Church Planting Movement

Americans in Kaohsiung

Sean and Amy are from Ohio, home of the Buckeyes. They are a husband and wife missionary team visiting our seminary to speak at our weekly meeting of the Student Missions Fellowship (SMF). Of course, we briefly talked about the Buckeyes historic championship title at the BCS Bowl Games. We can’t help it. OSU made history!

Sean and Amy are sharing about their work as OMF missionaries here in Kaohsiung working among the “working class” population of the country. These groups of people are the commoners, the street vendors, the truck drivers, the Taiwanese-speaking poor of the island. They make a strong case arguing that Taiwanese Christian churches are too sophisticated, too distant from the working-class people.  They point out certain characteristics of churches that would never draw in working class people. They cite the language used in liturgy (Mandarin, as opposed to Taiwanese of the working class), the culture of dressing up for church, or the manner of carrying a conversation (family dialogue versus the one-way monologue approach from the pulpit). I see most of the participating Holy Light seminary students agreeing with Sean and Amy. There is a great challenge of making Christian churches become more relevant to the 70% population of Taiwanese working-class people in the island.

As they concluded their talk and headed out for the door, I thanked them and also mentioned that they need to watch the NCAA March Madness games. Buckeyes were going to play that evening. Of course, I just had to mention how good the Kentucky Wildcats are doing this year. They were envious of course, because OSU is going to play a strong Arizona team and they do not know if the Buckeyes have the grit to finish this round.

So, the questions I have after our SMF meeting with Sean and Amy are: How relevant are our Christian churches in Taiwan in meeting the needs and circumstances of the 70% Taiwanese-speaking population of the working-class people? What challenges do we have here in Taiwan in mobilizing our local churches? What can the seminary do?


Everyday Deeds of Ordinary Folk

Sitting in a living room with thirteen young people. Reminds me of Bilbo Baggins and the thirteen dwarves dining in his house. Do you remember the movie, The Hobbit? The dwarves were there because they were on a quest to reclaim their home. Oh well, I am not writing about J. R. R. Tolkien's novel. I am here reflecting about my time with these thirteen young men and women in their mid-twenties. Michael Chen, a student at the seminary, invited me to join this Friday fellowship of group leaders. Michael is leading a church planting work among students and young adults. These thirteen are his small group leaders. They meet every other Friday for prayer, fellowship, and consultation. He and his wife, Cindy, encourage these youth leaders to make a difference for Jesus.

"How do you know if God is calling you to be a pastor?" Jay asked me. "What should I do if my parents are going to disown me because I am a Christian?" Catherine shared with me her family situation. "How does one adjust to a new environment, especially one that is different from our own culture?" These were some of the questions that I tried to answer that Friday evening. I differed all the answers to Michael and Cindy. As far as I am concerned, Michael is the "Gandalf of the group," the leader of this group.

Many of the questions reminded me of my time in the Philippines in the early 1980s. That time I was involved in a church planting movement in Manila and some other areas in the island of Luzon. This movement grew miraculously. We started in 1979 with three congregations. In ten years, we multiplied to about 20 local churches and a couple thousand members. God was leading the way. That time, I was one of the youth leaders. Later, I received my ordination credentials under the new Annual Conference organized by the Philippine Free Methodist Church. It was an amazing decade. 

Now, I am seeing the church planting situation as a seminary professor. Michael's group has that same passion we had back in the Philippines. They need a lot of encouragement, especially because Taiwan church culture is so clergy-centered. This particular cultural background is not helpful to any church planting movement. Lay people need to see the urgency to share the gospel among their friends and families. They cannot wait on their local pastors to lead the way. These thirteen group leaders should be encouraged to continue the work. I am so glad that Michael is leading the way. He is one Taiwanese church planter who is not hampered by the clergy-centered culture of Taiwan.

What does the Bible say about everyday deeds of ordinary folks? In John chapter four, Jesus talked to a Samaritan woman. After she believed in Jesus, she became an instrument leading others to God's salvation. Many believed because of her testimony (John 4:39). She was not seminary-trained. She was never ordained. She was a "new" convert of Jesus. But still, God used her. A movement leading to the multiplication of many congregations will only happen when we empower "new believers" to start testifying and witnessing for Jesus. We should not wait for them to be "properly trained" before they can share the love of God to their friends and families. God loves to show the world His glory and salvation through the everyday deeds of simple people such as this Samaritan woman.

When I shared to Michael and Cindy's group of young leaders, I told them many stories of God's empowering simple people, using even the most difficult situations. One story I narrated to them was the story of Olga, a 92-year old grandmother from Michigan. Despite her age and lack of experience in traditional theological training, God used her to be a blessing to many young people in her locality in Michigan. God showed her the wonders of cross cultural ministry. God gave her the wonderful experience of worshipping with people of different background in a church among Haitians living in a city in Pennsylvania. "Now I know what cross cultural missions means," Olga concluded. The experiences of ordinary grandmothers became a source of empowerment.

Back to the movie, The Hobbit. There is one scene that always stays with me. This is the conversation between Lady Galadriel and Gandalf. Lady Galadriel asks Gandalf why he chose a Hobbit for this quest. Gandalf replies: "I do not know. Saruman believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I found it is the small things of everyday deeds of ordinary folk, that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I am afraid, and he gives me courage." (From the movie THE HOBBIT)

May we find courage from God's work among the ordinary people among us, the grandmothers and young students in our midst, and the many "Bilbo Baggins" of our generation.


Taiwan Possibilities

"Is it happening here in Taiwan? Can it happen in Taiwan?" I ask the students whether or not the Bible verse we are studying is true to local churches and to Christians living here in the island. Most of them respond with affirmation. They relate some anecdotes illustrating the biblical narrative. I am happy. I know there is more work to be done but this is a good start. These group of students are seeing the importance of planting new congregations. 

Yesterday, I was teaching some principles of church planting as part of my lessons in the course Strategies of Missions. We were talking about Jesus' command in Luke 10, his instruction to the Seventy Disciples on bringing on the harvest. My discussion focused on verses five to seven.

“Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’  And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you. And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house.” (Luke 10:5-7, ESV)

Jesus' method is to first ask and seek out the "man of peace" before anything else. It is only after this person is found that a productive ministry of reproducing Christian communities will occur. Can we do this in this modern time? Should we do it?

The main problem with church planting strategies is that workers don't even try looking for the "man of peace." And when the church planting effort fails, workers are quick to cite many different reasons for its failure, when in fact, there really was no intentional efforts to begin with, the first step of seeking out this "man of peace" as Jesus had admonished us.

I am glad that this group of students are seeing the possibilities here in Taiwan. Vibrant church planting can happen here in Taiwan. "I am encouraged." I tell my students. "I am more resolved to continue this work of seeking out Free Methodist pastors and leaders here in Taiwan who are intentional in practicing Jesus' admonition of looking for the Man (or Woman) of Peace in their local communities."