COVID-19, TECHNOLOGY, AND MISSION

John Edmiston ((John Edmiston is an Australian missionary who has been in full-time Christian ministry since 1981 and who has served in Australia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines, mainly in student ministry, urban ministry and Internet minstry as well as being a Bible college lecturer. He is currently the Chairman/CEO of the Antioch Internet Bible International and its partner organizations. johned@aibi.ph))

The impact of COVID-19 on missions has been vast, and of course it varies widely from context to context. Lockdowns have been very severe in many nations, and not so much in others, and some modes of ministry are more deeply affected. Some of these impacts include:

  1. Church closures
  2. Poverty and social stress due to lockdowns
  3. Cancellation of mission trips
  4. Homeschooling of missionary children (and all children)
  5. Event cancellations
  6. Finding new ways of doing home groups and bible studies
  7. Challenges to fundraising
  8. Missionaries unable to return home
  9. Additional complexity in areas such as social programs and disaster response
  10. A profound alteration in relationships among missionaries, pastors and churches

As these things have happened technology has risen up to fill the gap and meet the need. This article will address how technology can enable ministry continuity during COVID-19 and similar situations and how some of these technologies may become a permanent feature of Christian ministry.
Livestreaming, good teleconferencing and messaging apps, along with stable distance-learning platforms such as Moodle and Canvas have made workable virtual presence a possibility even on modest budget. Friends of mine are now using Zoom to hold three- and four-day training events in West Africa.
Missionaries are now preaching in Creative Access nations via Facebook Live, at a fraction of the cost, and a thousandth of the hassle. No more renting rooms, getting permission and worrying about the security of a foreigner.
The economics of missions meetings have changed for good. The days of twelve leaders, who already know each other well, flying to a city to discuss routine strategic planning, are hopefully gone forever. The thousands of dollars that such meetings cost is now probably being more wisely spent. We are finding much better ways to do things.
There is probably no going back to the way we were prior to COVID-19. People have woken up to how much easier it is to schedule leadership-training Zoom calls than to fly to Nicaragua, and no one wants to go back to six months of visa planning just to get everyone there.
Virtual presence technology has pretty much come of age. The fact that the entire commercial world now relies on telepresence and work-from-home means that companies are rushing to fix the obvious problems for their own sake. Things are only going to improve. I can live in rural Virginia with less-than-spectacular Internet and still run a large Zoom meeting.
We have a new reality that is not going away and we just have to learn it and learn it well! I started ministry in 1981 in the jungles of Papua New Guinea using kerosene lamps and old slide projectors. The world has changed since then. It has been permanently bent into a new shape. At a guess, we have another year of COVID-19 restrictions coming and going (I hope I am wrong) and by the end of that year we will have permanently altered our ways of doing things. Unless we can adapt we will be largely unheard.
I used to avoid webinars, now I schedule them. I have adapted. Everyone else is adapting as well. We are like seaside trees bent from a constant huge wind of change. Before I would fly internationally just to present a couple of one-hour talks. Now I would probably ask if I could present virtually. We have let go of the old anchors of habit. We have developed new habits, and those habits will now stay in place.
The fear of travel and of large gatherings that COVID-19 has generated will far outlast the disease. I doubt that too many people will be going back overseas to build schools for orphans. A whole new reality will be manifested during the next few years. Those who can find their voice using the new technologies will occupy mind-space and have influence.

RELATIONSHIPS
Relationships are the heart of missions and depend, to some extent, on regular face-to-face meetings. There is a considerable dilution of meaningful relationship when it has to be digital-only and there is no “breaking of bread”. Yes, we can still convey information and perhaps have a decent committee meeting but missions is far more than such meetings!
I sense that COVID-19 has made our relationships rather thin. We desperately try to keep in contact but without the adventure, the risk, the challenges and frustration of the so-called “real world’ it comes across as rushed, bland and overly cognitive.
And the sheer mass of technology interferes with the flow of human interaction. We have all heard the conference call jokes about people having sound problems or having embarrassing moments. However, the reality is a persistent undercurrent of technological stress: “Is this going to work?”.
Technology creates anxiety and anxiety does not help relationships. Technology also exacerbates human differences. I cannot understand you because I have an old computer with low bandwidth and you have an expensive computer and incredible bandwidth which you take for granted and your presentation freezes up on my machine. On top of this is the utter frustration of the “I will call you back” WhatsApp call that goes well for two minutes and then drops out, over and over again. You end up shouting into the phone hoping that will make it work and the person on the other end occasionally reads this as you being angry.
We need to sometimes plan online “social time” where you just get in a Zoom room to watch good worship videos, tell stories and hear testimonies and just listen to each other’s hearts for a while.
Digital relationships require a lot more clarification of terms, especially cross-cultural ones. Making expectations clear, without causing offense, can be challenging and it is possible to come across as cold and heartless without the warmth of face-to-face interaction.
I sense that COVID-19 has brought about a shift in relationships and an increased use of local networks and resources. The “loss” of short-term missions teams and large conferences is, in many ways, beneficial. Asian ministries have been able to focus on their own work without spending a sizeable chunk of the year organizing for outside events.
The hiatus has also enabled us to break out of toxic rhythms and relationships. We now have valid alternatives, good options and reasonable excuses so we can say “No, we are not doing that anymore…” without hurting too many feelings or causing shame.
Relationships that were authentic and real when face-to-face have remained authentic even when conducted using technology. However, I think we all still long to get back together again around a table of fellowship!

TECHNOLOGY
I have listed some of the major technological groups relevant to Christian ministry below:
Conferencing: Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Skype, WebEx, Free Conference Call, Blue Jeans, GoToMeeting, GoToWebinar – these are designed for a business environment, with a group, for a sustained period of time and include video as an option. Some missionaries may need to carefully research the security of their chosen conferencing app. I included Skype but it is now being downgraded into more of a messaging app.
Messaging: WhatsApp, Messenger, Signal, Telegram, Line, Hike, Discord, WeChat, Amino, Viber, Silent Phone, SnapChat, GroupMe, Yabb, Nimbuzz, Group Facetime, Skype, Google Chat (formerly Hangouts) has Google Rooms which are useful for educators. Messaging apps are aimed at personal or informal use but may, at times, have quite large groups, they can be used for multiple purposes and may or may not have a good video experience. Some missionaries may need to carefully research the security of their chosen messaging app.
Social Media: The main theme of all social media sites is being able to create an online community or “tribe” around yourself, your art, your products or your ideas. There is considerable overlap with messaging apps. Social media sites include: Facebook, Twitter, MeWe, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat, Parler, Tumbler, Reddit, Quora, Soundcloud and Flickr. Some of these are now shadow-banning Christian content and careful attention to response rates is needed. Do not waste time trying to perfect your Twitter account if no one seems to be responding. Social media may represent a security risk for those working in Creative Access Nations. For more on social media in world evangelism see: https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2018-11/facebooking-the-unreached
Project Management: Trello, Slack, Zoho, SmartSheet, Basecamp, Asana, Monday.com, and numerous others. These are designed for teams completing projects and are generally cloud-based.
Livestreaming: OBS (Open Broadcasting Software), Streamlabs OBS, Wirecast, ECamm Live, and many others – these take the content of your computer, cameras, mics etc. and display them on YouTube, Facebook Live or other streaming platforms. They can also link with Zoom and various conferencing platforms. Some, such as OBS, can be quite a challenge to master and may require a steep learning curve. Quick tip: OBS is also a powerful, free, screen-recording tool.
Christian Mobile Apps: These include Bible apps such as YouVersion and Blue Letter Bible, Christian radio apps such as Praise and Worship Music radio, evangelistic apps such as H2BAC, worship apps, prayer apps, individual church and ministry mobile apps and collections of Christian audio books, sermons and reading material. These can keep the faith of individual believers alive and well in the absence of being able to attend a physical church. The Mobile Ministry Forum is a wonderful source of information and training on how to use mobile devices for ministry: https://mobileministryforum.org/
Learning Management Systems: these are the digital replacements for the brick-and-mortar classroom and include Moodle, Schoology, Blackboard, Canvas, Edmodo, Sakai and Ilias among numerous others. Costs range from free (Moodle) to hundreds of thousand of dollars per year to support a large seminary (Canvas). The development of H5P (HTML 5 interactive activities) for Moodle and other major systems has helped improve online learning and make it more engaging. Very careful research is required before selecting the LMS that you will use. Make sure that it has a good support community. Allan Carrington is a passionate educator and YWAM-er who has produced the amazing Padagogy Wheel which will help you to deploy the correct technology for your desired learning outcomes. https://designingoutcomes.com/assets/PadWheelV4/PadWheel_Poster_V4.pdf you will also need to watch the video that explains it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wbSVcjTD58M
Email Technologies: This group includes older and often forgotten but still incredibly useful technologies such as email, email autoresponders (for a free Christian email autoresponder try http://www.cybermissions.org/olam/), email lists, and email groups (e.g Google Groups). Email can be used to send out training materials in a sequential fashion, for an example of this see https://globalchristians.org/email/ . Email campaigns are generally far more effective than social media campaigns and email is still the preferred means of contact for most consumers. It is not either/or (email or social media) but both/and – here is a link about that fiery debate:
https://www.campaignmonitor.com/blog/email-marketing/2019/05/email-marketing-vs-social-media/
Funds Transfer: Paypal, Xoom (not Zoom), MoneyGram, Western Union, Cash app, Venmo, Remitly, Apple Pay, Zelle, and numerous others. These vary greatly by country and may be regulated. Carful research is required.
Crowdfunding: Designed for project and mission trip fundraising and for causes. You publicize your project or cause, accept donations, and often give a small token product or incentive in return, Caution! Many do not support Christian work, especially missionary work, and can cancel on you. Others have huge hidden fees, especially the “Christian” ones. This scene changes constantly and at the moment I honestly cannot recommend any reliable crowdfunding platforms at all.

ADVICE FOR DEPLOYMENT OF TECHNOLOGY
Keep it simple. Confusion is a terrible feeling and in my experience 80% of people are easily confused by technology once things reach a certain level. Navigation is of ultimate importance. Point people to where they should go. Make the pathway clear. Have short video tutorials, use screen shots. Watch for any misunderstanding and clarify immediately.

  • Minimize the number of apps that the end user has to deal with
  • If possible keep everything inside one digital ecosystem
  • Research everything first before selecting it and deploying it.
  • Do NOT change the software on folks unless you absolutely have to.
  • Be consistent and stick to set times. People are busy.
  • Keep bandwidth in mind, be prepared to go to audio only if video will not work.
  • Reliable technology (even if it is old) is always better than unreliable technology
  • Be prepared to pay for reliability
  • User experience varies from culture to culture, do not assume that the twenty-something California user experience is what will work in Ghana. Test your system with small groups among those you work with before going live and to scale.
  • Give clear, repeated instructions, well in advance, there is no such thing as over-communicating.
  • Have a log-in instructions document with screenshots
  • Pre-register attendees for events, authenticate attendees if possible.
  • If using complex software such as a learning management system have a video on how to navigate it.
  • Send a “we are on now” message 15 minutes beforehand.
  • Mute attendees on entry, we do not want to hear their dogs barking.
  • Use time zone planning software and calendar invites for iCal, Google Calendar, Outlook Calendar
  • Asynchronous (time independent) events are popular e.g. “If you cannot make the webinar you will be able to download it and the PowerPoint slides later at…”
  • Practice the presentation in advance
  • If screen-sharing put all the PDFs, videos and resources in one folder on your Desktop so you can quickly grab them and things will run much more smoothly, do not scramble all over the place.
  • Ten percent of people always have problems logging-in, make time for this in your schedule
  • If you are the presenter have a good microphone with clear audio, I absolutely love my Blue Snowball microphone which is also good for conferencing and interviewing in the room, and is not fussy to use.
  • Use proper lighting, ring lights are cheap and are very helpful
  • People love email freebies to follow-up: “here is the e-book, PowerPoint, devotional etc.”
  • Keep the chat active, refer to the chat quite often and encourage community and interaction
  • PowerPoints with added audio, which are the saved as MP4 videos, are easy to create and play well on Zoom see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D8JV3w4TOVw for a short video tutorial
  • With the above technology groups and precautions in mind, let’s look at how they can be deployed to assist with Christian ministry during COVID-19.
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PUTTING THE TECHNOLOGY JIG-SAW PUZZLE TOGETHER
So much technology, so little time! Technology is not a core function in and of itself. Technology supports core functions. So, if your core function is running an orphanage then you need technology to help you do that! No more, and no less. If your core function is Bible teaching, then you need just the technology to teach the Scriptures well, to the largest possible audience that will listen.
Never select a technology just because it is “cool” and the flavor of the month. You are just wasting your precious time. Technology is there to enable you to do the will of the Lord. If God says “love one another” and you cannot physically go to them, then what is the next best thing and how can technology get that done for you? If God says “worship the Lord in holiness” and you cannot physically assemble at church, how can technology enable that core function to exist at the best possible level? Some questions to consider include:

  • What is the goal?
  • What are the tasks that lead to that goal?
  • Which technologies will enable those tasks?
  • Who will ensure that the technology works?
  • Who do we need to train and who will train them?

So, if your goal is to: “Run a virtual urban ministry consultation focused on India in May 2021” the skills the organizing team might need to master might look like this:

  1. Signup.com – to register attendees
  2. Facebook event page
  3. Create opt-in email list of invitees and double-check the email addresses
  4. Google Docs spreadsheets for planning and the program
  5. Use timeanddate.com to check on time zones for main groups of attendees
  6. Form a WhatsApp group for quick planning conversations
  7. Learn Zoom rooms – for conference breakout sessions
  8. Learn OBS for livestreaming
  9. Learn basic lighting and audio for livestreaming
  10. Put together a basic technology package under $150 USD that the main centers will be expected to have and source a bit of funding for it.
  11. Teach presenters to do PowerPoint to Video presentations. It is difficult to do a stable one-hour video presentation from many locations. So you keep and play these PPT-to-videos centrally. The presenters can then be made co-hosts, and jump in and comment from their home country.
  12. Teach presenters to send you their videos to you by using WeTransfer.com
  13. Assemble all videos and materials centrally for broadcast from a powerful computer with excellent and stable Internet. The presenters can still be in their home countries.
  14. Check to ensure main centers have adequate yet inexpensive technology webcams, ring lights, decent mics, acceptable Internet)
  15. Have a technology rehearsal one month before the conference. Find the bugs and correct them.
  16. Decide on how you are going to do worship. Get worship videos from India? Livestream?
  17. How are you going to do prayer and intercession? How will people from different nations pray with each other? How can we create a feeling of spiritual intimacy?
  18. How will you involve the kind of funders that would normally attend major conferences? How can you “beam them in” at the right moments?
  19. How are you going to assemble consultation ideas on a virtual whiteboard (Zoom has this feature)? How will they be recorded? Will you record the Zoom sessions?
  20. How will you disseminate the learnings from the consultation? Where will you host the videos? (Vimeo? Or on your own server with a password?)

You do not have to use the exact technologies above, for instance you can substitute Microsoft Teams for Zoom and so on. The point is that conference planning now involves technology planning. Everyone needs to be on the same technological page. You might need to even send out instructions to all attendees about what they will need to do to log-in, to present, and so on. This cannot be done at the last minute. All the graciousness in the world cannot overcome the deep annoyance that flows from constant (avoidable) glitches. You do not have to know all the technology yourself but you need to ensure that someone on the team is addressing it and staying absolutely on top of it.
You need to consciously and deliberately decide how far you are going to go down the technology rabbit-hole. Some things, such as podcasting, have very deep learnings, you can absolutely tunnel in to perfecting a podcast, the audio, the timing and pacing, your own voice, scheduling, distribution etc. You can learn everything from Adobe Audition to using a mixer. This level of engagement with technology is necessary if it is somehow core to everything else you are doing. If the podcast is essential to your Bible-teaching ministry then by all means go ahead and do it properly and perfectly!
On the other hand, you might just need to use a particular technology a few times a year (such as a Facebook event page), in that case your decision should be “I will watch a ten-minute video on how to do this then just go for it and I do not care if it is perfect”. You do not have to spend all your life down the technology rabbit-hole.
Part of the solution is delegation. There are people who have mastery of these things, whom you can recruit, while you focus on what you do best. That said, you need to know the terminology sufficiently well to be able to give concise and precise instructions and you should empower them with budgets and decision-making authority.
Above all, you need to realize that God Almighty has allowed these changes and that He is allowing many old modalities of ministry to permanently fail. This is going to be hard to adjust to. It is the end of most large brick-and-mortar only seminaries, the extinguishment of mega-conferences, the total cancellation of sending 500 kids to Mexico on a missions trip, and the list goes on. There is no going back, there is only going forward, and that going forward will involve learning how to do things with technology, whether we like it or not!



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