NEW DELHI, India (BP)–Six men encircle a patch of stout seedlings. They shift the rust-red dirt of India with the toes of their shoes. One man, a local Baptist pastor, sweeps his right arm to encompass a whole field of rich, green shoots.
“Last year this was nothing, but look what’s happened. Next year if we want, we can move into that field,” he says, pointing to a span of scrub brush and tangled grass.
Bad land, poor water yielding a bumper crop? It’s not supposed to happen this way.
International Mission Board representatives knew their wasteland agricultural project — which helps transform useless land into valued fields — would appeal to local farmers. But what has their heads shaking is how apt some of these farmers are in cultivating the seeds of a church-planting movement.
IMB representatives had long worked with other Great Commission Christians in trying to reach this people group* with the gospel.
In the mid-90s, the IMB began working with the Far East Broadcasting Association (FEBA) to broadcast agricultural information and Bible stories in the people group’s language.
“For several years people were interested in the agricultural information, but there was little interest in the gospel,” explains “Rick,”* an IMB representative who has worked with this people group for more than four years.
Then something changed.
“The spirit of God moved in such a way that it made what we’re doing — and it’s so simple — appeal to them, and they took hold of it,” he says.
Today in one state of India there are nearly 80 Baptist churches and 300 prayer groups among a people group of some 50,000 people.
When a prayer group reaches between 40 and 50 adults, local Baptists usually consider the fellowship a church. But some groups, which have grown well past the 50-member mark, have held onto the “prayer group” term.
“They like being called a ‘prayer group,'” Rick explains. “They are a church by anyone’s definition, but they have said they want to be called a prayer group because that’s what they are.”
The awe deepens as the representative recalls how closed to the gospel this people group once was.
“If it came from outside the village, it was held at a distance,” Rick says.
Mistrust of outsiders ran deep. Generations ago this people group settled in poor, isolated parts of India’s jungles as a refuge from stronger groups in the region.
The jungles mostly disappeared because of deforestation, but suspicion of outsiders remained.
It made it almost impossible for visitors to develop relationships in which conversations turned to God and His plan for salvation.
The people continued to hold tightly to their local worship — a mix of folk Hindu and animistic beliefs — which depicted a world of spirits that may help one day, turn deadly the next, says Rick.
So when this people group, once dry as the land they inhabit, began to not only embrace Christianity, but started taking the gospel to other people groups surrounding them, workers watched in wonder.
“They have gone from idol worshiping to leading a mission movement in such a short while,” says Rick. “This is a movement of Christ, and it seems to be the beginning of a church-planting movement.
“Whatever it is, it’s exciting.”
Allen,* another IMB representative in the area, says he knows a church-planting movement has begun when it has become the talk of the village.
“A church-planting movement (starts) whenever the salvation message becomes the talk of the community, and it spreads naturally from one person to the (next),” he says. He compares what is happening in surrounding villages to a living organism.
“The blessing spreads like a virus,” he continues, “and through the power of the Holy Spirit, the message begins to take control of that person, and another, and another.”
One of those with no formal training is the local Baptist pastor whose pride in thriving crops is only surpassed by his passion for evangelism.
“I feel so good about what we are doing,” he says. “Our vision: take what we know about planting and use it to spread His kingdom.
“God told me to go and be a witness before all men. I can do that easily here because I’m a local person, and they understand me,” he adds.
Hours later, away from the field, the Baptist pastor meets with a village prayer group at a believer’s home. It’s the heat of the day, as a dozen believers worship on the cool porch floor of the adobe home.
Inside a fenced yard, two water buffaloes cling to a band of shade around a haystack. Hardly anything moves. Even the worshipers’ songs seem to fold into the blanket of heat. The pastor speaks for a short time and asks a young man in the back to read from the Bible.
The man, thin with long legs, stands and picks his way through the small group to read at the front. He tracks the verses with an index finger and thumb, then returns to the back. More songs, a reading from a devotional guide, a final prayer and the service is over.
But no one moves to leave.
The porch is cool, and these are neighbors who have become brothers and sisters in Christ, so they linger and wait for the afternoon breeze.
Later, the pastor tells how this fellowship started.
Last year some men from this village heard about the wasteland agricultural project on the radio. The men wrote and requested that someone come and talk with them about the farming techniques.
“We came and stayed with them for several days,” the pastor continues.
While they were there, a local woman became ill. Something was wrong with her stomach. She couldn’t afford to go to a clinic, and the pain was getting worse.
The Baptist farmers told the villagers they were Christians and said they would pray for her. Within the hour the woman was healed, he says. “After that she and five others were saved,” he adds. “This is the power of God. It’s just God.”
Arjun,* a local Baptist who oversees much of the area’s outreach, has witnessed similar events.
“One of our pastors was telling a villager about Christ,” Arjun says. “The man was interested in the stories the pastor told about Jesus healing a sick man. This pastor told the man: ‘My Christ can do this. I have seen it.'”
The man asked the pastor to come and pray for his wife who had been suffering with an illness for several years. The pastor met the woman, prayed for her and she was healed, he says.
“That was the beginnings of a church that is very strong now in that village,” he says.
Rick concludes, “It’s nothing really that Arjun is doing, or Allen is doing, or what I’m doing. It is only the Spirit of God.”
*Neither the name of the people group nor the actual names of those involved in this church-planting effort are used because of growing persecution in the region.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: BATHING IN VAIN.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: During the 2001 International Missions Emphasis, Dec. 2-9, Southern Baptist congregations across the United States will focus on the cause of extending God’s kingdom to every people group. This year’s theme — “The Unfinished Task: Planting with Passion” — emphasizes the passion for planting churches that comes when we understand God’s heart for the lost nations.
The goal for this year’s Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions is $120 million — every penny of which will go to support missionaries and their ministries. The International Mission Board draws 36 percent of its income from the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptists’ unified budget. The Lottie Moon offering provides 46 percent.)