There are four key, near-term realities that can help us think through how we should respond with missionary intentionality in the present.
First, we have the opportunity to think through ways that people most naturally gather. Sociologists say that people do this in several basic ways: (1) Shared Identity—the same language, culture, or age group; (2) Shared Place—the same geography, neighborhood, etc. that produces shared concerns; (3) Shared Oikos—the same network of relationships; (4) Shared Deep Experiences—shared events such as refugees or those with similar dreams or ideals.
During the decades of the church growth movement, our missiology tended towards helping people form groups/ churches where people tended to gather mostly around a shared identity. This won’t go away, but one of the things we are seeing during these days is the development of a placed-based missiology. We are developing a more robust theology of place. First, we are developing a sense of place that is more local In times such as COVID-19 we have seen an increase in neighbors caring for neighbors, which will likely continue the growth of this place-based movement.
The third way people gather is a shared OIKOS—deep relationships, networks of family, and tribe. We are spending more time with some family members and less with others. What can we do to foster the family relationship now? Family is our primary missional unit so we’ve got to learn to love the people God has placed around us and foster genuine relationships in the church.
Finally, people connect and gather themselves around shared Deep experience. The intersection of Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter work will likely position the church for creative missionary inroads to gather people around a shared experience.
Second, we are learning to redefine third space in the virtual world. We sometimes use the term 3rd space as being this mode where Christians can engage in a world that is not connected to the church or where the church can create space that seems safe where people who are not Christ can see the church in a non-threatening way. It’s the Paris Baguette coffee and pastry franchise shop owned by a Korean Christian couple in the Little Saigon area of San Jose, where they are open to a Vietnamese church planter meeting people who want to know more about Jesus.
All of these things about third space are still true, and good and right, but in the midst of this pandemic where nobody wants to be isolated, and so many people have been confined to their homes, and your season pass to baseball games have been canceled—we are learning to redefine third space in the virtual world.
Instead of place, it really is space. Space where they have shared learning experiences, a shared vocabulary, where we can find with the non-church world, and finding places of peace and communion in those spaces. Discovering virtual third space is something that will help us act and become missional in a new and unique time such as this.
Third, we need to rethink giving and receiving. Who are the givers and who are the receivers? In the former point about reconceiving third space, I mentioned learning from secular sources that I felt could help me accomplish my mission. Learning from others is an act of submission and humility. We have to admit that we don’t have all of the answers. But as Christians, we always want to give, and not receive. The COVID world is forcing people to interact and learn from one another who might not have done so otherwise.
Fourth, we need to consider who is being left out. As one who has had a lifelong heart for the marginalized, I have been stunned by whom I am still leaving out. The San Francisco Bay Area closed down before any place in the country. Soon after that happened, I received an email from a wonderful pastor who is a recent arrival from another country and is planting a church here. “We have no more food in our home, we are not supposed to leave our homes to go shopping, and I don’t know what to do.” He didn’t know that he could go to the store wearing a mask and had never heard of shopping online. I was able to help and show others in his tribe a way forward. By virtue of his limited experience in this culture and language, he was left out.
So many people right now, all over the world, feel alone. “You, LORD, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry” (Psalm 10:17).
Check out this video to hear Linda share more on these four areas.