Despite challenges, internet platforms are key for reaching those who are isolated or home-bound

Written by Elizabeth Duarte

When pandemic mandates were lifted in Canada, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. For some, life returned to what they would consider normal. For others, “normal” remained a dream.

Immune-compromised or vulnerable individuals, like myself, have remained at home, sidelined and unable to join our healthier counterparts. According to Statistics Canada, in 2020 vulnerable individuals comprised 14 per cent of the population ages 15 and older.  

The early church faced a similar dilemma. In its inception, believers lived together in a physical community, shared possessions and meals, and worshipped together. But this happiness was short-lived. Persecution arose and believers were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.

They were faced with a choice—live in self-pity and use their difficulties as an excuse to abandon their faith or surrender the situation to God to achieve His purposes. Thankfully, they chose the latter. The gospel spread and many came to Christ.

We too must decide how we will respond to our present separations. In an article for Christianity Today, “Why churches can’t be the same after the pandemic,” Kate Shellnutt writes that churches have observed a decline in numbers and are grappling with addressing the needs of congregants still in isolation.

Many ways exist to reach these isolated individuals. In the decade I’ve been housebound with Lyme disease, I personally have been blessed by numerous creative outreaches.

In one church, a member of the Bible study group placed me on speakerphone beside the teacher so I could listen and take part in the conversation. Another group brought Bible studies into my home; yet another offered studies on Zoom. Little did we know, this was to become the norm for all of us in 2020.

Like the believers in Acts, churches were cast onto a different topography at the onset of the pandemic—the internet.

My father pastored a small congregation, many of whom were considered vulnerable. When Covid-19 hit, they adapted. Sermons were published on YouTube, bringing viewers from across provinces. Prayer meetings and Bible studies were hosted online. 

Congregants stayed connected through prayer chains. For Christmas outreach, they created gospel-oriented activity packets for bored, home-bound children. Outdoor “drive-in” services were held during the summer so people could feel close while physically distanced.

And churches can continue to adapt, using platforms like Discord, Microsoft Teams, and Skype to host coffee hangouts, game/movie nights, study times, or support groups. Leveraging these tools creates new ministries for those still isolated.

People worldwide have socialized this way for years. As I discovered online spaces in my own isolation and loneliness, I found countless others like me. Some looked for companionship, friendships, or romantic relationships, and others searched for answers, trying to find a way through the pain resonating in their souls. 

From in-game chat rooms to cryptocurrency fauceting sites to YouTube live streams, I’ve met real people with real pain on the other side of the screen, some of whom have never entered a church.

Preparing to minister on these platforms carries distinct similarities to ministering on physical mission fields. Missionaries know they’ll face loneliness, separation from loved ones, reprimands, and even hostility from those they seek out. Similarly, online forums can be lonely and notoriously hostile, especially to those claiming the name of Christ. Yet I’ve found that being present and interacting with love, humility, and friendship can result in deep conversations and opportunities to point people to Jesus.

Where the gospel is outlawed, missionaries employ creative strategies. Some massive multiplayer online games prohibit religious discussions in their forums and threaten bans for those who engage in them. Yet I’ve seen many carefully-worded truths posted on in-game chats when the topic of religion arises (and it often does). I’ve also been blessed with opportunities to connect with some of these same people on Discord and share the gospel. 

Just as missionaries turn to one another for support, those ministering online can also benefit by connecting with each other. No formal organization, to my knowledge, currently exists for this. However, there are Christian gaming communities that pray for and encourage one another, one of which I’ve been a member of for years. 

Though some believe virtual interactions don’t count as relationships or fellowship, for a significant number of the population, online platforms might be the primary or only avenue they’ll have. The choice now is ours. Will we see their needs and respond, or will we leave them behind?