When COVID-19 struck in the U.S., the church sprang into action. Alternative plans were hastily developed and Zoom calls and conferences sprang up overnight. It is now possible to watch video conferences all day long on how to handle the COVID-19 crisis. Because of this worldwide event, the church in the U.S. has been dissected and examined in excruciating detail.
Likewise, churches in large, urban areas around the world have experienced a similar flood of resources to evaluate their situations and to make plans on how to move forward. However, our Christian brothers and sisters in rural and remote areas across the globe have not been afforded as much attention or help.
Last week, I had the opportunity to talk to missionaries (via a video conference call) serving around the world in rural areas concerning the impact COVID-19 is having on their lives and their ministries. While it was a great time of encouragement and a great source of firsthand information, it was also a time of somber reflection as many people around the world in rural areas are suffering because of this terrible disease.
The Negative Effects of COVID-19 Imposed Lockdowns
I listened to nearly 80 missionaries talk about rural work around the world. The recurring theme was that few people in rural areas are suffering from the disease itself. COVID-19 is still being seen in most rural areas around the world as an urban disease.
However, many rural peoples are suffering greatly because of government, and sometimes local community, imposed lockdowns.
As cities went into lockdown mode, jobs dried up around the world. The result was devastating as migrant peoples were forced to leave their city jobs and return to their homes in the countryside. With this kind of job loss, the primary worker loses an income, but the extended family also loses because many people in the countryside survive from one city person’s job.
Many missionaries serving in rural areas mentioned that farmers are not able to plant crops this year due to the lockdown. The inability to purchase seeds, go the fields, and plant crops has left many farmers in dire straits.
The implications of fallow fields mean no crops this year, no money from the harvest this fall, and no food until the fall of 2021. (The next opportunity to plant again is in the spring of 2021 and the harvest of that crop will not be until late summer of 2021, nearly 16 months away.)
Gospel Opportunities in Rural Areas
On a positive note, I learned that many rural missionaries are ramping up humanitarian relief projects such as food distribution, setting up hand-washing stations, and providing masks for people living in rural areas.
These humanitarian efforts are opening doors for the gospel in many places where penetration with the good news had previously made little progress. While their urban neighbors are often afraid and unwilling to help, local religious groups are self-isolating, and many secular relief organizations are pulling out due to fear of infection, Christians are going in to serve the people in greatest need.
While many very resistant areas with people opposed to the gospel remain, stories of openness due to the virus and the good work of Christians willing to sacrifice to serve people where they live are springing up around the world. There may not be a great revival yet, but God is at work in areas that had previously been resistant to the gospel.
Disruption to Short-term Missions
COVID-19 is also wreaking havoc on summer plans for short-term mission trips from churches in North America and for the field itself. As groups cancel due to travel restrictions, rural overseas missionaries are struggling to find ways to fill in the blanks where they had planned to utilize these groups.
For many missionaries, short-term groups provide vital support to their work, and the cancellation of these groups seriously impacts their evangelism, discipleship, and leadership training possibilities.
However, many rural missionaries shared how national partners are stepping up in new ways to take the gospel where the missionaries can no longer go. For many nationals, taking the gospel to a lost world is a very real risk. They may face government opposition, family opposition, and village opposition.
They could also face the risk of catching the coronavirus as they step out of their houses and communities to serve God. Yet, they are going, serving, and sharing in greater numbers than ever before and people are listening and believing.
God is at work among rural people around the world. Missionaries serving in some of the most remote places on earth often do not get recognition for their sacrifices and their hard work in the face of difficult situations.
I am thankful I was able to listen to these men and women as they recounted how God is blessing in rural areas. I am also thankful to share with you the needs and the victories of rural work across the world.
Jeff Clark is the Rural Missiologist for the Rural Matters Institute as well as the Project Leader for the Global Research Department with the International Mission Board. He has served as a Strategy Research Associate in East Asia. He has also served on the state Baptist Conventions of Montana and West Virginia. Jeff holds a Doctor of Ministry from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.