POWELL, Tenn. (BP)–With the title of “strategy-coordinator church,” First Baptist Church in Powell, Tenn., was one of the first churches to join an effort called Project Thessalonica. It was developed to recruit Southern Baptist congregations to establish a long-term plan to start churches in Indian cities where few — if any — have heard the Gospel.
“They’re starting from ground zero,” Project Thessalonica coordinator Marc Bowman said in 2004. “We are training them basically how to take the place of a fulltime person living on the field — they’re responsible for coming in, doing evangelism, discipleship, church planting and showing [new Christians] how to reproduce that.”
The city (unnamed for security reasons) is home to 2 million people. It’s a city where idols loom around every corner. Colorful temples skyrocket above stained shacks and rundown buildings. Some Hindus shade their children’s eyes to scare off evil spirits. It’s a city strung out on Hinduism.
And yet, opportunities to build friendships and talk about spiritual matters abound. Waiters in the hotel restaurant, college students and auto-rickshaw drivers want to practice their English with Westerners.
First Baptist Church in Powell began sending mission teams to the Indian city in the spring of 2004. The Tennessee volunteers trained believers in efforts to spread the Gospel by beginning house churches. Since then, First Baptist has sent multiple teams to the city and located a local Christian, Nihl Mattah*, who could spearhead a church-planting movement.
A four-man team from Powell recently returned to the city to continue the task started by the group before them.
Jay Adler*, a leader of the Powell team, and Mattah interact like old college buddies as a morning worship service ends in this Indian city. They laugh and joke as if they’ve known each other for years. It’s their first face-to-face meeting, but Adler already sees his new Christian friend as an answer to prayer.
Earlier in the week, a local pastor invited Adler to preach at his church. Adler was apprehensive but accepted the offer.
“I’m not a preacher,” Adler says. “We’re not here for me to preach. We’re here to start house churches.”
The service takes place in a private school near the team’s hotel. A banner across the front of a room reads, “Jesus is Lord.” Adler delivers a sermon based on John 3:16. Six people come forward to accept Christ as their Lord and Savior.
A church member tells Adler he is the first to preach Scripture during a Sunday morning service -— they usually center on praise music and testimonies. And it was the first time Adler met his missions partner, Mattah.
Adler says he believes God is at work in the city.
When First Baptist volunteers first set foot in India more than a year ago, the city appeared overrun with idolatry and spiritual darkness. Recently, the team has found signs of hope.
“We didn’t think we would find any Christians -— especially any churches,” Adler says. “But there are people who truly want their city won to Christ.”
The First Baptist team has begun building relationships with a small but visible presence of Christians and churches scattered throughout the city. If all goes as planned, the team will harness Mattah’s passion for the Gospel and train him to lead others to start house churches.
Adler shies away from focusing on one man or opportunity but describes Mattah as a godsend. The team discovered him through a string of Indian connections, stretching from India to an Indian expatriate living in Knoxville, Tenn.
“We feel like God has given us [Mattah],” Adler says. “We could have gone over there a hundred times and not found someone like him on our own.”
Adler and Blake Stroud*, another missions leader at First Baptist, team up on this particular trip with Marc Bowman and his wife Ann. The team meets new people, strengthens old friendships, prayerwalks and maps a maze of crowded streets with few road signs.
Changing this city for Christ will involve a steady, long-term approach, Bowman says. He and his wife have coached Powell team members since they began the project. Bowman says short-term volunteer endeavors often act as “Band-Aids” on the gaping wounds of spiritual lostness, whereas Project Thessalonica can give Indians tools to spread the Gospel in their own city.
The effort relies heavily on training locals to carry the brunt of the work. Starting a church-planting movement won’t be an easy task. And finding an Indian believer who is willing to embrace the strategy takes concerted time and effort.
“It’s like sales, sometimes you have to go through a lot of ‘no’s’ to get to a ‘yes,’” Bowman says.
Adler admits the team has made mistakes, and he fights his own battles with jet lag and caffeine withdrawal. He also feels the pressure to produce.
“We have to hit a home run every time,” Adler says. “We only have a week at a time, and we can’t waste this opportunity.”
At a weekly Bible study, Mattah shares how God wants to bring revival to the city.
“The Lord is raising up people,” he says. “[God] might see us sleeping, but He wants to wake us up.”
Adler and Mattah share their dreams of this city turning toward Christ. Adler remains confident that big things are about to happen.
To learn more about serving through Project Thessalonica, e-mail [email protected] or call the International Mission Board at 1-800-999-3113.
PRAY FOR INDIA:
— For the safety and protection of volunteers from First Baptist Church in Powell, Tenn., and other churches in the Project Thessalonica initiative as they continue to go to India.
— For God to continue to lead the First Baptist team to other Indian Christians, such as Nihl Mattah*, who can help them spread the Gospel through house churches.
— For Christians in India, that God will strengthen and guide them in their spiritual walk.
— For God to open the hearts of people in the city blinded by Hinduism and other forms of idol worship.
*Names changed for security reasons.