SOUTH ASIA (BP) — A small group of believers in Asia watches as tears fill a woman’s eyes. She stands before them in a tunic and baggy pants — their own traditional clothing — and her voice quavers as she speaks.
“You can pastor yourselves without foreigners,” the woman tells the group. “You can evangelize.”
The government of this country in southern Asia may deport the foreign workers who have helped disciple the believers. They are worried what will happen when they are left alone.
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Although Huan Tan* resembles her listeners, she doesn’t speak their language and must use an interpreter to encourage them in their spiritual growth. Through the voice of another, she tells the group they can mature in their faith and spread the Gospel to their friends and families. Asians, she says, can sustain a successful church and spread the message of Christ themselves.
Tan knows it is possible because she has seen it happen.
She and her husband, pastor Feng Tan*, traveled across a swath of the Asian continent to share their spiritual knowledge with this tiny band of inexperienced Christians.
The Tans were accompanied by five other members of their church in Southeast Asia — a congregation full of believers of Chinese descent. The group encourages spiritual growth by teaching leadership and discipleship at three locations in southern Asia, but this morning Tan feels her country’s Christian history might inspire her listeners more than her prepared lesson. She wants them to know how God matured her own family of Southeast Asian believers.
Thirty years ago, Tan says, the government in her country deported all the American missionaries who had discipled them, leaving a leadership gap in congregations and seminaries. However, as time passed, the local believers appointed and trained their own pastors and carried on their own evangelism.
With God’s help, the church flourished.
“We feel for you because we know you may face a situation where you may not have outside help,” Tan tells her listeners. “You will be alone. Do not think God has abandoned you. He will be there for you because He has been there for [us].”
Tan’s story illustrates one of the reasons why American Christian worker Burt Gavin* helped orchestrate the Tans’ leadership training and their long journey from Southeast Asia. He recognized a connection between Asian peoples that foreigners cannot replicate.
Gavin started planning the trip after meeting the Tans and their fellow church members a year ago. At the time, he had just moved to their city after living among poverty-stricken communities in southern Asia for 16 years. He saw the church’s passion for sharing the Gospel and, when he learned that members ministered once a week to south Asian migrant workers near their homes, he offered to serve as a translator.
As Gavin negotiated language barriers between the Chinese church and their south Asian friends, he saw the Asian church begin to take charge of spreading the Gospel.
“In some ways, I think the baton is being passed to the Asian church,” he says. “China is going to [produce] the next big wave of missionaries…. Not that Americans don’t have a place anymore — we have training, we have experience — but part of that needs to be to mobilize [the Asian] church to go.”
Shortly after he became a translator for the Tans’ church, Gavin suggested the group visit the country their migrant friends call home. The church agreed, and seven people soon committed to the mission.
Gavin saw an opportunity. This Chinese church in Southeast Asia had something south Asian believers definitely lacked — discipleship training. During the trip, the church members not only would experience south Asian culture, but they could also teach believers there the basics of Christian belief and behavior.
“These new [south Asian] believers very quickly become leaders because there is a leadership void,” Gavin says. “They don’t feel confident. They aren’t exactly sure how to lead a house church, and so on. So, when they have more mature Christians come like these [Southeast Asians] who know how to do it well, it’s a big boost for them, and they need that kind of training to pass on to their people.”
Consequently, as the Tans conduct their leadership training, they realize that their audience has very little understanding of basic Christianity. The couple teaches rudimentary lessons dealing with Christian marriage and parenting as well as basic evangelism through Bible storytelling. The five other Chinese congregation members take turns giving their testimonies and demonstrating storytelling techniques.
However, toward the end of the seminar, as the south Asian believers ask their final questions, the Chinese Christians speak to an issue all the believers face: persecution. In their world, following Jesus means being disowned by their families, so they understand the challenge like no Westerner could.
Tan makes sure her listeners know she prays for them. “I think that when a church or a people group is suffering,” she says, “they need to know that others empathize with them — that there are other Christians in other parts of the world who have gone through it and understand.”
That shared experience make a difference to the south Asian believers. Although the Chinese team dresses differently and speaks a different language, at least one woman feels encouraged by their presence. After the training, she stops Gavin.
“Finally,” she says to the Western worker, “you brought people who look like us.”
Gavin hopes the south Asian believers will be inspired to see other Asian people who have developed mature walks with Christ without the help of outsiders. He wants them to understand that they can train their own pastors, develop their own churches and devise strategies for sharing the Gospel.
The Tans and Gavin hope the south Asian church will develop powerful and effective ministries, based on the example of their fellow Asian Christians.
*Names changed. Shiloh Lane is an International Mission Board writer living in Southeast Asia. For more stories about God’s work in Asia, visit www.asiastories.com