Erin is a rising sophomore at Lander University. The psychology major had planned to serve with a Baptist Collegiate Ministry (BCM) student missions team in Denver, Colorado this summer, but is learning to love that city and its people from a distance. She says the team’s weekly virtual meetings are providing a platform for the students to still pursue community and missions at the same time.
“It’s amazing how even through a virtual meeting and by praying for the people of Denver and the community of Dwell Church, I can feel close to a place I’ve never been before. I’m understanding that each of us is handpicked by God to be on mission for Him in different ways. He’s equipped us with different personalities, strengths, and experiences, all of which are unique. Even though everybody’s mission looks different, we are all called according to His purpose and are able to shine His light in many ways to reach many people,” Erin says.
In mid-March, when it became clear that the emergence of COVID-19 would severely impact summer missions planning, Chad Stillwell and his Collegiate team at the South Carolina Baptist Convention quickly worked with partners at home and abroad to overhaul the experience for the collegiate students committed to serving. The careful planning involved meeting partner needs by connecting the students virtually. Within a few weeks, plans were adjusted and Stillwell says he’s already seeing God at work, especially in the lives of student missionaries like Erin.
“Missions have continued. COVID took a lot away from us and there are things we can’t do, but there is a lot we still can do. Students on mission teams and those serving as Summer Catalysts continue to step forward to do a lot on mission,” says Stillwell, who serves as Director of Collegiate Ministries.
Denver Church Planter Josh Cook is working with his team to explore their personal growth, develop a heart for his community, and build a foundation for missions and ministry. They have weekly group video calls, monthly one-on-one coaching calls with Cook, accompanying reading, and projects. Cook says it’s been wonderful to watch the students learn more about themselves which is leading them to better understand God’s calling on their lives.
Tessie Thomas, a senior at Coastal Carolina University studying early childhood education, says while her plans to serve in Denver this summer were interrupted, God has already taught her big lessons about her future.
“Talking with Josh and hearing his love for Denver is just infectious. This is definitely a place I want to visit and even serve in the future. I am thinking about strategically choosing where I live after college just so that I can leverage my life for the gospel better. God is still at work even in this crazy set of circumstances, which is the beauty of it,” Thomas says.
For his part, Cook says he’s “not sure how this virtual experience will pan out, but we have learned something crucial - we can begin training missionaries for the field from the field before they leave home.”
Another BCM team is serving with Bobby Wood, a University of South Carolina graduate and church planter living in Salt Lake City. The students are communicating through GroupMe chats and Zoom video calls, going on virtual prayer walks through a Mormon temple, and learning about the people living there. As a former collegiate summer missionary to Utah himself, Wood is in a unique position to coach team members like Hannah Matthews in virtual missions.
“I have always had a heart for missions but had a hardened heart towards Mormons and similar false teachings. It is so early in this journey, but the Lord has already opened my eyes to a culture of people who are begging for the truth of the gospel but are just trapped within the LDS community. I have grown to love the people of Salt Lake City and I am so glad I have the opportunity to serve them, even if it is all the way from South Carolina,” says Matthews, a junior at Lander University.
McKinley Jordan, another Salt Lake City team member, says the experience has been eye-opening to learn to dig deeper into the Bible while learning how to love people from a distance. Jordan is noticing an increased unity among Christians worldwide to share the gospel, serve, and provide for their neighbors.
“As we study the book Evangelism as Exiles, the Bible, and discuss topical issues concerning evangelism we’ve been encouraged to fix our hearts on Jesus, align our visions with His vision to see all people saved and display the glory and truth of the gospel with love to the people of the world. I’ve grown in my love for the people of Salt Lake City by spending my time observing, reading, and studying the culture and theology found there, and realizing and praying for the need of the gospel to be met in that city and in the world,” Jordan says.
A third group of students is working with an international partner from South Carolina who currently serves North African and Middle Eastern peoples living in Europe. This group is learning about God’s heart for the nations while working on specific virtual projects, such as creating an online follow-up system with Muslims who have watched the Jesus film and are interested in messaging for more information about the gospel.
“Students aren’t the missionaries of the future, they are missionaries of today. They are currently praying for people, finding ways to share the gospel with people virtually, currently sharing the gospel, and following up with people. That’s the work of the missionaries, too. Students are invaluable members of our teams to reach the lost,” Stillwell says.
Stillwell reports that more than half of the world’s current population is under the age of 30 and that young people are identified as one of the most responsive groups of people to the gospel. It makes sense, he says, to reach lost people by sending young missionaries to share the gospel with them. While virtual methods are unique, they are becoming quite effective in preparing this current group of summer missionaries for the task.
Despite the summer trips being canceled, Stillwell is cautiously hopeful that a pending trip to Salt Lake City will happen in December. The teams will continue serving in their virtual capacities through July. Stillwell applauds the students’ commitment to working with the missionaries and wants to be sure these missionaries know how much South Carolina supports their work.
“COVID made us feel isolated, but it made our missionaries around the world who are also stuck in their homes to feel lonely, too. When we developed partnerships with these missionaries we wanted to invest in them as people, and we couldn’t stand the thought of ignoring them until this was over. We are helping them to know they aren’t alone, and they are being prayed for,” Stillwell says.
In the end, the goal for the summer missions program is to develop long-term partnerships for students to return to, even after they graduate. Stillwell and his team pray that “over a few generations of college students there might be some that spend an entire summer in a location, others serve on short-term trips, and those that go to live and serve in those locations long-term.”