One thing I have learned about outreach is that the work never belongs to you, nor is it something you can predict, much less control. It develops in response to the Spirit of God who, like the wind, moves as “He wishes” (John 3:8).
I saw Him move in Croydon one day when a man opened his door to us following surgery, shirtless and airing the longest cut I ever saw, accepting prayer without a second thought. Then, while spending time with his Congolese neighbour, struggling with the human cost of civil war. Again, in Redhill as a youth grappled with his mental state, peering out from beneath his hat to receive literature. Also, when singing on the street in Balham where the local ‘Pavarotti’ joined us, and I reassured him alcohol hadn’t ruined his voice. Once more in Croydon where an unemployed man changed direction, walking backwards in tandem with me, responding to my “Can I Pray for You?” T-shirt with a: “Pray for me, then.”
Sometimes you go looking for people. At other times, they cross your path unexpectedly. Either way, you miss out by not ‘meeting people where they are’, instead of where you want them to be. Jesus shows us this, by His words, His movements, His choice of location, or what or who He lends Himself to or pays attention to.
We can observe this in Mark 4:35 when having tended to one population 1, Jesus leads His disciples through transition. At the Sea of Galilee, His words to them are “Let us cross over to the other side.” His purview: another population where they can continue to “do good” (Acts 10:38).
Outreach must always go on, like love must. Some of us heard a call to “cross over” when the recent Covid-19 pandemic struck. Having seen God use a child’s ball, a basket, chairs, some sandals and
literature to bring people together, or to Him, His increased use of online platforms hosting vital
messages and interaction made sense. Yet as churches “crossed over” into digitisation, who would have guessed our attendance levels would be greater than we could remember?2, In the style of Acts 2, Nel Shallow remarks: “…Their digital numbers grew as God added to those who joined with them.”3
Since then, responses to digital ministries have varied. Some remind me of being near a manta ray petting tank at the London Aquarium years ago beside someone’s little boy: my ‘Aquarium Friend’. The silent, nebulous shape of one of the easy-going creatures moved through the water, came our way, then emerged on the surface, making contact. A precious encounter for me but my young companion shouted in alarm, at which the affronted manta ray recoiled, ducking back into the murky safety beneath the water’s surface, leaving nothing behind but a splash, a disappearing memory of a lost opportunity.
This can happen to those people coming our way via digital platforms who, for various reasons, remain outside the peripheries like rebuffed manta rays. Should we close our devices, forget these encounters, return to physical church activities, turn our ‘digital’ backs, and leave them behind? Behind each screen is a human being! Basing personhood on what we see is always problematic. Likewise is downgrading the presence and worship of others not physically under our full gaze. As one Pastor quotes:
But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.” (John 4:23).
Jesus shared this with a woman from an estranged social group after deliberately travelling to cross paths with her. What intentionality! Digital platforms too can reach physically unavailable people and places. For some of us, Sabbaths in church buildings take us away from ‘spiritually estranged’ people in our lives such as unchurched and ‘seeking’ relatives, while tuning in from home allows loved ones in the vicinity to hear from God. Some won’t enter church facilities on cue but might visit the ‘church without walls’ online. Are we ready?
For Adventists, “Christ’s method”4 of discipling by “mingling”, caring and earning trust is pivotal. Some overlook the internet as the aid it really was. I made a friend through YouTube. Church buildings weren’t for her. From her video I learned she was facing eviction and replied via the comments to updates she posted showing her belongings packed. She was so touched by my online interaction that I was one of 3 people featured in her birthday celebration livestream. Now my YouTuber friend and one of her regular viewers plan to join me for my Zoom birthday gathering.
More recently, inquiries wended my way in response to adverts for online discipleship and chaplaincy. Can digital platforms facilitate fellowship and encounters with God? Yes. It is essential to evaluate the social landscape, refreshing our understanding of human needs and experiences, especially in a world fraught with “volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.”5 Nel Shallow points out that our adjustment to the invention of radio took time while the use of the internet is still relatively new 6. In other words, it requires patience and experimentation just like dealing with the manta ray.
At the Aquarium, my background of working with little ones ‘kicked in’ so I found myself coaxing back the manta ray, showing my Aquarium Friend how to stroke it carefully, under the gaze of his relieved mother. His anxious state urned to joy.
Be encouraged. God presides over every horizon, including digital ones and what corner of the world should be left untouched by the love and truth of God? I hope these themes don’t divide, like others of our time, and ‘the digital frontier’ takes its proper place within church ministry. Then as we tread carefully, keeping our eyes on Jesus’ leading, we won’t succumb to nostalgia for the past, a desire for control or fear of the unknown. Nor will we find ourselves stuck, staring back at the lost opportunities of the moment but instead adapt, like my Aquarium Friend, as opportunities for interaction come our way. “Let’s cross over.”
Divinia Reynolds is a Bible Worker in the South of England Seventh-day Adventist Church.