As different countries return to some degree of normality, people keep asking us what aspects of our lives will resume their former shape and which ones have changed for good. Business leaders are wondering how much presence in the office will be required of their co-workers and themselves, and pastors are wondering what church will look like post-pandemic.
We interviewed a number of brothers in North America and the UK involved in student and youth ministry to hear both how they weathered the storm and where things go from here.
“No doubt these were difficult twelve months” says Will Cannon, chapter director of UCO in Ann Arbor, Michigan, “it was challenging to adapt to the ever shifting circumstances.
Universities changed their approach, so did the state, and students themselves changed in how risk-averse they were over this period.” As a result, our brothers and sisters had to be creative: if a particular facility had a maximum number of occupancy, UCO in Belfast rented more of them and ended up in three places in one night. If the weather allowed it, they met outside; and while students were completely in lockdown, the main thing the staff in Ann Arbor did was make phone calls.
Like universities and everybody else, shifting at least partially to online formats was inevitable during the pandemic. Not surprisingly, the results were mixed. “It gets tiring for everybody to be in front of a screen the whole time, and some use it to play video games,” Will Cannon remarks. “It is virtually impossible to meet new people online,” says Peter Mayoros who serves in Grand Rapids, “so front-line evangelism is harder that way.”
And yet, a number of our UCO chapters ran Alpha Courses, Life in the Spirit Seminars or similar seminars online. Typically, such a course goes for 7-9 weeks, with talks and discussion groups aimed at outlining the basics of Christianity. Toward the end, students are invited to take step of dedication to the Lord and are prayed with for a fuller outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In a number of locations, this was all done online and it still worked, much to some of our brothers’ surprise.
Another unexpected effect of the move toward online meetings was the ability to involve people from multiple locations around the world. Last July, youth outreaches from all of our regions i.e. Asia, Latin America, North America, Europe and the Middle East organized an online 24-hour prayer vigil where different locations each took a slot to pray. This and similar ventures have convinced some of our brothers that the digital element of our life is here to stay.
For students and staff alike, the pandemic forced them to grow as disciples: when you deal with disappointment, change and other challenges, you have the opportunity to respond in faith. Phil Morrison from Belfast explains: “You had to be dogged and persevere: when an event was cancelled three times, did you give up or were you ready to plan it for a fourth time? That kind of endurance made the difference between success and failure.” And of course, the pandemic confronted students with how fragile human life is. Many allowed those questions to lead them to deeper commitment in their faith: in most of our UCO chapters, we added men and women to the committed core, people who expressed a desire to be formed as disciples.
“We encouraged our staff not to see Covid as a pause, but as a different season during which to expect different fruit,” says Will Cannon. “And indeed, while some aspects of our ministry remained challenging, we experienced a renewed sense of unity among our staff. And three among us discerned to move to a new location and help with a further UCO plant: I am not sure that would have happened without the pandemic.”
Many of the students already expressed their desire for more community all through the year. Now that the summer has arrived, our US and European chapters are using the opportunity to consolidate the gains made during the year. They all run “summer households,” where students join staff for a live-in, high impact experience.
“Most of our students consider this a good year, even though it was different,” says Phil Morrison. “Sometimes we have a particular vision of what success is – but then something else happens,” confirms Peter Mayoros. Please pray for more fruit to be borne, fruit that endures.