Maureen Law was supposed to fly from her part-time home in Singapore to return to the Bible Study Fellowship (BSF) headquarters in San Antonio last Monday. But now, BSF’s regional director for Asia has postponed his trip for at least a month. The COVID-19 outbreak has shaken his plans – and those of millions of others, including his employer – on the move.
As the supervisor of BSF’s classes and group leaders across Asia, Law was part of the team that decided in recent weeks to hold meetings exclusively online in Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia and other parts of Asia. This means that 35,000 participants – including 1 in 4 are over 60 – now connect to their scripture discussions and conferences through Zoom, a web conferencing platform that allows users to meet remotely with people. ‘audio, video, or both.
The move to online dating is a major and rapid change for a ministry that has traditionally avoided the Internet.
BSF welcomes thousands of groups in 70 countries every week for free Bible studies, mostly in churches. Classes typically include collective worship time, small group discussions about weekly Bible reading, and a talk by the group leader.
The venerable ministry, which celebrated its 60th anniversary last year, is known for its intimacy and even its sense of rigidity; for example, there was a strict dress code for teachers, and leaders are known to discourage attendance if participants did not do their homework. BSF only started posting its study material online a few years ago, when some group leaders made lectures and study notes available to participants through the members’ website, mybsf .org. BSF launched its Facebook page just two years ago and joined Instagram in 2016.
It is likely that BSF’s continued transition to online meetings will follow the geography of the spread of the coronavirus. A number of courses in Seattle went online this week following an increase in local cases.
Hollie Roberts, BSF’s development manager, said the ministry was drawing inspiration from local governments, schools and churches, and following the spread of confirmed cases, to decide next steps. Classes in Basil and Zurich, Switzerland, and Paris have already moved to online-only gatherings. BSF moved some classes from Toronto to Zoom this week after the church it was meeting in canceled all public events.
BSF was not completely caught off guard. In recent years, as the ministry strived to modernize its offerings for millennials, it has launched more than 1,000 satellite groups, allowing participants in remote areas, such as prisons, to view courses online. And over the past two years, BSF has piloted an online program that has attracted around 10,000 people who meet in groups of 12 to 15 around the world.
Roberts said the pilot program has been helpful as BSF responds to coronavirus concerns, although the logistics aren’t exactly the same: Instead of a dozen people logging in, some Asian classes of 500 to 600 people are coming together. now join together via Zoom.
Law said the transition had not gone smoothly, but was generally well received.
“The initial hesitation has turned into joy for many of our members, who appreciate having this opportunity,” she said. Some older attendees expressed anxiety at first, but Law said his leaders stepped in to help them get the technology up and running.
In some places in Asia, classes have been running online for six weeks already. And Law said the numbers were promising: In classes that typically had around 80% attendance in any given week, they now have over 90% online attendance.
This could be for several reasons, she suggested. The students were particularly excited about the current study of BSF in the book of Acts. But it could also be due to the convenience of a class on a computer, or the fact that most of life’s activities outside the home have stopped as well. Or, Law said, it could be that anxiety over the spread of COVID-19 is pushing people to God‘s Word.
According to Jonathan Petersen, content manager at Bible Gateway, online searches for terms like fear, disease and the end of times increased dramatically this week and have quintupled or more since the outbreak was first reported in December.
On the popular YouVersion Bible app, fear-related searches such as do not worry, do not be afraid, spirit of fear, and perfect love drives out fear– increased this week from 30% to 75% compared to last week. The two passages with the most peaks of interest were 2 Timothy 1: 7 (NIV: “For the Spirit which God has given us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” ) and, in particular verse 10 [NIV]: “… no harm will reach you, no disaster will approach your tent.”
Roberts said that for those looking for encouragement, BSF’s current study in the Book of Acts is the perfect place to land.
“I am thinking of the end of Acts and the shipwreck,” she said. “God promises Paul, ‘You are all going to live,’ but the ship always runs aground in the sandbank, and they still have to come out and swim or grab some driftwood and float. Despite obstacles and unforeseen circumstances, she said, the gospel still spreads like wildfire.
“I think this transition to BSF in the online arena shows that it’s true,” said Roberts. “You cannot stop the gospel.”
More groups will likely have to stop meeting in person. Based on his experience in Singapore, Law’s recommendation to his North American colleagues is to prepare study group leaders in advance. “We prepared our leaders by saying, ‘Okay, let’s fake an online leaders meeting,’” she said. “Train them to connect online [and] how to be engaging and interactive.
Back in San Antonio, Roberts said the BSF leadership team is keeping a close watch on Asia to learn all they can before the likely scenario arises that more courses in the United States will move. in line. One thing they learned, she said, is that when classes are online, there is less need to hold leadership meetings and large group study meetings on different days. . In the online environment, they now host them back to back.
In the United States, BSF classes follow a typical school schedule, which means they will soon have a “spring break” and are expected to end in May. Roberts said the proximity to that finish line is one reason the ministry hasn’t already just suspended all classes. But even in areas outside of Seattle, leaders are taking precautions.
“We emailed everyone, every member of the BSF class,” said Roberts, “and directed them to the World Health Organization and the CDC. [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] for best practices. BSF leaders recommend that class members practice social distancing when it makes sense. Roberts cites a teacher who self-quarantined for the next two weeks after her daughter returned from Japan.
Roberts said it was possible that the move to online courses would lead to permanent changes at BSF. “We recognize that at certain stages of life it’s probably easier to participate in an online discussion group,” she said. “So that’s always been the plan. People know it’s coming.
Still, Law said he heard some Asian attendees say they lack in-person privacy, especially at such a lonely time. (For example, in some parts of China, only one person – and it must be the same person – is allowed outside the house once a week to pick up “essentials”.)
And as entire families are forced to stick together for the foreseeable future, others struggle to find the quiet time and space to connect. “Some of our leaders can’t even zoom in with video and audio because they have kids. at home, ”Law said. “But they’re still zooming in and listening.”
Basically, the BSF is not a social club; it is a place to study the Bible. Roberts said the ministry does not focus its study plans on the topics of the day but rather on systematically reading the Word of God. However, almost every year, she said, the groups find the study they chose to be providentially relevant. This year was no exception: the theme of the Acts study is “Unstoppable”.
“This is a season where the coronavirus is the loudest voice in the room,” said Roberts. “This is the opportunity to keep another voice. … This is an opportunity to keep the truth sprinkled in the circumstances we are examining.