by Roy Rosedale
From 1983 to the end of 1988, 2,338 house churches were planted in northeast Thailand through mobile training centers.
Sitting on a bamboo under a Thai stilt house, Mr. Tieresak explained that he had received Christ seven months earlier and his wife, a former witch doctor, had done the same only four months ago. Together, they had witnessed to their Buddhist friends and neighbors and many of them, too, had responded with faith in Jesus. As a result, some 150 new Christians were joining in Christian worship every Sunday.
Mr. Tieresak pastored what had grown from a small Bible study group into a house church, which met outside near his house, or under it, depending on the weather. I heard many stories like his as I traveled 5,000 miles in northeast Thailand to study the phenomenal church growth going on there.
For Tieresak and the others, it all began when members of a Campus Crusade for Christ mobile evangelism training team came to their villages. After becoming Christians themselves, they were taught to share the good news of the gospel. They learned how to disciple people in their own homes, in what are called new life groups. When these groups reached 25 or more adults, they became house churches and affiliated with local denominations.
From 1983 to the end of 1988, 2,338 house churches were planted in northeast Thailand through these mobile training centers. As of December, 1988, 134,228 people belonged to these house churches and to 16,632 new life groups. An average of 178 new life groups are added every month.
I visited more than 100 new life groups and many house churches. The house churches are joining such denominations as the Church of Christ of Thailand, the Southern Baptists, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, the Assemblies of God, Cambodian Border Mission, and the Thai Ezra Church.
I also visited the six mobile training centers. Each center operates in two provinces, holding sessions three times a year in towns and villages. About 25 to 30 students are trained at each site. Team members try to take the gospel to every town and village in their provinces every four to five years.
The staff includes a director and six trainers. They live in different places, but gather at the site for training. Rather than buying or building a center, they use existing churches or rent a house.
The New Life Training Centers (NLTC) are central to an evangelistic strategy targeted to a certain population area. They are committed to introducing people to Jesus Christ and discipling them in new life groups. Students are trained as they see their trainers do daily evangelism and discipleship.
At the same time, the students themselves lead people to Christ and disciple them in new life groups. The students increase their skills in spiritual multiplication and work mostly in their churches. This strategy has produced significant church growth in specific target areas.
Within the overall purpose of fulfilling the Great Commission, the training team comes to a community to: (1) serve the local church; (2) act as a catalyst for church growth and church planting; (3) train people in evangelism and discipleship; (4) provide effective materials and strategies; and (5) mobilize Christians through standard, simple, transferable methods.
The training center pursues several goals, all related to the apostle Paul’s commission to Timothy: "For you must teach others those things you and many others have heard me speak about. Teach those great truths to trustworthy men who will, in turn, pass them on to others" (2 Tim. 2:2).
The centers attempt to create an environment for spiritual growth for each trainee, in which he strives to live in submission to Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Trainees are taught how to have an effective daily devotional time, how to study the Bible, the principles of prayer, and their walk with Christ. They are encouraged to be examples by their lives and to conduct a ministry where they live. Healthy interpersonal relationships are stressed in classes. Interaction, contextualized application, and personal counseling all help in the application of the instruction.
The training centers equip trainees with the basic ministry skills that enable them to saturate a specific area with the gospel. They apply on the streets what they have studied in their classes. The training involves 60 hours of classes and 75 or more hours of field experience in personal evangelism and follow-up. This enables the trainees to disciple in the context of a new life group and then in a house church. The training center aims to develop trainees into spiritual multipliers.
Finally, they seek to be a catalyst to get members into church planting and church growth. They work together to plant churches in unreached areas and to accelerate growth in existing churches. Each participating church selects a target area to evangelize, sends trainees into that area to talk to people about Christ, and incorporates new believers into new life groups, with the final objective of forming a new house church.
One of the most impressive aspects of this church growth movement is that each training center director is keeping detailed records, authenticating progress, and deciding where new efforts should be made. These records list each new life group leader, the number of groups he leads, and the name of each village where the groups meet. The long-range goal of this strategy is to establish a mother church in every district of Thailand and a daughter church in every sub-district by 1995. They also want to tell 60 million people about Christ and lead 20 million people to become Christians, incorporating them into 200,000 new life groups by the year 2000.
One movement in Thailand long ago followed the same itinerating pattern and produced similarly successful results. From 1858 to 1911, Daniel McGilvary of the Presbyterian Mission planted many churches among the Lao people in the Chiangmai area of north Thailand. According to Alex Smith, in his book Siam Gold (OMF Publishers, 1982), McGilvary followed a strategy of itinerating through the villages and towns of north Thailand. His goal was proclaiming Jesus Christ to the unreached among them. Between 1884 and 1914, his strategy increased church membership from 152 to 6,900 members. At that time, stationary missions were producing few converts.
Many of the foundations of McGilvary’s strategy are being applied successfully today through the mobile training centers. McGilvary proclaimed that evangelism is the foundation of all other missionary work and that new church must be the prime goal. He emphasized going out among the people who need to be evangelized, training men who are already leaders in their communities, and equipping them to lead house churches.
In his intensive study of 160 years of missions in Thailand, Smith describes the major barriers to church growth. The first problem is vague goals. "Lack of clarity in the goal of missions has plagued the church and dissipated her missionaries’ energies," he writes. "In the modern missionary movement from the times of Carey and Judson, one of the greatest obstacles to effective world evangelization has been the vague goals of mission."
It is very easy to focus on the process of evangelism rather the goal of planting churches. The result can be many decisions for Christ, yet little evidence of remaining fruit. The goal must be an end result, such as spiritually viable new church bodies. Church planting is the goal of the mobile training center strategy and has resulted in the formation of 2,338 house churches over a six-year period (1983-1988).
A second barrier has been the social solidarity of Thai Buddhism. To be a Thai means to be a Buddhist. Although the Thai Constitution grants complete religious freedom, for a Thai to become a Christian is popularly interpreted to mean that he has become a traitor to his own flesh and blood, and is no longer truly Thai.
My observation of over 100 new life groups was that most of them were made up of family units, with men, women, and children attending. In this strategy, people movements started in villages where training centers operated because often entire families came to Christ. As an area was saturated with the gospel, many families came to Christ at the same time. Fellowship, mutual encouragement, and Bible study together lessened the effects of isolation and ostracism that happen when only one family member receives Christ. The "not alone" factor is particularly important when new Thai Christians face opposition from Buddhist leaders.
The third barrier, according to Smith, is ineffective communication of the gospel. This is exactly what the mobile training centers are trying to alleviate. They teach Christians how to communicate the gospel effectively, and lead them through it in the community in trainer-trainee teams.
Smith defines the fourth obstacle to church growth in Thailand as insufficient local church leadership. Strong church growth requires competent leaders, especially in emerging churches. The most urgent need in Thailand is to train those already in leadership positions to be mature spiritual leaders, especially elders, deacons, and lay evangelists. In most cases, men who are already respected because of age and position become leaders of new life groups and then pastors of house churches. By that time, the people have also grown in spiritual understanding and strength, and are able themselves to teach with materials from the mobile center.
The mobile training center strategy used in Thailand is not the only way to plant growing churches. But it is working so well that it deserves serious consideration by church planters and church-planting agencies, particularly for work in traditionally non-Christian countries. This strategy is bringing the same results in other countries as well: Nepal, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
The 2,338 house churches 16,632 new life groups comprised of some 134,228 Thai Christians show that God is at work, that churches can be planted even in countries considered resistant to the gospel, and that church planting is still one of the best strategies for evangelism in a predominantly non-Christian society.
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