ROCKY MOUNT, N.C. (BP)–It hangs from the ceiling near the auditorium of Englewood Baptist Church like an overgrown spider web. It’s frayed and tattered in spots, with blue netting where it has been repaired multiple times through the years.
Pastor Michael Cloer runs his fingers along the fishing net, admiring the craftsmanship. As he inspects the net, he voices an impromptu object lesson.
“You look at the individual pieces and they don’t look like much, but together they are strong. … It’s a great picture of the church,” said Cloer, who received the net from a fisherman in South Asia when Englewood Baptist Church in Rocky Mount, N.C., took its first overseas missions trip to reach the Koli people for Christ.
That Koli fisherman is now a follower of Jesus.
A couple of months after the initial mission trip in February 2011, a second Englewood team returned to the same spot where Cloer had met the fisherman. By the end of 2011, the church will have sent four teams to engage the Koli people with the Good News.
At last year’s annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Orlando, Cloer said he became convicted that the congregation had not done enough to help reach people groups like the Koli — those unreached with less than a 2 percent evangelical presence and unengaged with no church-planting strategy among them.
“The Spirit of God just spoke to my heart and said, ‘What are we doing about unreached people?'” Cloer said.
“We had been praying for them, just as a whole, but that’s as far as we were going. I came back and … began to pray, ‘God, where do you want us to go?'”
The church soon was committed to ministering to the Koli people.
Amidst a backdrop of modern conveniences and technological advances, the Koli people — with their colorful boats and waving flags — represent an old way of life committed to hard work, tradition and idol worship. Fishermen struggle to make a living in polluted waters in a time when modern life seems to have passed them by.
Most of the younger Koli generations hunt for new opportunities to escape the old way of life, while clinging to the worship of more than 300,000 gods. Of the 283,000-plus Koli people whom Englewood is engaging, fewer than half of 1 percent are evangelical.
“We saw a people group who were mainly fishermen, and the Lord immediately struck in my heart,” Cloer said. “God told us to be fishers of men … fishers of men among the fishermen.”
In the summer of 2010, the International Mission Board challenged Southern Baptists to adopt 6,426 unreached people groups based on that year’s research. At this year’s SBC annual meeting, IMB President Tom Elliff plans to narrow that focus to the approximately 3,800 unengaged, unreached people groups. Englewood Baptist Church’s partnership also will be featured at this year’s SBC meeting.
The Koli are now engaged with a church-planting strategy — and the work has just begun.
Church members venturing among the Koli in South Asia won’t have to look far to find challenges. On the streets they’ll find a variety of idols — ones surrounded in fresh flowers on cab dashboards or those swinging from the rearview mirror. Some will be displayed on posters along shop walls and encased in concrete shrines. In some homes they’ll find a cross, a statue or even a picture of Jesus, but locals view these as mere additions to their idol worship.
“To the Koli, Jesus is just another god,” said Claude*, an Englewood member the church is supporting to lead follow-up work among the Koli. Claude and his wife Lynne* plan to live in South Asia until the end of 2011.
“These people who live in these Koli villages along the coast are in total spiritual darkness,” Claude said.
But there has been some progress.
Since the Englewood team first set foot in the Koli villages, nearly 20 people have made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ.
“We had men and women pray out loud in front of other people: ‘I want Jesus Christ to be my Lord and Savior; I renounce all other gods but Jesus,'” Cloer recounted.
“We’d go back the next day, that individual had thrown out all of their idols into the street.”
The response has been an encouragement, but it also has served as a reminder of the follow-up work the church still has to do.
During the first trip, one Koli fisherman made a profession of faith. He agreed to have a Bible study at his home. But when Claude and a team returned a couple months later, the fisherman had changed his mind. He told the team another villager had attacked his wife for her faith and she had been prevented from using the well.
It’s slow work, said Kaleb*, an IMB representative among the people of South Asia.
“This [people group] has existed for thousands of years, but Satan has had a hold on [them],” Kaleb said. “When we go into these areas and make these big pushes just to get the Gospel out, we see Satan’s attack.”
The level of commitment needed to make a dent among people groups like the Koli is high, Kaleb said.
“I know lots of people back home who say they want to reach the nations,” he said, “but they’re not praying for the nations. They’re not going to the nations. They’re not sending others to the nations.
“Until we become doers of the Word of God and take this message to the nations, then nothing is going to change.”
Kaleb admits being pleasantly surprised when he first spoke to Cloer about Englewood Baptist Church working among the Koli. Cloer asked Kaleb how many teams he could handle and what it would take to get the job done.
“When I heard that, I realized they are in it,” Kaleb said. “Their hearts were committed. Knowing that churches like Englewood are out there … makes me feel like I’m not out here alone.”
‘WHATEVER IT TAKES’
In the coming months Cloer hopes to mentor fellow pastors in the U.S. in how to begin work among other unengaged, unreached people groups.
Though Englewood is larger than the average church, Cloer knows his congregation — and most other churches — can’t do it alone.
“I was led by the Lord, ‘Why don’t you ask other pastors to join you in this?” he said.
“We hear it from the national platform … but it’s another thing for a brother to look you face to face and say, ‘Brother, why don’t you get involved?'”
Cloer said after his time on earth is done, he hopes he will have helped reach 1 percent of those people groups unreached with the Gospel.
Just like that old net hanging from the church ceiling, together Southern Baptists are stronger than they are separate, Cloer contends.
“I believe there will be someone from every people group standing around the throne of Jesus,” he said.
“To think that we could have [that] opportunity … it’s going to be worth it all. It’s going to be worth whatever it takes.”
*Names changed. Alan James is a senior writer for the International Mission Board. Watch a video featuring Englewood at http://vimeo.com/24848768. It also will be shown during this year’s SBC annual meeting in Phoenix June 14-15.