By Lonnie Wilkey
FRANKLIN — “Flexible” has always been the watchword for mission volunteers no matter whether they were preparing for an international trip, a trip to another state or a mission project just down the road.
In a world turned upside down by the COVID-19 virus, the ability to be flexible and to adopt new approaches is more important than ever before, according to a group of mission leaders on a webinar — Missions in COVID Days — held July 7 and sponsored by the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.
The webinar was intended to help Tennessee Baptist churches find creative ways to be involved in missions while dealing with challenges caused by the pandemic, said Bill Choate, collegiate ministries director for the TBMB and host of the webinar.
Choate noted that normally during the summer mission teams would be busy throughout the United States and overseas, but that has not been the case in 2020.
Chris Mills, a church planter in New York City, usually would have a lot of teams at his disposal, but the state of New York has a travel ban with 16 states listed, including Tennessee, he observed.
“If you come from any of those states, you have to quarantine for 14 days before you can go anywhere in the city,” he said.
As a result, “we have had to be creative in how we are mobilizing teams,” said Mills, who is planting a church in midtown Manhattan. “It is not the traditional look of short-term mission trips,” he acknowledged.
The same travel restrictions hold true for Jason Bishop, a church planter in Germany. “Americans cannot come into Germany right now but that does not mean that we can’t be praying or doing virtual missions,” said Bishop, who has worked with Tennessee volunteers during the current partnership with the Tennessee Baptist Convention.
There are still ways to partner with churches, he added.
Beth Moore, a collegiate ministries specialist with the TBMB, agreed that the pandemic has caused both those who send volunteer teams and those who use volunteers to be more creative.
She has organized two virtual mission trips for students — one to Mills in New York and the other to Bishop in Germany.
Both “trips” utilized Zoom technology. “It was a great way to keep missions before the students and to cast a vision for when we can travel,” Moore said.
Moore observed that students have participated on the Zoom trips who have never been on a mission trip before. “This has allowed an opportunity for them to test the waters for something they are uncertain about and to interact and connect with our missionaries,” she said.
Options in Tennessee
Joe Sorah, compassion ministries strategist for the TBMB, noted that though churches can’t go to other states or overseas, there are still opportunities in Tennessee.
“We might not say it, but it is as if we almost think we need to go out of state to do a mission trip. We do not think about staying in our own state, which is odd, because I annually get calls and e-mails of churches from other states with individuals wanting to come to Tennessee.
“Lots of people love to come to Tennessee for their missions experience. But this year was different. Many of those who annually come were not able. Their absence left a big void in many of our ministries,” Sorah noted.
He noted that there are ministry centers in associations that could use teams as well as City Reach projects that are unfilled.
“There are challenges to be sure to do missions in this climate, but opportunities are there for those seeking to be on mission. I would encourage those who are interested to call their local association and ministry centers to see how they might serve in your local area. You might get surprised with how quickly you are put to work and utilized more than you could ever imagine,” Sorah said.
Praying for missions
Though not everyone can go on a mission trip, everyone can pray and that is the key component of any mission trip, the webinar panelists agreed.
The coronavirus “has become the great equalizer,” Hood said.
The things that Christians have put church planters and missionaries on a pedestal for dealing with every day — like being away from their families and not being able to go out to eat — have now become the norm for most Americans in some shape or form, he noted.
As a result, the virus has helped people pray from a different perspective, Hood continued. “When we deal with our own stress and isolation and fear and frustration of all that is happening in our culture and society in our world today, it makes us pray differently.
“I think the Lord is stirring up the hearts of His people to be desperate and, therefore, to pray desperately,” he affirmed.
One thing that is really apparent because of the pandemic is that people are lonely, the panelists agreed.
The panelists encourage talking to folks they encounter while doing life, whether it be in the grocery stores or walking in the neighborhood. “Anybody can have a conversation,” Bishop said.
Moore noted that Jesus set the example by having conversations with people.
“I want to instill in our students the importance of returning to the basics and the simplicity that we see in Jesus’ ministry,” she said.
“It really is as simple as loving our neighbors, listening to their stories and offering them hope and company when they are lonely,” Moore added.
Sorah agreed. “People are looking for relationships. If you will look around, you will find your neighbors are getting out of their homes, sitting in their driveways, and taking walks on the neighborhood streets,” he observed.
“Ministry opportunities are just outside your front door. Gospel conversations are natural conversations as people are looking for some hope in this unprecedented time. We only have to go outside our front doors, put a smile on our faces, and say, ‘hello,’ ” Sorah said.
Anyone interested in help with virtual missions or would like to connect with mission partners in Germany or New York City can contact Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 615-371-2056. B&R