LIVING, STUDYING, AND SERVING in a Hybrid Format: The Challenges and Opportunities Involved with Training Young Ministry Leaders in Post-Soviet Eurasia During the COVID-19 Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic took everyone by surprise, and now we find ourselves quarantined in our homes and apartments. We have practically no control over what is taking place beyond our windows. The world is rapidly changing, and our normal way of life is collapsing before our eyes.
We have already learned some new things. Many of us have had our first Zoom conference or online church service. But it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that these changes may be long-term. It is difficult for us to restructure our lives and break old, familiar patterns. This is not only difficult for families, but for churches, ministries, and educational institutions.
This raises the obvious question about which new formats should be used in the life of the church, ministry, and leadership training in Eurasia, which is now quarantined and behind closed borders. To answer this question, we should revisit the experience of the first house churches, supplementing and strengthening this with new forms of technology and online resources. This approach was clear to some in the past. Now it is even clearer to almost everyone.
Opportunities to train leaders for ministry in post-Soviet Eurasia have always been complicated by a host of local challenges including:
- Government restrictions placed on ministry activity and religious freedom
- Hostility from radical Muslims and the Orthodox Church
- Poverty and financial dependence
- The marginal social position of the evangelical church in most Eurasian countries.
All these factors have contributed to the social isolation of the evangelical church in Eurasia, as well as the limitation of its ministry potential. And today, the COVID-19 pandemic has made things even more challenging, as we are unable to meet in person, carry out the ministry of the church into society, enjoy live fellowship, and participate in small group meetings. In addition, the free transfer and exchange of information has been severely limited.
At this time, we must review our approaches to ministry, given these circumstances, and return to almost forgotten and simpler forms of fellowship, training, and ministry. For this, it is important that we use the latest forms of internet communications. The link between simple forms of live fellowship and online resources is very important. Online formats, by themselves, (just like home groups that are isolated from the larger Christian world and its rich online resources) will not be effective. Online and offline formats must work together to complement each other. Here are some key examples of this simple model:
- Using home groups as places for training and fellowship
- Personal discipleship
- Special role of the family as a space and instrument for ministry
- Practicing hospitality, generosity, and sacrificial giving
- Remote training for leaders of small ministry groups
- Creation of small mobile ministry groups (up to 10 people).
- Develop online trainings that include instructions about conducting ministry amid social distancing
- Connect SWW coordinators so they can identify, develop, and present more strategic resources
- Focus on the key role of “live” coordinators, who oversee the ongoing, online training of groups and the organization of their offline ministry. Formal leadership will inevitably give way to actual leadership that recognizes the true role and calling of those in leadership, rather than careerism and bureaucracy.
- Activate each online and offline group member. In small groups, the role of each individual increases sharply and stimulates the personal growth of formerly passive and inactive members.
- Trust, mutual assistance, and unity as necessary conditions for Christian fellowship during a time of continued risk, suspicion, confusion, and fear.
These are just some of the elements with which we will formulate renewed approaches to the life, training, and ministry of evangelical churches. These are renewed approaches, rather than new approaches, because they combine the historical experience of the early persecuted church with new technological opportunities. These approaches must respond to the challenges of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding this global pandemic as well as observable, long-term regional trends related to the restriction of freedoms and rights of the church and ministry activity of evangelical churches in Eurasia. If we do not identify flexible forms of training and ministry for the leadership of evangelical churches, which would combine minimal social contact with a maximum use of technological advantages, then the life and ministry of the church will be paralyzed for a long time.
It is apparent that not all churches are prepared to sacrifice social interaction for virtual interaction, or that all churches even have access to quality internet connections and a wide array of online resources. Therefore, the combination of online and offline approaches will be diverse and dynamic and will depend on the pastor’s position, the age requirements of congregations and groups, the level of religious freedom, and financial and technological opportunities. The life and ministry of the church will not be the same, but will inevitably become “hybrid” forms, which are even more dynamic.
It is becoming clearer even today that “hybrid” formats of interaction are more effective for the fellowship and training of young leaders. The accent here is on “online.” For older generations, the transition to technological ministry may be more difficult. This technological lag, or put another way, this technological conservatism of the older generation makes them more vulnerable.
From data collected about the spread of this pandemic, we know that older generations are at increased risk for infection. Young, stronger, and more technologically literate leaders could show more care for their elder spiritual brothers and pay more attention to their experience and wisdom. The older generations in the church represent an enormous wealth of spiritual, social and cultural capital, which cannot be replaced by online resources. The internet does not represent everything, only what’s new. If we want to know history and learn from it, it is worth speaking with those witnesses of the past who are still alive. By moving its activity online, the church risks losing other valuable resources. That’s why the older person should have the most respected seat at the table. Learning does not begin on the internet, but in the family, among friends, and fellow believers.
In conclusion, in church life and ministry, the emphasis on new technology is consistent with an emphasis on the new generation. However, not everything can be found on the internet and not everything can be done in an online format. Not everything is known and understood and not everything is within the power and ability of the young. Therefore, during these difficult conditions, the church will only be able to fulfill its mission if there is unity among its various generations, along with harmony among various approaches and forms of ministry. Perhaps during this time of quarantine, young people will find the time to connect with parents, grandparents, pastors, and mentors. Perhaps, this forced isolation will help us better realize the great value of home groups and Bible study groups. Perhaps through these simple forms of interaction we will be able to revive the values of hospitality, generosity, and trust. All of this is in addition to the indisputable technological advantages of new online forms of communication, which the church is implementing right now en masse.
While it is true that life will never be the same after the pandemic, much depends on external factors, which are beyond our control. But we can still learn from this experience and balance it with those things that are already true and validated. We can creatively and responsibly combine the simplicity and spontaneity of small groups with technological innovation, and the wisdom of older generations with the ingenuity of the young. This strategy is not meant to just get us through the pandemic. Rather our current efforts are helping us to prepare ourselves and the mission of the church for more relevant and effective ministry in that new world that will appear after the pandemic is over.
Dr. Michael Cherenkov, Executive Field Director
and Mission Eurasia Field Ministries Leadership Team