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Church-planting movements: Gospel chain reaction

EDITORS’ NOTE: During the 2003 International Missions Emphasis, Nov. 30-Dec. 7, Southern Baptists will focus on the theme, “That All Peoples May Know Him: Follow God’s Purpose.” The national goal for this year’s Lottie Moon Christmas Offering is $133 million, with a challenge goal of $150 million. The International Mission Board relies on the Lottie Moon offering for approximately 50 percent of its annual support. The Cooperative Program along with the Lottie Moon offering undergird Southern Baptists’ strategy for international missions, such as the outreach to people groups worldwide, highlighted below.

SOUTH ASIA (BP)–“Abdul” stumbled sadly along the side of a road in south Asia.

Rejected by his family and his community, the young man walked alone in the world, facing the threat of death for questioning Islam.

“Hey brother, do you want to get up in this rickshaw and ride with me?”

The invitation startled Abdul. He looked up and nearly went into shock: The words came from the mouth of a white man. He had never seen one in the area before. This one, speaking the local language fluently, was offering Abdul — an outcast — a ride on a hot day. During their journey, Abdul touched the stranger’s arm to see if he were man or angel.

“I was totally amazed,” Abdul recalled years later. “Not many people were allowed to talk with me because I was shunned and seen as a Muslim sinner boy.”

It was a turning point for Abdul — and it would become one for his people.

The white man was a Southern Baptist missionary, and he gave Abdul a New Testament. Back home, Abdul opened it to the Gospel of John. He discovered a God who did not condemn him, but displayed mercy and love through Jesus Christ. He embraced God’s saving grace that very night. His terrible loneliness was gone at last.


The isolation had begun years before. Abdul, like most boys in his village, was required to study the Koran in a local Muslim school. An earnest seeker, he questioned the holy book’s teachings. First he was beaten and warned, then expelled and sent home in disgrace when his questions persisted.

His furious father banished him to a shack behind the family home, where he lived in solitary misery for three years. His mother slid meals through a hole in the door. Twice he attempted suicide by drinking poison. “Freed” at age 13, he continued to be shunned by the community.

But after meeting Christ in 1983, Abdul used his tiny shack to study Scripture in secret. The missionary and a local pastor quietly discipled him. When his father and uncles discovered Abdul’s new faith, savage beatings followed. He refused to renounce his faith in Christ or burn his Bible, so they tied him to a stake in the family courtyard to stay until he changed his mind.

His mother quietly untied him and helped him escape to the capital city. Abdul never saw her alive again; she was physically abused for “shaming” the family and later died.

After baptism and studying in the capital with the missionary’s help, Abdul returned to his home village, only to endure more abuse. An old classmate named Rafik took pity on his sufferings and nursed his wounds. Abdul led Rafik to Christ and baptized him.


“Yesterday, I was one,” Abdul told Rafik. “Today, we are two. Tomorrow, we could be 200.”

Abdul’s father was next. He sent word for Abdul to visit him when he became seriously ill. Abdul sat beside his father’s bed and prayed each night until he was healed. Fully recovered, his father received Jesus as his Savior and was baptized by Abdul.

Meanwhile, a relative of Rafik was sent to persuade him to return to Islam. Rafik journeyed to the relative’s village. When he came back, he told Abdul he had baptized seven families — a total of 36 people. The excited duo started sharing the Gospel of grace everywhere, beginning with their families and friends.

Rafik’s bamboo house became the hub of the rapidly widening wheel as the 1990s waned. New believers from surrounding villages came there to receive 15 days of discipleship training and then went out to start churches. Late one night, Rafik answered a knock on his door. A group of militant Muslims rushed in and stabbed him to death.

Undeterred, Abdul bravely continues to lead the movement. By mid-2002, a church-planting movement of “historic size, scope and spiritual depth among Muslims” had emerged from these humble beginnings, according to an International Mission Board field assessment team. It is growing “amidst significant and escalating persecution.”

The team found more than 350 evangelists serving in 29 districts, nearly 2,300 pastors serving among some 4,000 churches and 89,315 baptized members — all direct spiritual descendants of Abdul. More than 23,000 of the baptisms had occurred during the previous year alone. And that’s only part of the overall church-planting movement now spreading through Abdul’s people, who number in the tens of millions, comprising one of the largest unreached groups in the world.


International Mission Board missionaries and strategists have identified more than 20 other church-planting movements among people groups in Southeast Asia, India, China, North Africa, Latin America and Europe. Potential or “almost” church-planting movements are approaching full bloom among many other peoples.

Missionaries are still learning how church-planting movements begin and grow. They aren’t mass evangelism campaigns, or spiritual awakenings, or even church-growth movements. They aren’t the latest in a long line of missionary strategies.

So what is a church-planting movement? It is a rapid multiplication of indigenous churches planting churches that sweeps through a people group or population segment.

Mission strategist David Garrison, now the International Mission Board’s regional leader for South Asia, has explored the phenomenon over the last decade with other missionaries, researchers and strategists.

“Church-planting movements multiply churches and believers as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes,” Garrison writes. “These churches are satisfied with nothing less than a vision to reach their entire people group or city — and eventually the whole world.”

A missionary or other outsider may start the first church or win the first believer (like Abdul), but leadership quickly shifts to “insiders.”

“In their eyes,” Garrison notes, “the movement looks, acts and feels homegrown.”

Most important, the indigenous churches — churches “generated from within” — quickly begin planting other churches.


“A tipping point occurs when new church starts reach critical mass and, like falling dominoes, cascade into an out-of-control movement flowing from church to church to church,” Garrison explains. “When the momentum exceeds the ability of the initiators to control it, a movement is underway.”

They tend to occur within people groups or population segments that share a common language, culture and ethnicity.

“But they rarely stop there,” Garrison emphasizes. “As the Gospel works its power in the lives of these new believers, it compels them to take the message of hope to other people groups.”

Churches in the movement intentionally plant other churches that will, in turn, rapidly reproduce.


In church-planting movements, church starting and leader training is “essentially the same process,” IMB strategist Curtis Sergeant points out. “We have in our minds this long, drawn-out process, but that is never stated or implied in Scripture. A disciple is a follower; that’s what the word means. And you can be a follower from very early on.”

That doesn’t mean leader training gets a wink and a nod. It’s crucial to healthy growth. The difference from traditional Western training: instant accountability and immediate application.

“Where church-planting movements are taking place, you see this pattern of discipleship, where people are held accountable both to apply what they know and to teach others,” Sergeant says. “When that happens, you have the potential for evangelism, discipleship and church planting to take place on a much faster scale. Generations are not measured in decades; they’re measured in weeks.”

God wants all peoples to worship Him, and He is using church-planting movements to reach the peoples who have yet to know of His glory.

“The lesson God is teaching us is that the 21st century has many parallels with the first century,” declares a missionary leader in Asia. “This is the most exciting, challenging and fruitful era of missions. The fields are literally white unto harvest.”

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges