Contemporary models of Christian missions have been tested by the unprecedented conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic. In recent months the realities of social distancing, travel restrictions, increased government tracking, and economic decline have challenged the way missionaries, sending agencies, and receiving ministries conduct “business.” While a sense of frustration is warranted, this pandemic offers an opportunity to critically evaluate both our concepts and practices of missions.
A self-reflective discussion on missions is particularly urgent within the Middle Eastern context. The region presents considerable challenges stifling or preventing missions work from taking place across settings, but 2020 is seemingly opening a new chapter of the story. To explore the current context of global missions and the need for a renewed apostolic imagination, Wes Watkins, Kamel Shalhoub, and Pam Arlund gathered during the fourth webinar in the Middle East Conversations 2020 series on 17 September: Rethinking Missions During Pandemic: Considerations from the Middle East.
Wes Watkins, faculty member of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, in his keynote presentation argues that the term “missions” needs to be rethought- it can carry loaded meaning and inject language and metaphors that are often confrontational rather than biblical. Having this scrutiny in mind, Wes proposes that a “apostolic” sense be included in the conceptualization of mission. The apostolic entails disciple-making endeavors seen in the New Testament Church, including witness, preaching, teaching, and building up local churches in places where there is little access to the gospel.
Wes then proposes the concept of an “apostolic imagination,” which involves the dynamic of extending witness to new peoples and innovating how it happens. He contends that this is a matter of urgency in the Middle East and North Africa region, one of the least-reached contexts in the world. But what can be made of an apostolic imagination amid this unprecedented time of pandemic?
Wes argues that an apostolic imagination stirs the Church to action- an example which can be seen in the response of West African churches during the 2014 Ebola epidemic. Scripture shows that witness accelerates in times of crisis, but this requires a robust theology of suffering and compassion. An apostolic imagination will also contribute to apostolic innovation. A picture of such innovation can be seen in the immortal jellyfish, which, when threatened, has the ability to undergo reverse metamorphosis to a larvae state and reproduce in a way that maintains its exact DNA, thus making it immortal! This fascinating creature provides a metaphor for the Church as it maintains identity during change and demonstrates strength through adaptability. Wes then argues that an apostolic imagination encourages “polycentric” approaches where missions is decentralized while operating within vibrant dynamics of collaboration, partnership, and localized leadership. These are trends that have gained steam during the pandemic. The value of co-vocational and non-paid leaders is also being demonstrated as the financial impacts of the global pandemic continue to play out.
Wes wraps up his keynote presentation by reminding us how biblical faith is about being part of a movement that emerged in first-century Palestine and continues to the current day. An apostolic imagination illuminates the ways believers are part of this movement of God, or motus Dei, and it magnifies the truth that the movement cannot be disrupted by a pandemic. An apostolic collaboration between seminaries, local churches, and sending structures can also contribute to the fruitful advance of this movement. In fact, the reverse metamorphosis that many global ministries have had to go through this year may prove highly strategic for increasing witness, especially in the Middle Eastern and North African context.
Kamel Shalhoub, Middle Eastern and North African Regional Director for The Navigators, begins his regional response with a reminder that the conditions of the pandemic, though difficult, are not unprecedented in the history of missions; the Apostle Paul spent 10 of his 32 years of ministry in prison lockdown, but this did not halt his missionary effectiveness. He describes how the pandemic has altered the Navigator ministry and opened new opportunities to serve physical as well as spiritual needs. Kamel challenges the Church to embrace an apostolic extending that seeks to do missions within borders as well as across borders to areas not yet accessed. One example of the polycentric models for mission, Navigators recently launched two mission schools in North Africa starting during the pandemic in an online format. The apostolic collaboration is likewise affirmed as Kamel stresses the need for unity since, as stated in the Lausanne Covenant motto, “World Evangelization requires the whole Church to take the whole Gospel to the whole world.” He wraps up with a reminder that the Holy Spirit guides us to rethink missions in the vibrant disciple-making strategy of Jesus. There is no plan B!
In the global response, Pam Arlund, Global Training and Research Leader at All Nations International, challenges us with a thought experiment: think of the worst possible future imaginable, where everything we know and all that we are a part of collapses, and ask yourself, “would the gospel still advance?” Just as we can trust in Jesus’s faithfulness in such a scenario, we can trust that the gospel is advancing now. Pam proposes the idea of a Holy Innovation, or “brainstorming with Holy Spirit,” as a way of articulating a response to the many unexpected and devastating challenges this world serves us. Her recommendations for missions outreach in this time of pandemic include addressing the heightened need for practical provisions while serving spiritual needs, engaging in trauma care, and investing in leader multiplication in ways that recognizes the important role women and children have to play in the Great Commission. Holy innovation should not be seen as antagonistic to seminaries or Bible colleges, but Pam believes it can help enhance the development of missional activities to “equip the saints for all the works of service that are needed.” (Ephesians 4:12)
The webinar concludes with a panel discussion further exploring global missions and the implications for this time of pandemic. Questions probe the topic of movements and contrast the way churches commonly operate now with the way disciples are multiplied in movements. The term “missions” is given further scrutiny as alternative language is proposed to better capture the biblical concepts and activity of extending gospel witness. Not surprisingly, the topic of money and finances is also given attention. The discussion touches on other interesting points, and the panelists provide insightful ideas, recommendations, and testimonies to help us rethink missions in ways that affirm the steadfastness of the gospel of Jesus Christ in all situations.
This Middle East Conversations 2020 webinar seeks to ask questions and consider ideas with the aim of recognizing challenges and identifying opportunities for faithful witness. Watch the webinar and continue the conversation facilitated by Wes, Kamel and Pam, and keep the discussion going by sharing questions and thoughts in the comments section below.