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This coach has a game plan to reach Muslims in India

EDITORS’ NOTE: This year’s Week of Prayer for International Missions, Dec. 4-11, focuses on eight strategy coordinator missionaries and a church serving as a strategy coordinator, exemplifying the global outreach supported by Southern Baptists’ gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. Today’s story is the fifth in a series. Strategy-coordinator missionaries play a key role in reaching the whole world with the Gospel, focusing on people groups and cities by studying cultures, learning languages and developing master plans for reaching every individual with the Gospel.

CALCUTTA (BP)–As the youngest high school football coach in South Carolina Division 4-A history, 24-year-old Carter Bolin* relished the challenge of motivating his team before games against bigger, better opponents.

“I’d point across the field and tell my players, ‘Look at those guys. Every one of them has 20 pounds on every one of you. It’s gonna be fun to smack ’em,’” Carter says. “Eventually my guys would start yelling, ‘Yeah! Yeah! Lemme at ’em!’ They might bounce off the bigger guys a few times, but they’d eventually wear ’em down.”

Carter took his undersized, overachieving team to the state semifinals for the first time since 1950 — thrilling the whole town.

“I could’ve run for mayor after that,” he claims with a grin.

Instead, he joined the ministry staff of his church, East Cooper Baptist, next door to the Charleston-area high school where he coached. He spent the next 18 years helping mobilize the growing congregation — especially its young people — to follow Christ into the world. Local outreach spurred international involvement. About 30 East Cooper members have become missionaries after participating in short-term church mission trips.

During the flight home from a two-week mission trip to India, it was Carter’s turn to be mobilized — by his wife, Vienna*.

“It was miserable, it was hot, it was all the things India can be,” he recalls. “But the people just broke our hearts. There was a spiritual void, and they were filling it with idols.

“When we got on the plane, Vienna looked at me and said, ‘I could never serve in India.’ By the time we touched down in the States, she was in tears. She said, ‘I realized that I trust God with my kids in a safe place like our home, but I don’t trust Him enough to take them to India. We’re just paying lip service.’

“So we ended up mobilizing ourselves and our kids to India. We just felt, ‘If not us, who? If not now, when?’ It was time for me to put up or shut up, because this is what I’d been preaching.”

That was five years ago. Today, as a Southern Baptist missionary strategy coordinator, Carter faces a bigger challenge than he ever encountered as a coach.

Much, much bigger.

The challenge lies in the Indian state of West Bengal, where William Carey launched the modern missionary movement more than two centuries ago. Today it is home to at least 80 million people. The majority are Hindus — the primary focus of Christian missions among Bengalis since Carey’s day. But one in four Bengalis proclaims Islam. Muslims comprise a quarter of the 16 million people of Calcutta (Kolkata), West Bengal’s sprawling capital.

As in much of the rest of India, however, the real numbers can be found in the villages. In West Bengal and neighboring areas of India, Bengali-speaking Muslims predominate in about 30,000 villages. Yes, 30,000.

Carter’s vision and goal as a strategy coordinator is to see Jesus Christ glorified through a church-planting movement among the 27 million Muslims of West Bengal and nearby areas. How? By planting a jaamat -— or house church -— in each of those villages.

It’s a vision that fits both parts of William Carey’s famous motto: “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”

And it’s doable. In fact, it’s already beginning to happen. More than 100 jaamats — with about 1,000 former Muslims who have become baptized followers of Isa Masih (Jesus Christ) — have sprouted across West Bengal during the past two years.

That represents only a typical month’s spiritual harvest across the border in Bangladesh (once part of Bengal), where several powerful church-planting movements among Muslims now count more than a half-million believers. And momentum is gathering.

“We feel like we’re on the end of the runway getting ready for takeoff,” Carter reports. “Things are starting to happen.”

What’s it going to take to reach the other 29,900 Muslim communities? Carter’s team intends to see at least 50 reproducing churches begun in each of West Bengal’s 15 majority Muslim districts, along with three to five churches in each of Calcutta’s Muslim areas. These churches, in turn, will multiply to finish the task.

Carter personally knows about 30 of the 100 current jaamat leaders. The rest are “second-generation” disciples — led to faith, nurtured and trained by other jaamat leaders or the Bengali church planters Carter and his missionary team have trained.

“We want to build this into the DNA, into the very fabric and backbone of every jaamat: Now that you’ve heard the Good News and received it, you must share it with neighboring villages,” he explains. “It’s the principle of reproduction, of multiplication, rather than addition.”

The positive response they’re getting transcends mathematics. Bengali Muslims — many of whom follow a form of “folk Islam” that incorporates Hindu and animistic beliefs and practices — hunger for the truth most have never heard about God.

When Carter or other missionaries and volunteers on his team accompany a Bengali church planter into a new area, they ask about village life, make friends and inquire about religious traditions. They intentionally seek out the local imam (mosque leader) or village head to discuss the Koran, Islam’s holy book, and what it says about Jesus. That serves as a bridge to the “before books” — the Old and New Testaments — which the Koran commands good Muslims to read.

“It’s a bridge,” Carter notes. “You don’t camp on it; you cross over it. It gives Muslims ‘permission’ to look into the New Testament.”

As each visit progresses, they pray that a “man of peace” will emerge — whether it’s the village leader or someone in the crowd that eagerly gathers around — who will become the key to reaching the community with the Gospel.

“If you go as a learner and spend an hour just getting to know them, love them, play with their kids, talk to them about their goats and their harvest, have tea with them, that goes a long way,” Carter says.

Usually they get invited to stay for a meal or to spend the night. The dialogue goes on; often the whole village listens.

Not every encounter ends on a positive note. They’re asked to leave some villages. Once, an imam grew hostile during a group discussion.

“The crowd actually rallied around me, siding with me and countering his points,” Carter recalls. “He was very angry, so as we left I said, ‘Peace, brother,’ embraced him and thanked him publicly for allowing us to talk.

“A couple of guys followed us back to the vehicle. They asked for the Book [Bible], and they wanted to know how Jesus could make our lives so loving and caring. So in the midst of what I thought was a bust, since we didn’t get anywhere with the imam, these guys saw our message of love.”

Another time, a man, soaked to the skin, appeared in the middle of a village discussion. “Come in, brother,” the Bengali church planter said. “Where are you from?”

“I’m from across the river,” the man replied. “We heard there were some people here talking about Isa [Jesus], so I swam over to hear it.”

He listened intently, then accompanied the team to the next village to hear more. By the end of the day he had become a believer. Today, he leads a jaamat in his village.

As strategy coordinator for 27 million Bengali Muslims, Carter mobilizes every partner he can find for the task: prayer supporters, new missionaries for his team, evangelical churches in India, Muslim-background Gospel workers “on loan” from Bangladesh, volunteers from South Carolina. A recently completed “Muslim-friendly” edition of the Bengali Bible, he believes, is a landmark on the road to sowing the Word of God throughout the land.

But the key to the villages is the Bengali church planters. With them, Carter’s old coaching skills come in handy as he applies a tried-and-true training method: Model, assist, watch and leave.

“We’re cheerleaders, we’re encouragers,” he says. “We’re going to model it for you, assist you to do it, watch you do it — and then we’re out of here. We’ll go do it somewhere else.

“When Bengalis see a white guy go into a mosque and sit down with an imam and share his faith, they say, ‘Man, these guys are bold. I can be bold, too.’ Boldness is something that’s caught.”

They’ll need boldness. They will face hardships, discouragement, opposition and persecution, which will only increase as the Gospel spreads among Muslims. But they are committed to the task.

On a recent trek through several Muslim villages, Timothy*, a church planter, stopped to mop his brow in the shade. He has started — or trained others to start — more than 20 jaamats. But that’s only the beginning.

“There are 1,600 villages in my district,” he said, with a determined gleam in his eye. “My vision is a church in every village. You pray!”

— That a powerful, self-sustaining church-planting movement will spread through the 30,000 Muslim villages of West Bengal and nearby areas.

— That God will give many more Bengali church planters such as Jacob* and Timothy* the boldness to spread the Gospel and train house-church leaders despite hardship and persecution.

— That God will protect Carter Bolin*, his missionary co-workers, national partners and their families from spiritual attack. Every worker involved in the task has faced a serious health or family-related crisis.

A single mission trip to India changed Carter and Vienna Bolin* forever. How about you? Want to get involved in what God is doing among the Muslims of West Bengal, India and the rest of South Asia?

— Visit http://www.go2southasia.org for information and ideas on how to pray, volunteer and become a strategic church partner in Southern Baptist work in the region.

— Visit http://imb.org/compassionnet for up-to-date prayer requests from Southern Baptist missionaries serving in South Asia and around the world.

— Visit http://ime.imb.org to find out how your gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering are the hands and feet of the Gospel in South Asia.
*Names changed for security reasons.

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges