This time last year, after a few weeks of uplifting interviews, phone calls and conversations at church, I sat down and wrote the intro: Jesus is going to headline London’s O2 arena in 2020. At the time, my concern while researching the January 2020 cover story for Premier Christianity’s ‘Year of Evangelism’ edition was not getting swept up by the enthusiasm of my interviewees. Their hope – that revival might follow Franklin Graham’s UK tour; that effective evangelism courses could lead to a significant cultural shift – was infectious. I wanted to balance that with pragmatism: to evaluate what successful evangelism might look like in 2020. Were stadium tours, festivals and street evangelists, for example, still the best way to introduce people to Jesus?
I never imagined that all of the events these hopes hinged on would be cancelled; that, after March, no one would headline London’s O2 Arena. That, for most of the year, even churches would close their doors and Covid-19 restrictions would keep us from seeing our own families, let alone strangers. The Year of Evangelism that I described last year obviously never came to pass: had the pastors and prophets who sensed a move of God on the horizon been mistaken?
Not according to Gavin Calver, head of the Evangelical Alliance, and one of the more cautiously optimistic people I interviewed a year ago. At that time, he agreed there was a consensus among church leaders that something was building, but he warned against pinning hopes on human plans and calendars. A year on, he tells me: “This season has presented the greatest evangelistic opportunity of my lifetime. The suffering caused by the pandemic has been awful, but it has also forced people to confront their mortality. People are talking about things they don’t usually want to talk about – for evangelists like me, where there used to be hard ground, there’s fertile ground.”
Ben Jack, head of Advance, one of 2020’s biggest evangelism initiatives, agrees: “There is an openness to the gospel that we haven’t seen for decades. I think there are two to three degrees of separation from a conversation about Covid to a conversation about faith.”
At its launch, Advance 2020, whose network includes the Church of England, the Evangelical Alliance and The Message Trust, had 75 evangelism mentoring groups set up around the UK ready to train hundreds more. Over the course of the pandemic, that number more than doubled. Currently 211 Advance groups meet online – a remarkable pivot for an initiative designed for festivals and social interaction. While the groups were never established with the intention of sending members out on a specific mission, they’ve been an invaluable resource for equipping and honing the evangelistic gifts in a season where evangelism has had to adapt to meet new challenges.
Most of Advance 2020’s events had been scheduled for after Easter, and, as the pandemic took hold in March, people started to postpone, drop out or cancel outright. “It felt like a bit of a gut punch,” Jack admits. “You have all your plans, and you believe and hope that you’ve been planning in step with God, so there was some disappointment, frustration and concern at first. It took a bit of getting on our knees before the Lord, and him saying: ‘Let me turn how you’re feeling right now into something positive.’”
Advance 2020 found the move online relatively simple: it already had a YouTube presence and simply increased and adapted its output on that channel. Its network members, organisations such as The Message Trust and Luis Palau Association, did the same. Since the beginning of Covid those two organisations have reported greater engagement with their content and heightened interest in their message. The latter recorded almost a million responses to its gospel presentation website, Hope with God: 900,000 of which have interacted with an evangelist and made a decision for Jesus, Jack says.
This sounds extraordinary, but it tallies with similar accounts from other church leaders about the higher numbers of people attending virtual church during the pandemic (many for the first time), and with the Alpha course’s highly successful move online – registrations for Alpha doubled during the first lockdown.
“We’ve always got to be honest with ourselves – did we mishear? Did we misunderstand?” Jack says. “But I do feel like we heard correctly from the Lord. The one thing we forgot in all of this is that God consistently is doing a new thing. We thought God was going to do a new thing in old wineskins! And don’t get me wrong – I think we will still need those wineskins, but I think the Lord was saying: ‘I don’t need professionals, I don’t need events. My gospel’s success doesn’t hinge on those things.’”
Rev Canon David Male, director of evangelism and discipleship for the Church of England, sounds a more cautionary note. When we spoke last year, it was about Amplify, a programme of evangelism training for young people run alongside Advance 2020. Amplify has gone ahead online, but Rev Male hesitates to call 2020 a year of evangelism: many longtime churchgoers never transitioned online, he notes, and even for many early adopters “Zoom fatigue” has set in. “If you look at the research, the number of people who have stopped engaging with church during the pandemic balances the number who have engaged for the first time,” he warns. He has also heard from church leaders that the appetite for livestreamed services dropped during the second lockdown: one congregation of 300 fell to around 50 in the winter. Given we’re now ten months on from most churches moving their services online, it does seem the ‘novelty factor’ of watching church on YouTube could be wearing off - even for many committed Christians.
“The danger of talking about a ‘Year’ when everything changes is that, if it doesn’t happen, people get disappointed and give up, and I’ve seen that happen so often over the past 40 years,” he reflects. “We are called to the long-term: like Paul says, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Coronavirus has been a disaster: but it has presented opportunities for the Church to be the Church as it always has been and always will be. This is a continual thing – how do we share the gospel with this generation; how do we connect with our community?”
One significant way that churches have sought to do this during the pandemic has been through social action. The EA’s Calver describes the opportunity as an “open goal” for the Church. “The cultural narrative has changed. Now, in the corridors of power, the question has been: how can we help society rebuild? If we think Covid is a wave, then the economic uncertainties of the next few years will be a tidal wave. The Church has an open-goal opportunity to socially and spiritually help to rebuild the nation. There’s not going to be a lot of State money to do those things – so we need to do it. Our holistic mission and outreach is going to be vital. We won’t get a chance like this again.”
Churches within the Church Revitalisation Trust, a charity set up by Holy Trinity Brompton to support church planting that includes Resurgo Trust and Hillsong, have formed an initiative called Love Your Neighbour, which establishes food depots and other social action hubs in deprived areas.
“The great misnomer is that evangelism begins with a great commission. Actually, the great commission is preceded by the call to love your neighbour. I think people are starting to wake up to that in a new way during Covid – we’ve got to know our neighbours, and their needs,” says Jack.
The new normal
The changes wrought by the pandemic – both inside and outside churches – offer Christians an extraordinary opportunity. Calver says: “In the future, I long to hear people say: ‘I surrendered my life to Jesus during the pandemic.’ I believe we’ll hear people say that. I want this to be over as much as anyone, but we won’t get this moment again. So let’s maximise [it].” He thinks Christians need to adapt to a “new normal”, where it’s commonplace to share faith and to speak up. Pastors will need to carry on being mindful of the many whose first encounter with church might be online: livestreams and online Alpha are here to stay. “If church used to be a set menu,” he says, “now it’s a buffet.”
For Jack, opportunities lie in the empowerment of non-professional evangelists, Christians who share the gospel by helping a neighbour or offering a word of hope. “God told us he was going to do an amazing, evangelistic thing in 2020, and I think he has done that in three ways. He has shown us there’s an incredible hunger out there. He has shown us how restrictive our evangelism has been in the past, how it was too reliant on events and professionals. And he has shown us we need to evaluate the fruit of our evangelism: it’s not enough to hold some event where people put their hands up at the end – it has never been enough.”
A year ago, the evangelists I spoke to about their dreams for 2020 told me they were anticipating a new openness to the gospel. They – and I – thought that would come about through our efforts to broaden, diversify and modernise evangelism. Instead, it has come about through the pandemic: through our living, daily, in the shadow of death, grief and suffering. In 2020, Jesus did something so much more significant than headline an arena: he came alongside people in their mourning, their fear and their hopelessness. Ours is now the Covid generation, and the Church’s challenge is to honour its sacrifices by sharing our gospel of hope.