It’s weird how God sends certain people into our lives to open our eyes and help us grow. Leon was one of those people. He worked in the youth group I was a part of when I was a kid and then one day, all of a sudden, he decided to be a missionary and move to Russia. I was probably 12 at the time and I remember being dumbfounded that he would simply say goodbye to everything he knew and start a whole new life halfway across the world. People I knew just didn’t do that. It’s not that we didn’t love Jesus but foreign missions was not for everyone. It was for a more select group of really sold out people like retired pastors or for a few radically extreme holy rollers who spoke with God on a daily basis. Normal Americans just didn’t move to Russia where for all I knew the people ate polar bears and lived in ice huts. But Leon told us the Lord was calling him to work with the people of Russia and he wanted them to understand that Jesus came to save them. He wanted to share with them what it meant to have a relationship with the Lord and that was the most important thing he could do. Although I couldn’t quite wrap my head around that concept I went with the flow and cheered him on. Like any good church we added his picture to the “missions wall” and his name started appearing in the Wednesday night prayer sheet. My family added his picture to the refrigerator with all the other prayer cards and life went on.
That’s what happened in those days. When someone left for the mission field we all said goodbye and we prayed. We didn’t expect to see them again for at least a couple of years. Then out of the blue they would show up on a random Sunday night and we would all celebrate while listening to everything the Lord had done. They would be wearing weird clothes and would always start their sermon with a foreign language. Usually it was something along the lines of “Greetings from -insert random country-, we are excited to be here.” Before they left we would all get our updated refrigerator prayer cards and once again say our goodbyes. In the months that followed we were prayer warriors but ultimately their picture would get covered by the next missionary that came into town and the prayers would slow. It’s not that we didn’t love them or care about them but unfortunately they ended up being like any other family that moved away from the church and life went on.
Fast forward 18 years. Life is different now and although the seed to reach others has grown, Leon and the pictures on the refrigerator are all distant memories. I graduated high school and went on to receive my degree from the University of South Florida. I got married to an amazing woman who loves Jesus and loves helping other people. Life is predictable and deep down that’s probably the way I want it. Now I spend my days sitting in an office in downtown Tampa following the ups and downs of the stock market. Every so often I’ll catch myself daydreaming about the people around the world who have never heard the name of Jesus and my mind drifts back to the refrigerator pictures that will be engrained in my head forever. I spend a few minutes wondering how they’re doing and I even google their names to see if I can track them down to help. As you’d expect I can’t find anything of value so I give up and they vanish for a few more months.
Like any good Southern Baptist I go on the occasional mission trip and for a brief moment in time the seed of full time missions has life. I’m reminded of how much I truly enjoy partnering with missionaries for the sake of the gospel, but ultimately struggle with whether or not God is calling my wife and I to dedicate ourselves full time. I spend weeks questioning myself and my motives for not giving up everything and moving overseas. But in the end the Lord always gives me a peace that I’m right where He wants me. Eventually life goes on and everything returns to normal.
Right when I’m beginning to hate normal the Lord introduced me to a young man who changed my life. We became friends through a ministry geared toward international student outreach at the University of South Florida. He was originally from South Asia and came here for his education. While in the states he was saved and the Lord gave him a huge burden to return and reach his people. So he did.
We spent some time together in the months leading up to his departure and as any friend would, I asked him if there was anything I could do to help. I’m not exactly sure what I expected him to say but I do remember a small smile on his face as he began to lay out the vision the Lord laid on his heart. He explained that in the area of South Asia where he was headed persecution was a normal part of the faith. Obviously in these areas of the world there aren't as many traditional church buildings so most believers attend house churches; essentially small groups in the home. Thanks to local training centers and missionaries who have given their lives most of the house church pastors do have some basic biblical training. Unfortunately they don’t get a lot of encouragement or relief from the everyday grind. Most are bi-vocational and have families they are trying to raise. As you can imagine this puts a ton of responsibility on the pastors who don’t have multiple staff members to help lead their flock.
As he shared what life was like for a house church pastor I’m pretty sure I just sat there with the same dumb look on my face I had when Leon announced he was moving to Russia. The only difference was this time I was trying to figure out how I could take TWO mission trips a year to help my friend build the ministry the Lord was entrusting to him. As I worked numbers in my head and rearranged my vacation plans he began to share his vision for a ministry so beautiful that if successful could only be explained by the hand of the Lord Himself. I listened intently for the next 15 minutes and slowly watched my traditional view of missions climb outside of the box it had been in for so many years.
He explained that on the surface the ministry was no different then many others. The majority of the work would be done by nationals and missionaries who were living and working in the communities every single day. They would help their neighborhoods, start churches, and organize specific ministries aimed at reaching kids. Where things got interesting was the addition of 21st century technology. Due to the fact that some large Asian cities have house church pastors numbering in the thousands there is no possible way they can all receive the training, encouragement, and support necessary to reach their communities. He smiled and told me that’s where I come in. My responsibility was to set up a network of believers in the United States that would be willing to go through a basic theological training and then as the need arises train house churches pastors through Skype. In the end the goal was to bring house church congregations in South Asia together with churches and small groups in America for the sake of training, fellowship, encouragement and missions trips. Once the partnerships were in place and pastors were being trained he would move on to new regions and establish new relationships.
When he could tell my brain couldn't handle any more information we prayed together and said our goodbyes. Later that week he boarded a plane and left to start a new life halfway across the world. The church cheered him on as he said goodbye and his name started appearing in the small group prayer lists. Within weeks the excitement began to cool off and for a while everything returned to normal.
Then I was introduced to Mong. Mong is a house church pastor in South Asia. He and his wife run a small orphanage as well as minister to the people in their community. Even though he has never been to the United States, thanks to modern technology, Mong and I spend a little over an hour together every week. We have been studying the bible for almost 4 months now and I can honestly say God has used Mong to open my eyes. I’m not even sure I understand the ramifications of what we’re doing but it blows my mind to think that God is giving me the opportunity to encourage, teach, and pray with someone who lives halfway around the world.
For the teaching portion of our time together we use Davis Platt's Secret Church notes. Thanks to the Church at Brook Hills the notes have already been translated into his language. Admittedly we do go into more depth then the notes but they are an amazing place to start. While I teach, Mong has a copy of the notes in his language and in English as well as the bible in his language and in English. He was really excited at the beginning of our study to get his first copy of the bible in English; not sure why, but he loved it. Throughout the week that follows Mong uses the material that we studied to prepare his weekly sermon. He also uses the Secret Church notes to train other house church pastors who are not bilingual and would obviously have a difficult time partnering with small groups from the US.
I’ll never forget our first meeting together and listening to the story of a pastor who loved Jesus but was living a very different life than mine. It’s not that we didn’t share the same passion for the Word or a desire to grow in our relationship with Jesus Christ, but the way in which we lived it out was very different. Even down to something as simple as prayer. He explained that his house is always open no matter the time of day or night so people can stop by for prayer. In addition, every night of the week from 5pm-7pm people from all over the neighborhood and surrounding community come to his house for a time of prayer and worship. They sing together, they fellowship together and they ask God for wisdom and strength to live their daily lives. They pray for the salvation of their families and friends and they ask God to mend the broken relationships caused by their conversion to the faith. They pray for God to give new believers the courage they will need to walk down to the river and make a public profession that will change their lives forever. They also pray for the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers because the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.
I can honestly say I have never experienced anything in my own life which has so quickly opened my eyes to the reality of how Christians live around the world. Each week I hear more and more of what God is doing in Mong’s churches and I’m reminded of the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit. I completely understand that discipleship/training through internet is not ideal, but I’ve been amazed these last 4 months to hear everything the Lord is doing through Mong and his ministry. Mong told me in our meeting this week that a revival has happened since we started meeting. His daily prayer meetings have quadrupled in size and people are coming from all over to hear about Jesus. The number of house churches he oversees has more than doubled since we started meeting bringing the current number to 30; when we started he had 13. A few weeks ago the high priest from the local temple and his family prayed to receive Christ and in the coming weeks Mong will be baptizing the entire family. The priest now stands at the door of his temple and tells anyone who comes to worship to turn from their worthless idols and go to Mong’s house to hear about the Living True GOD.
I need to make completely clear that there is nothing I am doing that warrants anything that has taken place. I teach the Word each week, pray with my new friend and God does the rest. I can’t explain it any other way and in actuality that’s how it should be.
It’s been a little over a year since I sat down with my friend and he told me he was returning home. Thanks to local believers and faithful missionaries on the ground the network of house church pastors is growing. With that growth comes opportunity as well as a great need for small groups to strategically partner for the sake of the gospel. I was introduced this week to another house church pastor who oversees 23 churches. He has very little theological training and is excited for us to start meeting every week. He also reaches out to his community and within a 2 mile radius of his house there are over 1 million people who are considered unreached. He has his own extraordinary testimony of conversion and it’s amazing to hear how God is using him. One of the most powerful parts of his story is that he’s only 23 years old.
Please join us in praying that the Lord would raise up groups in the US who are willing to embrace house churches in South Asia. Our prayer is that your fellowship of believers will come along side a house church leader to train, pray, fast, encourage, and even send members to the mission field. My own bible study plans on being bound to these pastors and the churches in South Asia for the rest of our earthly lives.
Welcome to missions and the 21st century. I’m humbled to be a small part in a massive, God-centered, church driven, worldwide network of Christians working together for the sake of the gospel. There are tens of thousands of Mong’s that would love to study with and be encouraged by a group of dedicated Christians in the US and I'm reminded of that every week. The last time I spoke with Mong he said something I'll never forget. “Pastor Shale, I thank God for bringing you into my life. Many great things have happened since we met and God is using our churches for His glory. I want you to know that your friend gave us a picture of you and your wife and we keep it in our house so the church can pray for you every day.” It’s humbling to think that a picture of my wife and I is hanging on a refrigerator in a house in South Asia and THEY are praying for us. Praise the Lord for allowing us to meet and share our lives together.
And he said to them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. ~ Luke 10:2