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Got the COVID-19 Campus Ministry Blues? Obstacles Become Opportunities!

Ministry in a time of pandemic is challenging. Students are scattered, gatherings are restricted, and many of our donors are losing their jobs. These setbacks are frustrating, but the Bible shows us that earthly obstacles are often divine opportunities. Joseph became a slave in Egypt, and God used that to elevate Joseph to leadership in Egypt. David’s frustrations became our consolations through the Psalms. The exile of the Jews spread synagogues around the Mediterranean that later became the preaching posts for the first Christian missionaries.

Yes, there are definitely a lot of obstacles, and they are real. Digital ministry is not the same as face-to-face ministry. 2 John 1:12 makes this point clear: “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” John used the best technology of his day—paper and ink—and produced a resource that has blessed the church for 2,000 years. And yet he says that there’s a missing dynamic when we’re not present together.

Digital ministry can also be confusing. Most of us don’t have expertise in this or maybe don’t even own the hardware or software we need. We’re doing the best we can with what we have, but we’re sometimes disappointed with the outcome. And even figuring out when to do digital ministry can be difficult. Depending on your campus, you probably have students from multiple time zones, and scheduling group meet-ups may feel like being back in college solving differential equations!

There is also the potential for “mission drift” in this season. When our ministries gather on campus, it’s easier for the staff and students to keep reinforcing the convictions and values you all hold. But when everyone is separated and just connecting occasionally via virtual means, the water gets muddy fast. The positive “peer pressure” that comes from meeting face to face in large and small groups is greatly diminished. We must find ways to keep pouring truth into our students during this vulnerable season. During this time, let’s pray that God will draw our students to Himself in greater and deeper ways than ever.

There are definite funding challenges on the horizon too. The global economy is in real trouble. In 2 Cor. 8:12, Paul was teaching the Corinthians about sacrificial giving: “The gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.” I’m sure a lot of believers around the world will continue to give to you and your work even if their income has been cut. At the same time, millions of people will cut back or drop their giving altogether because of these uncertain times—and that will affect our ministries.

These obstacles are frustrating, and we eagerly long for the day we can all be reunited with our staff and students. Yet we also want to grasp what God’s purposes are in this season. In Acts 8:1 we read that because of persecution “all except the apostles were scattered” from Jerusalem to many nations abroad. Everyone, including the apostles, must have been devastated. But then just three verses later we read that “those who had been scattered preached the Word wherever they went.” The very next story tells about a revival breaking out in Samaria. Likewise, our students have been scattered for a season and scattered for a reason. Let’s embrace what God means to accomplish for and through college ministry in this pandemic. This season won’t last forever, so let’s maximize it. Let’s realign our perspective for a moment and look at the numerous opportunities at hand!

First, this is a great opportunity for evangelism! People are spiritually needy and lonely right now. If your student leaders are discerning and bold, they can see God work in and through them powerfully. You probably have a database (or at least filled-out visitor cards) full of people who at one point said, “I’d like to know more” and then never responded to your follow-up efforts. Recontact them! People who wrote us off before are now open again. Encourage your small group leaders to go track down the people who said they would come and never did. I suspect your ministry will be the only one reaching out to them when so many are isolated. They won’t forget that. This can be a wonderful time of actually expanding the ministry.

Second, for many students, responding to an online invitation is much less threatening than a face-to-face ask. It’s been a long time since many of us walked into a new religious environment and we have forgotten how scary it can feel. But now a guest can log on to your livestream knowing that if they don’t like it they can just close the window. They can visit a small group Zoom call and mute their mic or feign technical difficulties if they don’t want to talk. This gives them a chance to “check you out” before making any great commitments.

A third bonus you may not have thought of is that our ministries are now prepared in case we ever get kicked off campus. Today’s colleges are not always thrilled with the message we preach, and groups across America and beyond have faced administrative backlash—if not downright opposition. While ministry will always be better if we have the ability to meet on-campus and in-person, it’s comforting to know we’re developing both the technical skills and community skills we will need to thrive if the powers that be ever choose to forcibly scatter us.

Fourth, this quarantine is like an enforced Sabbath for both your students and for you. It’s an opportunity to dig deep. Encourage your students to set challenging spiritual goals for themselves. They can read an entire book of the Bible in one sitting. They can plan a day of fasting with their small group. They can find a seminary course online and listen to the lectures. One group is creating 24-hour prayer chains and asking students to sign up for time slots. So many opportunities! Something I am encouraging my students to do is to pray for other people in the ministry every day. In Colossians 2:5 Paul says, “Though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit.” I am pretty sure he means that prayer unites them—the same Spirit energizing Paul’s prayers is also at work in the ones he is praying for. I’ve been telling my students we are separated by space but united by the Spirit. If our students earnestly pray for one another every day, what kind of fruit will we reap when we are finally reunited? Wow.

Fifth, expand your brain with a little virtual creativity. We have so many new things we can do with online meetings. You can finally land your dream guest speaker! Just have them record a video and send it to you. You can have missionaries from around the world hop into a Zoom chat with your students. You can have a joint meeting with a ministry from another campus or even another country. Things that would have been expensive or logistical headaches before are now as simple as using a new URL.

Lastly, we can strengthen the feeling of ownership our financial supporters feel towards our ministry. Now it is even easier to stay connected to your donors and cast vision to them for what you’re doing. They can actually experience your ministry just like a student does. You can invite them to watch your large group livestream or sit in on a virtual small group meeting. You can coordinate a Q & A session with them where your students ask them about life, family, and ministry after college. Your supporters will never forget how you creatively took the initiative to include them during this unique time.

So, don’t get down about these obstacles that face us. Choose a different perspective and look at the awesome opportunities that lay before us. Again, our students have been scattered for a season, yes, but it’s obvious they have also been scattered for a reason! 1 Chronicles 12:32 tells us the warriors of Issachar were “men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” Let us continue their legacy. May the Lord fill us all with wisdom and open our eyes to the opportunities that are abounding in this season!

Glen and his wife Paula have been serving with Chi Alpha Campus Ministries at Stanford University since 2002. He also oversees Chi Alpha in Northern California and Nevada. You can follow him on Twitter @theglendavis or visit his website