In most countries of the world, the church has been greatly affected by COVID-19. Many local congregations have been forced to rethink their way of doing and being church. New ways to effectively impact and connect with the community are currently being explored—both on a material and spiritual level.1 This article will assess some of the characteristics of the diaconal ministry that, if adequately understood and integrated by local churches, can increase their impact on the wider community during a crisis, such as that brought on by the coronavirus outbreak. It offers an example of how ministers can train church members to follow the first-century church model of service in a variety of situations.
What diakonia is all about
The English words diaconal and deacon find their roots in the Greek noun diakonia. This term can be defined as “service” or “ministry,” as well as “relief” and “aid.”2 Some have rendered the verb diakoneo (“to be a servant” or “to minister”) as “to have responsibility to help others” or “to be responsible to take care of the needs of believers.”3 Etymologically, it is thought that diakonia comes from dia, “through,” and konis, “dust,” suggesting a service done “close to the ground, among the grassroots.”4
In the New Testament, the verb diakoneo is used in relation to the serving of food (Luke 10:40; Acts 6:1); Paul uses it when he speaks about his ministry to the Gentiles (Acts 20:24; 21:19). The deacon’s job description, illustrated in 1 Timothy 3:8–13, portrays someone whose role is to attend primarily to the practical needs of the church. The centrality of service as mission—and the first step in understanding the diaconal dimension of the church—is revealed in Ephesians 4:11–13. “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service [diakonia], so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (NIV).
In light of this text, the function of the diaconal church is not simply reduced to charitable acts. A more spiritual and pastoral purpose emerges from Paul’s words—it is indeed a more holistic resolution.5 In fact, as Mariano Avila notices, in diakonia, “there is a stronger approximation to the concept of a service of love.”6
The role of the diaconal church is, then, to create a caring community that links the needs and burdens of people with the local congregation. Therefore, the volunteer, minister, or deacon becomes a social intermediary, agent, and symbol of communitas.7 Because of the diaconal church’s strong connection to the community, the World Council of Churches affirms that “the role of the local congregation in diaconal work is to speak in situations of crisis for the needs of the whole community and not on specific interests. Local congregations have a certain power and can give safety and raise issues. Governments and local authorities recognize churches and specialised ministries as important forces and part of civil society.”8
The way in which diaconal ministries take form varies considerably. However, by evangelizing in the church and community, they all share the same pastoral nature and spiritual goal: the desire to “create new experiences of solidarity, relatedness, and dealing with differences”9 in networks of cooperation.
Linking diakonia and koinonia
The following case study reveals the relational dimension of a diaconal ministry by indicating some of the practical implications that have remarkably impacted and involved a local community during the COVID-19 crisis. One Vision is an action group part of the Community Chaplaincy Service at Stanborough Park Seventh-day Adventist Church in Watford, United Kingdom. One Vision’s mission statement is “to create a network and community of people . . . and bring together all the beliefs, cultures, smaller charities, non-profit organisations.”10 Their team is formed entirely by volunteers: some are members from different church denominations, while others are not religious at all.
Before the first nationwide coronavirus lockdown in March 2020, One Vision had already been empowering the local community in Watford by providing safeguarding courses, mental-health first-aid training, and free daily meals to the homeless.11 Soon after COVID-19, they implemented new strategies to meet the needs of those most affected. In partnership with Members of Parliament and Borough Council officials, as well as the Co-operative Food Stores, they have been able to deliver hot meals to schools and food parcels to the elderly and vulnerable.12 Many young people have started volunteering for One Vision, and their efforts have been officially recognized and awarded, creating a sense of belonging and a stronger willingness to serve. In addition, One Vision volunteers have provided “items of personal protection equipment made by a secondary school”13 and also supported businesses and shops that help National Health Service workers.14
As a natural result of addressing the neighbors’ concrete needs (diakonia), many people have had the opportunity to meet one another, resulting in a new form of fellowship (koinonia) that is, indeed, flourishing. One of the long-time volunteers of One Vision has shared her experience: “I feel I have become a part of this special family here during my time of this One Vision operation and would like to become a member of Stanborough Park Church. I am very happy with the beliefs of the Adventist church and they resonate very well with me and all it means to be a Christian.”15
The volunteer became a member in October 2020. By showing solidarity and demonstrating generosity, the One Vision project is an example of a diaconal ministry that centers its theology on the transforming power of hope.16 This hope can “transform a person spiritually in such a way that a new dignity is adopted and a new identity is formed.”17
Incarnation and proclamation
In the case presented above, the diaconal elements of participation and collaboration have created a deep sense of belonging. One of the benefits of the diaconal church during a crisis like COVID-19 is that, by providing for the physical needs, a “poverty of the heart”18 that is a deeper existential need in human existence is also awakened. This poverty, or thirst, of heart, can be satisfied as the servanthood role of the church surpasses the religious routines. The coming together as a mission-shaped ministry and community allows a shift in reality—a relational reality. The core identity of deacons, ministers, and volunteers becomes the revelation, to others, of who God is. Reading diakonia not just in functional terms but relationally has the power to personally involve everyone in a graceful and forgiving experience with God.19
The apostle Paul had been entrusted by God with the ministry (diakonia) of reconciliation (2 Cor. 3:6; 5:18). The diaconal church is not about “doing ‘something’ to people or taking responsibility for people, but it is to live with people in the presence of God and the reality of their society.”20 Anglican ecclesiologist Paul Avis interprets diakonia as a “God-given, Christ-centred, gospel-focused ministry of proclamation,”21 implying the rise of a diaconal ecclesiology that is not simply centered on service for humans and love for the neighbor but as being life-giving and whole-making, ultimately gospel- or salvation-oriented.
“Wholemaking is inherent to creation because, although it may not always be visible to us from a quotidian perspective, God’s intention remains the salvation of all creation—human and non-human alike.”22 Therefore, those aspects of the diaconal church that reveal the true essence of God’s salvation and forgiveness through the empowerment of hope are the features that can be considered beneficial in times of crisis.
Beyond the walls
The practical consequences of diakonia reveal a deeper theological insight: the calling to servanthood and the spirit of generosity is the foundation for a diaconal theology of hope. The empowerment of hope, understood as an ecclesial strategy, rests on the “participation of people to be conscious role-players in their own transformation within the communities they find themselves in.”23 Individuals, part of a local congregation that has expanded its diaconal mandate beyond the walls of the church, will be able to impact families, schools, businesses, and organizations, wherever they are.24 In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, the church has the opportunity to develop a diakonia of hope.
- Stephen Chavez, “Post-COVID Congregations: The Changes in Our Worship Habits Have Been Drastic. What’s Next?” Adventist Review, May 26, 2020.
- George Wigram, The Analytical Lexicon of the New Testament (Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press, 2007), 92.
- Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, eds., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, ebook ed. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1989), s.v. “53.66 διακονέω.”
- Louise Williams, “The Word Becomes Flesh,” Institute of Liturgical Studies Occasional Papers 64, no. 9 (1996): 212.
- Tomi Karttunen, “Ecumenical Discussion About Deacons,” Journal for the Study of Diaconia, no. 1S (2020): 10.
- Mariano Avila, “Diakonia Remixed: A Biblical Perspective on Diakonia,” accessed November 27, 2020, https://network.crcna.org/sites/default/files/documents/Diakonia%20Remixed%20Biblical%20Perspective.pdf.
- W. Shawn McKnight, Understanding the Diaconate: Historical, Theological, and Sociological Foundations (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2018), 230–234.
- World Council of Churches, Ecumenical Conversations: Reports, Affirmations, and Challenges From the 10th Assembly (Geneva: World Council of Churches Publications, 2014), 160, https://www.oikoumene.org/sites/default/files/Document/Ecumenical_Conversations.pdf.
- Beate Hofmann, “New Diaconal Professionalism—Theology, Spirituality, Values, and Practice,” Diaconia 8 (2017): 146.
- “About Us,” One Vision Project, accessed November 27, 2020, https://www.onevisionproject.org/about/. This statement no longer appears on the web page.
- June Coombs, “One Vision Project to Help the Community of Watford,” BUC News, accessed November 27, 2020, https://adventist.uk/news/article/go/2019-03-08/one-vision-project-to-help-the-community-of-watford/.
- June Coombs, “One Vision: Working for the Community During May—One Vision Project,” accessed November 27, 2020, https://www.onevisionproject.org/2020/06/17/one-vision-working-for-the-community-during-may/.
- June Coombs, “One Vision: One Community: Many Volunteers,” TED News Network, June 24, 2020, https://ted.adventist.org/news/1743-one-vision-one-community-many-volunteers.
- NHS is the National Health Service offered to everyone living in the United Kingdom. Sharon Platt-McDonald, “Covid-19 Response—Meeting Community Needs,” BUC News, April 2, 2020, https://adventist.uk/news/article/go/2020-04-02/covid-19-response-meeting-community-needs/.
- “Welcoming Four New Church Members,” Stanborough Park Church, accessed November 27, 2020, https://stanboroughpark.adventistchurch.org.uk/news_entries/5911 (page no longer available).
- See Jürgen Moltmann, "Transformative Eschatology," Ethics of Hope, ebook ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012).
- Barnabé A. Msabah and Nadine Bowers du Toit, “ ‘We Live, and Move, and Have Our Being’: Refugees’ Vulnerability and the Ecclesial Challenge for Diaconal Praxis,” Diaconia 8 (2017): 195.
- Stéphan Van der Watt, “Missional-Diaconal Practices in Japan and South Africa: Tracing Its Formative Potential during Natural Disasters,” Acta Theologica 39, no. 2 (2019): 153.
- Hannes Knoetze, “Diakonia Trinitatis Dei as/and Transformational Development: A South African Perspective,” The Ecumenical Review 71 (2019): 156–158.
- Knoetze, 157.
- Paul Avis, “The Diaconate: A Flagship Ministry?” Theology and Ministry 2 (2013): 11.
- Daniel P. Horan, Catholicity and Emerging Personhood: A Contemporary Theological Anthropology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2019), 6.
- Msabah and Bowers du Toit, “ ‘We Live, and Move, and Have Our Being,’ ” 196.
- Knoetze, “Diakonia Trinitatis Dei,” 160.