Adapting Ministry to the Digital World

by Dave Nguyen-Stone

 

We are too quick to consume. We too easily recycle things that worked in the past. We need to create something new in response to who God is.

 
These thoughts were rumbling around as preparations were underway for MARKwest, an annual camp where students in British Columbia spend a week immersed in the Gospel of Mark. It’s one of several InterVarsity MARKcamps which happen across Canada each spring.
 
We weren’t quite sure what creating something new could look like, but as our staff team prepared for MARKwest this year, the news of COVID-19 was also popping up in our daily newsfeeds. We faced a challenge: if we couldn’t host MARKwest at Pioneer Camp Pacific, what could we offer? How would we invite students to encounter the good news of Jesus?
 
In the midst of all the uncertainties around us, how could we lead out of faith in Jesus and not out of fear?
 
So while holding out hope for MARKwest to continue, our team started to simultaneously plan an alternative Mark experience. Immediately, questions emerged. How do you compellingly invite students to an online study? What about Zoom fatigue? Would students want to study the Bible in front of a screen? What about poor Wi-Fi connections? Could something new compare to how good things were before?
 
When MARKwest had to be cancelled, we mourned. And then we had to decide whether to sit out for the year or respond to the crisis creatively.
 

We Need to Create

 
And so, MARKnest (a reference to nesting/physical distancing) was born! What started as an experiment in courage and faithfulness in British Columbia, grew into a partnership with our brothers and sisters in Quebec, complete with a French-speaking group! Soon after, students and staff from Ontario joined in as well!
 
But a couple of weeks into social distancing, two things became clear: both a Zoom bible study with 100+ active screens as well as 40 hours of Zoom meetings in a week sounded like a terrible invitation for any human. So we improvised.

 
 

Making an Online Space Beautiful

 
Without any knowledge or experience of live-streaming, we set up a morning study filmed in a make-shift studio at a local church and taught by two of our campus staff. We broadcasted live on YouTube, facilitated small group discussions in small group Zoom rooms and relayed student observations and questions to the teachers via the chat application, Slack.
 
We made every effort to make it a visually captivating experience with a beautiful set.
 

Fostering Digital Community

 
Our afternoons were spent off-screen, guided into Scripture by a group of staff nicknamed “Team Luddite”. Students were encouraged to get outside, read the next passage of Scripture in their Bible, create artwork, and bless other participants with a food delivery service.
 
In the evenings, students worshipped together, again through YouTube, and listened to a nightly podcast with music, dramatic readings and conversations with campus staff, actors, musicians and local pastors — all focused on the unfolding story of Jesus in Mark. After listening, students gathered again in Zoom rooms to discuss and pray.
 
We ran through the whole story of Jesus, and, as each day passed, we found ourselves imitating Jesus. As our multi-province crowd followed Mark’s narrative, new participants registered each day—people even joined from Austria, Sierra Leone and New Zealand!
 
By the end of MARKnest, 160+ people were tuning into our livestreams! As Jesus took broken people and created beauty in them, our students took the fears and anxieties of our daily reality to Jesus and began to create beautiful works of art, poetry, music and more. As Jesus laid his life down as a sacrifice, students began laying down their lives sacrificially, honouring Christ with commitments to follow him.
 

A Promise Amidst the Chaos

 
In Mark 13, Jesus describes both the chaos of the temple system being destroyed and the promise of something new being born. His command is to be attentive and watch.
 
For both students and staff, this passage brought clarity to our current reality as we wrestled with all of the upheavals, cancellations and unknowns of the world around us and clung to what God has been creating. With a new attentiveness, students began examining their lives and the world around them and expressing hope and trust in Jesus.
 
They believe that he will take our circumstances and create something new. Despite social distancing, students are creating art together, reading Scripture together and responding to scarcity with generosity.
 
So it was, in the age of COVID-19, we put our faith in Jesus and created something new with him.
 
And it was beautiful.

 

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Dave Nguyen-Stone serves as InterVarsity’s Campus Staff Director for British Columbia. He serves alongside his wife, Kim, who is a Campus Minister at Emily Carr University of Art + Design.

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