Extending Gospel Ministries and the Era of Social Distancing
Partners with the President with April Warfield
Every month, EFCA President Kevin Kompelien highlights stories, vision and leadership from around the EFCA in his monthly e-newsletter, "Partners with the President." This month, Kevin interviewed April Warfield, EFCA director of multicultural ministries, about her church ministering to their community during the era of social distancing. You can watch the full interview here.
With the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic’s spread into America occurring this month, it’s important we recognize the difficulty of the past year. There’s no other way to say it: It’s been hard. We’re more physically distant than we, as a people of God, ever have been in over a century. Close family and friends haven’t gathered together in months if not the entire year. People have suffered financial instability, food insecurity and the loss of loved ones due to the virus. While the church’s mission and work continue despite social distancing restrictions, I know deeper relationships with people in the community have been difficult to maintain or initiate. It would be easy to slide into despair and bemoan the past year. But, when you feel that urge, remember something: God doesn’t waste things.
In 2 Corinthians 1: 3-5, Paul writes: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.” Our Father knows our pain and has compassion. In trials and suffering, God comforts us and that comfort is so abundant that, in return, we can take it and pour it out on to others.
A time of preparation
Since God has met us in the midst of the trials and hardships of the last year, we have the opportunity to share the fruits of His comforts with those around us. While social distancing hinders deeper relationships, I believe we have been in a time of preparation, building up pre-evangelism wheat in the storehouses.
This past December, Becky and I went for a walk. A neighbor a few blocks from our house always has the best Christmas decorations. So, on our walk, we stopped, and Becky simply said to them, “You know, we always admired your Christmas decorations.” This small interaction has created an openness to engage in the infancy of friendship, even though we’re still social distancing. When the time comes, I’ll have a better opportunity to connect with them and find creative ways to share our lives and our Hope with them.
But, right now, we still need to be careful and social distance. The pandemic isn’t over yet, and I know my family is still doing its best to love our neighbors by limiting opportunities for the spread of this virus while still intentionally connecting with them in safe ways. I pray that my friends, neighbors and acquaintances see that this comes from our heart of love and care for them.
Of course, we’re all eager for life to go back to normal. With the vaccine being administered to the vulnerable now and plans of the entire population having access to the vaccine sometime in the summer, hope rises that the ice-cold grip of COVID-19 may thaw. When that happens, I pray relational evangelism will sprout; that we’ll use those connections to go deeper.
In Acts 8: 26-39, we see this kind of evangelism at work. An angel of the Lord told Philip to go on the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza. On his way, he saw an Ethiopian eunuch studying the Book of Isaiah. Philip spoke with the Ethiopian, saw a point of connection and helped explain the passage that the Ethiopian man read.
“This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:
‘He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.
The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:32-35, NIV).
Philip didn’t know the Ethiopian eunuch, but the Spirit led him to run up to the chariot anyway. His pre-evangelism point was the Book of Isaiah. Philip used that connection to go deeper with the man and tell him about Jesus. This has always been the power of the Church—the Spirit of God taking the Word of God to engage with the hearts of people in redemptive relationship with the people of God.
Similarly, we can use the pandemic as preparation to meet those people we served in the last year; those neighbors we waved to on our daily walks; those friends and family we haven’t seen in months. I’ve tilled the ground for a relationship with my neighbors. Free Churches across the nation have likewise done the same in their communities. Soon, the time will come when that fertile soil needs seed and water; rather than sitting back and waiting for the season to arrive, let’s plan ahead and be ready.
A teaching moment
This era of social distancing is a teaching moment for the Church. And, one of those lessons is this: evangelism is about people sharing with people. It’s always been that way. In Genesis, God made us interpersonal beings. He created us to have a relationship with Him and a relationship with each other. But also, in Ecclesiastes 3:11, it says He has placed eternity in the human heart. Our hearts long for more—for depth and breadth and width and height. Many try to fill that chasm with possessions, wealth, success and more, but it never satisfies, as Ecclesiastes also adds, “It’s all vanity.” As believers, we know Jesus is the only one that can fill that void in our hearts.
Yet, no matter the circumstances, there will always be a need to tell people about Jesus. So, in this era of social distancing, we have been forced to creatively find new ways to share the gospel in word and deed. That’s why I’m so thankful for the ministry of Free Churches over the last year. Not only did they show God’s love by social distancing, but they also sought and found the lost and the broken in healthy and safe ways.New City Church in Oakland, California drove around their neighborhood with two photographers, offering to take "Christmas Porch Portraits” for families outside, providing an opportunity to build relationships. I heard stories of Free Churches creating ice skating rinks for their neighborhood and Christians creating bon fires in winter and inviting neighbors over just for connection and community.
Recently, when temperatures dropped below freezing in Texas, knocking out power for millions of people, Free Churches stepped in to help. By God’s grace, Odessa Bible Church’s building never lost power, so they opened their doors to be a warming station. Hope Fellowship in Lake Jackson helped supply resources to 10 people in their church after their pipes froze and burst. Grace Bible Church in Laredo organized food distribution with another local ministry, giving out boxes of food, milk and other essentials. Despite limitations, Free Churches found ways to serve with the compassionate heart of God. He won’t waste it.
This month, I had the pleasure of speaking with April Warfield, the EFCA’s director of multicultural ministries. April has a true heart for people on the margins and building bridges between urban and suburban communities. During this era of social distancing, her church in California initiated a loving posture with a nearby urban church and found creative ways to minister to them. I invite you to watch our conversation and hear more about this story.
A new normal
We have an opportunity to use what God has provided to usher in a new season, a “new normal.” Before COVID-19, people were lonely but now that they’ve been stuck in their homes and not able to get out, they’re starving for relationships and community. The new normal I want to see is one where Christians and the Church deepen their commitment to intentionally serve others for the sake of the gospel.
As restrictions and recommendations on gatherings are lifted, as the silent halls of church buildings become filled with laughter and singing and talking, let’s use that new vigor for togetherness to invite people far and wide to join us. The Church should lead the way in celebration! How great it would be to see Free Churches organizing block parties, tail-gating parties and community events to bring people together. Those events could be the revival we need; in that moment of celebration, we can confidently tell others about Jesus.
The pandemic has been hard. It’s only natural to want to look back and wish for the ways things were before. It’s what we know, and it feels safe. But God comforted us during these trials. With such great love, we can now comfort the world with that same love and with the hope of the good news of Jesus Christ. When this trial is over, let’s not waste it. At the dawn, let’s use it for God's glory and tell people about His compassionate heart.