- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Christians accustomed to in-person evangelizing — including street preachers and door-knocking Jehovah’s Witnesses — are reconsidering outreach during the COVID-19 pandemic, some say for good.

At Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Matt Queen is the associate dean of the Roy J. Fish School of Evangelism and Missions. He said students in an introductory evangelism class reach out to friends and strangers alike via text messaging, social chat platforms and other media in “trying to find hope” in the midst of a pandemic.

“One student was evangelizing through Zoom with 500 people from Europe and North Africa,” Mr. Queen said. “And 20 people in those conversations made decisions to follow Jesus.”

The pandemic has prompted a conversation about the philosophical and the practical for evangelizers, from how to talk about life and death to how to say hello when a virus could impart a deadly illness.

In March, the Jehovah’s Witnesses ended door-to-door preaching out of an abundance of “love of our neighbors,” said Robert Hendriks, U.S. spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses. He said he believes door-knocking will resume after the pandemic, but perhaps with less focus for the faithful.

Mr. Hendriks added that online weekly meetings for Jehovah’s Witnesses have “swelled” during the pandemic.

“Over the last decade or two, Saturday morning is the morning you get things done — go to the Home Depot, soccer, the cleaner, ballet,” he said, acknowledging social changes long before COVID-19 hit. “For decades we’ve been training our congregants to try alternative forms of witnessing This shift has been the definition of a paradigm shift.”

An October survey of more than 1,000 Protestant pastors by LifeWay Research found that nearly two-thirds of churches were less than 70% filled, compared to attendance pre-COVID-19.

But it’s the evangelistic thrust — preaching on street corners, singing in subways and handing out tracts outside a public park — that have sidelined many faithful.

In November, officials of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began reassigning a “very limited number” of missionary assignments, after bringing missionaries home at the outset of the pandemic.

“The Church is moving forward in all areas of the world with ample caution, always strictly following the guidance of governments to prevent the spread of the pandemic,” reads a statement posted Monday on the church’s website on Monday.

Even the Salvation Army bell-ringers who traditionally stand with a kettle pot outside supermarkets seeking donations are employing COVID-19 protocols and taking donations on cash apps.

In some ways, the changes are an opportunity to rethink engaging with people outside the faith, says Gary Comer, an adjunct professor at the Talbot School of Theology in California and author of “Soul Whisperer: Why the Church Must Change the Way It Views Evangelism.”

Mr. Comer says the emphasis on the message — often depicted by street preachers or “go-getters,” as he calls them — overshadows a relational approach to Christian witnessing that he believes the moment calls for.

“The pandemic really has afforded church leaders an opportunity to re-teach evangelism because not everybody, not everyone out there is going to welcome a stranger into their space,” Mr. Comer said. “I think there will be lingering psychological effects beyond this vaccine, and just like post-9/11, it’ll be with us.”

While evangelizers experiment with new forms during the pandemic, religious worship itself has become embattled.

One of the biggest nation’s mega-churches, Atlanta’s North Point Ministries has announced no in-person services until after Christmas. In downtown Washington, St. Matthew’s Cathedral is limited to 50 persons in attendance, as are all churches in the nation’s capital.

And the U.S. Supreme Court has asked a federal court in California to review lockdown restrictions on religious centers in Pasadena, in light of the high court’s ruling last month overturning similar strictures in New York.

“[E]ven if the Constitution has taken a holiday during this pandemic, it cannot become a sabbatical,” Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote in a separate opinion.

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