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Planning public envangelism in a pandemic

Why Believe

Michael Ots, , .

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With local lockdowns and social distancing restrictions in a constant state of flux it is hard to know how to plan for anything at the moment. However, this is especially the case when it comes to public evangelism.

The danger is that many students, overwhelmed by the challenges and confused by the restrictions simply do nothing. This would be a tragedy as despite the challenges there are unique time limited opportunities that we need to grasp and a level of gospel openness that we need to make the most of.

The Biblical principles remains unchanged – we need to publicly proclaim the gospel prayerfully, preparedly, persuasively and persistently! Our challenge (as ever) is how to creatively apply these principles into our specific context.

In my planning with Christian Unions for the coming academic year I have found it helpful to envisage three possible contexts and then to come up together with creative plans for each one.

1)     National or local Lockdown

2)     Some level of freedom but many social distancing restrictions

3)     No restrictions

We could find ourselves moving between all four of these contexts in the coming academic year. Each one presents challenges but also opportunities.

There are strong similarities between 1 and 2 and so we shall deal with them together. We have much experience of 4 so we will not examine that here (see the Mission Planning Handbook for more ideas for that). We have little or no experience of 3 so we will spend most time on that.

National of Local Lockdown

In this case events will have to be online only.

Opportunities

·       People are stuck at home (often with little to do) so are more open to watching stuff online.

·       Easier to get speakers / musicians / testimonies as events online.

·       Easier and cheaper to organise as don’t need to book venues.

·       The anxiety / frustration of such a situation may make people more open to asking big existential questions.

Challenges

·       While the internet was great for continuing existing relationships, it is very challenging to make new relationships in that way.

·       People normally look for stuff online that confirms their existing worldview/beliefs and are less open to watching / reading stuff that would challenge it.

·       Devoid of community and hospitality the gospel seems less plausible to many secular Europeans (In normal missions it is often not just the talk that persuades people of the plausibility of the gospel but the warmth of Christian community that guests experience at the events).

·       Online events are easy to join but equally easy to leave. FB counts views for anything over 3 seconds so we may find that the actual engagement with our events is far lower than we had hoped.

·       Follow up is more challenging. 

Despite these challenges, online evangelistic events and even online mission weeks have been effectively used during periods of lockdown and provide positive examples of what can be done.

Lessons we have learnt

·       Zoom gives greater engagement and can create more of a sense of community but is a bigger commitment to join. Broadcasting to FB / Instagram reaches more people but is less engaged.

·       There are some great online resources like Streamyard that can help make slick, attractive and creative broadcasts.

·       Interaction through Sli.do or similar apps is great – not just for questions but also earlier in the event to create a sense of two way engagement.

·       If there can be in person interaction between hosts / speaker / contributors this works better than everyone being on their own.

·       Talks need to shorter / punchier

·       Use of creative input to make a magazine format works well – music, testimony, interview etc.

·       A blend of live and pre–recorded content can work well.

·       Avoid simply transferring the content of a physical event online – it’s a different medium.

·       We may need to think about the frequency of events – without community and hospitality it is less likely that people would watch an online event every night for a whole week. We may need to spread a mission week out over a longer period of time.

·       Make sure you are still praying as a CU – hosting a zoom prayer meeting help maintain a sense of community and mobilises the CU to be making the most of inviting people to the events.

·       Publicity needs to be online – bear in mind that posting on your own social media channels will only reach the small section of the university that you are friends with. Paid targeted advertising is a brilliant way to  fulfil our vision to give the whole university the opportunity to hear the gospel.

For loads more great ideas then see Sam Chan’s excellent Post Covid Playbook.

Social Distancing

With social distancing measures there are possibilities for some forms of public gatherings. These restrictions are different from country to country (and change over time) so it is hard to be prescriptive about what is and isn’t possible. You will have to check current guidelines and restrictions in your area.

We need to be careful to make sure that whatever we organise does fall within the bounds of the law. However, it is right that within that those guidelines we creatively think of doing all that we can to enable some form of physical gatherings. Simply continuing to do online only events at a time when some physical gathering is allowed will be far less attractive to many students who are desperate for real connection and community. While it is not a good witness to break the law it is equally not a good witness to be seen to be more cautious than the situation requires. While we cannot eliminate all level risk we need to bear in mind not only the risk of doing something but also the risk of not doing it.

Opportunities

·       Some level of physical meeting will be incredibly attractive to many who have been isolated and are longing for community. Even if people are not especially interested in the gospel, they may well be drawn to a community well they have the possibility to make friends. Michael Green used to say ‘Through friendship we build a bridge into people’s hearts over which Jesus can walk.’

·       With so much still online and with very little happening in universities, any physical event will stand out and be even more attractive to many students.

·       Where small groups are utilised this increases ownership of mission. Everyone has to be involved and there is more personal responsibility to invite.

·       Follow up is much easier as smaller gathering make personal connections easier than in bigger events.

Challenges

·       While many will be attracted to in person gatherings some (possibly including many internationals) will be wary of coming for fear of the risk involved. We also want these people to hear the gospel and they shouldn’t have to overcome that fear before they can hear about Jesus. We need to make sure such people are catered for as well.

·       Ever changing restrictions make planning very difficult and confusing. Patience, creativity, courage and flexibility are needed.

·       Organising events will be more work as you will need to create risk assessments and ensure that it is Covid–compliant.

·       While events may be legally possible it requires the permission of the landowner / venue owner / university. Good relational capital will greatly help here.

Here are four possible ways of holding some form of physically gathered evangelistic event

A)    Go outdoors

The advantage of meeting outside is it there is more space to meet in socially distanced way than many indoor venues and often face masks are not required.

Of course, the viability of such an event may be greater in the south of Europe than in the Faroe Islands! But even in rainy, cold England some Christian Unions have held open air Christmas Carol services in previous years so anything is possible! Bear in mind that many people are willing to stand outside in the rain to watch sport so why not a creative evangelistic event?

In some places it is possible to run an organised outdoor performance provided that you have the permission of the landowner, you maintain social distancing, and have completed a valid risk assessment.

Many churches have been meeting in this way very effectively in parks, rugby pitches and even forests!

B)    Use Small Groups

In many places it just will not be possible to host large gatherings. Many Christian Unions are splitting up into smaller “impact groups“ to meet and pray physically together. The small groups can then become hubs to which people are invited.

Instead of inviting people to one central event there will be a number of possible venues to which people could go. At these small events people can eat together and then watch a talk streamed live online. Ideally this talk would be given live to one of those groups and relayed using zoom or another suitable platform. Questions can then be submitted to the speaker from any of the small groups using websites like sli.do

C)     Invite friends to watch with you

If the maximum number of households that can meet is two then small groups may not be possible. But there is nothing to stop a Christian from one house or flat inviting a friend (or friends) from another house to come for dinner and then watch a live online event together. This way they can still show hospitality and develop friendship and will mean the friend is much more likely to engage with the talk. It also means that follow up will happen automatically the moment the talk finishes!

D)    Socially distanced indoors

As universities begin to develop ways of teaching within the socially distanced guidelines it may be possible to book lecture rooms or other venues as long as you maintain the same guidelines. You may also be able to book churches in a similar way which will be helpful especially for Christmas events.

Indoor events may be difficult for larger groups as capacity of venues will be reduced. One way to get around this is to hold the event multiple times. One Christian Union was already in the habit of holding their carol service four times in one day to create needed capacity. While singing may not be possible this is no big problem as most students didn’t actually sing anyway! Simply change it to a carol concert where musical iterms are performed.

E)     Use cafes and restaurants

In many countries it is possible to go out for meals and drinks in cafés, restaurants and bars. Such places have already been set up to work within the current guidelines.

Why not see if you can book out one of these places for an evening to hold your event? It may be a little more costly – as you will have to commit to buy at least drinks and possibly meals – but it will make for a very attractive event.

You could also book musicians – many will be keen to perform even if it is a smaller venue that normal.

As above, the issue of capacity might be a problem for larger groups. Holding the event multiple times could help with this. One Christian Union is planning to hold a rolling one–hour event repeated throughout the day in a local bar.

A blended approach

While physical gatherings will be attractive to many there will be others who may be cautious about coming into such an environment

·       International students

·       Those with underlying health conditions

·       Those who are more temperamentally cautious

We don’t want to exclude such people – we want everyone to hear the gospel. In view of this:

·       Always make sure you are complying with guidelines and doing what you can to help people feel safe. You could use things like: track and trace QR codes for people to check in, temperature gun, obvious one–way systems etc.

·       If the event doesn’t require face masks by law (e.g. in a pub) you could consider having some tables assigned for those who would feel more comfortable wearing masks.

·       Stream physical events online so that anyone could watch. Just as watching football with a live audience can be more engaging even for those at home, so watching a speaker address a live audience can be more engaging than watching them speak to a screen.

These ideas are not meant to be prescriptive but rather suggestive of what may be possible in different contexts. You will need to work out what is currently possible in your situation and what will best serve the students in your university to enable them to hear the gospel and be welcomed into a community of believers.

No solution is easy or without risk of some sort, but doing nothing will carry an eternally greater risk. Let’s work hard to do what we can to communicate the gospel in this uncertain time. Some last suggestions

·       Be flexible and adaptable to an ever–changing situation. Keep your options open so that whatever happens you can do something!

·       Share the lessons you have learnt. We have never been this way before and your experiences will be invaluable to other groups trying to work out what can and can’t be done.

·       Pray! We need the Lord’s wisdom, guidance and blessing!