NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE—During the COVID-19 crisis, there has been a lot of discussion about how to conduct Sunday worship (singing, sermons, tithes, and even sacraments) virtually in a time of mandatory social distancing.
There has been much less discussion on how to make disciples in a moment when gathering together (even in small groups) is not an option for many people. How can we continue to make disciples in the COVID-19 era? How can we engage the lost, establish foundations, equip believers, and empower disciple-makers from a distance?
As I’ve spoken with pastors and campus missionaries around the world, I’ve heard many exciting and innovative ways that churches have continued to make disciples in this unique moment. One thing that I continue to reiterate to pastors and leaders as they think about discipleship is that distance equipping (especially in moments of crisis) is not new.
One of the most famous instances of distancing equipping is recorded in Paul’s second letter to Timothy. Paul was writing from prison in Rome and knew that death was imminent. It’s obvious from the letter that Paul desperately wanted to see Timothy in person (see 2 Timothy 1:4 & 4:21), but because of circumstances that were out of his control, Paul had to settle on equipping the young pastor in Ephesus through a letter.
Because of how things turned out, we often think that this was Paul’s plan all along. But I guarantee you that Paul would have much preferred to communicate these leadership and discipleship lessons in person. Paul may have even wondered if the message might be lost in the medium. But in hindsight, we can see three real benefits to distance equipping—even when done under less than ideal circumstances.
Distance equipping forces clarity.
Though Paul would have certainly preferred to equip Timothy in person, letters forced Paul to articulate with great clarity exactly what he wanted Timothy to know and do. Paul had probably told Timothy a lot of these things in person (“preach the word,” “fan into flame the gift of God,” “guard the good deposit”), but writing them down forced Paul to think about every word. It’s often the same for us. Though we prefer to equip disciples in person, having to do it at a distance will force us to be more thoughtful and clear in our communication.
Distance equipping results in transferability.
Because Paul had to equip Timothy through a letter (a physical document), we can read (and benefit) from what Paul wrote Timothy today. Keep in mind that Paul’s words of encouragement, which have probably cut each of us to the heart, were not written to us. However, in God’s sovereign plan, he knew that Paul’s distance equipping of Timothy in the first century would benefit believers for the next twenty centuries. Paul was aware of the transferability of distance equipping materials, as he often told elders in churches to pass along his pastoral letters to other churches (see Colossians 4:16). So as you work hard to do distance equipping well, keep in mind that the results may be transferable beyond your specific context.
Distance equipping produces longing for embodied relationship.
A lot of commentators have speculated that the move to virtual meetings will be a game-changer in business, education, and even church. They argue that the experience will be so good, no one will want to go back to embodied meetings. While being forced to do distance discipleship will teach us some new and useful modes of doing the “same old boring strokes,” it will not make embodied, incarnational discipleship obsolete. If done right, distance discipleship will increase our appreciation for live small-group gatherings and one-on-one discipleship over a cup of coffee. Paul says it this way in the opening lines of his letter: “I long to see you that I may be filled with joy” (2 Timothy 1:4). And in the closing lines, he writes, “Do your best to come to me soon” (2 Timothy 4:9). In other words, this distance equipping is necessary and valuable, but it’s not enough.
As we continue in this challenging but necessary journey of distance disciple-making, my prayer is that we all would see the unique, God-ordained opportunities of this moment and that we would be faithful to the call to make disciples and equip disciple-makers.