Despite the challenges and inconveniences of COVID-19 restrictions, Jeff A. Arp, regional field representative of Living Free, reports some positive outcomes.
Since 2011, Arp, 56, has been involved with Living Free, a Bible-based recovery program from destructive behaviors such as substance abuse. He previously served as director of community outreach for Adult & Teen Challenge of the Midlands near Des Moines, Iowa. Because the Living Free ministry is centered on a small group strategy, the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns prohibiting in-person gatherings initially left Arp disheartened.
With the imposition of mandates to curtail church gatherings, Arp, pastor of Kirksville First Assembly of God in northeast Missouri, immediately opened a Zoom account to facilitate church services. He soon realized he could do the same with the Living Free meetings.
The online format opens doors to people who would not otherwise have access to small groups. Meetings can include people not only from different regions of the state, but also from multiple states regardless of their proximity.
In addition to bringing people together from various localities, Living Free online also gives Arp the opportunity to compile groups that incorporate diverse cultures and ethnicities.
While serving as pastor of children and families at Calvary Orlando in 2016, Arp mentored Geonas Datilma. Last year, Datilma, who now is outreach coordinator at the AG church in Florida, participated in an online forum presented by Living Free, which addressed the current racial tensions in America and promoted reconciliation. The “One Nation Under God” panel was comprised of six participants from all around the country: three Caucasian American males, two African American males, one Hispanic male, and one Hispanic female.
The meeting highlighted some poignant points, according to Datilma.
“We were able to see that we are different in our ways, but most importantly, being different doesn’t mean that we have to separate or segregate from each other,” Datilma says. Datilma says that the impactful meeting would not have been possible if the changes implemented from the pandemic restrictions had not been in place.
Arp reports similar positive results from a series of meetings, “Facing Fear and Finding Freedom,” which included participants from five states.
“People opened up at a much quicker rate because there is anonymity knowing they are so many miles away from each other,” says Arp. “It gave people more freedom to share more openly.”
Arp believes that holding meetings online is here to stay. Facilitators from multiple countries now can take their training together online.
“The opportunity it gives us to offer more groups at different times makes it really strategic for us to reach more people,” Arp says.
The motto of Living Free is, “We are doing life together.” Arp reports that one of the struggles of online meetings is that the participants are not actually capable of gathering in a physical sense.
“But we’re able to pray for each other,” Arp says. “We’re able to encourage each other and have communication.”
He also says that many of the participants become friends on social media and remain in contact with one another long after the meetings have ended.
Since November 2018, the Living Free virtual academy has graduated 667 people from 56 different countries, 37 states, and 337 different communities.
“Online forums are truly a way for us to connect internationally and to bring people together interculturally, and literally worldwide,” Arp says. “So, it is always a tool that will be in our toolbox.”
Several Assemblies of God churches have incorporated the Living Free program into group meetings or outreach ministry.
Photo: Jeff Arp (left) and Geonas Datilma are Living Free leaders.