The experience of COVID-Pandemic life has been nothing if not disorientating. Somehow it feels like we sent out the last update just a week or two ago, but it also feels like we haven’t written in three years. (It’s been more like 3 months, sorry about that.) Despite the fact that I have been working exclusively from home and that we have nowhere else to go, it feels like we have less time in our day, not more.
Since March, we’ve participated in social-distancing versions of: a wedding, a funeral, a 9-year-old birthday party, field trips, discipling, Pinochle, Battleship, Clue, Guess Who, design meetings, Bible studies, a bachelor party, and on and on. We’ve had roof leaks, we got rabbits to raise for meat, we built a bunk bed, released 4 new updates of the Jesus Film app, trying new hobbies, and so many other totally-normal things.
It’s all been a blur. But somehow a blur that felt like it has taken forever. And with the positive-test rate on the rise in Florida, it doesn’t look like we’re even close to finished with this weird fog-life.
A Trudge to Glory
Through all of it, my work has mostly continued on business-as-usual – just without a commute. I bounce back and forth between meetings, and heads-down times of “pixel-pushing,” user research, and exploring new possibilities in how people interact with our tools. All pursuing opportunities to update, fix, improve, and expand Jesus Film’s impact for the Gospel around the world.
I’ve spent time interacting with leaders of national movements of evangelists and disciple-makers, but sometimes I’m getting the pixel-spacing just right on an icon to communicate the difference between “download on wifi only” and “download on mobile data and wifi” even if the user isn’t able to read the labels in our app. (An important setting in places where 1 GB of mobile data might cost 15% or more of your monthly income.)
BUT! In this time of social-distancing, intense politics, and social change there have continues to be a lot of opportunities to get the Gospel in front of people that the Jesus Film Digital department and our partners have taken advantage of.
His arm is not too short to save.
One night in late May is known in one specific major religion as the “Night of Power.” It’s a night where they celebrate the supposed delivery of their scriptures from heaven to their prophet. Evangelists and missionaries in areas where this religion is prevalent find that people tend to have “visions” and dreams of Jesus leading up to that night. Many begin to seek out information about Jesus, and about the Gospel each year, and many respond to Jesus as the Lord that can give freedom, forgiveness, and power. Leading up to it this year, one of our partners – Jon Ralls of Kavanah Media – coordinated with Jesus Film’s Next Steps strategy to create a conversations using social media ad “recipes” to drive people who have had visions or dreams toward a short video from our platform, through chat-bot technology, and on to interactions with real people.
Here’s one story that came out of it (I’ve edited for spelling, brevity, and privacy):
So this [Central Asian] guy moved here to [EDITED] last October, God had been working in his life for a while, he has a 20-year-old son and an ex-wife who became Christians about 4 years ago but he wasn’t having it til more recently his son really pushed him to study more of the Bible.
He went to a local church to get answers but the older priest there wasn’t very helpful for him, and then he couldn’t even do that once COVID shutdown hit.
Until 2 weeks ago, he saw our “Dreams” Facebook ad in his language and using [his own religion’s] terms for Jesus, and it caught his attention. He sent a message and actually chose “I want to study the Bible with a follower of Jesus” from our chat tree, so we connected him pretty quickly with a multiplier [from his ethnolinguistic group], ended up talking with several of our connected [people from his ethnolinguistic group], and received Christ and then got baptized Sunday in a small gathering in a backyard here. THANK YOU, TEAM! AND PRAISE GOD!
Partnering Around the World
We’ve also seen “Next Steps” campaigns being run in: Indonesia, Tunisia, India, Australia, the UK, the Philippines, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and around the Middle East.
In our last update we talked about Voke, the other app that is produced out of Jesus Film’s Digital Solutions Team. I wanted to share one quick story from Desmond in Australia about how Voke is being used by Youth Group leaders there.
I was supposed to be landing in Chiang Mai, Thailand right about now. Carrie’s parents were supposed to be arriving at our house tomorrow, visiting and helping keep our household sane. This coming Monday, Fia was going to miss dance class for about the first time because Cai was supposed to have his first Blue and Gold Dinner for Cub Scouts.
Yet, here we are, on at least day 14 of the kids not leaving the house. I haven’t gone anywhere since a quick grocery run six days ago, Carrie hasn’t gone anywhere except for her dawn walk around our very-quiet neighborhood. Our small group has met on Google Hangouts twice now. Our new church has “met” two times now on Facebook Live Video. My workday happens from our guest bedroom; one video call after another, filled in with chats through a coworking app called Slack. And my team’s pace has only picked up with the whole world of missions moving almost exclusively to virtual ministry during these crazy times.
Oh, and it’s rip-roaring allergy season in Orlando, with all of the trees trying to make fruit again this year. There’s pine and avocado pollen dusted all over our yard… and apparently way up in my sinuses.
Social Distancing Opportunities
One of the things that the Jesus Film Digital Department (my team along with Marketing, and Film Production) is working on putting together a Digital Ministry Resource Kit to provide some ideas of how to make use of this weird time where we’re all so separated, but so many of us have more availability to have intentional conversations over the phone, or email, or Facebook messenger, etc.
One of the apps that comes out of my team’s work is called Voke. It empowers people to “grow together one-on-one, or with a group, even when you’re apart, by watching a selection of gospel-based video series — all in one place.” It’s a perfect tool for youth groups who can’t meet together, or for families who want to be intentional about making use of this time. It’s set up to be a tool that facilitates group journeys thorough various series of shared content.
By the end of next week, the kit should be available on JesusFilm.org. Go there and search “Digital Ministry Resource Kit” to get it! (A little birdie told me that it would probably end up at jesusfilm.org/digitalministrykit.)
Out of the whirlwind…
Like most other places at this point, we’re under a shelter-in-place order in Florida, which are usually hurricane-related around here. But the existential and spiritual questions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic feel far more like Job’s questions of the Lord leading up to chapter 38. Why is this happening? What did we do to deserve this?
God has purposes for this whole thing. Maybe some if it is the chastisement of His church for some reason, by preventing us from gathering (Malachai 1:10). Maybe part of it is that He’s judging the modern world for arrogance in thinking we control our fortune and destinies. Perhaps it’s both of those things, or neither. There will be be faithful, fruitful believers who die of this virus. There will be people who sin with abandon who are cured (or don’t get it at all).
I’ve seen enough of Facebook to know that so many people have some explanation or idea about why God is judging whom. Instead, I find myself sitting like Job after God’s thundering response of out of the storm — essentially — “Who do you think you are? I have my purposes, and I am in control of it. Trust that.” And Job’s response, “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge? Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” (42:2-3)
People are losing jobs. The air is clearer. People are dying alone. The stock market is crazy. Households are forced to be together. Trips are canceled. People are scared. Faithful churches are empty. Day and night still come (Job 38:12). The foundations of the earth are still solid (v4). Snow and hail fall from their storehouses (v22). Thunderstorms still follow their paths (v25). The dew and frost still form in the mornings (vv28-29). Orion, the Pleiades, the Bear and her cubs, and the rest of the stars still twinkle overhead (vv31-32). Gravity is still pulling things together; light still shines (v33). Lions still hunt; ravens still pick (vv40-41).
We are resting in this: God is not capricious, and He is in complete control over all of this, over the path of the virus and the responses of our leaders. Not only does He control all of these things, but He has a plan — no, probably lots of plans for how He will use all of this for His own glory, and “for good” for His Church. Even if we don’t see it now. Even if we don’t understand it later.
Even if things get far worse, God is sovereign over it. He’s still good, He knows the end from the beginning, and He will accomplish His purposes.
Everyone who is suffering from the effects of COVID-19, their families, and their communities.
Protection for medical professionals (like Carrie’s sister) who are working on the front lines of this crisis.
Ease from anxiety for everyone. And, that we would see what it is that the Lord is doing with this!
Opportunities for all of us to serve our neighbors, and to minister in word and deed to those around us who need it.
A couple of times in 2019 I had the opportunity to preach at a primarily Chinese-language church here in Orlando. I wrote a third sermon, but due to some scheduling conflicts, I was unable to deliver it. But, I’ve had it sitting around since then, and decided to record it for a devotional for my team while we’re all remote because of COVID-19.
I went back and overlayed the texts that I was referencing (since I tend to talk fast). I hope that you enjoy, and are encouraged!
I’m starting to write this over the Pacific Ocean – somewhere between the Emperor Seamounts at the International Date Line – or at least that’s what the progress map on my entertainment screen says. It’s 3:30pm in Seoul on September 22nd, and 2:30am in Orlando, but when I cross the international dateline, it’ll be something like 7:00pm on September 21st. I can see the purples, pinks, and oranges of the sunset over the clouds, and I’ll see the sunrise somewhere over Canada before we land.
I feel similar awe at the beauty and a struggle to understand the different places I’ve been and the people I’ve interacted within the past 12 days
Simon Pierre & the Congo
Just outside of customs in the Maya-Maya Airport in Brazzaville, Congo, we met Simón Pierre, an incredibly driven and strategic laborer who is equipping evangelists. We were there to help with step two of his 3-year plan to create hubs of Christians who can talk about Jesus with friends, neighbors, and others they meet on their dusty, broken streets.
In the Maison Sainte Marthe – a missionary housing compound close to the US embassy – we ate our welcoming dinner of whole roasted chicken, fish (also whole), roasted banana, and rice prepared by the wife of one of the local pastors.
Over the next four days, Simon Pierre sent our small team where we could walk people through ways that they could engage others with the story of Jesus using film media. The students, pastors, and faithful believers brought their lunches each day, sitting from about 9am to 3pm to gain these tools, and then going out into the streets and neighborhoods to try it out. In those first three days, we trained close to 70 people, and they saw at least ten new Congolese brothers and sisters pray and confess their trust in Jesus.
Challenges & Takeaways
Like a lot of life in the Congo, each training was a struggle. Cell data is unreliable and expensive there, and most of the mobile devices were over three years old, running a version of Android that has been outdated for almost as long. We worked around these hurdles, along with spotty power, and ridiculous amounts of noise. We were able to get the Jesus Film App, and the necessary films onto most of the devices by using cellular routers and a peer-to-peer sharing app that I’d never heard of before.
When I boarded my plane to fly to South Korea, I knew some things that had to be done to make it easier for Simon Pierre’s disciples to preach the Gospel. And those things – like the ability for people to get the apps and the films with absolutely no cellular or WiFi data at all – have to happen as soon as possible. The whole of the Congo will not be reached by Americans flying in to do it. It will be reached it will be by people like Simon Pierre, and Overmas, and the other Congolese saints that are teaching other faithful saints to teach others about this Jesus that knows their struggles and has overcome on their behalf.
Landing in Korea was like emerging into an alternate world where the pursuit of efficiency reigns.
I came in expecting intense culture shock from my time in Korea. I’d heard from friends that Korea can be disorientating for Americans coming in with their guard down. Instead, it was comforting after my previous days in a place that was experientially very different from the US.
As I went through customs, the bent toward efficiency and the fact that every sign was in English along with Korean struck me as interesting. I knew where to go, and people understood what I was asking when I had a question – this was not the case in Brazzaville or my layover in Addis Ababa!
I grabbed gimbap to eat – similar to a sushi hand roll – while I waited for my team leader’s flight to land from Orlando. As I watched the people around me in the terminal, I started to feel the differences. When Gabe arrived, we weaved our way to the train into Seoul to meet up with our host, Kyungsoo.
Kyungsoo, Kyungwon & KCCC
Kyungsoo Oh and his wife Kyungwon are old friends from the working-sabbatical program that Carrie and I participated in when we moved to Orlando in 2010. He wears many hats within KCCC (Korea Campus Crusade for Christ) – leading Jesus Film Strategies for much of East Asia, directing the Virtually Led Movements and Global Church Movement teams, and overseeing the Gateway strategic evangelism training team for Korea, Japan, and Mongolia.
After meeting up with our other teammate, Paul, and dropping our luggage at our hotel (and some lightning-fast showers), we headed out for some dinner of pork-bone soup with fresh sesame leaves. Over steaming bowls, we started the 5-day process of decoding how the Korean ministries are using Jesus Film’s digital tools to reach their campuses and communities.
The next day, we climbed through the hilly streets that weave through KCCC’s headquarters just outside of the 600-year-old city wall on the north side of Seoul. We got to meet filmmakers, writers, designers, strategists, evangelists, researchers, global-missions leaders, and interns that are part of the 2nd oldest national team within Campus Crusade for Christ family. They are sending hundreds of staff around the world, going to areas where people of European descent can’t travel safely, and even to campuses here in the US.
As we rode the 180 mile-per-hour express train to the southern city of Busan the next morning, we started to “pull apart” the Gateway strategy with Kyungsoo. We needed to understand how they use it to guide believers through the process of evangelism, discipleship, and training in ministry. One strategy uses our Jesus Film resources in a different app developed by the team in Korea to reflect Korean sensibilities, values, and culture.
A theme that would come back in a number of our interviews and conversations is the Korean value for working within a hierarchy and clear steps for moving through a process. In our Jesus Film app, there are discussion questions that go along with each video. They can be used in a small group setting, in personal devotions, or in evangelistic conversations to reflect on the videos and point people to Christ. In our app, they’re open-ended questions that are meant to foster loose and free conversation, like a Zamboni that smooths the ice between each hockey period allowing the players to move anywhere on the ice effortlessly. But we learned that this kind of conversation comes across to many Koreans as too unstructured and hard to navigate. The Gateway team has implemented “conversational flows,” a kind of choose-your-own-adventure structure. A presenter or evangelist shares a video with someone and asks specific questions for conversation, then moves onto one of a set of prescribed videos based on the answers and topics of the following interaction.
Translations Don’t Translate
Koreans, particularly those under 40, are incredibly savvy when it comes to English-language media. When Avengers: Endgame came out, it set Korea’s record for ticket sales in just nine days. Even though a Korean-language dub was produced, there were only a handful of screenings in the whole country that weren’t English dialogue with Korean subtitles. This flies in the face of the Jesus Film Project’s fundamental strategy of translating media into “heart languages.” Koreans want to interact with English-language media in English with Korean subtitles. Dubbed movies are “old fashioned;” as the 20-something interns told us.
Even if they were okay with dubbing in general, the translation was done 40 years ago using a formal style of Korean that one student compared to an American reading Shakespeare.
Research & Interviews
KCCC was doing a 3-day training at Pusan National University, and the ministry’s city headquarters. We spent the next day interviewing students and Gateway trainers. We dug into their experience with evangelism, their use of technology, and film resources, etc. We worked at getting a deeper understanding of critical strategic and cultural factors that created the need for the Gateway app to distinguish itself from our own.
Over our final two days, the four of us spent time working through the overlapping and divergent requirements of our two apps. Ultimately, we want to increase all of our impact for the Gospel. We will continue to work through what we’ve learned and how we can work together so that even more people can hear about Jesus everywhere.
For now, my time in the Congo left us with some practical features to work out and bugs to fix. Over the next year or so, we hope the insight from our Korea days will expand our ability to work alongside the Gateway team to produce culturally-contextualized app experiences that make evangelism both effective and easy.