If you are like me, your image of the church underground formed around stories like Brother Andrew’s God’s Smuggler, and you picture white men in old cars trundling Bibles and fervent teaching to huddled, olive-skinned masses hungry for the word of God.
Or, if you read the headlines—even the headlines in WORLD—you imagine the underground church thoroughly embattled, a church torn asunder by jihadism, Islamic law, and tyranny in places where the Apostle Paul, the Coptic fathers, or Augustine of Hippo once held sway.
You’d be wrong, or at least wrong about the way God builds His kingdom. The church in the 10/40 window—the area between 10 and 40 degrees north of the equator where mission experts say most unreached people live—is experiencing dizzying growth. Even in the midst of persecution, a tremendous movement of God to convert unbelievers to Himself is underway.
According to Miraculous Movements by Jerry Trousdale (2012), 45 different “unreached” Muslim-majority people groups, groups that a few years ago had no access to God’s Word, now have more than 3,000 new churches among them. And the typical agent of change is himself olive- or dark-skinned—most likely an Egyptian missionary, perhaps an Ethiopian, or a Sudanese.
For Westerners it’s hard to grasp the result of decades of church growth in the global south: Christian believers in sub-Saharan Africa and other “poor” corners of the world are the ones currently sending missionaries into the hardest corners of the globe.
One, whom I cannot name, is a father of two young children and the husband of an academic researcher. He lives with his family in a large city in Africa and travels to some of the hardest, unreached regions. At least one of the house churches he helped to start among Muslims now has 3,000 members. He told me calmly (I had to press) that he once baptized 250 new believers in one day.
How does this happen? I asked.
His answer, not surprising, is that he prays. Three hours a day. But the second reason for this fruit-bearing, he told me, is that he’s learned powerful lessons from making a lot of mistakes—about 11 years’ worth, he said, out of over 17 years in ministry. “Being bold is not the same as being effective,” he said.
This man once followed traditional methods of evangelism—street-corner preaching, campaigns blanketing towns with tracts and other Bible literature, town hall style meetings, and emphasis on Christian programming piped in via satellite television. He calls these air force tactics, when ground troops, an army of foot soldiers, are critical too.
Now he pays more attention to the example of Jesus and his disciples, entering a village and looking for what he calls “a man of peace” with whom he can develop a friendship and share in the daily issues of life. As a result, he knows more about the people he’s evangelizing than simply that they need the gospel. Converts become his companions first, and discipleship progresses more quickly. When churches take root and grow, he has to be willing to let go: “A lot of dependency happens because we are not willing to lose control.”
Western church growth experts are catching on, and Trousdale in his book stresses the importance of creating a way of life lived out in communities of unbelievers over fine-tuning evangelistic strategies: “Don’t start a program; develop a lifestyle of caring relationships.”
It’s exciting to see indigenous believers growing their churches in places where Westerners mostly fear to tread. After all, today’s embattled church in the Middle East and North Africa, home as it once was to the ancient Christian church, now may boast of new believers like wild olive shoots grafted in (Romans 11:17).
For the Western church this requires us normally big-egoed Americans to get out of the way, to “lose control” as my evangelist friend is doing, and trust the leadership of locals—while perhaps praying for and supporting them like never before. After all, air forces and armies also need field staff working behind the lines.