A few weeks ago I was clearing through the house I grew up in. The loft contains relics from my childhood: 1990s football annuals, old Lego figures and some surprisingly good school reports. And then my 8-year-old son, Caleb, happened across my old Game Boy.
Waves of nostalgia crashed over me as I felt its well-worn buttons and saw my own aging reflection in the screen that had held my eyes for hours on end. In response to the inevitable questions that followed, I tried to describe to Caleb a world in which video games were played on colourless, 8-bit, battery powered entertainment systems.
The pace of change is relentless. It doesn't feel that long ago that I was one of thousands carrying my Nintendo handheld console out of an Argos store. I'm not sure any 10-year-olds got one for Christmas last year. In almost every field and industry, what was effective just decades ago has been superseded by fresh creativity, and the latest innovation is just around the corner.
Which made me think about mission.
Pandemics fast forward historical processes. Coronavirus has only accelerated the breakneck speed of our world. In the eye of the storm, the church has done an astonishing job; creating community, caring for the vulnerable and reimagining itself online. However, one of the challenges we face now and in the years ahead, is how we reimagine mission for a world that has pressed fast forward on the remote control of history.
Where do we grow from here? What will effective mission look like in the years ahead? Here are two things that are changing, two things that are the same and two questions we need to consider as we innovate our way forward.
The landscape of spiritual belief is a complex terrain of shifting tectonic plates. Within it there are some reasons to be encouraged and others to stretch our missional imaginations. Younger generations are less likely to believe that Britain is a Christian country and the 25- to 39-year-old bracket is the least likely to believe in a God or higher power.
Our relationships are also changing. Social distancing has dramatically changed the nature and frequency of moments of contact with others. Many incidental friendships, the type where you would regularly bump into each other at work or football matches, have been put on hold.
4.2 million people feel always or often lonely; a loneliness epidemic that pre-dates lockdown isolation.
Other relationships, the ones we have been intentional about or those with our neighbours, have flourished. Technology has given us the opportunity to feel connected to friends in a way that would have been impossible even twenty years ago. The ways in which we gather, and who we gather with has changed. How many of these changes are here to stay? And what might this mean for how the good news spreads?
What has not changed?
First, amidst dizzying uncertainties and rapid technological and social progress, the gospel of Jesus steadfastly remains the hope of the world and every human heart. As the rug has been pulled from beneath our worlds and we have been left yearning for a life that no longer exists, it is faith in Jesus, his death and resurrection, that will see us through.
The gospel still works, God is still with us and the Kingdom is still advancing. And there are many who have discovered this during these times. There have been some staggering figures around those who have accessed online church and prayed during Covid-19.
Almost half of younger generations have prayed during the pandemic and a third of young adults had engaged online with a religious service. Whilst religious identity is waning, there are millions of people praying more and showing signs of spiritual hunger.
Second, people still come to faith through people. Research and experience tells us that the most significant factor in the faith journey of most new Christians is a friend or family member. The good news spreads life to life. In virtually every one of the stories I hear of people becoming Christians, there is a friend who has been faithfully praying, inviting, living out and telling the story of God to a friend or family member. That is how lives are being transformed every day.
The challenge is that we can rely on a mission culture that does not reflect these changes and constants. If we still believe that this is a Christian nation, we might think that just by putting on a great Sunday service, even online, people will eventually start coming. If we fail to recognise the power of relationship, and the changes in our relational connections, we might not equip and inspire every Christian to share their faith.
We risk missing out on the greatest missional opportunity of our time. How easily our strategy becomes like the Game Boy, overtaken by the times; we look back with nostalgia at the pathways down which people once came to faith and find they are bearing little fruit in a new world. New wine needs new wineskins.
So with this in mind, two questions for every church and every leader to ask:
1. According to The Word's Out, by Paul Weston and David Male, currently 3.6% of churches provide specific training for their members in sharing the good news. What could you do to equip and inspire those in your church family to help their friends on the journey of faith?
2. In your local context, have you taken time to dream, create and innovate around mission? When was the last time you had a go at something new? Who are those in your church with a missional imagination? What new thing might God be calling you to imagine and do?
As our eyes strain forward to visualise an uncertain future, strain we must, dream we must, change we must. The times cause us to lament what has been lost, but they should also cause us to hope for an exciting future. A future of transformed lives and churches bursting at the seams might be just over the horizon.
Phil Knox is Head of Mission to Young Adults at the Evangelical Alliance and friend of JustSow. For more information visit JustSow.org