New Normal – A Mission Prespective

The Context

We are torn between our expectation of the imminent end of the pandemic and the dismay over the news of yet another mutated variant of the virus having emerged. Some dished out false hopes that the virus would be eliminated once people are vaccinated. When it did not turn out as expected many reconciled themselves to the inevitability of having to live with the virus, accepting the scenario as the new normal. Does this mean conceding defeat or waiting it out till the situation resolves naturally? This attitude is more harmful than trying to do something in the face of adverse circumstances even though we may later realize it could have been done differently.

A Biblical Parallel

After the king of Judah, his officials, the elites and skilled people were carried away as prisoners to Babylon, Hananiah, a false prophet predicted the return of all these people within two years (Jer.28:1-4). Whereas Jeremiah, a prophet of integrity, faithful to God and his people, said he too would be exceedingly happy if Hananiah’s prophecy were to come true. Jeremiah prophesied an exile of not less than seventy years. Understandably Hananiah’s prophecy was what people wanted to hear and he readily played to the gallery. Jeremiah’s prophecy, true to God’s revelation, must have been very unpalatable to the people. He wrote a letter to the exiles urging them to reconcile themselves to a long period of exile which would be their ‘New Normal’. Going by Jeremiah’s prophecy most of the exiles would never be able to return to the land of their fathers before they died. A newborn infant would be seventy years old by that time. Hence the preservation of the race, their religions and their socio-cultural identities would only be possible if they accepted their exile as their new normal and continued with their lives in a cultural, social and religious milieu alien to their own.

Impact on Missions

The pandemic threw up both challenges and opportunities for missions. Indigenously funded mission organisations, especially the smaller ones ran out of money to pay salaries to their staff. Pastors with small congregations were finding it difficult to sustain themselves with church services suspended for months on end. Those mission agencies that were not hard-pressed for money had no clue as to how the ministry could be carried on when camps and gatherings could no longer be organised. Ministry itself was kept in abeyance with leaders looking forward to the eradication of the virus and restoration of the situation before the pandemic. They waited for it to be ‘Business as usual’ rather than preparing themselves to face the new normal. Except for the extensive use of the digital video conferencing platforms in formats not different from physical meetings and gatherings nothing critically significant was done. Obviously, these did not have the same impact as physical, in-person meetings. This is not to say these were futile for these virtual meetings were the best alternative to physical, in-person ones. What I rue is the failure to formulate strategies and programmes specific to the New Normal. These need not be completely different from time tested strategies based on God-given values, attitudes and concepts. Much of what is needed relates to the restoration of basic but crucial principles for the lasting impact which has been sacrificed on the altar of short term gains. In this connection, I would like to suggest certain areas of our lives and ministry that need to be recalibrated in the context of the New Normal that cannot be just wished away. These are from a missions perspective but could also be applied to ministry among students

A) Shift from a resource centered and programme centered strategy to a people-centered strategy

In Luke chapter 10 when Jesus sent out his disciples, they were asked to go with the bare minimum of resources. Their dependence was to be on God who endowed them with power and authority and on the people they were going to minister to for stay and food. Our pioneering missionaries to various people groups walked to villages, preached the good news and stayed in the house of anyone ready to host them, eating whatever was served. Now that roads are well laid out and missionaries are provided motorbikes and funds made available for projects and programmes, the focus has shifted from people. In my first place of posting in a mission field, my colleagues and I had bicycles on which we would load our harmonium, dholak and literature and go out to villages in the evening, have dinner in the house of the one who had invited us to do a Satsang which would go on until the wee hours of the next day morning. It cost us nothing and it endeared us to the people for whom hosting us was a privilege even when they had not become believers

Excessive dependence on material resources rather than on God leads to erosion of spiritual power and authority. F.F. Bruce in his, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), pp 77, 78 referring to the healing of a cripple by Peter and John in Acts3:4-6, quotes an incident in which Thomas Aquinas once called on Pope Innocent II when the latter was counting out a large sum of money. “You see Thomas”, said the Pope, “the church can no longer say, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’” “True Holy Father,” was the reply, “neither can she now say,” Rise up and walk.’”

B) Shift from a patronising model to an equipping, empowering and entrusting model

It is human nature to be possessive and protective of our congregations and the ministry in general. We may have genuine apprehensions that the ministry would suffer a setback should we take our hands-off. The reason for this patronising attitude is that we have failed to equip our congregations, empower them to steward the ministry, personally share the faith among the neighbouring communities and in the process entrusting the ministry completely to them. We need to be prepared to let go and thus let them grow. Today it is Covid 19 but tomorrow it could be something else that could bar our access to our congregations and believers. We need to adopt Paul’s model of ministering. He formed and planted churches, taught them, stayed with them for several days or months and sometimes for a couple of years. When away from them he would engage with them through his letters periodically. He appointed, empowered elders and overseers and kept moving on to new avenues. This resulted in robust congregations that were equipped not only to self-manage but also to self-propagate.

C) Shift to a spirituality that translates into kingdom values, attitudes and behaviour that those outside the church can perceive

The shift in Christian spirituality has been unfortunately more towards what we do inside the church building. The mission field congregations are not an exception to this. This reduces our spirituality to an esoteric experience that means nothing much to those outside. When the identity of Christians as perceived by those outside the church is limited to external forms like the way they greet one another, the names they give to their children, the way they celebrate their weddings, the way they dispose of their dead, the way they worship, the songs they sing and does not relate to the way they live their lives in terms of concern for the poor, integrity in all areas of life, readiness to help those in need, willingness to forgive others, refraining from using swear words, keeping away from addictions, the church stops growing and impacting its neighbourhood. The church needs to be systematically taught from the Word and trained to live it out in everyday life. “….let your light shine before men that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matt.6:5)

Sudarshan and his wife Lydia serve with FMPB in the areas of church planting and Bible translation. Having completed a five year term as General Secretary, he along with Lydia and their daughter Mahima will be returning in the next few months to Haryana where they had ministered earlier.”

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