Training & the Pandemic

by Rich Harknett

Training has been a part of the life of the church since its inception. In the Great Commission Jesus said, ‘Make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Mt. 28:19-20).’ So, it’s natural that a significant part of mission work has been dedicated to this over the years. However, in recent times, the means have changed significantly.

Among the mission priorities of Echoes International is the facilitation of gifted Bible teachers for the majority world. In 2019, prior to the pandemic, one of the ways in which this was realised was travel to support training activities. Graham Poland and Alistair McGhee were able to spend time in the Dominican Republic at the national elders and leaders’ conference. Robert Hamilton and Stevie Rogers did likewise in Colombia. Jonathan Newell taught in Argentina at the Brethren cross-cultural mission training institute. Each of these proved successful trips, resulting in blessing for those who travelled and those who received. Relationships were built and God’s Word shared. Invitations were extended for the following year to participate in the 100th anniversary celebrations of the Brethren church in the Dominican Republic and from Argentina to share in the annual mission partner retreat. Contacts made with believers who felt a call to mission have resulted in a Colombian couple being sponsored to attend Tilsley College from September 2022.

These positive outcomes resulted in another programme of visits being developed for 2020. As well as the invitations to return to locations already visited, travel was planned to Zambia and further trips to Hungary, Ethiopia, Thailand and Uganda were being investigated. Then the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

As flights came to a halt, so did the programme of travel that was lined up. Once lockdowns took hold and in-person meetings were prohibited, it became clear that travel was not the only barrier to some of the training that had been taking place. However, as the church in many countries rapidly moved online, so did the training. This technology that allowed for virtual training had existed for some time and was already being used by a number of groups. In Colombia, Echoes International had been supporting the FIEL Bible Institute for several years. This programme combines online studies with in-person mentoring – a combination that is ideal for church leaders living in the busy city of Bogotá. I had been due to travel to Argentina to teach on their mission programme in autumn 2019 but was unable to fly due to an injury. Instead, I was able to share all my classes online from the UK in what became, with hindsight, a trial run for the way that much of the institute’s teaching had to be done a few months later.

As the pandemic progressed, part of the original programme was able to run virtually. Beyond this, other possibilities began to open up to work with churches and training institutions. I was able to participate in an online biblical eldership event, attended by 140 church leaders from 16 Hispanic countries. Echoes International provided teachers to support discipleship work among migrants in Greece, speakers for mission conferences in Argentina, Honduras and Chile, and tutors for training programmes in Argentina and Peru. Some found themselves busier than they had been before the pandemic began.

Adapting to the Virtual World

The challenges of the pandemic caused programme trainers and church leaders alike to further reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of functioning virtually. Many of the strengths are immediately obvious. Online learning is hugely accessible. When distance, schedule or pandemic make attending in person difficult or impossible, students can connect without travel and are able to better juggle the competing demands on their time. This also allows participants the freedom to respond to questions, having given more time and thought than in a classroom setting. Students have access to gifted tutors and to digital resources, which can be more accessible than print resources.

Some of the weaknesses are also evident. Not everyone has access to the technology to connect to the internet, nor even access to internet of sufficient speed or stability to engage with the learning offered. Many countries in the majority world found that church engagement and training rapidly formed a two-tier system. The church became divided between those who had access to online meetings, typically those in urban areas, and those who did not, often in rural areas. Online students need to have a high degree of self-motivation and discipline. Lack of in-person contact must be compensated for by conscious and creative use of other means of communication. Even then, it will likely remain inferior to being physically with another person, both in a training context and in simply living alongside one another. There is also the challenge of extended time working on a screen and many of us will have experienced ‘Zoom fatigue’ over the past year or two.

The challenges of the pandemic caused programme trainers and church leaders alike to further reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of functioning virtually.

Lastly, there is also the challenge of adapting to the potential of the virtual world. Jeremy Bailenson1 wrote, ‘People using a new medium have a difficult time breaking out of the thinking involved with the previous ones. Learning to teach and train well in a virtual environment will mean making the most of all the strengths of the medium, especially when the scope of those is not yet fully appreciated.’

Making New Connections

As we move into a post-pandemic world, virtual training is here to stay. While it may not replace in-person training, and in some ways never can, it has the potential to function in parallel and meet different needs. This is evidenced by the good use of virtual training, which various Echoes International mission partners and sister organisations have made in recent years.

In Poland several key church leaders began Kairos-Polska. They adapted the course material from the Kairos institute in Romania and began to deliver it online: 150 students signed up, representing almost all of the Brethren assemblies in the country. Being connected virtually has allowed them to draw tutors from Poland and other countries. Additionally, the first year of classes was recorded, which now provides even greater flexibility for the students.

In Latin America, a new training institute launched during the pandemic: the Iberoamerican Evangelical Biblical Theological Seminary (SEBTI) serves the Spanish-speaking world by providing higher-level training. The programme is entirely online with 44 students from seven countries. Echoes International is providing a digital library for each one, facilitating their studies over the four years of the SEBTI course and beyond. Mission partner Luis Mostacero has been heavily involved with this programme since its inception. Anne-Laure Mostacero has also been working to develop a new online programme: Ancladas (Anchored). This is aimed at discipling women from across the Hispanic world through a combination of online group studies and guided personal study. Mentors are provided and relationships built across countries. Over 80 women from 13 different countries have now participated in the programme.

These are just three examples of the increasing number of virtual training programmes being realised. Some are fully online, while others blend both online and in-person elements. Added to the virtual is also the wide variety of fully in-person training, which can be resumed as the pandemic restrictions ease.

Training will continue to be a fundamental part of the life of the church worldwide. However, travel has not yet recovered after two years of pandemic restrictions. Visas, costs and time can prove prohibitive for both teachers and students. As the internet becomes ever more accessible, then virtual  training will inevitably have an increasing role. Nevertheless, face-to-face training has advantages which are extremely hard to replicate virtually and there will remain a role for this too. The challenge for the future will be to integrate these different forms and to learn how to maximise the strengths of each.

God is able to use difficult circumstances for His purposes. He is at work and His followers are being trained, both in traditional and new ways, to share the gospel and raise up new disciples.

1 Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

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