First Person: Sweating the big stuff

Training hundreds to reach millions

East Asia has “a lot” of a lot of things, including people. As a matter of fact, East Asian peoples represent a fourth of the whole world’s population.

The most conservative estimates show that at least 6% of East Asians are Christians. While 6% might not sound like a large number, 6% of close to 2 billion people equals a very large number of believers. Imagine the potential impact that is possible with so many believers.

Consider if every believer in East Asia had a thorough understanding of the gospel, a passion to share the gospel, and a strategy for making disciples of all nations. How would that change the growth of Christianity worldwide?

New strategies

When my family was forced to leave the country where we served as Christian workers, I began to think about creative ways to work with local partners from a distance. We dreamed and planned, and my team set up a series of trainings to equip and mobilize hundreds of thousands of believers to make disciples of the nations.

During one of the training days, I was sweating profusely because the weather was scalding hot. However, I was sweating for more than one reason. The training had gone nothing like what I had imagined. We had worked so hard to get to this point and it seemed that everything was falling apart.

Surrounding me were key leaders who were responsible for hundreds of churches throughout various parts of East Asia. They were arguing and “loudly debating” a topic that I had presented. The scene was contrasted with the fact that we were on a dock hovering over crystal clear, calm ocean water on a tropical Southeast Asian island and surrounded by calm, beautiful beaches.

When we planned the event, we thought we would have a training room, but no rooms were available at our site. Instead, we spread ourselves out on the side of a loading dock to train together for four days.

We have been working with this network of churches for many years. Starting in 2017, we began introducing the training we developed. The process had gone well enough that more of the network’s senior leadership came to consider if our training was worth taking back to train their churches.

During a session on evangelism, we asked, “What percentage of your target population would you estimate has heard the gospel?” These brothers in Christ were responsible for areas that encompassed a total population of several hundred million people.

They confidently said, “100 percent!”

I wanted to believe them, but I knew for a fact that it wasn’t true. Instead of arguing, we continued with the definitions of evangelism and the gospel that the IMB has affirmed.

We looked up each accompanying passage and discussed them thoroughly. I then re-asked the question, “Based on this definition, what percentage of your target population would you estimate has heard the gospel?”

It was at that moment that our chaotic scene of arguing began. For one solid hour they argued, debated, and yelled. Some even walked away. In that moment, I thought I had lost them completely. I thought our training was over before it really began. I was sweating.

After an hour, the discussion settled down and they came to a group conclusion.

“Maybe 10 to 20% of our target population has heard the gospel,” the leaders said. “This means we have to change our strategy for evangelism to ensure that everyone has a chance to respond to the gospel.”

We spent the rest of the day discussing and diagnosing portions of their ministry that needed change. We spent the next three days making plans, developing strategies, and working through modules of the training.

New realizations

At the end of the week, I had sweated through every piece of clothing that I had taken with me, but it was all worth it.

On that boat dock, our team forged a deeper partnership with that network than we had before. We were open and honest in a way I had not seen in that network before. We wrestled with practical issues that affected their evangelism and discipleship and made concrete plans together.

I flew back home thoroughly exhausted, thoroughly satisfied, and yet thoroughly troubled. If this network, whose reputation for being so mature is so widely known, overlooked so many people who needed the gospel, who else is missing the point?

Later that week, the most senior pastor of the group told me, “When we started, we thought what you were presenting on the topic of evangelism was so basic, that it wasn’t worth our time to study it. However, the definitions presented to us, when broken down point by point, presented a significant challenge and reminder to us.”

“Everything presented was content we already knew and agreed with, but over time we overlooked parts of it. Thank you for reminding us of the main things,” the pastor continued.

My team and I have had the honor to lead more systematic training with that same network. We have watched them grow in depth. This network went back and retrained many of their churches in evangelism and cast vision for reaching everyone around them as they also focus on sending missionaries.

In January of 2019, they sent us their key results from their churches. They took our training and trained more than 3,500 people and saw more than 3,000 people come to faith. They baptized 1,300 people and started 156 new churches. Most of these churches were started in places where we either do not or cannot have IMB personnel.

Take a second to imagine if every believer in East Asia had a thorough understanding of the gospel, a passion to share the gospel, and a strategy for making disciples of all nations. It’s hard to imagine the results!

Will you pray for IMB workers around the world who are training believers to reach their own people with the gospel? Will you also pray that national believers will continue to grow in boldness to share their faith and for churches to commit to evangelism and church planting?

Through your annual giving to the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, you are joining the work in East Asia and around the world.