In the summer of 2018, I joined five other Southern Baptist theological educators visiting IMB work in a specific segment of Asia. For 9 days we studied and assessed networks of reproducing churches organized in networks – 20,000 new churches in 8 years. One motivation for this assessment was to see whether such movements are producing healthy churches. Frankly, many critics in America simply do not believe healthy churches can develop so quickly. Here are vignettes I witnessed that raise the question of what really is a healthy church.
1. These churches multiply, i.e. churches plant churches that plant churches. Instead of seeing that as a problem, we should recognize this as a significant sign of spiritual vitality. In this one segment of Asia, local partners of our missionaries have started 180 streams with at least 4 generations – church starts church starts church starts church! Missionaries and their partners have assessed 20,000 new churches. Really, some say we should slow this down?
2. Evangelism is normative among these churches and a large portion of the believers are actively sharing their faith. New believers are trained to share with 20 oikos members in the first few months. Church growth and multiplication are driven by massive gospel sharing that produces fruit in a generally hostile environment.
3. There is accountability to share the gospel. I saw one church service where each adult was asked how many times they would share that week. The answers were written down and next week they will share testimonies of their efforts. How many American church members would miss church next week?
4. Almost all additions to local churches are through adult baptism following conversion from another religion. For instance, one whole network of new churches did not have a single member transfer in from another church and this is not untypical. How many adults has your church baptized in the last 2 years?
5. New churches result primarily from evangelism and baptisms instead of planning, money raising, and grand openings. In a three-year study period, one network of churches saw an average of 17 baptisms in the first year of each new church. When we remember that these churches started from the witness of approximately 2 people, then that is an astounding percentage growth. Does that seem unhealthy?
6. I met several teenagers who have already started one or more churches. They heard the gospel and believed and immediately started sharing the gospel with dozens of friends and relatives and churches resulted. So, how would your church do if we counted the number of youth who have started a church before they graduate from high school?
7. Local church leadership is almost always chosen from within the group on the basis of who is faithful in sharing their faith and training the new believers in discipleship. Unlike our Western practice, church leadership in those churches is functional before it is positional. Which sounds closer to the New Testament?
8. Intensive mentoring is a primary means of raising up quality leaders. For instance, missionaries choose faithful men and then spend 60-90 days a year mentoring them life-on-life. How many US church leaders invest that kind of time in equipping people?
9. These churches show a deep commitment to mission partnership. For instance, although the average income for many families is below $1000 per year, one network of churches gives 30% of their offerings to mission work outside their local church. How does that stack up against our SBC churches giving out of our wealth?
10. Although gospel proclamation is the priority in ministry, the believers also pray for the sick and demonized. Most networks can report several miracles that brought more attention to the gospel. Why does this make most Westerners nervous?
11. A commitment to on-the-job practical training is essential to growth. Every believer is trained to share their faith and follow-up new believers. In 2013 missionaries provided training to 1000 emerging pastors, but by 2017 they and their partners had trained 20,000+. How are we doing in equipping emerging leaders?
12. Several networks that are approximately 5 years old have planted churches in several other countries. Although they are working hard to reach their ‘Jerusalems,’ they are not waiting to go to Samaria and beyond.
13. In many networks, a majority of the leadership is between the ages of 22-40. They show both maturity and energy in their service. Truthfully, wouldn’t we like to see that pattern in our church?
14. False teachers are trying to infiltrate the church, but leaders are equipped to counter them. When God is working powerfully, then Satan will try to copy and deceive. Instead of proof of a problem, this is actually a sign of health. Groups of pastors practice interpreting Scripture, developing sermons, and writing doctrinal statements from Scripture under the watchful eyes of mature mentors.
15. This growth is taking place in a climate of persecution, where it is illegal to become a Christian. Believers can be beaten, thrown out of the village, and jailed. Yet, we heard multiple testimonies of people who heard the gospel for the first time and asked to be baptized immediately. A policeman broke into a house church meeting and told the believers to stop meeting or he would see they were punished. A grandmother stood and walked up to the officer and said, “Kill me first. We will not turn back and will continue to worship Jesus. If this is wrong, then kill me first.” The policeman has been defending the church since that day. What are we afraid of?
Don Dent has served as an IMB missionary and now works at Gateway Seminary.