to God wants me to be here,” the Rev. Keck said.
Over the past year, missionaries from a variety of religious groups have gone through similar transitions and learned to roll with dozens of unexpected changes in plans.
Many had to cut their missions short or cancel them altogether. All had to rethink how they could share their faith with the world.
The pandemic “shifted the needs” of many communities, said Ed Stetzer, dean of the School of Mission, Ministry and Leadership at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. “I think missionaries around the world stepped up to that.”
As COVID-19 vaccines gradually make traditional mission work possible again, Stetzer and other mission experts hope faith groups won’t forget the lessons of the past year. They’d like missionaries to continue finding new ways to use technology in their work and address inequalities the pandemic exposed.
“It would be a missed opportunity to go through all this turmoil and go back to what we were doing before in the exact same way,” said Gina Zurlo, co-director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Mission work has been part of the Christian tradition from its origins. Jesus ensured it would be when he told his disciples to pack their things and go, the Rev. Keck said.
“Mission is really the heartbeat of the church. It’s taking the gospel to places and people that have never heard it and serving and loving them and trying to meet their needs,” he said.
Most churches participate in several types of mission work each year, coordinating local service projects, short-term volunteer trips and longer-term missionary assignments at the same time.
For example, in non-pandemic years, First Baptist Kettering typically organizes a trip to a church it planted in Peru, offers financial support to long-term missionaries in Africa and tries to respond to as many other calls for help as possible, the Rev. Keck said.
“I spend maybe 3 to 4 weeks each year overseas somewhere,” he said.
Although COVID-19 did not affect all missions equally, it left no variety untouched. Churches and missionaries had to rapidly respond to stay-at-home orders, heightened health risks and new travel rules, said David W. Scott, director of mission theology for the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Global Ministries.
“Some people decided to wrap up their service early. Others had been home on visits and got stuck in the U.S. for a little bit before they could return” to the field, he said.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recalled thousands of missionaries serving around the world in the spring of 2020 and gave many people new assignments closer to home. It also temporarily closed missionary training centers, instructing new missionaries to complete their training online.
“These are challenging times for our worldwide missionary service,” said Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, who is a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and chairman of the church’s Missionary Executive Committee, during a devotional in August 2020, according to the Church News.
The pandemic was especially disruptive to shorter term mission work, Scott said. Well-established missionaries were often able to remain in place and spearhead new pandemic-related projects, but many others, including most youth group leaders, had to totally abandon their original plans.
“All of the stories I heard about short-term trips involved them being canceled,” he said.
Many of COVID-19’s negative impacts on missionaries will dissipate as the pandemic draws to an end. However, new concerns about medical resources and lingering restrictions on travel will affect missions for years to come, religion experts said.
“It’s going to be some time before people can freely move” around the world again, Scott said.
Before the pandemic, the world of mission work was growing more and more diverse. As churches in the U.S. and Europe dealt with declining membership and drops in financial support, faith groups in other countries ramped up their evangelism efforts, Zurlo said.
“There’s been a trend of declining missionary sending from Western Europe and an increase in missionary sending from the Global South and, in particular, from Brazil, Nigeria, China and South Korea,” she said.
Now, the pandemic threatens to derail that trend and rob people from some nations of opportunities to both become missionaries and be visited by them, Zurlo added.
“Given how the pandemic has unfolded in Brazil and the sorts of restrictions Europe has placed on travelers, what does that do to a Brazilian-based mission organization?” she said.
It’s also still up for debate here in the U.S. whether churches should send missionaries to countries running short on vaccines, Zurlo said.
“A lot of short-term missions from the U.S. are to Central America. But Mexico, for example, is really struggling with vaccine distribution. Are Americans going to go to Mexico to serve unvaccinated people?” she said.
Mission work has always required a high tolerance for risk, since missionaries often go to regions with unstable political leadership or few health resources or both. But the pandemic made those risks more visible to people, and it could potentially impact future interest in serving overseas, Stetzer said.
“If a missionary is diagnosed with cancer, they’ll almost always come home for treatment. If they’re diagnosed with COVID-19, they aren’t coming home. That raises the potential risk,” he said.
However, mission experts believe the pandemic will also lead to some positive developments in both the short and long term. Most notably, moving forward, churches and individual missionaries will be more willing to use technology to enhance how they do their work.
“The pandemic’s pushed us forward in the area of technology much faster than we would have gotten there without it,” the Rev. Keck said.
Like many congregations, First Baptist Kettering expanded its online offerings soon after the COVID-19 pandemic began. It started streaming worship services and Bible studies in hopes of keeping church members connected during an isolating time.
By tracking participation in these virtual events, the Rev. Keck realized his church’s online services were attracting attendees from around the world. He began to see that livestreams, like traditional mission trips, were a way to share his faith and serve people.
“We can do something in our worship center and livestream it and have the church in Peru watch. It’s amazing,” the Rev. Keck said.
Some churches took this kind of virtual outreach to the next level and moved entire mission trips online, Scott said. They traded plans to go somewhere and build a house or lead an after-school program for time spent getting to know Christians in other parts of the world.
“A lot of times with short-term missions, the focus is on building a school or digging a well or some other project. There’s less focus on building relationships,” he said. “Virtual mission trips remove that project focus and opens up more space for relationship-building”
Scott hopes churches will remain open to virtual mission trips, or at least virtual dialogue with other Christians, after the pandemic ends.
Similarly, Elder Uchtdorf of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has urged missionaries not to think of online activities as merely a temporary solution.
“Learn, add and adapt technological advances,” he said during a February devotional. And when the threat of COVID-19 has passed, “don’t just go back to the old ways. Go back to the future.”
Like Elder Uchtdorf, Urlo hopes mission work will be forever changed by the pandemic. It opened many people’s eyes to the value of trying new things, she said.
COVID-19 also exposed the depth of many of the world’s problems, she added, citing growing concern over sex trafficking, forced migration and public health. Moving forward, missionaries should continue to be flexible and adjust their plans in response to new needs that arise.
“There’s an opportunity for churches to have integral, holistic ministries and serve the mind, body and spirit,” Zurlo said.
There’s also an opportunity for churches to continue to do more local mission work, the Rev. Keck said. His involvement in pandemic-related food programs and grocery store trips reminded him of the value of bringing a mission mindset to his regular routines.
After all, Jesus didn’t only talk about taking the gospel on the road, the Rev. Keck said. He also called on people to care for anyone in need.
“I’m supposed to go to places where they don’t have access to the gospel and places where there is need. And I’m also supposed to love and share with and be a light and salt to people right in my own neighborhood,” he said.