SAN ANTONIO (BP) - COVID-19 shut down the church and conference venues at which evangelists usually conduct their ministries. That didn't slow down the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists (COSBE). Over Easter weekend, the group held its largest evangelistic event ever. They did it online.
Covered by the Cross was an hour-long Facebook Live event on April 9. The event garnered nearly 400,000 views Easter weekend. It posted on several evangelism-focused Facebook pages. Approximately 90,000 viewers watched it from beginning to end. Reports of decisions for Christ started to emerge. The program featured Gospel presentations, singing and testimonies.
"It was a historic moment for COSBE," said the group's president, Sammy Tippit, a San Antonio evangelist. "I don't think that COSBE has ever hosted an event with 90,000 people who attended from beginning to end."
The livestream was a U.S. success. A Pakistani television network translated the program into Urdu and broadcast it three times on Easter Sunday. The network's call center "could not handle all the calls coming in from people wanting to accept Christ every time the program aired," Tippit said.
The success of the online outreach came amid an overall spike in Internet evangelism. Christianity Today reported that the volume of Internet Gospel presentations has increased since the virus was declared a pandemic.
Global Media Outreach reported a 170% increase in clicks on ads about finding hope in the last two weeks in March. Another evangelistic ministry, Cru, added 52 coronavirus resources to one of its most popular websites. Cru is on pace in 2020 to eclipse last year's total online salvations by more than 300,000. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association saw 173,000 visitors to landing pages about COVID-19 in the first four weeks they were online.
Southern Baptist evangelists are wondering whether the surge of Internet witness is sustainable.
Highlighted on the program was a Louisiana music evangelist, Price Harris. Harris, 78, shared his testimony of faith despite a COVID-19 diagnosis. Feeling "a little feverish," he went to the doctor. On Palm Sunday, Harris learned he had COVID-19. Harris' lack of fear is rooted in "the peace of God," he said. There are times in a believer's life "when God just seems to take over, and that's the way it's been with us," Harris said.
Keith Fordham, a Georgia evangelist and former COSBE president, told about his cancer diagnosis and how an initial surgery was not able to clear the malignancy. Consequently, he likely will have a second surgery on April 16. That is the same time models predict Georgia hospitals will experience a peak in deaths due to COVID-19.
"I know if God wants to cure me, He can cure me," Fordham said. "If He wants me home, He'll take me home. I'm ready either way because the Lord Jesus indwells me."
Each livestream included testimonies and a Gospel presentation.
"You may be wondering what's going on in the world with this pandemic," Tippit encouraged viewers in the program's closing Gospel presentation to, "trust the heart of God."
"He loves you," Tippit said, "but you've got to be willing to let go of trying to do it yourself."
Tippit has been exploring avenues of online evangelism in the past four years. He preached in India via Skype and hopes to launch a campaign next month through WhatsApp. Hopefully, the app will deliver the Gospel to 10 million people in 70 countries. Now Tippit is encouraging his fellow evangelists to consider similar ventures while their ministry is limited to online sources.
As its next venture, COSBE is considering an apologetics-themed Internet broadcast in June to coincide with the dates the Southern Baptist Convention scheduled their meeting. Last month, leaders canceled the annual meeting due to COVID-19 concerns.
The Easter Livestream, Tippit said, "was a great start" to COSBE's online ministry.