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Small churches, big faith: Checkpoint Spring 2021

CMS workers Malcolm and Leanne teach at a Bible College in South East Asia. They are also involved in a local church that is committed to planting other churches. Malcolm shares some of the history of this growing fellowship of churches.

Around 50 years ago one pastor and a handful of people held services in the main evangelical church in our city. It was a small but faithful gathering. During the previous decade, many lives, property and livelihoods had been lost as the region suffered through war and conflict. This small group of believers must have wondered whether opposition had prevailed over their city (Matthew 16:18) and the spread of the gospel had ceased.

Growth outside the city

In the decades following the conflict, churches ministering to the main cultural group resumed, mostly in the provinces outside the city. Most of the Christian weddings and funerals we are now invited to are held in these areas. Many of the current church leaders grew up in these same provinces, and all seem to be connected to one another. But while growth continued in the outer areas, little happened in our city. Until about ten years ago, there was only one new church plant by the main evangelical denomination.

Growth within the city

But something started to happen in our city over the last six or seven years. Now, there are new church plants happening near us under the banner of the main denomination, as well as by independents.

A recent study, focusing mostly on our city and the congregations using the main language, says the church is growing by 7% each year, and the churches that are
growing are, as expected, growing through church planting.

The benefit of acceptance

On Easter Sunday we gathered for an exuberant worship service in a suburban house with our main church. The day was made even more exciting by the presence of officials bearing gifts for Easter, indicating our full acceptances as a registered church. The place was packed and noisy. God, in his sovereignty, had us stumble into this new church; a church that has now planted other churches and is mobilising a new generation of church planters.

Strategic decisions started to happen. The earliest was that we would not spend money on property
but on employing young people with potential—a ministry apprenticeship program.

When we first came to this city an expat friend, with cultural connections to our city, started to go to a small church, and we began attending too. The group, of about 20 people, met in the home of a generous businessman. The church was attracting college and university students and grew organically through relationships. We loved going and tried to develop our language skill by hanging around each week for lunch.

The pastor was a local man who received his theological training in the Philippines. This was his first church, but he was humble enough to ask for input, advice and help from us and others.

Focusing on students

Strategic decisions started to happen. The earliest was that we would not spend money on property but on employing young people with potential—a ministry apprenticeship program. Young Christians were trained in ministry skills and Bible knowledge.

The church also established student accommodation to house some of the many students here. This has proved important. Our city has a number of universities and colleges that draw students from the outlying provinces and there is a constant need for affordable student housing. The accommodation enables trainees to develop relationships with other residents and is a venue for holding Bible studies for students (in our context, Christian groups cannot meet on campuses).

Bible teaching a priority

Another priority in developing church plants was to focus on preaching exegetically. At that time, few churches we knew of in the city were doing this. Initially most preachers were expats, like me, who taught through translators (thankfully our pastor is one of best translators in the city). But over time some of us were able to preach in the local language. As the ministry apprentices transitioned into Bible college they also started to preach. Our pastor encouraged other students from the college to come to our church. They, and our pastor, are growing in the biblical preaching they have seen modelled.

After about two years the church had grown to two services, and one of our number (who was trained at Moore College in Sydney) started another church in another nearby area of the city. This church became too big and was noticed by the local authorities. However, it also had an impact on the rest of the church.

The benefits of small churches

Since then, the church has sent out and partnered with other Christians to start four other small plants (called ‘meeting points’ in the local vernacular). Two of these now seem to be established and have graduates from the Bible college overseeing them. One of those churches is in a light industrial area and works among one of the poorest people groups in the country.

This has also had a flow on effect at the Bible college where we teach. College students and graduates are starting to get excited about planting these meeting points and it has had an impact on the wider Church.

One third of our first graduating class from 2018 has started a ‘meeting point’ in an adjoining area or province—usually while also trying to assist an existing church, work enough in secular employment to provide for a small family and grow in their faith! The head of our denomination has also been actively encouraging this and has been interceding when there is opposition by the authorities. Being a government approved denomination has been an enormous help for these young planters.

Let’s be clear. We just got caught up in this. No one, least of all us, had been planning this movement, except our God, whose gospel is not hindered. This is especially true when his people continue sharing their faith, praying, and in faith expecting God to grow his kingdom.

PRAY

Give thanks for the growth of the Church in South East Asia and ask God to continue working through these church plants to bring people to faith.