Every day Caroline and I watch the daily government briefing on the pandemic, and every day mention is made of the need to suppress the ‘R’ (‘reproduction’) number: that is to say, the number of people one infected person on average will pass on to another. The coronavirus (now known officially as Sars-CoV-2) has a reproduction number of about three – by contrast, I discovered, measles has a reproduction number of fifteen in populations without immunity.
The British government – like all governments the world-over – is desperate to bring down the ‘R’ number to below one: hence the lockdown and now the social distancing measures. Without a vaccine, this is the only way to ensure that the disease will eventually peter out, as not enough new people will be infected to sustain the outbreak. The fear is that if the public don’t take seriously the social-distancing messages, then the ‘R’; number will become higher than one and the number of cases will increase exponentially – like debt on an unpaid credit card.
In a Christian context I want to argue that we need to increase the ‘R’ number. For rhis is part of the mission of the church: in the words of the Great Commission, Jesus wants us to “go and make disciples”. If we are to be effective in sharing the Good News of Jesus, then we need to ‘infect’ with the Gospel as many people as possible! Indeed, it is often said that the Christian faith is best ‘caught’ rather than taught. Currently, however, levels of ‘infection’ in the Western church are desperately low. The ‘R’ number in most churches is well and truly below one. We need to encourage people in our churches to become ‘spreaders’, if not ‘super-spreaders’!
When I was a young minister I handed out cards featuring a bullseye around which was the statement: ‘The whole world would be converted in six years if each Christian led one person to Christ each year’, and in the centre there was room for the names of ‘six close friends who need Christ’ and ‘are my prime responsibility’. Users of the cards were encouraged to pray daily for their six unconverted friends, pray together weekly with another Christian, who would likewise use the card, and organise their priorities in such a way that they could spend time with their six friends. I can’t pretend that every member of my church led one new person to Christ per year, and yet the approach did make a difference: many people from non-church backgrounds came to faith and baptismal services became a regular feature of church life.
Although I admit that the goal of winning the whole world to Christ within six years is unrealistic, nonetheless I have no doubt that friendship evangelism is the most effective form of evangelism. Indeed, research consistently confirms that the single most important part of a person’s journey to faith is through a family member or friend. To see the R factor increase we need to encourage people to get out of their Christian ghettoes and make friends. At this time of social distancing this isn’t easy – but most of us have social networks which we can develop through inviting people we know for a coffee in the garden. Indeed, in some ways it is easier to develop friendship in this time of the pandemic – for now that church activities have ceased, we all have so much more time for friendship for people outside the church.
We need to be more enthusiastic about our faith. Why is it that we have no difficulty in telling strangers that we have just become grandparents, but are so much more fearful about telling others what Jesus means to us? if that seems too big a step, then what about opening up a conversation with a neighbour about our experience of virtual services, and – where there is interest – sending them a link?
We need to be more creative in how we share our faith. One friend of mine has recently bought 100 (yes, one hundred) copies of Where is God in a Coronavirus World and is handing them out to friends and neighbours. As I have just discovered, it a fascinating booklet, which I am sure many non-churchgoers would find of great interest. Around 60 pages in length (so not too long) it has been written by John Lennox, an emeritus professor of mathematics at Oxford University and an able Christian apologist. One booklet costs £2.99 on Amazon – but the Good Book Company is charging £100 for 100 copies. If I were the minister of a church, I would in the first instance order two copies for each member of my church – one to read and one to give away to family, friends or neighbours! As it is I have ordered 25 copies, which I intend to give to members of my Rotary club.
Yes, at a time when there is so much fear around – fear of the disease and fear for our own mortality – as Christian people we have a great opportunity to increase the ‘R’ factor.