By Kip Lines
People use the term “unprecedented” to describe the COVID-19 global pandemic. But in the grand story of God’s mission in the world, we are not living in unprecedented times.
There have been pandemics before. There have been times God’s people could not gather, and yet the church has persevered and grown.
Even during the last 100 years, the Restoration Movement has dealt with uncertainty and challenges. In fact, after the first few North American Christian Conventions were held from 1927 to 1929, the Great Depression and World War II dictated that the gathering would happen only seven more times during the 1930s and 1940s. After that, however, there began a recovery and an extended period of kingdom growth.
After these cataclysmic events, American Christians, having acquired a much better understanding of the needs of the world, acted on a renewed sense of calling to participate in God’s mission. In 1949, during this extraordinary time, CMF was founded.
CMF International has come a long way since then; we now have 250 personnel serving in 25 countries around the world. We’ve seen steady growth in CMF ministries and partnerships for the better part of seven decades.
We could be greatly discouraged by the ways 2020 has limited our growth, ministry objectives, and funding goals. But instead, our missionaries and partners are focused on adjusting their ministries; as an organization, we are focused on building the structure needed for the exponential, God-sized growth we are expecting when the pandemic is finished.
Adjusting Through the Pandemic
CMF’s ministry partner in Kenya, Missions of Hope International (MOHI), has adjusted from the already extraordinary challenge of educating 20,000 kids to the necessity of emergency food relief for the families of all those kids, including the distribution of recommended cleaning supplies and required masks.
When the Kenyan government required everyone to stay at home, the situation became dire in large communities where people rely on daily payment for their day labor for their family’s survival. MOHI leadership quickly organized their staff together with the CMF missionary team to assess and meet the need. Thousands of partners in the United States stepped up in May and June to successfully raise more than $500,000 needed for the ongoing relief effort.
MOHI continued to adjust as the rest of the 2020 school year was canceled. While still meeting the ongoing needs of the families, MOHI has found ways to continue to educate and disciple the kids while working hard to meet the necessary requirements to open the school buildings again in January 2021.
Most CMF missionaries remained at their ministry locations around the world during the pandemic. Many have needed to learn to use online tools to gather and provide ongoing discipleship. Steve and Kay Carpenter were planning to start a new church alongside local leaders when the pandemic hit. They decided to move ahead with the new church plant as an online church, which is now meeting weekly.
Our CMF Globalscope missionaries had to adjust their campus ministries multiple times; at first learning how to gather students together online only, and then as the fall semester began, learning how to have smaller and safer in-person gatherings. They’ve continued to reach out with the good news to students who otherwise might never be reached.
The pandemic “pause” has also allowed time for God to call new workers to some of our ministries. We had planned for our new Marketplace Ministries business entrepreneur training program to start in Mexico City, but we had to delay the start of the program. During this delay, local businesswoman Mariana, who serves on the CMF board of directors, heard God’s call to serve as a CMF missionary the next two years alongside the new team. This provides the team with a much stronger immediate link to local businesspeople.
Disciple-Making Movements (DMM) and Discovery Bible Studies (DBS) are still ongoing during the pandemic, even if missionaries can’t participate in the places where they initiated them. That is the genius of our sustainable, multiplying, and easily reproducible ministry models on many of our fields that have been the most fruitful in recent years. Even in locations where it made the most sense for missionaries to leave, local followers of Jesus are continuing the work, and they are staying connected with and continuing to be encouraged by missionaries through the use of technology.
Recognizing Real Challenges
We have made many adjustments so we can continue to minister during the pandemic. We continue to be thankful for the ways God has made this possible. But the challenges are real, and they are taking a toll on all of us at CMF.
We had planned to have a first-ever gathering of all of our CMF missionaries in July; we were calling it One Summit. This was going to provide our missionaries an exceptional opportunity to learn from each other by discussing the value and application of various ministry models, considering ways we could participate in each other’s ministries through exchange of personnel, and being enriched by the depth of collective ministry knowledge and experience in CMF. We grieve that we could not have this summit.
A record number of summer CMF REACH interns were set to head to the field in 2020. Our REACH internships provide opportunities for learning and discernment for those considering field service. We grieve with our interns that these internships could not happen this year.
Nearly 50 folks in CMF have completed their affiliation process and are in different stages of support-raising. Some of them are stalled because of the pandemic, while others are ready to leave for the field but cannot travel to their ministry location. We grieve for those who are struggling to raise support in our current economy and also for those who patiently wait.
Preparing for Future Growth
While we grieve what we’ve been unable to do, we know God is working through this time and we are preparing for the growth that will follow.
By 2030 we expect CMF will have nearly 300 missionaries, have teams in 40 countries, and will connect the American church with multiple new global partnerships. While the pandemic is forcing us to cut spending and be even wiser stewards of the resources our financial partners have provided for Christ-centered transformation around the world, we are investing in what will be needed to support larger numbers of recruits and missionaries in the years ahead. We are investing in caring for our missionaries as they serve. We continue to be focused on our mission of creating dynamic Christ-centered communities that transform the world.
God is also preparing our partners to grow. During the pandemic, we’ve been working with MOHI to build the necessary infrastructure for their vision of reaching 100,000 of the most vulnerable children through their programs by 2030. Through our 15-year partnership, we have been blessed to play a part in MOHI’s vision, even as we help them launch their own organization in the U.S.
Is the pandemic unprecedented? Not in the grand story of God’s mission or in the ways Christians have responded throughout history. What could be unprecedented is the growth we will see in our commitment to God’s mission and the growth of the kingdom.
There is so much work yet to do with one-third of the world’s population having never heard the good news of Jesus. There is so much our churches in America have yet to learn from our brothers and sisters around the world. CMF International is prepared to send the next wave of workers and continue to connect people with God’s mission in this unprecedented time.
Kip Lines serves as executive director of CMF International, headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Pandemics in Christian History
While the world is grappling with the first major global pandemic in our lifetime, Christians can look to our own history of responses to pandemics for both hope and conviction.
Christians became known for doing good during the plagues that devastated the Roman Empire in the early centuries of Christianity. Historians often connect the spread of Christianity during this time with both the willingness of Christians to risk their lives in caring for the sick and in offering a theological model that demonstrated God’s love in a broken world.
In the second century, the Antonine plague killed an estimated one-quarter of the Roman Empire. The better-known early plague in church history, however, occurred during the time of Cyprian in the third century. A disease similar to Ebola devastated the population, yet God’s kingdom saw exponential growth.
Historians note that the pagan Emperor Julian would later grumble at the ways Christians willingly cared for the sick who were not Christians. In Cyprian’s writings, we find a plea not to overly grieve for those who died from the plague, but to increase the work of caring for the living. A fellow bishop, Dionysius, described how Christians, “heedless of danger . . . took charge of the sick, attending to their every need.” Some asserted that in cities where there were dynamic Christian communities, the death rate may have been half that of other cities.
Fast-forward to a bubonic plague epidemic in the 16th century. This was a reemergence of the Black Death pandemic of the 14th century that killed an estimated one-third of the known world’s population. [The plague actually reoccurred at intervals from the 14th to the 17th centuries.]
When the bubonic plague epidemic hit Wittenburg again in 1527, Martin Luther refused to leave the city to protect himself and his family. The university closed and students were sent home, but Luther stayed and adapted his ministry to care for the sick and dying. Luther’s daughter died of the plague during this intense time of ministry.
Luther also wrote a letter, Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague, explaining his decision to stay. Luther made clear in the letter that we shouldn’t “tempt” God by being reckless and doing things that actually endanger others. He prayed and took the advice of doctors before working. He wrote,
Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others.[Jesus’ followers] are bound to each other in such a way that no one may forsake the other in his distress but is obliged to assist and help him as he himself would like to be helped.
Pandemics and plagues do not pause our participation in God’s mission. Instead they lead us into further obedience to Jesus’ sacrifice.