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Like wildfire: the power of church-planting movements

SOUTH ASIA (BP)–The Southern Baptist missionary knew he was onto something powerful when several strangers walked into his isolated rural outpost.
“We need your help,” they said. “We have 20 Christian churches.”
Thinking he had misunderstood, the missionary asked, “Do you mean 20 Christian families?”
“No, 20 churches,” they replied, and showed him the locations on the map — locations in an area with no previously known Christian work.
Still unsure of what he was hearing, the missionary inquired, “How many families are in each church?”
“About 100 families each,” they reported matter-of-factly.
The strangers were believers who had melted into the hills occupied by a large tribal people after being discipled by Baptists several years before. They had faithfully spread the gospel, and now the gospel was spreading like wildfire.
Several months later, delegations from another area came to the mission outpost with petitions signed (or thumbprinted) by 3,000 people. The signers, members of the poorest class in the region, had become believers in Jesus Christ. They had been treated with respect and dignity by Baptists and had decided they too would be Baptists.
An average of two new churches spring up each week in this region — among a people group known for violently persecuting Christian converts. Now the converts have a strategy for ending the persecution: Win their entire people group to Christ. Of the more than 1 million people in the tribal group, at least 100,000 have become Christians, including a former cult leader and a powerful military commander.
The missionary’s role? Pray, encourage, disciple, train — then get out of the way and see God work.
“God does it and basically we watch and tell the story,” he says. “Our part is being pure enough that we can hear God speak and having enough faith that he can walk us into some totally illogical situations because he’s getting ready to do something and he wants a witness there to watch it.”
That may sound too passive, too “easy” for activist American Christians. Make no mistake: This missionary lives in a harsh place, works hard and provides strategic training to local Christians as part of an evangelistic plan. But he insists what’s happening now is “out of control” — his control or any other leader’s.
“It’s being done by the people,” he says. “I believe we have a true church-planting movement here.”
What is a church-planting movement? It’s the “spontaneous, rapid multiplication of churches among a people group that enables them to reach their entire people — then to reach out to other peoples,” says Southern Baptist International Mission Board overseas chief Avery Willis. It’s happening in many places where God is at work, and it may be the most powerful strategic tool he is using to address the staggering lostness of hundreds of unreached peoples worldwide.
How do you recognize a true church-planting movement? According to David Garrison, IMB leader for strategy coordination and mobilization, it is:
— Indigenous: A missionary or other outside agent may get things started, but the movement quickly becomes self-generating.
— Lay-led: Not anti-clerical, but characterized by strong lay leadership and growing too rapidly for seminary-trained pastors to keep up. It is of, by and for the people.
— “Out of control:” It quickly grows beyond buildings or single denominations, even if it starts in one group. It’s often characterized by home and cell groups.
— Passionate: about evangelizing and reproducing disciples and congregations.
— Powerful: Often, reports of supernatural acts of God accompany the spread of the gospel, particularly where strong opposition exists.
Southern Baptists have long majored on planting churches one by one overseas. But business as usual “just isn’t getting it done,” Garrison says. “Evangelical missionaries are incrementally increasing the number of new believers, but we are barely keeping pace with population growth rates.”
To move beyond addition and into the kind of multiplication that evangelizes entire lost people groups, missions leaders are calling Christians to follow God into places where he wants to begin — perhaps already has begun — church-planting movements.
“A ‘movement’ implies multiplication beyond our human abilities to contain or control growth,” Willis observes. “Only God can begin and sustain church-planting movements. However, Christians can be participants in God’s plans. What an honor!”

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  • Erich Bridges