Viral Evangelism: Lessons from a Pandemic

It began with one of the most powerful superspreading events in history: three thousand people at a single gathering.

Although civil authorities were immediately concerned and quickly stepped up enforcement efforts in an attempt to isolate and quarantine the infected, it was too late. First the contagion spread like wildfire throughout the city, then it popped up seemingly at random in another city three hundred miles away and quickly spread there.

One man picked up a case from a bystander on the road, and suddenly it was running amok on another continent. Two other highly infectious individuals were associated with uncontrolled outbreaks in at least a dozen different cities.

Within a few years, it was endemic throughout the known world. Nearly everyone knew somebody who had a serious case — and still it spread. It has never been eradicated, and it never will be.

I’m speaking here, of course, not of the coronavirus, but of the Gospel.

Going viral?

I realize that in recent decades the church’s evangelistic mission has been most commonly understood not through the lens of epidemiology, but through a framework of ideas drawn from the world of corporate sales and multi-level marketing. Like their counterparts in the secular world, evangelistically-minded Christians work to build relationship networks, track leads, optimize their online presence, adjust their messaging based on market feedback and drive member engagement. In short, they tirelessly and energetically pitch their product (the Gospel, and to a greater or lesser degree, the church) in the most dynamic and winsome way possible, that by all means they might save some.

Somehow, though, this model has always fallen short for me. I guess, deep down, I’m just not much of a saleswoman. Even from childhood, I never had the stomach for it. When the time came to sell Girl Scout cookies in grade school, I quit the Girl Scouts.

By contrast, I’ve long marveled at the strong parallels between the way ideas and diseases spread. Even modern marketing professionals seem to get the connection. That’s their ultimate objective these days, isn’t it? To “go viral”? To create a piece of content so compelling, so infectious that it takes on a life of its own and jumps spontaneously — like a virus — from one individual or community to the next without further effort or expense?

Some reading this may, of course, feel a visceral negative reaction to any attempt to compare the Gospel to a virus. I get that. Viruses are dreadful and evil. They bring suffering, chaos and death upon the world. The Gospel of Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins “infects” people with eternal life, peace and salvation. In that sense, they are polar opposites.

Yet they often work in similar ways. Like a virus, the Gospel spreads organically, invisibly. Like a virus, the Gospel invades and saturates a person down to the cellular level before spreading almost spontaneously to those both in the immediate vicinity and far beyond. As Christians, moreover, we are as interested in spreading the Gospel as the world is interested in stopping the spread of a virus.

What better time than the present, then — in a season when, thanks to a global pandemic, we’ve all been learning all we can about how viruses behave and replicate — for us to consider the strong parallels between the spread of disease and the movement of the Gospel, and perhaps snatch up some useful wisdom?

Here are six takeaways I’ve gleaned. Perhaps you can spot others that I’ve missed.

1. You can’t spread what you don’t have

It’s a simple fact of nature: You cannot spread COVID-19 if you don’t have COVID-19.

The same can be said of the Gospel. You cannot share the Good News about Jesus Christ if you have not heard the Good News yourself.

A good first step in sharing the Gospel with others, then, is to be in church whenever you can. Encourage and be encouraged by fellow believers. Receive the Sacraments. Read and study the Bible and the Confessions. Pray and meditate on the Word of God. Stand daily at the foot of the cross, that the grace of Christ may be poured into you by the Holy Spirit. Be filled — and watch the Gospel sink deeply into you as it overflows and bubbles out to those around you.

2. Proximity to people is key

There’s a reason that “quarantine,” “self-isolate” and “social distancing” have all become household terms in 2020. Nothing stops a virus in its tracks like using simple geography to prevent close contact between infected persons and potential new hosts. Reading a book by yourself or interacting exclusively with the same isolated “bubble” of individuals all the time? Bad for spreading a virus. Close crowds with large numbers of people all sharing space and interacting with each other? Very, very good.

Whenever St. Paul entered a new city on his missionary journeys, he didn’t go off by himself and become a recluse. He went to synagogues and public forums, to temple courts and “places of prayer.” He put himself where people were — and the Gospel never once failed to take root in the hearts of those whom Christ was calling to Himself.

3. Viral load matters

According to the CDC, when contact tracers do their work of ferreting out people who have been exposed to the coronavirus, they’re looking specifically for “any individual within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes.” They aren’t looking for strangers who have passed by on the street. Rather, they want to know about real interactions — about relationships. When it comes to viral spread, the length and intensity of the exposure matters. The greater the “viral load,” the more likely an exposed person is to become sick, and the more severe that sickness will be.

As with the virus, so with the Gospel. Long-term relationships offer more opportunities to witness to the work of Jesus than one-off interactions. When the LCMS Witness and Outreach Ministry team launched their new Every One His Witnessevangelism program in 2017, they heavily emphasized relational, contextual witnessing based around six key elements: “Listen-Ask-Seek-Share-Invite-Encourage.” This isn’t an approach that can be done door-to-door, five minutes at a time. It assumes relationships and acknowledges the significance of “viral load.”

4. Symptomatic spread beats asymptomatic

Lots of ink has been spilled this year about the asymptomatic and presymptomatic spread of the coronavirus — the scary reality that, in some cases, people may have spread the virus to others days before they even knew they had it or (scarier still) without ever knowing that they were infected. The reason that this feature of the virus is so newsworthy is that it’s so unusual. With most other viruses (influenza, for example),  people tend to be most contagious while they are experiencing symptoms.

What does this mean for the evangelistically-minded Christian? Lifestyle impacts witness. Always be prepared to give a defense of the hope that is in you, which you demonstrate in your life (1 Peter 3:15). If you are infected with the Gospel but never develop symptoms — if the goodness of God does not lead you “to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:12) — you may find that your evangelistic efforts have been robbed of much of their potency.

Let us then “be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22) and show others our faith not just in words but in works (James 2:18).

5. Covering mouths hinders spread

This is a contentious point in our current political climate, so I won’t dwell on it extensively. I will only say generally what generations of mothers, teachers and epidemiologists will attest: uncovered coughs and sneezes spread viral particles. It’s why we teach our children almost from infancy to cover their mouths with their hands, elbows, collars or handkerchiefs (according to the prevailing custom of the age) whenever they feel a telltale tickle in their nose or throat. The logic is clear: if we close or cover our mouths, what’s in our mouths cannot escape and infect other people.

How often, though, are we tempted to filter out the Gospel from our speech — or even to keep our mouths shut altogether? How easy and relatively simple is it to wear the mask du jour of the culture around us and present only a muffled witness to the world? We talk about God and the “Judeo-Christian worldview,” but our tongues stumble over the name of Jesus Christ and the story of His atoning death and resurrection. We talk about faith and love in general terms, but we shy away from talking about the object of our faith or the source of our love. The Gospel does come through (sort of), but only after it has been heavily filtered by the mask of social palatability.

What a contrast the book of Acts presents us. No masks there! Boldly, fearlessly, the apostles let fly the unfiltered Gospel in chapter after chapter, city after city. May we likewise throw off the masks that hinder our witness and join the saints in the prayer Luke recorded for us in Acts 4:29: “And now, Lord … grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness.” 

6. The virus blows where it will

One of the most frustrating things about the coronavirus is that it does not behave in predictable ways. As of this writing at least, all our best efforts to bring it under control have so far proven woefully inadequate. Squelch it in one hotspot, and it pops up, undaunted, in another. Take every precaution in the world, and it may still come for you. Flagrantly ignore all expert advice, and you may still escape unscathed. At the end of the day, when it comes to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, we are not in control. The virus is.

Thanks be to God that the same can be said of the Holy Spirit’s work of creating saving faith through the Gospel.

We may think we know what He’s up to in the lives of those around us, but how often does He take delight in surprising us? “The wind blows where it wishes,” Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3:8, “and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

May we, in our daily lives, use our growing knowledge of how viruses work “so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need” (Small Catechism, Fifth Commandment). Yet more than this, may the Gospel so live in our hearts and spread in our communities that we also help and support our neighbors in every spiritual need, that they, like us, would know the perfect and everlasting joy of life in Christ.

2 thoughts on “Viral Evangelism: Lessons from a Pandemic”

  1. John Joseph Flanagan

    Comparing the Gospel to the pandemic, and in the way you laid out your thesis was interesting. Before the Covid surprised us and infected the world, we never suspected how such a thing could happen so quickly, closing churches and isolating the people of God from one another in a way we never thought would happen. Despite this, God’s word still goes out, the Gospel is still preached, and eventually, by His grace, we will see a return to normal life. Even pandemics have a beginning, middle, and ending.
    But we must remember that He has been with us through the pandemic and we were still blessed, even as we were forced to assemble “virtually only.”
    As a historical footnote, we know that in the past, Christian churches have often been closed, the Gospel hampered by government oppression, persecution, war, famine, and plagues. Isolated congregations of small groups of Christians have lived in brutal communist countries where it was, and still is, a crime to assemble for a home Bible study, let alone worship together. Muslim and Hindu cultures have also hindered the Gospel, nevertheless, since it is God’s work, nothing can stop it entirely. In many respects, we are being tried and our faith tested. Nothing new…after all, the child of God is still a pilgrim and a stranger.

  2. After reading your article I feel compelled to respond….which I have never done before.
    We are to build up one another. Your article takes for granted that the laity doesn’t know the scriptures or act upon them. I’m thankful that God has given us teacher , pastors And also given work for the laity. If we , the laity, aren’t teaching our children about God or showing God’s love to our neighbors we would have less people in church giving thanks to God and receiving the sacraments.

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