‘The world will never be the same again!’ Or so it was said when the COVID-19 pandemic got underway. A popular article in 2020 warned that this would not be a ‘blizzard’, nor even a ‘winter’ but a ‘little ice age’, with major implications for the long term.Also, Operation World published a report predicting a sobering impact of the COVID pandemic for global missions. The report anticipated significant changes to the sociocultural context, Christian testimony, church life, mission mobilisation and sending, and Christian media.
In all these areas, we certainly experienced ‘blizzards’ and perhaps ‘winters’, but what about a long-term ‘ice age’? As COVID is still active, a definitive answer is still premature, but I wonder if a ‘desert’ experience would be a better characterisation. Let us reflect on the present trends and what we have learned through the experience.
Loss of Life
Firstly, we need to acknowledge the tragic loss of life that has impacted families, mission organisations, and their partners. Bible colleges lost faculty members, churches lost pastors, and mission organisations lost staff. These losses have a long-term impact on ministry, and it may take years before organisations recover. However, the fear that whole communities in remote places without medical care would be wiped out did not materialise. Many people died—and each loss is tragic—but not to the extent that was predicted.
The pandemic has indeed had a significant impact on the economic situation of individuals, businesses, and countries. The most tragic examples came from countries where large numbers of day-labourers lost their source of income. In wealthier countries, it was the already disadvantaged segments of society that were most affected, but even large businesses faced major losses. Thanks to the resilience of entrepreneurs in the East and special government schemes in the West, far fewer businesses went bankrupt than expected, and many economies are slowly recovering.
Although mission organisations and churches have seen a slight drop in donations, bigger financial issues are related to inflation. By and large, most organisations are receiving sufficient donations to continue their ministries.
Setbacks and Progress
Ministries serving among the poor have seen major setbacks. Healthcare has diminished; children were deprived of schooling for several years and may never return to their classes; malnutrition has increased. It is predicted that an additional 75 to 95 million people worldwide will be living in extreme poverty, compared to pre-pandemic projections. In addition, relief and development agencies lost valuable staff because projects were put on hold and project income ceased.
A positive outcome of the pandemic is that it created a broader base for greener, more holistic, and sustainable development. The values of good health care and caring for the environment have grown in significance, and programs tend to be more collaborative and holistic than before. However, it will take years before the regression caused by the pandemic is resolved.
The pandemic had a negative impact on many people’s mental health. The experience of contracting and suffering from the virus itself, the fear of this unknown disease, isolation at home, lack of interpersonal contact, the unpredictability of rules, and uncertainty of the future all contributed to a surge in depression, burn-out, and other mental health challenges. Millions still suffer from fatigue and other debilitating symptoms grouped under the label of ‘Long COVID’.
For many mission workers it was difficult to leave their country of service without knowing when they could return. A sense of guilt was mingled with questions of calling and of one’s own usefulness within God’s mission. For workers who were able to stay, both continuing their ministry and finding ways to relax and socialise were challenging. For some mission workers, these increased tensions have resulted in long-term physical and mental challenges that still influence their functioning today.
The pandemic confined many expatriate staff in international organisations to their home countries. Even indigenous cross-cultural workers in places such as Indonesia experienced challenges in crossing provincial borders, and access to rural communities was limited. In many cases, such restrictions in travel caused major setbacks and discouragement; they also, however, made it possible for local staff to increase their involvement and leadership.
By now, pioneering ministries have seen the return of most of their expat staff to their country of assignment. However, other types of ministry report a decline in expat presence. A significant number of their staff were diverted into ministry within their home country while they were staying there during COVID. Others learned how to continue their expat ministry from their home country. Overall, COVID has decreased expat engagement and increased local ownership of programs.
Working from home became a new, lasting norm. Internet connectivity and online collaborative tools rapidly improved. At the same time, families struggled to combine schooling, family care, and work all from home, and those with limited connectivity fell further behind.
On the other hand, many mission staff already working from home welcomed improved internet connectivity and collaboration tools: a newly appointed CEO of an international mission organisation was able to build a diverse team whose members were dispersed throughout the world; a fundraising department learned to connect online with a much broader set of supporters; and a media and Scripture conference developed an online platform which enabled low-budget mission workers to participate from home. Working online, despite its downsides, has become well-established in the mission world.
COVID brought international and domestic travel to a standstill as borders closed. Its positive influence on the environment was noticeable and invigorated discussion of human impact on our world. Those who used to be frequent travellers appreciated the improvement in their lifestyle and wellbeing. When travel restarted, prices were elevated, and visa rules and regulations became very cumbersome. Yet travel may soon be back to pre-COVID levels.
In the mission world, we presently see a catch-up effect taking place. Many international teams and networks are delighted to be able to meet face-to-face again. But as the difficulty of getting visas increases for some colleagues from certain countries, and as meeting online is significantly cheaper and less environmentally damaging, mission leaders may not want to return to the pre-COVID amount of travel that was for them, more often than not, overwhelming. It remains to be seen if habits of less travel will indeed be established.
The Largest Long-term Implication
Some have called the pandemic the ‘big equaliser’. Others dispute this epithet, given the unequal effect it had on different races and income groups. Still, the pandemic challenged the common worldview that disasters only happen in developing countries. Italy was hit as badly as India, and North America had a higher death rate than many countries in Africa. The fact that rich people had to be as obedient to their governments as the poor was a shock to many. COVID dispelled the myth that everything can be controlled by money and Western management, a truth of which the Global South was already aware.
In the mission movement, COVID accelerated discussions about Western dominance. Programs that still operated with a ‘West to the rest’ mentality saw their impact significantly reduced, while programs that had embraced an ‘everywhere to everyone’ model saw themselves continuing and growing in local ownership. While it is hard to prove at this stage, there is a great likelihood that the pandemic has made what Jay Matenga calls ‘centring the local’ more of a reality than ever before.
Practical Steps to Engage with the Long-term Implications of COVID
God often brings growth through difficult times. Here are some ways we can reflect and build on our COVID experiences:
Acknowledge the pain: Take time to lament what has been lost—the people who died or are still suffering, the doors that closed, and the setbacks in ministry.
Localise: Celebrate the increase in ‘centring the local’. Affirm and continue to support increased local initiatives and national churches, partners, and colleagues who are taking the lead.
Prepare for the worst: Experts warn that a worldwide economic recession may happen and that another pandemic is likely. Make your ministry less dependent on external funding and people.
Capitalise on technology: Online tools make it possible to diversify teams and invite a wide diversity of attendees for meetings. Use technology to make your ministry more inclusive.
Acknowledge the pain: Care for creation: Build greater awareness among your staff of the impact of our behaviour (eg travel habits) on the environment and on the communities we serve; bring change to habits and practices.
Be sensitive to health needs:Support those with mental health concerns and long-term COVID-related health issues.
Plan cyclically: Most plans of organisations are linear (one to the next), while they should be cyclical (be prepared for ups and downs), with ability to make middle-term plans which are regularly reviewed, to be risk resilient.
Give praise: Besides taking time to lament, it is also good to count the blessings. Many ministries were able to continue by discovering new ways to work effectively and allowing local staff to take more ownership.
Lessons from the Desert
Rather than thinking of the COVID period as an ice age or snowstorm, think of it as a desert. When the Israelites ended their desert trial and crossed the Jordan into Canaan, Joshua had them erect stones of remembrance to mark what had happened and what they had learned.
We can choose to limit our learning to minor takeaways, or we can choose to use the pandemic to address some fundamental issues on how we approach missions. Let us not waste this valuable desert time and ask the Lord to guide us into the ‘post-COVID land’.
- Andy Crouch, Kurt Keilhacker, and Dave Blanchard, ‘Leading beyond the Blizzard: Why Every Organization Is Now a Startup,’ The Praxis Journal, March 20, 2020, https://journal.praxislabs.org/leading-beyond-the-blizzard-why-every-organization-is-now-a-startup-b7f32fb278ff.
- Jason Mandryk, Global Transmission, Global Mission, Operation World, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1136/postgradmedj-2020-139070 https://operationworld.org/publications/global-transmission-global-mission-free-ebook/.
- References were made to the Mexican Flu which wiped out large numbers of working-age people in some countries in 1918–1920. COVID-19 did increase the mortality rate by 19 percent, but the majority of those who died were over 65. See, for example: Liang Shu Ting, Lin Ting Liang, and Joseph M. Rosen, ‘COVID-19: A Comparison to the 1918 Influenza and How We Can Defeat It,’ Postgraduate Medical Journal 97, no. 1147 (May 2021): 273–74, https://doi.org/10.1136/postgradmedj-2020-139070.
- See, for example, this blog post which covers only the United States, but I have heard similar trends from other parts of the world: ‘Report Shows Donors Drop by 7% While Giving Amount Increases 6.2%,’ MinistryWatch, October 2022, https://ministrywatch.com/report-shows-donors-drop-by-7-while-giving-amount-increases-6-2/.
- It is recognised that the war in Ukraine is also influencing the increase in poverty. The numbers I quote here come from Daniel G. Mahler et. al, ‘Pandemic, Prices, and Poverty,’ World Bank Blogs, April 13, 2022, https://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/pandemic-prices-and-poverty.
- There is still a lot unknown about Long COVID, but there is a broad recognition that many people are affected by it. See, for example, ‘The Impact of COVID-19 on Mental Health Cannot Be Made Light Of,’ World Health Organisation, June 16, 2022, https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-mental-health-cannot-be-made-light-of.
- The International Civil Aviation Organization’s Aviation Report shows that, as of December 2022, domestic travel in many countries is nearly back to pre-pandemic levels while international travel is catching up. See ‘Effects on Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) on Civil Aviation: Economic Impact Analysis,’ International Civil Aviation Organization, January 27, 2023, https://www.icao.int/sustainability/Documents/Covid-19/ICAO_coronavirus_Econ_Impact.pdf.
- A researcher from the University of Ottawa points out, for example, that the large donations from southern countries to other southern countries challenged the existing patterns and expectations: Stephen Brown, ‘The Impact of COVID-19 on Development Assistance,’ International Journal 76, no. 1 (March 2021),
https://doi.org/10.1177/0020702020986888. It is similar to the observation the missiologist David Bosch made in his book Transforming Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011) that the two World Wars made Europe fall from its pedestal in the eyes of many Africans.
- As head of the World Evangelical Alliance Mission Commission, Jay Matenga is promoting a mission framework that puts the onus on the local, indigenous church. See his article titled ‘Centring the Local: the Indigenous Future of Missions,’ 2021, https://jaymatenga.com/pdfs/MatengaJ_CentringLocal.pdf.
- See, for example, the warning from the World Bank: ‘Risk of Global Recession in 2023 Rises amid Simultaneous Rate Hikes,’ World Bank, September 15, 2022, https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2022/09/15/risk-of-global-recession-in-2023-rises-amid-simultaneous-rate-hikes.
Kirst Rievan (pseudonym) and his wife are from Europe and have been living in Asia for over 20 years. Kirst provides leadership in Asia and the Pacific for a global, faith-based development organization. He considers himself a reflective practitioner, a fellow-learner, not an expert. Kirst has a doctorate in missiology from Biola University.