The global response to the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in countries tightening their borders and restricting overseas travel. Many have also implemented further lockdowns domestically, with business activities curtailed, schools, and even church services suspended. Against this backdrop, overseas missionary trips have ground to a halt. Conventional evangelism activities cannot be executed as we are unable to meet people and invite them to church. What does this mean for the great commission of our Lord to preach the gospel to the entire world?
IN SEASON AND OUT OF SEASON
“Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2). This is a reminder that the work of evangelism must continue under all circumstances. While current conditions have brought unanticipated challenges, we must have the correct mindset to remain ready to preach at all times.
He who observes the wind will not sow,
And he who regards the clouds will not reap. (Eccl 11:4)
In the morning sow your seed,
And in the evening do not withhold your hand;
For you do not know which will prosper,
Either this or that,
Or both alike will be good. (Eccl 11:6)
The above passages remind us how we should sow the seeds of the gospel (cf. Mk 4:3–8, 14–20; 1 Cor 3:6). It reinforces the message that the current global pandemic is not a time for us to stop the work of evangelism. Instead, we must find a way to continue this vital work without compromising the necessary precautions taken to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
THE GOSPEL CANNOT BE CHAINED
As we face the physical hindrances to our work of evangelism, it is useful to be reminded that the apostles’ ministry faced challenges similar in scope, but different in form. Travel and communications infrastructure were not as advanced in those days, and reaching out to a mass audience was not easy. They also faced constant persecution, dangers, and opposition throughout their ministry, as described by Paul:
Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. (2 Cor 11:25–27)
The apostles were often arrested and imprisoned. Nevertheless, the spread of the gospel continued despite these restrictions, with God’s intervention and the relentless dedication of the early church.
And they laid hands on them, and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. However, many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of men came to be about five thousand. (Acts 4:3–4)
At that time a great persecution arose against the church at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. …Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word. (Acts 8:1b, 4)
The two passages above give us a glimpse of the evangelistic mindset of the early church. Regardless of circumstance, challenge, or restriction, even in their flight from persecution, they resolutely preached the gospel wherever they went. Even while fearing for their safety, evangelism did not take a back seat.
And when the apostles’ movements were restricted through imprisonment, God intervened directly to open the way. He delivered them from prison so that they could continue their ministry (Acts 12:3–12; 16:23–36). In the case of Paul in Philippi, God’s intervention even paved the way for him to preach to and baptize the jailer and his family. Yet again, we witness the progress of the gospel even in the face of opposition and restriction.
During his house arrest in Rome, Paul could no longer travel to preach the gospel. It would be natural to assume that this would have finally locked down the spread of the gospel. After all, the preacher was now bound. However, the gospel itself was not bound, as shown in the passage below:
Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him. (Acts 28:30–31)
Not only did the gospel continue to be preached, but Paul also wrote his prison epistles during this time. And these epistles became part of the New Testament Scriptures. If his freedom had not been restricted, his time and energy might very well have been focused on traveling and preaching. If this had been the case, he would have been physically able only to reach a small audience within this limited timeframe. Instead, he completed these letters during this period, enabling the word of God to transcend space and time, reaching countless people over an indefinite period. Today, while we will never meet Paul physically, we continue to receive his preaching through his epistles. We also use the same Scriptures to preach to others. It is, therefore, fitting for Paul to acknowledge that, for the gospel, he suffered “as an evildoer, even to the point of chains; but the word of God is not chained” (2 Tim 2:8–9).
While the nature of restrictions faced by the early church differ from ours today, there are clear parallels we can draw. Hence, even with the limits imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the door of the gospel remains open. As long as we stay focused on evangelism, there will be avenues by which we can still preach the word.
TURNING CHALLENGES INTO OPPORTUNITIES
In the day of prosperity be joyful,
But in the day of adversity consider:
Surely God has appointed the one as well as the other. (Eccl 7:14a)
When life is smooth sailing, people busy themselves in their worldly pursuits, ever striving to acheive the next milestone, or indulging in the next pleasurable experience. Adversities usually trigger people to reflect on the more profound meaning and purpose of life, reminding them of the sobering reality of the fragility of life. As they grapple with future uncertainty, they may feel a sense of helplessness and anxiety, despite their worldly achievements.
In the work of evangelism, we often grapple with how to get the conversation started or how to keep it going. Times of adversity present an excellent opportunity for us to share our hope in Christ. When anxiety, doom, and gloom dominate conversations, we can seize the opportunity to present an alternative—that we can have peace that surpasses all understanding because Jesus has overcome the world (Phil 4:6–7; Jn 16:33).
The conversation may turn to the negative impact of the pandemic on the economy, which has gone from boom to bust within months, with businesses failing and individuals losing their livelihoods. We can then highlight the uncertainty of riches in this world, and how we should not build our trust in them but trust instead in the living God (1 Tim 6:17). Finally, we can conclude by encouraging them to lay up treasures in heaven rather than on earth (Mt 6:19–20).
The rapid spread of COVID-19 and sharp rise in COVID-related deaths, even in the most developed countries, highlight the fragility of life and powerlessness of man. But we can share the meaning of human life, its brevity, and the hope of eternal life. We can also share about God, who ultimately has power over life and death.
Surprisingly, the physical restriction of movement and large-scale gatherings has opened new opportunities for evangelism. With the church utilizing modern technology to livestream services over the internet, we are now able to invite our friends to join us virtually for worship. With many working from home and reducing their social activities, they may find themselves with more time on their hands, and be more inclined to accept our invitation. Family members who have yet to believe may also be more willing to join our regular online services, together with our church members who are tuning in. Even with restricted overseas travel, we can arrange to reach out to our pioneering areas over the web.
This period has already proven to be fruitful for our church around the world. Friends have accepted invitations to participate in online evangelistic services. Regular Bible studies are being held via video- and teleconferencing for interested friends seeking to understand the truth. And we are even facilitating cross-border Bible studies, where preachers from one country can teach their fellow citizens, who are working overseas as migrant workers, in their native language. In the absence of physical church services, God is still bestowing the Holy Spirit and moving truth-seekers to be baptized.
While not exhaustive, the above highlight how we can turn challenges into opportunities to preach. We can engage with the issues close to people’s hearts, and take advantage of the convenience and the avenues opened up by modern technology.
Finally, while it remains unclear how the pandemic will develop, and when it will be brought under control, the commission of the Lord to preach the gospel to the end of the earth remains a crucial pillar of our faith. For this reason, even as we respond to the points made above, let us also continue to pray “that God would open to us a door for the word” (Col 4:3).