In a land in Asia not too far from here, an amazing movement is flourishing.
A conversation that started between a Christian and a leader of another faith in a café has become a tsunami of conversions. Bright Hope World has been partnering with this movement for several years. It’s hard to comprehend the numbers that are now encompassed by this movement.
I met one young man who cares for 9,000 groups of new believers. Another oversees 12,000 groups. Every 15 months the movement doubles in size with hundreds of thousands of new believers. Within a couple of years it will contain more than a million people. All this in a culture that is violently opposed to the Christian message.
The movement has spread to 17 countries, including some of the most closed countries in the world. Despite all the opposition, despite great personal loss and persecution, it continues to flourish and bear staggering volumes of fruit. In 1 Thessalonians 16-9 we see a similar thing happening and some things to note.
Firstly, the circumstances in which growth was occurring were not positive (“despite severe suffering.”). In chapter 2 we see this again; they were living and doing ministry in tough times. It was costly, hard and dangerous. It required great boldness. But what made the message flourish was the Holy Spirit’s delivery of an essential factor which overwhelmed their circumstances: great joy. When visiting the Asian movement last year, infectious joy was present in their gatherings. Great joy seems to be the antidote to great suffering in a gospel context and this in turn enhances boldness.
Secondly, the believers in Thessalonika welcomed the message and the messenger. Throughout the biblical narrative, the messenger and the message are closely interwoven. In some cases, the messenger was the message. Of course, Jesus is the primary example of this; He is the message. If there is a lack of great joy in our lives and churches, maybe it’s because we’re not involved enough with the message of the good news?
Welcoming the messenger was a risky business back in the time of the Thessalonians, just as it is in the movement in Asia. When we visit as outsiders we have to be careful. We certainly would not visit them in their homes as it would compromise them. But local messengers can and do just that.
Thirdly, those receiving the message in Thessalonika imitated those who brought the message to them. They imitated their boldness, the way the cared, loved, encouraged, urged and lived among them. They imitated the way they followed and served their Lord. Their baby steps of faith were into a cauldron of hardship and persecution. They grew up quickly and this caused others to take notice.
Fourthly, other churches in regions near Thessalonika observed what was going on and it became a model for them to follow.
We have the privilege of observing what’s happening in the Asian movement. As observers we’re forced to ask the question: ‘why is that not happening here in New Zealand?’ As we share this story and take others to visit they too are asking the same question.
Finally, the faith of the Thessalonians became known everywhere. It’s hard to hide a radical testimony of God’s activity. It cannot be contained and hidden. Like a bell in a church tower or a call to prayer from a mosque, it rings out to distant places.
Suffering because of persecution produces something in us that nothing else can produce. Perseverance, character and hope (Romans 5:3-5), strength and resilience (1 Peter 5:10), an eternal focus (2 Cor 4:16-18), conviction (1 Timothy 1:11-12) and genuine faith (1 Peter 1:6-8).
I see these attributes in large measure in the Asian movement. I’m not sure I see them to quite the same degree in my own life and in local churches in New Zealand and I’m challenged by that.
Let me pose a question to you as. What plans do you have in place to produce perseverance, character, hope, strength, resilience, eternal focus, conviction and genuine faith in your people? Perhaps it’s time to revisit the plan!
People of this calibre are essential if we’re ever going to see genuine gospel movements flourishing here.